Urgent Action
Urgent Action - Chiapas, Mexico

Christmas in The Municipality of Chenalho, Chiapas
The Most Recent Chapter in Mexico's Undeclared Civil War
In an abhorrently brutal act, at least 45 persons were massacred in the rural community of Acteal, Chenalho December 22. According to inicial community reports, a group of approximately 60 local Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) members entered into the community on December 22, shooting randomly into the air. Men, women and children dispersed in terror, seeking refuge. Unfortunately, no space was found safe, nor sacred.

9 Men, 21 women, 15 children (1 baby) dead in and around a small church at the edge of Acteal. All had been killed by gunshot wounds of high-calibre arms and exploding bullets, generally of exclusive military use.

This is not the first time that Acteal has been targeted with institutional violence. On Monday, November 24, two truckloads of uniformed and fully armed military personnel (60-75 soldiers) entered into Acteal.

According to reports by community members at the scene, the soldiers came into the community supposedly looking for weapons. They immediately began to strangle one community member, and threatened to kill him if he did not tell them where arms were being stored. After throwing him to the ground, a group of women stepped forward demanding to know what right the soldiers have to treat their compañero in that manner. The women were then also beaten; one suffered a broken arm and a 12-year-old girl was badly hurt. After searching a number of houses, ransacking them as they went, the soldiers retreated from the community. No weapons were found.

Nor is Acteal an isolated incident. Today the entire municipality of Chenalho appears to be falling under the gun of a systematic plan to terrorize and destroy organized groups not belonging to the PRI. The opposition, and even the politically "unaligned" civil society now finds its leaders threatened, their community shops and their homes targetted for being ransacked or destroyed, their popular base uprooted and in search of safe haven.

A Little bit of Background

The municipality of Chenalho is located in the region known as "Los Altos" or the Highlands of Chiapas, some 70 kilometers from the vastly turisted colonial town of San Cristobal de Las Casas. But until these recent "explosions of violence" most foreign visitors and Mexicans alike had never heard of Chenalho.

Chenalho is an area rich in high-altitude coffee, timber, sheep and cattle, corn, bean and other vegetable crop production -- and yet, poor in health, education, minimal sanitary conditions, food, clean water, basic respect for human rights, and justice. Like so many indigenous regions in Mexico, the local population's misery had been conveniently hidden from the public eye.
Some of the more obvious indicators include:

Illiteracy rate - 51 %
Inhabitants without drainage or sewage systems - 88%
Inhabitants without electricity - 78%
Inhabitants without access to running water - 56%
Inhabitants living in homes with dirt floors - 91%

But today the suffering of the people of Chenalho is no longer kept a secret. It has become the focus in the most recent chapter in Mexico's "Undeclared Civil War".

Since May of this year, there have existed rumors of war. One school teacher was mysteriously killed, and people were beginning to complain of increased political tensions in the communities. Since that time, there have appeared signs of paramilitary groups forming in the communities Los Chorros and Colonia Puebla. Violent confrontations, on September 1, 7resulted in at least 30 persons killed and 17 houses the Civil Society Las Abejas were burnt to the ground in the community of Los Chorros - -- with the inhabitants losing all of their personal belongings. That same day some 60 members of Las Abejas fled their community in fear for their lives.

But for a time, there appeared the fleeting hope that the conflict could be resolved peacefully. There was agreement amongst the Civil Organization - Las Abejas, by community representatives of the PRD and Zapatista sympathizers, and the politically-plural coffee producer's organization Union Majomut, that there must be a dialog and a peaceful resolution to the on-going violence and political turmoil. The PRI municipal government even made some gestures that they might attend such a meeting. After two aborted sessions for dialog (because the PRI government representatives refused to sit down and talk), the first "peace dialog" was actually held on December 5 in the community of Las Limas.

However, it appears that the government was simply using the "peace-keepping gesture" as another tactic within a strategy of "counter-insurgency" warfare. Just as peaceful resolution began to appear a possiblity (and opposition groups thought they might be able to put down their guard), government-backed groups were already violating the agreements they had signed.

Representatives of the Autonomous Council for the Municipality of San Pedro Chenalho denounced the following acts as the first signs of the government's lack of political will to respect any negotiated agreements:

-December 11, the house of Zapatista sympathizer Pedro Perez Cuchlo was burnt to the ground by members of the governing PRI party in the community of Chimix.

-December 13, another two houses of Zapatista sympathizers are burnt to the ground by members of the PRI; and another house of Zapatista supporter is riddled with bullets in the community of Polho, barrio Majomut.

-On the 14th of December a truck recognized as belonging to Sebastian Epech was seen bringing Celestino Perez Jimenez and Lorenzo Perez Vazquez -- accused by opposition community members of belonging to paramilitary groups trained by Public Security forces -- with weapons wrapped in gunny sacks to the crossroads of the communities Los Chorros and Acteal.

Domingo Perez Paciencia, the president of the Autonomous Council, accuses the local PRI members -- with the complacent approval of the state and federal governments -- of provoking the on-going violence in the region, of firing arms in the communities and of burning down houses and destroying the belongings of Zapatista sympathizers. The Autonomous Council admits that their followers may be supportive of the Zapatista struggle, but that they are civilians, they are not Zapatista militia, nor are they armed.

Given the current circumstances, the Autonomous Council recognizes that true dialog for a negotiated peace will be impossible. They say that there is no way of guaranteeing that what is signed in a dialog will be respected in the communities. They called for the creation of a Verification Comission; to establish "Observation Camps" housing representatives of Human Rights organizations, governmental and non-governmental organizations; that the state government recall the Public Security Forces now roaming freely in the region; and that the Paramilitary Groups be disarmed.

As a first step, a "Verifying Comission" was created comprised of: three local PRI representatives; three representatives of the Autonomos Council; two representatives from the Fray Bartolome Human Rights Center; two representatives from the State and National Human Rights Commissions; two representatives of the government Secretaria for the Atencion of Indigenas Peoples; and two representatives of the civilian association "Las Abejas".

The comission's first task was to conduct a two-day tour of the affected communities in order to verify the accusations being made by both groups regarding the noncompliance of the peace pact. Following the tour, the conflicting parties were to meet again on December 19.

But even those modest aspirations appear to be sabotaged from the start.

AMBUSH in QUEXTIC Result in one person DEAD and 7 WOUNDED.

The Fray Bartolome Human Rights Center (CDHFBC) informs that a group of some 100 PRI members blocked the 15 members of the Verification Comission as they were attempting to carry out their visits to the communities as agreed upon in the last "peace talks." The Comission denounced that a group of PRI members ambushed a group of their own PRI party members (who were not in compliance with the PRI strategy of a military control of the region), leaving one person dead and 7 wounded near the community of Quextic. The PRI members also detained hostage representatives of the Autonomous Council, of the Civil Organization Las Abejas, and of the Fray Bartolome Human Rights Center for aproximately two hours.

Meanwhile, the Government General Secretary, Homero Tovilla Cristiani, has stated publically that in Chiapas there are no paramilitary groups. Especifically in regards to Chenalho, Tovilla Cristiani says that "there can not exist the armed White Guards, because in this municipality the land holdings are communal and there are no large land-holders to pay for paramilitary groups."

But nevertheless, the National Comision of Intermediacion (Conai) and the Fray Bartolome Human Rights Center (CDHFBC) say that the paramilitary violence in Chenalho is, in fact, nothing new to Los Altos and is part of the government's counter-insurgency strategy. And, they claim, that the victims of this government strategy are all of the Indigenas people of the zone: the PRI, Zapatista sympathizers, civilians without a political party, and even the very integrants of the paramilitary groups. In the end, the death and destruction that the current policy sows in the communities of Chenalho will eventually affect all people living in the region.

Conai and CDHFBC spokespersons also reiterate their concerns regarding the serious violations of the "cease- fire" agreements between the Autonomous Council and the Constitutional Municipal Government of Chenalho. Addicionally, they say that after the harassment that the Verification Comission suffered last week, they must suspend activities for the utter lack of security in the zone.

As a result, their spokespersons have made an urgent call to the Mexican Civil Society and to International Solidarity to demand that the Mexican government be pressured to act responsably in its efforts to quell the violence in Chenalho. To date, the government response has been one of apathy and of turning a blind eye to the violence. According to CDHFBC declarations, the state is either incapable of controlling the violence, or is acomplice.

And in the meantime, the toll of victims continues to rise. Estimates of as many as 6,000 persons are now in local "campamentos" seeking refuge from the violence directed against them in their own communites; the death count (of reported cases) has surpassed 100, including the most recent masacre in Acteal, and more than 150 houses have been burnt to the ground with the inhabitants losing all of their belongings in the blaze. In the communities people are terrified, many fled from their homes at the sight of armed Public Security Forces approaching with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. They are now in provisional "security camps," but lack even the most minimal amounts of food and clean water, and lack dry clothing, blankets and any kind of real shelter from the rains and cold.

The message that the Mexican government sends is a signal for pending disaster. The act of openly sending in the Public Security and uniformed Military Forces to flush out Zapatista sympathizers in the region represents a new and very dangerous attitude amongst PRI decision- makers. For the past two years of a very tenuous "peace process" in Chiapas and then with the stalled Peace Talks in San Andres Larrainzar, the Zedillo administration has been very careful with its public image. Counter- insurgency and paramilitary activities have been on-going in many remote parts of the state, but the PRI was careful to try and keep its public profile clean.

But the recent incidents of violence in Chenalho appear to be the clearest signs in more than a year that the government is again looking for a military solution to its social problems in Chiapas. Again, the government is sending out an open invitation to war.

But all of this is still just describing the immediate problem. It is difficult to calculate the long- term damage to the communities that this kind of violence brings. PRI leaders have been repeatedly accused of channeling arms and of training local paramilitary groups. How does one calculate the time necesary to heal the wounds of seeing family members ruthlessly gunned down, or watching on while in one violent act all of one's belongings go up in flames. In addition, December is the peak season for the coffee harvest in Chenalho. Yet, because of the violence -- many farmers are afraid to go out to their fields and a complete loss of this year's harvest is at risk. This, of course, will mean absolute economic disaster for the coffee farmers and their families, and adding up the losses represents milliones of dollars lost throughout the region.

What to Do?

It is obvious that one person alone is not going to be able to resolve the urgent long term needs for food and shelter and safety of the people of Chenalho and of Chiapas. We are each individually just like a drop of water in the desert. But then again, as recalled in a recent EZLN comunicado...
there is a place for even the smallest drop of water:
translated from "El cuento del rabito de la nube."
EZLN Comunicado - November 1997

"And then the little cloud began to make a great effort in order to rain and finally a single drop came of it. And the little cloud disappeared, it was transformed into a drop of rain. Little by little the cloud that was now a single drop of rain went falling to the ground. Alone it was falling and with nothing below to catch it. And alone the drop finally landed in the desert. But with so much silence in the desert, that little drop make a raging noise as it hit upon a stone."

The point is that one can never know what will be the results of his or her even small action. The important thing is that we make the effort. On this end, there are several actions that we are trying to support. First of all, on behalf of the Diocesis of San Cristobal, there is a coordinated effort to send material aid, and in particular corn to the people located in refugee camps in Chenalho.

If anyone able to make a monetary contribution to that effort, direct deposits can be made to the following account:

in the name of:
Caritas de San Cristobal de Las Casas, A.C.
branch number: 0386 San Cristobal de Las Casas
account no.: 055249-2 (master account)

Don't let the authors of these criminal acts get away with robbing the Indigenous people of their hope and of their vision for a life with dignity and justice for all. These cowardly acts commited by government-backed groups must not be allowed to pass without further incident. Although we are small, we are many... and we must try to make a difference.

"A drop of rain? Then the rock awakened the desert with the news:
'Rapido! Get ready because it is going to rain!'
It notified the plants that had been hiding below the soil from the brutal rays of burning sun. And the plants woke up suddenly and leaned out into the light of day, and for a moment everything in that desert was covered in green. And then the big clouds noticed the green from afar, and they said:
'Over there is great green expanse where we didn't realize plants were growing; we are going to go there and rain in that place.....'
And they went to rain in that place that before was only desert, and suddenly the sand became full with living plants."

Together we can search for the means to pressure for changing this terrifying situation that the people of Chenalho now live under. Now, with all of this said and done, i would ask of you.... as friends who believe in the respect of basic human rights and justice, and as friends to the cause of the independent campesino farmer, to PLEASE TRY AND MANIFEST SOME FORM OF PROTEST. Whether that be a visit or a phone call to your local Mexican consulate, or a call or letter sent directly to the Mexican heads of state.

It is of UTMOST IMPORTANCE that the Mexican government know that these indigenous communities standing up for dignity and respect for their rights are not alone in this struggle.

Questions and comments? BOES.ORG can send you the e-address to whom it concern.
Subject: "Mexico Forward"
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