The Atmosphere of Repression in Chiapas

— an interview

During the last week in January, two members of the ATC editorial board, Dianne Feeley and David Finkel, conducted a telephone with a Detroiter, active for many years participate, in Latin America solidarity work and currently living as a researcher in the vicinity of San Cristobal in Chiapas, who described for us some of the conditions in the immediate aftermath of the Zapatista uprising.

Against the Current: What did you see during the insurrection itself?

A: I was on the way back from Oaxaca with a companion on the bus. We had no idea what had happened, till the 3rd (of January) when we saw a TV report.

The military closed the highway right in front of us, just outside Tuxtla Gutierrez, where the road starts to wind toward San Cristobal. There we were stuck till Wednesday (the 5th) when we could get back on the bus.

There was incredible air traffic—military helicopters, some of which looked like Coast Guard helicopters, travelling in groups of two or three, and one bomber going over Tuxtla. There were little fighter planes, like those sold to the Mexican government by the Swiss, who are now talking about bringing charges since these planes were to be used for noncombat purposes.

On the outskirts of San Cristobal was a massive military presence. At one entrance to the town I counted thirty-eight armored vehicles. There were hundreds of troops at every point around the town, between 8001200 on the Wednesday before they took the troops out.

People were scared by this incredible troop presence. I was walking through the park Aside from displaced people and reporters, people were scared to come outside. One soldier pointed a gun at my head and squeezed it off. It was unloaded. Just a week ago when an open-back troop truck was driving ahead of us, a guy inside it did the same thing and then laughed with his buddies.

In the market on the north side of town there was maybe a fifth of the normal traffic. That level of tension has dropped since the troops have moved out of town. That was done for public relations purposes.

On that Wednesday I saw one of the most manipulative things I’ve ever seen. One of the (ruling party) PRI’s satellite parties, called the Reconstruction Party, brought people in for a staged demonstration, handing out banners, to present the image of "free speech."

Even using the town kiosk with hundreds of free, fancy banners, flags and T-shirts as an incentive for people to participate, they attracted little interest. Everyone I talked to, from all political tendencies, thought it was incredibly opportunist. Nobody from the town came.

Already there are between 4,000-5,000 internally displaced people in Chiapas. Aerial bombings are continuing, around Altamirano for example. Food that is supposed to be distributed through a state agency isn’t getting through. The corruption is enormous—bags of food aid are being sold on street corners.

A Tzoltzil family I know live just off the highway. They have been unable to buy charcoal for cooking because the vendors are afraid to go out to the hills. The price has already jumped from five to seven pesos for those who can get it.

A lot of people who live in the Lacandon lowlands are not leaving their homes, even those who need medical attention. They don’t have birth certificates or driver’s licenses or voter IDs, so they’re afraid of being accused of being Zapatistas. I’m sure that is happening in other indigenous communities also. Obtaining papers costs money and is often put off until they’re needed.

ATC: There have been reports of differences and tensions between Indians and ladinos (non-indigenous people) in terms of their attitudes toward the events. Have you seen that?

A: Actually, I’ve been surprised by the level of general support for the program (if not the armed insurrection) of the Zapatistas.

On the other hand, it’s the ganaderos—the ranchers around Ocosingo—who have organized demonstrations of the wealthy ladinos, calling for peace" and supporting the military. That’s how the military seeks a social base of support.

A journalist who attended one of these actions said it was made up of well-dressed people, with the men walking in front of the women, and a scattering of Indians who probably worked for them. That doesn’t represent the people I’ve spoken with here.

The support for the Zapatistas’ program reflects the fact that the economic disparity and poverty among the peasants cannot be sustained. Part of the ladino population here has a fear of indigenous people "taking over" the town.

ATC: Did the demonstration of 100,000 people in Mexico City against military repression in Chiapas have an impact in San Cristobal? Did it make people safer?

A: Not safer, but they felt supported. There was also a major demonstration in Mexico City against the murder of a student by the judicial police the day before yesterday. With the level of discontent over state repression right now, it will be interesting to see what else comes out of this activity.

ATC: What has been the political impact of the uprising, both locally and nationally as far as you understand? And does the PRI control everything in Chiapas?

A: Pretty much. I think PAN (National Action Party, the conservative opposition) has a state representative, but it’s not a major presence. The PRD (Democratic Revolutionary Party, the main opposition party led by Cuauhtemoc Cardenas) is more so. Three days ago the PRD took over the municipal building in a small town on the southern road toward Tapachula, a peaceful demonstration to demand a democratic election.

There’s an interesting political shakeup. There’s a new head of state police in Chiapas, and the governor was replaced—shortly after vowing that he would not give up his position There’s an incredible shuffle of government functionaries in Chiapas. Whether this is substantive I doubt, but if (Mexican president) Salinas is smart he knows he will need to offer something.

ATC: What’s the status of the negotiations, or mediation?

A- The Zapatistas have accepted negotiations, aside from the terms of the proposed government amnesty. As Zapatista Commandante Marcos wrote in a letter to La Jornada, amnesty for what?"

One of the things I’ve been impressed by is the political intelligence of the Zapatistas in the last couple of weeks. While in the first week it was difficult to tell what were their objectives—the early communiques were very rhetorical—in the last two weeks they’ve really represented the demands of the peasants.

From talking to people in various indigenous communities, I found a significant amount of support for the Zapatistas. When Zapatistas come to recruit, we were told, they don’t use coercion. Their basis of recruitment is their basic demand for redistribution of land.

I’m told that one of the latest communiques came out with a very specific program for a progressive tax on landholdings and a substantive land reform.

The first demand was to reverse the government’s dismantling of Article 27 (the constitutional guarantee of the integrity of peasant communal lands—ed.)—it’s been estimated that 5000 agricultural jobs would be lost in Chiapas alone from the loss of Article 27. Reportedly people are being pressured to sell their land in order to make room for a big resort development. It’s speculated that a large number of peasants have joined the Zapatistas from that region.

ATC: What can you tell us about the number of people killed?

A: A number of European journalists who were down here had a figure of 1500. But it’s very hard to tell. There are still reports of unmarked graves every other day. There was a rumor of a mass burial of 300 people outside Ocosingo, but this hasn’t been found or confirmed.

The level of intimidation remains so high in many places that people aren’t talking. After the first week, the military really clamped down on media access.

The official government National Commission for Human Rights (CNDH) is really under fire for not serving their function. A January 16 a CNDH press release states that they have not requested any military withdrawal from any locality in Chiapas, and that they’ve received "various testimonies by residents of Ocosingo "demanding" the CIQ Army remain "for reasons of peace and security."

This from a Human Rights Commission? In San Cristobal, CNDH was only accepting written testimony, presented at their office. Many witnesses are non-literate or don’t speak Spanish.

ATC: What’s the impact of these events on the Guatemalan refugee population in the area?

A: One of the big concerns over the past year—it’s been going on in anticipation of NAFTA, in fact—is the buildup of military posts along the Guatemala-Mexico border, and the loss of a certain regional autonomy.

Chiapas, and San Cristobal in particular, have served as a kind of buffer zone for refugees from Guatemala. The way things have changed is shown by the introduction of picture IDs for the 1994 elections. This is used as a cedula (identification card), which you have to show at checkpoints.

It’s a real clampdown on personal freedom, and may be a prelude to deporting people. And control of information—you wouldn’t believe the stuff that comes over radio and TV. There are huge lines outside the store that carries La Jornada, where people can get real information.

A number of times I heard that local radio and TV newscasters were saying, we don’t have any other information to give you, we can’t get in there.

ATC: We understand the local agriculture is being distorted by conversion to exports for foreign elite markets. Does this aggravate the local political conflicts?

A: There’s a continuing disparity in access to land. In terms of Article 27 being dismantled there would be an intensification of agriculture for export—already in the highlands things like radishes that people here don’t eat are grown.

In indigenous communities there is so much economic disparity because of the way the government operates through the PRI. Government funds go through the party. Families who support the PRI have the trucks and the access to loans.

"Solidaridad" (the government’s highly touted initiative to help the poor—ed.) has been very active in Chiapas. They were literally handing out cash in the community this past summer. In the little towns you’ll see a building in the town plaza with a little FRI sign and a big ’Solidaridad" banner, supposedly a municipal office but really the PRI headquarters.

You might also see a new basketball court. Or new parks, and newly paved roads in peripheral communities—much of it just cosmetic building.

There’s a big scandal coming out around the funds for that program. The PRI’s presidential candidate, Collosio, is responsible for those funds. There’s talk he might be dropped and replaced by Camacho Solis (government-appointed mediator for Chiapas—ed.) before the March 2 deadline.

ATC: Do you think the Zapatistas in the negotiations will demand a military withdrawal from Chiapas?

A: I don’t know about that. The military said they would withdraw from the city centers, but that’s just meant they moved into the neighborhoods on the outskirts of the towns.

The military is using the ’demonstrations" of "community support" that I mentioned earlier, as a pretext for maintaining their posts. They even have advertised an 800 number to call in order to give information on ’subversives." So the demand for military withdrawal would be important—the level of intimidation is still very high.

ATC: What’s the level of indigenous organization, and its connection with or independence from the PRI? And what about the role of the Church that’s been widely reported?

A: It varies greatly by community as to whether PRI’s power is consolidated. Funds that go into a government center in town may not reach into dozens of surrounding tiny hamlets.

A reporter we were talking to last night, who’s done a lot of work on Liberation Theology, was talking about how important it is that this is a church-supported movement. Now Bishop Samuel Ruiz has certainly been an important voice. But this organizing arose way before there was any church support.

The question of indigenous organization in Chiapas is extremely complex, because some communities are so isolated—speaking their own dialect of Tzollzil, for example. And Chiapas might be different from other states as well.

You see this in Oaxaca, too. These are the two states with the highest biodiversity in Mexico as well, from mountains to coastal regions.

ATC: What’s the population of Guatemalan refugees in Chiapas? Do they live in separate communities of their own?

A: It’s said to be 200,000, but I think it’s much higher. The Guatemalan community has been here for quite a while, but it’s somewhat separate. They have their tight-knit communities; but they’re also integrated in the general population as business owners, university students, social service workers. Besides this integrated community, you have the refugees from Guatemala’s intense violence of the 1980s, some of whom live in camps.

There’s a disturbing emphasis by the regime on the presence of Guatemalans, the so-called "imported revolution." The implications are very alarming. People who came here were part of a dominated group in Guatemala. Some were activists. They sought refuge here.

How this is going to be dealt with in the next couple of years, in terms of reparations for Guatemalans and other foreigners, is scary. These are people who have lived here in a normal way for ten years. There have been illegal searches around Ocosingo. That hasn’t started here in San Cristobal, but there are security forces here who are capable of that sort of thing. This threat affects other Latin American refugees too.

Update (second week of February):

There are now officially 14,000 internally displaced people in Chiapas. In reality the number is several times greater. One estimate is 30,000-40,000. Many communities, with 500 or fewer people, are being displaced en masse.

Reports by peasants in the refugee camps tell of soldiers or unknown people running through towns yelling "The Zapatistas are coming!" to create panic and flight Behind them come all kinds of opportunists to pick up property that people leave behind. Horses are rounded up and sold this way. Sometimes people who leave have their land sold out from under them; they don’t have formal titles so when they leave the land it can just be taken from them.

Communities surrounding the selva (forest) are being depopulated in this way. The army might be trying to depopulate the area in order to bring pressure on the EZLN to negotiate, or they may be planning to attack the guerillas once the zone has been cleared of its civilian population.

The economy is in terrible shape because tourism and the movement of agricultural goods are disrupted.

There is, however, a tremendous political opening. The PRD as well as peasant groups (both pro-PRI and independent) are on the move. Whether they have any relationship with the EZLN or not, they are using this opportunity to act. Town municipal plazas are being occupied. And there are many highway blockades—it’s not hard to barricade a two-lane road.

At the same time, the military are taking people’s names and destinations down at checkpoints. We don’t know what will be done with the information. Will it be entered into a data base?

The government/EZLN dialogue was supposed to begin on the first Saturday in February. But the peace negotiations are at a standstill. There is no agreement over the basic agenda. People are becoming frustrated and nervous. The Zapatistas are demanding fundamental electoral reform.

March/April 1994, ATC 49