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(en) Mexico, alt. media, Murder in Chiapas, Low-intensity conflict continues

From Dan Clore <clore@columbia-center.org>
Date Mon, 14 Oct 2002 03:18:06 -0400 (EDT)


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Chiapas, Mexico--In a concrete and wooden hut in the tiny
K'an Akil community of the highlands of Chiapas, the sound
of soft rain on a tin roof mixes with the pungent scent of
incense made from tree resin and the chanting of Hail Marys
and Our Fathers in the Mayan tongue of Tzeltzal. 

The people gathered here are performing a mourning Mass for
Antonio Mejia Vazquez, the town deacon and patriarch of the
community. He acquired this small parcel of lush, rainy land
about 30 years ago and, along with his brothers and their
families, carved out a cornfield on a slope rising steeply
above the huts, where chickens and hogs now meander,
children play and women in brightly embroidered traditional
blouses and wool skirts make tortillas out of corn on a
smoky wood fire. 

In 1999, the 50 or so members of K'an Akil decided to
declare themselves an autonomous community aligned with the
Zapatistas, the guerrilla movement that emerged on New
Year?s Day 1994 by taking over the city of San Cristobal de
las Casas and demanding the Mexican government recognize
indigenous rights to autonomous government, land and
education. 

On August 26, Mejia was shot to death by several members of
the Aguilares, a group variously described as
"paramilitaries" or simply "thugs," in the latest of several
attacks by paramilitaries on Zapatista supporters in
Chiapas. In the past two months, violence has escalated in
the region. While government officials deny the conflict is
political, local NGO leaders and activists note that the
low-intensity war being waged against the autonomous
communities has intensified in the past few months, with the
reported incursion of hundreds of new army and paramilitary
troops in the Lacondon jungle and surrounding areas over the
summer. 

This "low-intensity warfare," a term coined by the
government itself, consists of breaking down the resolve of
communities through constant military presence, harassment
and intimidation from paramilitary groups like the
Aguilares. Zapatista supporters view the military and
paramilitary presence as a key part of the government's plan
to take over collective lands for projects like the Plan
Puebla Panama, a proposed series of transportation corridors
in the region. 

Mejia's family couldn't even get to his body for a day and a
half, since members of the Aguilar group continued to stand
guard over the corpse and fire shots into the air. When they
were finally able to recover Mejia?s body, with the
protection of a contingent of hundreds of Zapatista
supporters from other communities, they found his ears had
been sliced off and his left cheek cut away. 

Community leaders say the Aguilares are trying to take over
their land through a campaign of intimidation and terror. In
December 2001, the Aguilares cut a water line that had
connected K'an Akil to a spring in the mountains. They
demanded 8,000 pesos (about $800) to reconnect the water
supply, money the town didn't have. Tensions escalated, and
the Aguilares began to make death threats against Mejia and
his family. 

Mejia was one of four Zapatista supporters murdered in
August. In all four cases, the murderers, whose identities
are well-known, continue to enjoy almost complete immunity
from prosecution. Mexican President Vicente Fox and Chiapas
Gov. Pablo Salazar have both publicly stated recently that
no armed paramilitary organizations exist in Chiapas. Locals
say that, to the contrary, the paramilitaries are as strong
as ever and receiving weapons and other clandestine support
from the military. 

Since Fox unseated Mexico's long-time ruling party, the
Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the president's
campaign promise to solve the Chiapas conflict in "15
minutes" has proved completely hollow. "The paramilitaries
have lost some support since the PRI is no longer in power,"
says Ruben Moreno of the Chiapas Community Defenders
Network. "But even though the links aren?t as direct, it is
evident that they are supported by the government through
total impunity."

Before Mejia, two Zapatista supporters were murdered August
25 in the community of Amaytik during a raid by the
paramilitary group OPDIC, an organization with branches
throughout Chiapas that claims to be an indigenous rights
group and is vocal in its opposition to the Zapatistas. The
Center for Political Analysis and Social and Economic
Research has done a study noting the presence of OPDIC
chapters in areas key to government-sponsored development
projects like the Plan Puebla Panama, a fact they say is no
coincidence. 

Zapatista supporter Jose Lopez Santiz was also shot to death
in August. He was gunned down in his cornfield in front of
his two sons, who identified his killers as friends of a
wealthy local landowner. The Zapatista community had
"recuperated" part of the landowner's holdings to work as
their own. 

Thousands of Zapatista supporters held protests calling for
justice in the case. In a public statement, Gov. Salazar
himself urged protesters to have faith in the judicial
system. Community leaders note that after Santiz?s wife and
brother went to the police in Altamirano, they tried to
prevent the body from being examined and declared his death
was caused by a falling tree. 

The Zapatistas have not issued a statement since April 2001,
when the government failed to meet their demands for
autonomy after the march of tens of thousands of Zapatistas
and their supporters to Mexico City. They are expected to
break their silence soon in response to the killings, as
well as a September decision by the Mexican Supreme Court
that dismissed challenges to the controversial Indigenous
Rights Law passed last year, which critics say offers very
few indigenous rights and undermines stronger existing laws. 

The Zapatistas have also found some of their support bases,
such as ARIC Independiente, the cattle ranchers' union, and
ORCAO, the coffee growers' union, eroded by Salazar?s
program offering incentives for collective landholders to
privatize their land. The autonomous communities vehemently
oppose this trend, saying it makes it easier for the
government and corporations to buy up land for development
and exploitation of natural resources. 

Meanwhile, those who live in K'an Akil live with the
immediate fear and grief caused by the paramilitary
presence. "We are afraid of these groups," a spokesman from
the community told a group of human rights observers from
the Mexico Solidarity Network in late September. "We can't
work because of the threats. The women are afraid to leave
their homes at all, and children can't go to school. The
paramilitaries keep doing this to us night and day."
By Kari Lydersen
-- 
Dan Clore


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