Frontline World

Mexico - The Deadly Standoff, August 2003
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project
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In the late 1990s, Mexican officials set up networks of informants in Chiapas and offered financial support to a paramilitary group cooperating with government forces. Several of those networks and armed groups still operate across the state -- and new ones have been formed.

A terrible massacre of civilians, perpetrated by a right-wing armed group in 1997, made it clear that the situation in Chiapas had veered out of control. A public outcry about the slaughter prompted the ruling party to establish first one, then another, special unit to investigate some of the darkest aspects of the conflict in the state, and to probe hundreds of murders and disappearances attributed largely to shadowy paramilitary groups.

In preparation for my trip, I'd called the office of the attorney general in Mexico City to get a progress report on those investigations. Press officers had told me that both teams had been shut down, that all related personnel had left the special investigative units. Case closed. But as I continue to make inquiries while traveling in Chiapas, I learn that the attorney general still maintains a field office in the mountain city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, some two hours away from Ocosingo. I'm determined to see for myself whether what I've been told is true.
"There are armed civilian groups all over the state...but this is not Iraq. No one cares about what goes on here anymore." - Pérez Narváez, investigator, Attorney General's office in Chiapas

I pay $3 for the bus trip. Just a few days later in San Cristóbal, I find the person who had been in charge of the second special investigative unit -- Armando Pérez Narváez, a nervous-looking man in his early 40s. When I track him down late one night in his office above a dingy nightclub, he reveals quite openly that, sure, he's still hard at work -- but not in the way one might expect. He isn't here to investigate human rights abuses of the past so much as to run a network of government informants.

"There are armed civilian groups all over the state," Pérez Narváez tells me as he lays out a highlighted map of Chiapas in the flickering red light of the neon sign from the club below. "Sometimes we have to go in there dressed up like market women or nurses, but we have informants in every single village. Some people are loyal to our cause."

He interrupts our interview to make a call to intelligence headquarters in Mexico City. "Nothing doing, mi general," he says, breathing heavily into the telephone. The office is lined with photos of Pérez Narváez, including one of him posing in a tracksuit, an arm slung casually over the shoulder of Mexican federal attorney general Rafael Macedo de la Concha. He rings off, and I turn away from the photos.

I ask him about investigations of the Acteal massacre, the notorious attack in the Chiapas highlands, where 45 people were murdered by a government-aligned proxy group a few days before Christmas in 1997. This was one of the worst killings in recent Mexican history. A federal court eventually convicted 77 people in connection with the massacre, including one retired general.
State authorities identified Sabelino Torres (l.) and his brother Federico as members of the armed civilian group Paz y Justicia

In September 2002, Chiapas state police arrested 26 members of the armed civilian group Paz y Justicia. State authorities identified Sabelino Torres (l.) and his brother Federico, shown here, as leaders of the group. (AP/Wide World Photos)

The attorney general's man in Chiapas offers an odd response. First he tells me that it's normal for peasants to have guns. Then he shrugs off my question about the massacre. "The Zapatistas were advocating socialism and these groups didn't agree with them. They got a little out of hand," says Pérez Narvaez dismissively, sliding his fingers through his boyish haircut. "But this is not Iraq. No one cares about what goes on here anymore."

Human Rights Activists Speak Out

I discover how fervently some people actually do still care about the human rights situation in Chiapas the very next morning when I meet with a group of lawyers at the Fray Bartolomé Center for Human Rights, which is affiliated with the Catholic Church. Activists working with the group regularly risk their lives to gather information about human rights abuses in Chiapas. Members of the staff have received death threats and the group has had to switch office locations several times. They're now housed in a large cement building near the cathedral in San Cristóbal, the site of the first, failed round of talks between the Zapatistas and government officials in 1994.
displaced villagers in Usipá give their testimonies to lawyers from the Fray Bartolomé Center for Human Rights

Displaced villagers in Usipá gather for a basic human rights lesson and to give their testimonies to lawyers from the Fray Bartolomé Center for Human Rights.

Blanca Martínez, 39, who is from the northern state of Guanajuato, is the center's current head. She tells me that this spring two people were beaten in the course of their investigation of a conflict deep in the Lacandón rain forest. Even for officials of the state government, she says, the situation is not much better: Last year, the home of the head of Chiapas' official human rights commission was raked with bullets by a mob.

As we huddle in the small office, the lawyers hand me their latest report. It details 12 cases in which state officials used torture -- asphyxiation by a plastic bag and beating on teeth and testicles -- as part of arrest procedures. Although these charges of torture by officials are not directly related to the armed conflict, they help describe the environment of extra-legal violence in which the low-intensity conflict plays out. The lawyers also point to the U.S. State Department's 2002 report, which charts an increase last year in confrontations between armed civilian groups and Zapatista sympathizers -- the kind of tension that led to the tragic massacre at Acteal.

Martínez tells me that if I really want to see how the government's limited efforts at reconciling the divided Indian villages in Chiapas actually play out, I should accompany her team on a six-hour journey to Usipá, a town of displaced people near the pyramids of Palenque. The state government pays special attention to this area, sending mediators there to hold reconciliation meetings and offering microcredit programs and new cement floors to both supporters and opponents of the Zapatistas.
campesino walks past the PRI offices in Salto de Agua

A campesino walks past the offices of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Salto de Agua, where the paramilitary group Paz y Justicia first emerged.

Until last year, the roads leading to Usipá were controlled by a paramilitary group called Paz y Justicia (Peace and Justice), the government-allied organization suspected of being responsible for an estimated 200 deaths. Before we leave on our trip, I interview Chiapas's attorney general, Mariano Herrán Salvatti, to gain an official perspective about the violence in the state. The portly Herrán Salvatti directs a staff of dozens of prosecutors and oversees several police forces. In a state where most people in the region rely on subsistence agriculture for survival, land disputes often lie at the root of political violence, he tells me.

Martínez, though, pins more of the blame on the Mexican government's low-level counterinsurgency campaign, which was waged in the mid- to late 1990s -- and whose legacy, she insists, is still flaring today. "The army has become a part of daily life in Chiapas," she says. "When military posts encircle a town, women marry the troops and soldiers buy soft drinks at the village store. But harassment and human rights violations are part of that daily reality as well."

NEXT: The View From Two Remote Villages

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Vincente Fox
Paramilitary Groups
Indigenous People