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Fear and uncertainty in Chiapas

Stan Gotlieb

Puebla - Monument to the dead in the Acteal, Chiapas, massacre, 22/12/98

A monument to the 45 refugee victims of the massacre on December 22, 1997 in Acteal, Chiapas, at the hands of a paramilitary death squad. The child's shoe is a symbol of the many children who died that day. Photo taken in the Zócalo, Puebla, on January 12, 1998. Photography by Dan McWethy


[I haven't been writing "political" Letters for a while now. The main reason is that they are "dated", and I prefer to write stuff that is more universal: it's the writer in me. The other is that I have already "done that": talked about how policies supported by our government affect the people of Mexico in adverse ways (I don't like to talk about what the Mexicans ought to do, that would be arrogant and stupid, as I am not a Mexican). This time, the story will not let me be]

There is a war going on in Chiapas. The average tourist, visiting San Cristobal and Palenque, may never see a sign of it, but it is beginning to take a toll among the permanent residents.

"Low Intensity" wars are wars of attrition and terror. In 1996 and 1997, around 1,500 officers and men from the Mexican armed forces attended the infamous School of the Americas in Georgia to be trained in "anti-insurgency" techniques, a euphemism for psychological warfare and torture. Not that the Mexican authorities need much training in torture: their own governmental human rights commission admits that such behavior is endemic among the Mexican law enforcement authorities.

Low intensity war in Chiapas is splitting villages into armed camps and pitting family members against each other. The division is mostly along party lines, with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the also-ran National Action Party (PAN) being anti-Zapatista, and the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) being Zapatista supporters. Mixed in are tribal, family and land feuds going back decades.

The issues, while cloaked in self-serving rhetoric by all sides, are clear: who will control, and who will benefit from, the vast mineral and agricultural wealth that has made Chiapas a net exporter of wealth while remaining the poorest state per capita in Mexico. The Zapatistas are committed to the idea that the folks who are on the land should decide what is done with it, and are demanding autonomy for the indigenous areas of Chiapas (and by implication, all of Mexico), while president Zedillo insists that Mexico will never be "Balcanized", thus leaving the multinationals free to receive concessions from the federal government for developing natural resources in the area.

When the Zapatistas first emerged from the jungle on January 1, 1994, to occupy Sn Cristobal and other major highland cities in Chiapas, they knew they couldn't hold them all against the Mexican army, and so they retreated to preselected base villages in the highlands, where they established "free zones". Using the internet and faxes they began to build a base of support at universities and among human rights and organized labor groups (they opposed NAFTA) all over the world. At first, the world press flocked to San Cristobal to cover this David and Goliath story, and soon after human rights workers and peace advocates and aid and assistance organizations began to arrive. By the end of 1994, there were "peace camps" organized in strategic locations in the highlands, usually between army encampments and nearby villages, staffed by an ever-rotating series of foreigners whose presence, it was said, was preventing the army from just going in and kicking ass.

Meanwhile, life in San Cristobal went along pretty much as usual. Students still came to study Spanish, tourists to enjoy the clean mountain air, anthropologists and archeologists and ethnologists to study the living Maya and their antecedents, hippies to lay back and smoke dope, and CIA and other covert operators to report back on what things looked like on the ground. Well, almost as usual...

Starting as early as 1994, and certainly by 1995, units of the State intelligence apparatus began to compile dossiers on foreigners living in Chiapas in a systematic way. All demonstrations, and all people entering and leaving the Fray Bartolomeo de las Casas human rights center in San Cristobal were videotaped. Beginning in early 1996, agents of the Migration Institute were stopping people walking through the Zócalo and demanding to see their papers. At the same time, all foreigners entering Mexico through Guatemala (Chiapas is next to Guatemala) were limited to 30 days on their tourist visa (the maximum is 180 days, and the lowest generally given at MexCity airport is 90 days). Sweeps were made - and are being made - through the hotels, to examine all guests as to their reasons for being in Chiapas.

People who do not have their papers with them are subjected to interrogations for which they sometimes have to wait for hours. People suspected of "unauthorized behavior" may be summarily deported.

So far this year, there have been nearly 20 people deported for violating their visas, and not all have been tourists. Some have been long term temporary residents. Father Michele had lived in, and ministered to, a village in the highlands for over 30 years. He was deported for saying something that everyone knew: that the people who pulled the trigger at Acteal were members of the PRI. A liberation theologist and a supporter of Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia of Sn Cristobal, he had long been a target of anti-Zapatista elements in Chiapas.

A woman who had lived in Chiapas on and off for years was taken from her appointment at the Immigration office, and escorted to the airport and out of the country because she had been photographed two years earlier, holding one side of a pro-Zapatista banner in Sn Cristobal during an indigenous demonstration. A relatively non-political person, her explanation that she had been on her way to buy some groceries, when a neighbor, holding the stick, asked her to spell her while she went to the bathroom, was ignored. She was expelled with no chance to pack a bag, notify anyone, or even to shut off the lights in her house. Her belongings were later shipped to the States, and her car driven to the border, by the Migra. One can imagine her dismay at having all of her most personal possessions pawed over by strangers.

People who travel in the back country of Chiapas are often stopped at roadblocks where they are questioned and photographed. Recently, combined forces of Migra and state and federal judicial police, under army protection, have been raiding the "peace camps", and confiscating all suspicious and dangerous materiel, such as tape recorders, typewriters, and video cameras. So far they have not made any arrests in the camps, because when they get there, nobody is home.

Every government has a right to expel foreigners who are acting against the interests of the people, and the US government exercises that right at least as much as the Mexicans do. No doubt some of the deportees were indeed violating their tourist visas. Nonetheless, the message being brought out of Chiapas is one of anxiety.

"I would never talk this openly in a public place in San Cristobal", said a visitor while we drank our cappuccinos in the Zócalo in Oaxaca. "We don't believe our phones are tapped, but we talk as if they are. It's really very tense for us."

Foreigners who have been in San Cristobal for years no longer leave the house without their papers (I never take mine when I go out in Oaxaca). Businesses are being closed, and reopened in other states where life is less scary. Tourism has fallen off to a trickle, and the restaurateurs, hoteliers, booksellers, and other entrepreneurs that depend on the tourist are hurting badly.

The Ladino (mixed race) citizens of Chiapas are becoming more vocal in opposition to anyone who does anything, however apolitical, to help the poor (smaller, darker, more indigenous) folks. Friendships are being dissolved, and a siege mentality is developing.

We folk who live in Oaxaca, where there has been a certain amount of guerrilla activity up in the mountains, are watching developments very carefully. We are aware that civil unrest has a habit of expanding, and some of us have begun to talk among ourselves about where else we might care to live if Oaxaca city begins to resemble San Cristobal. Of course we don't really think it will, but there is something infectious about living in a state of uncertainty...

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Published or Updated on: September 1, 2000 by Stan Gotlieb © 2008
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