CHIAPAS, Mexico – When Mexico’s President Vicente Fox was elected six years ago, he pledged he would end the long-simmering Chiapas revolt “in 15 minutes.” Now, as his successor, Felipe Calderon, prepares to take office, Chiapas remains as divided as it was in 2000, with much of the mountains and jungles under the real control of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), the indigenous Maya rebels whose brief 1994 armed uprising was a catalyst to the international anti-globalization movement.
The Zapatistas’ charismatic Subcommander Marcos is now on a national tour of the country in a bid to unite the various social struggles. But on Nov. 13, with Marcos far away on the other side of the country, a new and horrific outbreak of violence was reported from the Chiapas rainforest known as the Lacandon Selva – the rebels’ primary stronghold.
At first it seemed to be the latest in a long series of paramilitary attacks against the Zapatistas. These attacks were at their worst in the late ’90s and have abated somewhat since the 2000 elections broke up the entrenched machine of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had ruled Mexico for 70 years. Despite these lawless attacks on their supporters, the EZLN have refrained from taking up arms again ever since the Jan. 12, 1994, cease-fire that paved the way for a dialogue with the government.
The government continues to stall on the Zapatistas’ minimum demand for laying down arms – constitutional changes instating local territorial autonomy for Mexico’s indigenous peoples. But the Zapatistas’ refusal to return to armed struggle despite both intransigence and provocation has allowed the rebels to maintain the moral high ground in the eyes of Mexican and international civil society. Therefore, hardliners in the government, who would like to crush the movement, have been effectively restrained. The rebels’ zones of control are tolerated, and provide a working model of the kind of indigenous self-government that their proposed constitutional changes would instate nationwide.
But in the aftermath of the Nov. 13 violence, it has become clear that it had a strong dimension of ethnic rivalry between Maya groups in the Selva which have been pitted against each other by government strategy. Since then, reports have mounted that up to 300 members of the Hach Winik people – the indigenous inhabitants of the Selva, popularly known as the Lacandon Maya – have fled their jungle settlements, fearing Zapatista reprisals.
Until now, the approximately 20,000 displaced persons in Chiapas have all been Zapatista supporters forced from their homes by government-backed paramilitaries. For the first time, allegations are being raised of indigenous Maya people fleeing a feared Zapatista attack. Failure to confront this situation could impact the direction of all Mexico, as the country confronts multiple converging crises and the EZLN still make a claim to the national stage.
<b>Attack on Viejo Velasco </b>
The attack came at dawn, at the jungle settlement of Viejo Velasco. Initial reports claimed 14 dead; the number has since been estimated at four, with three others still missing. At least one rape was reported as well.
The Chiapas state government said in a news release quoted in an Associated Press account that “a group of Lacandon [Indians] entered the land at Viejo Velasco with the aim of evicting a group of squatters, who resisted, and they clashed with fists, stones and some firearms.”
But it is highly uncertain that the attackers were in fact Hach Winik. Most reports have indicated that the attackers, like the victims, were Tzeltals and Chols – but from communities whose lands, like those of the Hach Winik, have been legally titled by the government and who have therefore perceived the rebel Zapatistas as a threat. All reports have indicated the attackers came from Nueva Palestina, a settlement established in the 1970s by Highland Maya colonists. Nueva Palestina can be considered part of the “Lacandon community” only in the sense that its lands were titled in the same process that demarcated and legalized the Hach Winik lands.
A Nov. 14 bulletin from the Fray Bartoleme de las Casas Human Rights Center (Frayba), the respected Chiapas rights watchdog founded by the local Catholic diocese, also blamed the attack on presumed comuneros from Palestina.
Frayba called the incident a “premeditated attack” which may signal a resurgence of army-backed paramilitary violence as a “counterinsurgency strategy against the EZLN.” The bulletin stated that Viejo Velasco residents have identified the group behind the attack as the deceptively-dubbed Organization for the Defense of Indigenous and Campesino Rights (OPDDIC) – apparently the same groups known as the Indigenous Revolutionary Anti-Zapatista Movement, which attacked Zapatista communities in the region in the late ’90s.
The Chiapas newspaper EsteSur on Nov. 17 cited a public letter signed by several organizations, including the Frayba Human Rights Center, which quoted an anonymous telephone message apparently left by a survivor of the Viejo Velasco attack. The message claimed that Lacandons from Nuevo Palestina had donned military fatigues and joined the assault on the community. But there are few Hach Winik in Palestina, and it is unclear how the men would have been recognized as Lacandons if they were in military gear rather than the group’s traditional white tunics.
<b>More attacks threatened </b>
Ten days after the attack, the OPDDIC issued a letter demanding the EZLN dismantle its system of rebel government in the Lacandon Selva, with a barely veiled threat of new confrontations if this failed to happen. In a letter addressed to Marcos, Fox and Chiapas Gov. Pablo Salazar, OPDDIC accused the Zapatistas of provoking “grave social destabilization” in the region.
The letter denied that OPDICC is a paramilitary group, but stated: “We demand the immediate dis-occupation of the lands that have been occupied by the EZLN support bases, located in the municipalities of Altamirano, Ocosingo, Chilon, Tumbala and Sitala; if this is not done, the ejiditarios [collective farmers] will take the necessary measures to re-occupy their lands to which they have legal right.”
<b>Zapatista reprisals? </b>
By Nov. 20, reports were appearing in the Mexican press that up to 300 Lacandons had fled their communities for fear of Zapatista retaliation for the Viejo Velasco attack. The daily Milenio quoted Jorge Vecellio, director of the Na Bolom Cultural Association, a group based in the highland city of San Cristobal de las Casas that advocates for the land rights and cultural survival of the Hach Winik. Vecellio said some 50 Lacandons had arrived at Na Bolom since the Viejo Velasco attack, fearing for their lives if they stayed in the jungle.
“What worries us is that at the moment we don’t have clothes or shelter,” Vecellio said. “We also need medicine for colds and diarrhea.”
Milenio also quoted two Lacandon elders who had taken refuge at Na Bolom, Kayum Yuk Naash and Mariano Lagum Chambor, who said that the Hach Winik communities of Lacanja Chansayab, Naha, Metzabok, San Javier and Barrio Betel were all being abandoned. “The people are in panic, and for this reason they are fleeing,” they said.
<b>Roots of the conflict</b>
The government’s divide-and-rule strategy – pitting the Lacandon Maya against the Highland Maya colonists in the rainforest who support the Zapatistas – is finally, it seems, bearing grim fruit.
The Hach Winik, or “Real People,” were living at three small settlements in the Selva for at least centuries before the rainforest was opened to settlement by the Tzeltal, Chol, Tzotzil and Tojolabal Maya groups from the highlands. They were never converted to Christianity and were only officially “contacted” in the 1940s.
Seeing the colonists who have overwhelmed their lands as a threat, the Lacandon have maintained no contact with the Zapatistas, and the expulsion threat has exacerbated tensions with the settler communities.
If the Zapatistas are going to maintain their claim to a voice of conscience on Mexico’s national stage, they will have to maintain vigilance against being drawn into an ethnic conflict on their own turf – the jungle frontier which they have posed as a liberated territory. At this critical moment, as Mexico lurches deeper into crisis, the costs in the balance may be higher than ever.