Sunday, February 24, 2008
Broken Skulls and Bullet Wounds: Violence Returns to Chiapas
New York, Feb. 24 - Ernesto Ledesma Arronte pointed carefully to where the peasant's skull had been fractured by the police: a divot of bone clearly visible to the hundred audience members fixated on the x-ray overhead. As if this were not evidence enough, he showed a photo of a Mexican peasant shot by police while protesting the government's destruction of local farms and houses.
Arronte's point was clear: war has returned to Mexico, reigniting the lives and politics of rural and indigenous Mexicans long subjected to state-led violence and political repression. Using a host of maps, photos, and documents, Arronte argued that Chiapas and other poor, agricultural states in southern Mexico are once again being consumed by the bloodshed and land seizures that drew international attention to the region in the early 1990s.
“Youths cut up by machetes, robberies, aggressions, evictions, arbitrary detentions, and the cutting off of water” have once again become commonplace in Chiapas, he said in Spanish. Arronte should know: he and his colleagues at the Center For Political Analysis and Economic and Social Investigations (CAPISE) have been documenting human rights violations committed by state police and federal troops for years.
But as Arronte and other activists have pointed out, things are spiraling out of control, even by Chiapas’s bloody standards. Beginning last year, Mexican President Felipe Calderón has added more than 24,000 soldiers to local police forces in what his government calls a new drug war offensive. But there are growing signs that this massive troop deployment is affecting rural, indigenous communities just as much as drug cartels on the U.S. – Mexico border. According to Arronte, the government has begun a “war on the indigenous” stacked in favor of government forces: 55 of the 79 military bases in Chiapas are on indigenous lands, every one of which has recently seen a build-up of troops and equipment. Twelve years after the Acteal Massacre, in which 45 indigenous townspeople were murdered by paramilitaries, the specter of violence once again haunts the lush farmlands and forests of southern Mexico.
Arronte was one of several speakers at “Repression in Chiapas,” an event hosted by New York tenants’ rights organization Movement for Justice in El Barrio (MJB). The evening also featured “One Big Train Called the Other Campaign,” a documentary on an international campaign for indigenous land rights and autonomy in Mexico. The Other Campaign is led by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), a group formed in 1994 to fight for peasants’ lands threatened by the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Since renouncing violence shortly after its inception, the EZLN now enjoys a great deal of international support and counts MJB among its sister organizations.
This time around, the reasons behind the government’s repressive tactics are again economic, argues Arronte.
“The Calderón government has begun to transform thousands of hectares of indigenous land into protected nature zones,” he said, adding that these “nature zones” are really eco-tourism projects run by private companies.
“No indigenous families are involved in these projects,” Arronte said, explaining why the government’s quest for tourist revenue is synonymous with an offensive against the indigenous in Mexico.
The Zapatista uprising in 1994 shattered the image of Mexico as a mestizo, or racially-uniform, nation. Today, deep inequalities persist in Mexico, often along ethnic lines. In Chiapas, a state that produces 13 percent of the nation’s corn and 54 percent of its hydroelectric power, poverty rates are much higher than the nation average and almost half of the population does not speak Spanish.
The rising number of federal troops and human rights abuses threatens to reverse what little gains indigenous communities have made in Chiapas and elsewhere in rural Mexico. Lands appropriated by the Zapatistas and their supporters in the mid 1990s are being systematically stripped from the indigenous, often through violence, Arronte said. In the valley of Agua Azul alone, 1,235 families face eviction from their homes and a return to the starvation of earlier years.
“In Mexico and Chiapas in 1994 there were still slaves,” Arronte said. Today, these former “slaves” are fighting to keep the lands they won in the 90s from many of the same landowners for whom they used to work.