Frontline World

Mexico - The Deadly Standoff, August 2003
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project
Why Chiapas Is Still a Tinderbox chapter 1 chapter 2
chapter 3 chapter 4 chapter 5
Drawn-out, never-ending skirmishes turn Chiapas into political quicksand, and politicians give up on trying to resolve the conflict.

Back in Ocosingo, it's a foggy Sunday morning. Pablo Romo, a Dominican priest, is giving Mass just four miles from the ranch taken over by the Zapatistas. His voice echoes off the massive walls inside the Ocosingo Cathedral as he switches effortlessly between Spanish and Tzeltal. Forty indigenous parishioners sit praying, their heads bowed, sometimes leaning forward as they light candles on the stone floor. The cathedral fills with the scent of smoke.

Romo takes a break between prayers to come behind the dais and talk. He smoothes his deep purple robe and sighs. As the priest who heads this parish, he understands the costs of ongoing conflict in Chiapas as well as anyone. He spends most weeks visiting the church's followers in their settlements in nearby canyons and cloud forests. Romo says that hopes were raised among communities of the descendants of ancient Mayans when initial negotiations between the Zapatistas and the Mexican government progressed. But he adds that those hopes now seem like a distant dream.
Father Pablo Romo

Father Pablo Romo takes a break from giving Mass inside the Ocosingo Cathedral. Romo, who has held key positions in the Dominican order at the Vatican, has been vocal about his support of human rights since the conflict began.

"Chiapas may have dropped out of the headlines, but this is still a war -- it's (just) a war you can't see," Romo says. Soon after the rebels and Mexican government negotiators began peace talks and drafted the San Andrés Peace Accords in 1996, the negotiations ground to a halt, he points out. "The San Andrés Peace Accords were never adopted, and the counterinsurgency campaign is ongoing. Even though it has changed form, the conflict persists."

Modern Mexico has fared pretty well under Fox, Romo ventures. Even in Chiapas, there have been some improvements: Reconciliation efforts are under way in the deeply divided Indian villages, and human rights teams can now work in the Zona Norte, an area that used to be controlled by government-aligned paramilitary groups.
church in the Zona Norte

Right-wing paramilitary groups closed down some 100 churches in the late 1990s because they associated the Catholic Church with leftist liberation theology.

Why does the violence persist then? "The low-intensity war has gone back into the communities," Romo explains. People intrude on one another's parcels, farmers struggle to feed their families from crops grown in overworked land. Incense wafts up from behind the dais where we sit. "It's a very strange war," he adds. "Even though the government says the conflict is over, and the rebels aren't using their arms much, everyone still has guns."

Criticism From a Former Presidential Advisor on the Crisis in Chiapas

When I speak months later to one of President Fox's advisors, I'm a little surprised to discover that he agrees on key points with Father Romo. Raúl Benítez, a specialist on North American security matters and former presidential advisor on Chiapas, was part of a commission charged by Fox with reforming the national security operations of the government. He's since quit the Mexican government and moved north to become a public policy fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Woodrow Wilson International Center.

"Chiapas is more like Guatemala or Colombia than like a part of Mexico," Benítez tells me. "The government is not doing anything about it, and if things continue to come apart, there is a very real danger that Chiapas will deteriorate into a series of permanent, microscopic civil wars."
"It's a very strange war. Even though the government says the conflict is over, and the rebels aren't using their arms much, everyone still has guns." - Pablo Romo, Dominican Priest

As a border state, Chiapas has always been somewhat lawless, a place where weapons traders and migrant smugglers have operated relatively easily. Chiapas turned into both a military challenge and a public relations catastrophe for the Mexican government on January 1, 1994 (also the day of the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect) when the Zapatistas declared war. Firefights between the Zapatistas and the Mexican army lasted 12 days, long enough for U.S. Defense Department intelligence operatives to send dozens of cables back to the Pentagon warning that "terrorist organizations" had seized control of Mexico's southern border. One document expressed a concern that "unrest could spread to other parts of Mexico, which would threaten the overall stability of the country."

Spotting a political opportunity in the 2000 presidential campaign, then-candidate Vicente Fox made his famous campaign pledge that he would solve the problems in Chiapas "in 15 minutes." Upon taking office, he ordered troops to pull out from seven key army bases in Chiapas, released Zapatista prisoners from jail, sanctioned a national civil rights march by rebel commanders and sent the congress an indigenous rights bill. He'd hoped to jumpstart peace talks, Benítez says.
supporters gather at the 2001 caravan for indigenous rights

During the 2001 caravan for indigenous rights, the two dozen traveling Zapatista commanders leave a stage set up in front of the Presidential Palace in Mexico City while 100,000 supporters cheer them on.

I ask Benítez whether those efforts, in retrospect, ever had a real chance of success. He believes that there's plenty of fault to be found on both sides for the stalemated negotiations and that the consequences for the whole country have been profoundly negative. The government's unwillingness to negotiate control of valuable natural resources with indigenous communities, combined with the Zapatistas' intransigence and unrealistic demands, led to the current impasse, according to Benítez. "What was up for negotiation was giving indigenous people control over resources in their habitat," he says. "Now we have a kind of abnormal, armed status quo going on in Chiapas, which effectively weakens democracy in Mexico."

The former presidential advisor says, a bit apologetically, that most Mexican officials have decided that the administration cannot make political gains by focusing attention on the rights of indigenous people. Chiapas is more like a swamp, an untouchable domain where you can waste tremendous amounts of political capital. He points out that although a spirit of political reform swept the rest of Mexico, it never took firm root in southern Mexico -- and now there's political retrenchment in the rest of the country as well. In congressional elections this July, the previously ousted PRI made a powerful comeback. Though voting was free and fair in most of the country, in Chiapas organized gangs of armed, hooded men attacked nearly 50 voting booths.

The propensity for this kind of violence, as I discover on the rest of my trip through Chiapas, is rooted partly in the Mexican government's own policies in Chiapas -- especially in the previous administration's decision to arm right-wing paramilitary groups in order to counter the Zapatista threat.

NEXT: Government-Sanctioned Terror

PREVIOUS: A Stalled Revolution

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Vincente Fox
Paramilitary Groups
Indigenous People