Frontline World

Mexico - The Deadly Standoff, August 2003
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project
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The uncomfortable truth is that many of the problems faced by the indigenous people of Chiapas will be alleviated only by a change in government policy in Mexico City -- which lies a world away from Zapatista country. That's where I head next.

As I leave Tila an hour after my conversation with the Paz y Justicia leader, I find myself wondering how the conflict could ever end as long as the region is divided into two armed camps. When I speak later to the former advisor to President Fox, Raúl Benítez, he tells me that Chiapas's new opposition governor, Pablo Salazar, has actually been quite effective in disrupting the flow of money to paramilitary groups groups and capturing some Paz y Justicia leaders. But even under a new reformist state government and with the PRI out of state office, there still has been no real attempt to disarm any of the paramilitary groups, according to Benítez and other observers.

It's difficult even to identify which campesino groups are aligned with which party -- and to know for sure whether the latest killings necessarily flow from clashing political alliances. The most recent rash of violence may have more to do with money, land and the struggle over control of valuable natural resources in the Lacandón rain forest, Benítez suggests "The fight over the land is so strong in Chiapas because the land is so valuable," Benítez explains. "Everywhere else in the country, indigenous people are living on top of rocks, and it never rains. But in Chiapas, there are rivers that the government wants to dam for electricity, there are mineral deposits and there are oil deposits near the Guatemalan border."
boy at his post in a Zapatista stationery store

A young boy looks out from his post at the rebel stationery store, located outside the Zapatista's 'autonomous municipality' of Moisés Gandhi.

Since January 2003, the army and Zapatista sympathizers have been facing off over the control of a biosphere called Montes Azules, on land the rebels partially occupy. After spending another night in Ocosingo, I travel to a spot an hour's drive from the occupied ranch where I'd begun my journey through Chiapas more than a week before. This time I get inside Moisés Gandhi, a Zapatista-controlled municipality that looks much more like a peasant collective than a terrorist camp.

Things move at a slow, ordered pace here in rebel territory: Men hammer nails into a shed and women prepare communal pots of beans and fresh tortillas while a girl looks into a mirror fragment, combing her long hair. Banana trees move in the wind and teenagers wearing the customary Zapatista red bandannas around their necks are finishing their schoolwork.

The man who escorts me into the community nods when I ask him about the conflict in Montes Azules. I think about how 10 years of violence has pitted relatives against each other, aggravating cultural, religious and ethnic differences. We reach the center of town. I wait for an hour, my hope for an interview slowly dissolving. Then, confirming my suspicion, a masked Zapatista comes out to tell me that "todo queda en silencio ahorita de por sí." They don't want to speak right now, "everything remains silent now, anyhow."
Zapatista store

The Zapatistas have established stores and even cafeterias near the communities they control. Finding ways to supplement subsistence farming has become key for all Chiapanecan farmers, regardless of their political affiliation.

I'm reminded of one of Subcomandante Marcos's recent letters, in which he writes that rebels don't try to "rewrite history to change the words." In recent years the Zapatistas have been focused less on press relations -- at times making it hard for reporters like me on the ground to document the rebels's views -- and more on what Marcos describes as "the allocation of geography." In some ways, the thousands of Indian peasants who make up these communities have already gotten part of what they wanted -- a piece of land under their control.

The Zapatista movement still has a pull on people. On January 1, 2003, 20,000 Indians marched on San Cristóbal de las Casas to commemorate the uprising's ninth anniversary. In one of Marcos' most recent communiqués, dated July 29 (since my trip), he speaks of a significant restructuring of Zapatista communities to build more effective forms of rebel government and coordinate aid and visits from outsiders. He suggests that the Zapatistas might help mediate disputes between feuding villagers.
Zapatistas march in San Cristóbal de las Casas, 2003

Zapatistas carry machetes as they march in San Cristóbal de las Casas on Jan. 1, 2003, to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the rebel group¼s uprising against the Mexican government. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Marcos also invites representatives of international organizations, as well as Mexican farmer and indigenous groups, to the rebel stronghold, Oventic, for a conference on August 8, 9 and 10 of the kind that hasn't been organized in years. In an earlier letter, dated July 19, Marcos sounds an ominous note, warning of a "rise of the activity of paramilitary bands" in Chiapas that he likens to the conditions that preceded the Acteal massacre. He adds that this "fervent activity suggests plans of imminent action."

In April, on the cusp of these events, I return to Mexico City to conduct a few final interviews. I've been in Chiapas for only 10 days this time, but it's still a shock to come back to the capital city's broad avenues and huge billboards. The headlines on the newsstands make it clear that the country is already hurtling toward the 2006 presidential elections. Skirmishes in the southeast are not likely to be a big campaign issue this time around.
"The fight over the land is so strong in Chiapas because the land is so valuable. There are rivers that the government wants to dam for electricity, there are mineral deposits and there are oil deposits near the Guatemalan border." - Raúl Benítez, former advisor to Mexican President Vicente Fox

At a café near the capital's monument to the Angel of Independence, I meet with General José Luis Garfias, a former Mexican military attaché in Washington, D.C. Garfias, 69, led a battalion into Chiapas in 1994 right after the rebellion broke out. "It was an irregular force, and they had to be fought in an irregular manner," Garfias says. But the general also believes that the armed forces lost their way as the war ground on.

"Paramilitary groups were formed in Chiapas," says Garfias, who maintains his ramrod posture even when sitting down. "That was how the Mexican army carried out activities it couldn't do openly. It had to be covered up."

Garfias tells me that since President Fox took office, the government has filled the attorney general's office with top military brass in an effort to stamp out corruption and raise efficiency. Such moves have helped improve Mexico's relationship with the United States, especially as the administration makes headway in its war on drugs. But not all military officials have gone over to the attorney general's office with clean human rights records, according to Garfias.

The retired general measures his words carefully. He says that the solution to the crisis in Chiapas must come from political leaders, not from the generals. Yet the day before I leave Mexico, Fox's envoy to Chiapas, Luis H. Álvarez, tells reporters that the administration has little hope of solving the conflict before the next presidential election in 2006. For the displaced and for the survivors of killings, including the families of victims of the Acteal massacre, justice is still pending.

"Look, violence is still an open wound in Chiapas," Garfias says, pausing before pressing on. "People knew that counterinsurgency was going to be put into practice there. For now, things aren't getting better. We're just waiting -- waiting until there is the political will to solve this."

Garance Burke, who reported from Mexico City for four years, stringing for the Boston Globe, is currently enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley's graduate school of journalism. She was selected as a FRONTLINE/World Fellow in spring 2003.

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Vincente Fox
Paramilitary Groups
Indigenous People