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‘Low intensity’ war erupts in Mexico massacre

NCR Staff
San Cristobal de Las Casas, Mexico

Four thousand Indians fleeing the municipality of Chenalhó, where 45 people were massacred Dec. 22, found reason to celebrate when they arrived in Pohló, a hamlet in the high mountains of Mexico’s southern Chiapas state.

An international observer who requested anonymity said that despite inhumane conditions in Pohló, it provided refuge for many of the Indians who had been living in terror under the paramilitary groups that had taken control of their villages for several months.

“It was almost like market day, the situation in the camp. People were so relieved to be out of their communities, they felt they were better off there,” the observer, who visited the camp, said.

Many of the Indians at the Pohló camp began fleeing Dec. 22 after paramilitary gunmen opened fire on a group of Tzotzil Indians praying for peace in a Catholic church. Among the 45 killed were 21 women, four of whom were pregnant; 15 children, including an infant; and nine men. Thirteen people were wounded.

Some Mexican government officials at first claimed the bloodshed resulted from family feuds, ethnic rivalries, even conflict between evangelical and Catholic Indians. But within a week, authorities had arrested 40 people in connection with the massacre, most of them linked to the ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party, PRI, including the local mayor of Chenalhó, Jacinto Arias Cruz.

The Mexican press reported that Arias allegedly made a government vehicle available to the assassins; reports also said he helped arm and train the gunmen.

Witnesses said the killers used automatic weapons, prohibited except for government security forces. In a Dec. 26 communique, Sub-commander Marcos, leader of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, EZLN, charged that the paramilitary groups had received training from Mexican military officials who, in turn, were trained by counterinsurgency experts from the Guatemalan military.

Many of the victims, according to Marina Jiménez, director of the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center in San Cristóbal de las Casas, all belonged to a grassroots indigenous organization called “Las Abejas” -- the bees. The group had declared itself neutral -- free from alliances with either the Zapatistas or government forces.

The massacre brought widespread international attention to paramilitary violence in Chiapas, but human rights monitors and organizations working with the Catholic church have been documenting both military and paramilitary “low intensity warfare” throughout Chiapas since the Zapatista uprising in January 1994.

Paramilitary groups increased their presence in Chenalhó beginning in May, Jiménez said, in part in reaction to the growth of “autonomous governments” in that and other regions. Disillusioned with the corruption and ineffective rule of the PRI, civilian organizations throughout Chiapas have constituted what amounts to parallel governing structures in at least 14 municipalities and dozens of smaller hamlets.

Many of the autonomous government councils in Chiapas are influenced by the Zapatistas. Others originate in broader grassroots organizing efforts, such as the Abejas initiative. In some communities, the two governing structures coexist peacefully. In others, tensions have exploded into violence.

In May, in the municipality of Puebla, 16 PRI supporters and 15 Zapatista supporters died in a violent confrontation. Jiménez said that it is clear that as civilian support for the PRI wanes, government support of the paramilitary strategies rises. “The PRI is losing its power, its influence. Violence is the only way in which it can drown out the people. ... These are the costs of our transition to democracy,” she said.

National Catholic Reporter, January, 9, 1998