Sunday, March 11, 2007

Low Intensity War in Chiapas: State and Paramilitary Terrorism

Alejandro Reyes

Since early this year the authorities of the zapatista communities in resistance have been denouncing increasingly serious aggressions and threats by the paramilitary organization Opddic (“Organization for the Defense of Indigenous and Peasant Rights”). Land invasions, threats of violence, shots to the air, destruction of corn fields and property, theft of crops, beatings, detentions, and kidnappings have become an everyday source of terror that affects hundreds of indigenous families in Chiapas. Even worse: according to the autonomous authorities, all of this is done with the support and complicity of the state and federal governments, the police, and the armed forces, as part as a plan directed by the State to rob the zapatistas of their land and allow the exploitation of natural resources and the development of large tourist projects.

Alarmed by the situation—which has received very little media attention—an International Informational Brigade was formed at the beginning of March to investigate the accusations and make them public in Mexico and the world. Representatives from Spain, France, Germany, Greece, the US, and Mexico have been traveling through various municipalities and communities, speaking with the authorities of the Good Government Councils, the autonomous Municipal Councils, and common people. What they have discovered is an even more alarming situation than was believed.

“We had all of this cultivated and the brothers and sisters from Opddic came with weapons in October of 2006 and took all the corn,” recounts a man in the autonomous region of La Montaña. “They didn’t leave behind a single cob. They destroyed three hectares belonging to our compañeros.”

“The worst was when they cut the cable for the basket three times and destroyed with machetes the community’s boat,” says one of the residents of the village of San Miguel, to which one can only get by crossing the Agua Azul River. “We were left isolated.” San Miguel is in the region of the famous Agua Azul resort, which benefits the residents of Progreso and Joyetá, all of them members of Opddic. “They tell the tourists we are muggers. Sometimes the members of Opddic attack the tourists and blame us. They tied one of our compañeros and stole his money.”

On February 22 and 23, three peasants from Olga Isabel were kidnapped by Opddic and threatened to be burned alive. Only the pressure by the zapatistas and by human rights organizations was able to save them, and they were released the next day.

The representatives of the Good Government Council of Morelia said that they had received letters from Opddic cutting off dialog with the zapatistas and threatening them with violent eviction if they did not abandon their lands.

Why these aggressions? At their root of the conflict are land disputes. Opddic has been active since 1998, and during the government of Vicente Fox it grew significantly. But the recent increase in activities is undoubtedly a reflection of a new government policy to evict the zapatistas from their land, give a blow to the movement, and open the way to multinational companies eager to get their hands on the natural wealth of the region: wood, water, and mining. In the process, thousands of indigenous people suffer daily threats and terror.

Chiapas is Mexico’s poorest state and has the worst distribution of wealth. Before 1994, the vast majority of indigenous peasants had no land, which was concentrated in the hands of large landowners. With the zapatista uprising, thousands of Tzotzil, Tzelatal, Chol, and Tojolabal Indians recovered the lands that had been stolen from them for centuries. Opddic’s main goal is to take from these Indians the land for which they have fought so hard.

In the municipality of Vicente Guerrero, the authorities explain that half of the population of the community is zapatista, and the other half belongs to Opddic. Since 2002, the members of that organization have been trying to evict the zapatistas and take over all of the land. Recently, they presented a formal request to the Secretariat of the Agrarian Reform to legalize, in their name, the entire territory, including the zapatistas’, as an ejido.

One of the main achievements of the 1910 Revolution was the creation of ejidos, which were meant to protect peasants from land speculation. Ejidos are communal lands that could not be sold and that were granted by the Agrarian Reform to indigenous and peasant communities in order to solve the historic problem of the monopoly of land ownership. But in 1992, during the government of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the Constitution was modified to make ejidos saleable. Thus, that which was originally intended to guarantee a fair distribution of wealth has now been transformed into a tool to protect the interests of large enterprise.

Once the land is declared an ejido, the ejidatarios can register it under Procede, a government program that allows the privatization of ejido land. Once registered, the land can be sold to multinational timber, hydroelectric, or mining companies. The problem is that, in order to declare the land an ejido, all of the tenants must agree. In the community of Nance, for example, there are still 26 families opposed to the creation of the ejido.

This explains Opddic’s violent methods: their strategy is to corner the population to join their organization and to declare “squatters” all of those who refuse, threatening them with violent eviction. Opddic’s members receive government incentives and even weapons. According to the representatives of the village of San Miguel Agua Azul, the Chiapas Police sells them grenades and bullets. They also receive financial support from government programs which, in the context of poverty and fear, become powerful incentives for zapatista peasants to stop resisting and to join the organization.

The Secretariat of Agrarian Reform (SRA) is also in connivance with Opddic. Recently, the Center for Political Analysis and Social and Economic Research (CAPISE) revealed that Beltrán Ruiz Chacón, the lawyer that represented Opddic before the Unitary Agrarian Tribunal in their attempt to evict the zapatistas from the community of Nance, is a delegate of the Workers’ Union of the SRA. With this revelation, the SRA was forced to admit that his activities were illegal. However, Procuraduría Agraria stated that it would continue defending the cause put forth by Opddic.

But there is another, perhaps more alarming factor: the possibility of a military incursion. The zapatistas have repeatedly declared that they will defend their lands at all costs, and this is perfectly understandable: it cost them many lives in 1994 and in the following years to recover and maintain those lands. There they have been building all of these years autonomous education and health systems, they have invented new forms of democracy, eradicated alcoholism and drug use, developed networks of just commerce, and, above all, they have taught their children to live with dignity. Despite daily provocations, the zapatista communities have avoided violence, responding with admirable discipline and organization. But it is fair to ask: how much longer can they keep resisting peacefully the violence, the threats, and the humiliations? Everything seems to indicate that Opddic’s methods are designed to provoke violence in order to justify a military incursion. With Felipe Calderon’s hard-handed rhetoric, nothing would seem more plausible (and nothing would be more tragic and disastrous).

That being so, it is our responsibility, as conscious citizens of the world, to do everything in our power to stop this “low intensity” warfare and to defend everything that our indigenous brothers and sisters have been building and bequeathing the world in these 13 years of resistance.

To listen to testimonies by the zapatistas and reports on the situation, go to

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