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A patrol of the Zapatist Army of National Liberation (EZLN) on the move in the area of La Realidad. The Zapatist uprising began on January 1, 1994 on the enactment of the NAFTA agreement liberalizing trade relations between Mexico, Canada, and the US


In the Selva Lacandona, yet another example
of how current neo-liberalism is not concerned

with aiding the development of the inhabitants but only
with the exploitation of resources

by Davide Malacaria


     The Chiapas is at the center of the world. The poverty of the Indios, the guerrillas of the Zapatist Army of National Liberation (EZLN) led by sub-commandant Marcos, the counter-insurgency of paramilitary groups have been attracting the attention of the international press for some time. But even under the spotlights the Chiapas remains a puzzle difficult to unravel in any adequate way. Here I shall merely try to set out some of the key issues.
     San Cristóbal de Las Casas is the symbolic center of the affair. This very beautiful town, once one of the pearls of Mexican tourism, is not the center of regional government. Its importance lies in its history, in its connection with the Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas who was its first bishop and whose name is linked to the denunciation of the oppression and violence endured by the native peoples at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors.
     It was precisely in San Cristóbal that in the 1970s the "Indios question" was raised again. As a result of the Native Congress held in 1974 a pro-rights movement came into being, split into the most diverse groups, that began to organize and give voice to the protests of the descendants of the Maya, heavily exploited by the dominant elite. This activity scared the great landowners who therefore increased the number of their armed henchmen, the White Guards, engaged in both defence and attack. Things are complicated by geopolitics since the Chiapas is the most southerly region of North America, a sort of gateway to Central and South America, regions in which US policy is, more or less openly, very interested.
     Towards the end of the 1980s a shift occurred with President Salinas de Gortari's backing of neo-liberalism. For a long time Mexico had dealt with the native question by granting ejidos, communal lands, to the various communities. The communities then distributed the land for cultivation to their members, on the condition that the land could not be ceded. With Gortari's decision the non-cession clause was rescinded and individual beneficiaries could then sell. The only people with the money to buy were the large landowners and they profited from the situation. It was a mortal blow for the communities. In areas where the process is well advanced the Indios have been reduced from poor peasants to day-laborers losing the struggle for survival. Conversely and in proportion to poverty, the wealth of the restricted oligarchy continues to grow.
     Moreover, the region is known to possess other forms of wealth. More than half the electricity of Mexico is produced in the Chiapas and 30 percent of the country's water resources are to be found there. These riches are of no benefit to the Indios, 90 percent of whom get by without electricity or running water. To cite a small example, many communities meet their needs by digging holes to collect rain water. But less visible sources of wealth have stirred international interest. "A large oil-rich area has been charted between Guatemala and the Chiapas and is already being exploited on the Guatemalan side. And while they were prospecting for oil, a rich deposit of uranium was also discovered", explains Andres Aubry, a man with deep knowledge of the Chiapas and author of a book on the paramilitary groups. With the opening of the frontiers with Canada and the US after the NAFTA agreement, these resources have become easier to exploit and all the more interesting.
     At precisely the moment the NAFTA agreement went into force, like a bolt out of the blue, along came the EZNL, a movement appealing to Emiliano Zapata, the early 20th century rebel. On January 1, 1994, without bloodshed, a handful of guerrillas took control of San Cristóbal de Las Casas for a whole day. Since then, at local and national level, there has been a series of actions demanding that the injustices suffered by the people be redressed and that there be some form of autonomy for the region that takes account of the specific identity bestowed by Indio culture and tradition. The EZNL has so far gained widespread sympathy. Hidden backing in terms of donations and logistical support has grown up around the compañeros. This backing had been echoed on the international scene also, not least because the guerrilla movement prefers the weapon of the Internet to the machine-gun.
     In the hope of warding off an increase of violence, the diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas plumped itself in the middle by setting up the CONAI, a diocesan body to act as intermediary between the government and the EZLN in the search for a peaceful solution to the problems of a people which the government claims, at least verbally, to recognize and to want to solve. Relations are not easy and Bishop Ruiz has not been spared criticism even from members of the Mexican ecclesiastical hierarchy. Meanwhile Mexico is beset by a major economic crisis. At the close of 1994 the Mexico City stock exchange crashed and was only rescued by a massive intervention on the part of the United States.
     The guerrilla activity and the repression continued, with the initiative sometimes going one way and sometimes the other, until between February and July 1996, thanks to the mediation of the CONAI, the San Andrés agreement was reached between the government and the EZNL, and it looked as though there would be an end to the conflict. But still today the agreement exists only on paper.
     From 1996 paramilitary groups began to appear in the meantime throughout the Chiapas. They have a variety of odd titles: the Paz y Justicia group, Máscara roja, etc. These organizations overlap and fade into the earlier White Guards, but they stand out for politics that are reactionary in a way unknown previously. The situation is rapidly worsening. The paramilitary groups are engaging in intimidation, destruction of property, killing and massacre, as Acteal undeniably shows. The Mexican Government explained the growing cruelty of the conflict as a local fact and has sent in the army, officially to guarantee the calm. The EZNL and the diocese of San Cristóbal speak instead of organized counter-insurgency with backing and funding, if not from the government itself, then certainly from some of its members. What is taking place in the Chiapas is the sort of offensive known as "low intensity warfare". One of the publications of the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Center for Human Rights, a diocesan body that gathers and publicizes the injustices committed against the civilian population by public authorities (reports on desparecidos, unlawful arrests, torture) provides a definition of "low intensity warfare" as given by an American officer: "A less costly option at the political, military and financial level lies in the option for a prolonged war of attrition, conceptualized as low intensity warfare which, without renouncing the possibility of invasion, employs a more global perspective in the handling of conflicts. By combining military, political, economic, psychological, intelligence, and population-control elements, this alternative aims at giving new strength to the armed forces of allied countries and to promote counter-revolutionary insurgency as the spearhead for resolving the conflict". And in fact, since the appearance of the paramilitary forces, poverty, fear and insecurity have increased in exponential fashion, as has the number of displaced persons, people whose homes have been burned and who have been deprived of their property and who are now filling the camps set up for them throughout the Chiapas. The government denies that it is backing or turning a blind eye to the agents and vocal supporters of counter insurgency. "But not even one of the paramilitary groups has so far been dismantled," Aubry tells us. The Mexican press writes more and more frequently about the army's backing of the paramilitary. On January 4, Proceso, one of the most widely circulated of Mexican weeklies, published a secret army document on the Chiapas question. I quote the summary of its contents as given by the magazine: "Censor the media, control the mass organizations, secretly co-opt the civilian sector". And again: "Create paramilitary bands, displace the population, destroy the support bases of the EZNL".
     The Acteal massacre on December 22 shook the world. Four days later the Pope himself deplored the event. Now under international pressure, the Mexican Government is trying to present itself as animated by candor and goodwill. It is therefore a good moment for striving for peace. The alternative is genocide.