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Cover story

After massacre, wider trouble looms in Mexico

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Mexico City

While Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo and Bill Clinton addressed world leaders at the United Nations World Drug Summit in early June, hopes for a peaceful way out of violent conflict in Mexico’s indigenous Chiapas and Guerrero states were unraveling.

Military and police actions in both regions resulted in at least 20 indigenous casualties. Fighting broke out between Mexican troops and the Zapatista rebels for the first time since January 1994. In addition, the national commission charged with mediating the conflict in Chiapas, headed by Bishop Samuel Ruiz García, dissolved. The death of the commission kills chances for further negotiations with the government if international intervention is not accepted.

In Guerrero, conflict erupted June 7 just before dawn in the threadbare Mixtec Indian village of El Charco, south of Acapulco.

A bulletin issued by the Mexican Secretary of Defense claimed that army patrols involved in “The Permanent Campaign Against Drug Traffickers” engaged in a “confrontation” with suspected “subversives” who were meeting in the town’s bilingual schoolhouse. Military sources claimed troops were fired upon from the school. Villagers, however, questioned closely by reporters, said no shots came from the direction of the school house and that persons gathered at the schoolhouse were sleeping when the military opened fire.

More than 50 people, including farmers from 15 surrounding communities and representatives of a new guerrilla group, were allegedly inside the school when the killing began. The three-hour assault resulted in 12 of the schoolhouse occupants dead, five wounded and 27 detained, including five minors.

In recent months, the Mexican army has stepped up counterinsurgency operations in the coastal mountain regions of Guerrero and Oaxaca against the Popular Revolutionary Army even though the group has been inactive most of this year.

A previously undeclared organization, the Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People, issued its first communiqué, claiming some of those killed in the schoolhouse as its cadres. The Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People is thought to have split off from the Popular Revolutionary Army, a self-proclaimed front of 14 radical organizations, over tactical differences.

According to Juan Angulo, editor of the combative El Sur in Acapulco, the Insurgent People army is largely indigenous and made up of dissenters from the terrorist-like attacks of the Popular Revolutionary Army. An example of such attacks would be the August 1996 shoot-out in the Oaxaca coastal resort of Huatulco that took 11 lives. Angulo said that leaders of the Insurgent People army view such actions as counterproductive, causing communities that would be sympathetic to the rebels to withhold support.

According to testimony given by one of the captured guerrilla fighters, who later claimed she was tortured by the military, the Insurgent People army has at least two “columns” of fighters in Guerrero’s 76 municipalities.

The emergence of a new armed group does not bode well for the Zedillo administration, which already has an estimated 60,000 troops on patrol in southern Mexico. Analysts have expressed concern that the appearance of the Insurgent People group may trigger similar uprisings elsewhere, and the resurgence of violence in Guerrero sent fresh tremors through an already sinking Mexico City stock market.

What actually transpired at El Charco?

Reporters were kept away from the schoolhouse and could not view the dead in the Acapulco morgue for 24 hours.

Villagers detained told the press several of the dead were executed at point blank range both on the basketball court adjacent to the schoolhouse and inside the classrooms. “These people were executed at a farmers meeting,” local Mixtec leader Marcelino Santos told the Mexico City daily La Jornada.

Aguas Blancas killings

The killings at El Charco took place three years to the month after the massacre of 17 farmers by Guerrero state police at Aguas Blancas 100 miles up the coast -- an event that attracted international condemnation and gave birth to the Popular Revolutionary Army.

In its first communiqué, the Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People held the government responsible for the killings and vowed to “respond.” The group also called upon national and international human rights organizations to investigate the bloodshed at El Charco and asked for intervention by “ecclesial authorities.”

It may not be the best moment to petition for church involvement. Approximately 200 miles southeast of El Charco, on the same Sunday the killings occurred at the schoolhouse, Bishop Samuel Ruiz of San Cristóbal de las Casas stood in the pulpit of the city’s cathedral announcing his resignation as director of CONAI, the National Comission of Mediation, the link between the government and the Zapatista rebels for negotiations. During his homily, Ruiz said he dissolved the commission because of Zedillo’s failure to honor the San Andres peace agreements forged with the Zapatistas in February 1996 and because of the government’s unrelenting attacks on the commission and on the diocese.

Diocesan officials said the demise of the mediation group signaled the end of the road for the San Andres peace accords, the government-signed documents that guaranteed autonomy for Mexico’s 56 distinct indigenous peoples. Zedillo’s own version of the accords, which are opposed by the Zapatistas, is currently stalled in congress.

The Zedillo government has ratcheted up its attacks on Ruiz since the Dec. 22 massacre of 46 Tzotzil Indians at Acteal in the highlands of Chiapas (NCR, Jan. 23). Accused by the government of inviting international human rights observers to assess abuses in the conflict zone, Ruiz was virtually branded a traitor by Interior Secretary Francisco Labastida as the government orchestrated a campaign against what it called “foreign intervention” in Chiapas.

Government peace coordinator Emilio Rabasa lambasted Ruiz for being partial to the Zapatistas. Under the schema of the San Andres dialogue, the mediation commission sought to convince the Zapatista forces of the benefits of staying at the table, and the congressional commission that oversaw the talks kept the government from walking out.

Perhaps the most acute demonization of Ruiz came May 29 when Zedillo, speaking from a northern Chiapas stronghold of the ill-named paramilitary group “Peace and Justice,” accused Ruiz of promoting “the theology of violence.”

In an interview with the Mexican weekly Proceso, Ruiz responded: “The evangelists of the theology of violence are the paramilitary groups,” such as the Peace and Justice group. Later, the four bishops of Chiapas, furious with Zedillo for insinuating that the Catholic church promotes violence, warned against “those who believe themselves false gods, whose word is inflexible and who have an answer for everything” -- a statement viewed by most as a not-very-veiled allusion to Zedillo and his peace coordinator Rabasa.

In abandoning the mediating commission, Ruiz critiqued the Zapatistas for their “understandable” silence. The Zapatista General Command has not issued a communiqué in five months, which made Ruiz’s job as interlocutor difficult.

At least 40 diocesan churches and chapels have been closed -- one, at El Limar, was turned into a state police barracks. Diocesan priests have been jailed, and foreign clergy and religious have been expelled from Mexico.

Ruiz’s stature enhanced

Despite the campaign against him, Ruiz leaves the commission with greater national and international prestige than ever. The commission’s work was endorsed by the Mexican Bishops’ Conference and Papal Nuncio Justo Mullor. Pope John Paul II recently commended bishops who stand with Latin America’s indigenous peoples, a decided endorsement for Ruiz at a difficult time.

Dissolving the CONAI has allowed Ruiz to speak his mind more freely -- he left almost immediately on a 600-mile pastoral visit to the Lacandon jungle conflict zone where he was embraced by Mayan communities. “Like the ancient Greeks, when the government speaks of peace, it is preparing for war,” he said during his trek. The journey to the jungle will probably be the aging bishop’s last before he retires at age 75 at the end of 1999.

Having forced Ruiz out of business, Ernesto Zedillo is preparing for life without mediation. On his own four jaunts to Chiapas in the past two months, Zedillo offered “direct” negotiations with the EZLN, an unlikely development because Ruiz has been the government’s pipeline to the rebels for the past four years.

Events in Chiapas, meanwhile, are fast slipping out of control. On June 10, just three days after the Guerrero killings, a reported 1,500 army troops and Chiapas public security forces, equipped with tanks, mortars and bazookas, launched an all-out assault on the Zapatista autonomous municipality of San Juan de La Libertad, killing at least eight Tzotzil Indians and imprisoning more than 50.

The assault was the fourth on autonomous Zapatista strongholds ordered by Chiapas Gov. Roberto Albores since April 10 and the first to draw an armed response from the Zapatistas.

Details of the events at San Juan de La Libertad remain sketchy because of restrictions on the press. International media were prohibited from entering the town.

A government-ordered crackdown on international human rights observers has resulted in 71 expulsions since the killings occurred at Acteal and has considerably thinned the presence of U.S. and European religious and nongovernmental representatives in Chiapas.

Non-Mexican human rights delegations seeking to reach the sites of the recent killings in Chiapas and Guerrero now must apply 30 days in advance for visas. They must also record anticipated itineraries and a list of witnesses to be interviewed, strictures that the prestigious Washington-based Human Rights Watch group says nullify timely observation and jeopardize the lives of those who give testimony.

U.S. human rights groups have a particular interest in the recent killings. U.S.-manufactured Bell 212 helicopters were deployed in both incidents, and dozens of U.S Hummer armored vehicles were mobilized in the land assaults. In recent years, the United States has pumped increasing amounts of military aid into Mexico under the guise of supporting the war on drugs.

National Catholic Reporter, July 17, 1998