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Only spotlight can stop military abuses in Chiapas

The Mexican government has made itself a social outcast by its treatment of its indigenous people who number some 30 million, nearly a third of the population.

Last June 12, Mary Robinson, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, protested the assassination of nine campesinos “in a region characterized by displacements of population and poverty.” She urged a reduction of military presence in the region and fulfillment of obligations under human rights treaties and conventions, especially those concerning indigenous groups.

Two days later, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the Senate Appropriations Committee that our government was pressing for a peaceful solution in Chiapas.

These censures follow a long line of denunciations by Mexican groups and international agencies, including the Human Rights Center of the diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Protesters in Europe during the World Cup soccer finals in France last month repeated the same message. Using the symbol of the red card with which the referee ejects a player for serious fouling, thousands of red cards were handed out at the games with “Red card for Mexico” inscribed on front, and on the back, “Massacres, tortures, repression, assassinations.”

The crux is the Mexican government’s commitment to military and paramilitary oppression of the indigenous. It is an immoral policy. It is also extremely dangerous.

As U.S. Congressman Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., warned recently, while participating as an observer in Chiapas, it could escalate into a full-scale civil war of the kind that in Guatemala and El Salvador produced tens of thousands of victims and millions of displaced persons.

The Mexican armed forces have been restructured into an efficient instrument of internal control. The Pentagon has been happy to oblige the effort with training and equipment, including satellite-guided helicopters, sophisticated intelligence tools and techniques, all under the guise of the war on drugs.

Lawyer and war veteran Brian Wilson of Pastors for Peace has done an in-depth study of the process. Since 1996, he said, 3,000 Mexican army members have been trained at 17 bases in the United States, including the School of the Americas in Georgia, Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Randolph Air Force Base in Texas. The resulting specialists -- commandos, elite forces, assault troops -- in turn train paramilitary recruits.

Some of the training, according to a recent report in The Washington Post, is similar to the counterinsurgency training given to Latin American officers during the Cold War, including the Salvadoran elite forces who murdered the six Jesuits and their housekeeper and her daughter.

CONAI, the mediation commission that disbanded last month -- after charging the government with failure to negotiate in good faith -- said correctly in its final statement that only an energized and mobilized public opinion of Chiapas, Mexico, and the world can force the government to abandon its “war strategy.” The role played by the United States in arming the Mexican armed forces and in training forces guilty of atrocious human rights abuses, imposes a serious obligation on us to take the lead.

The anti-church campaign in which the Mexican government is engaged as part of its war strategy similarly calls on the churches in this country to exert all their moral force to stop this undeclared war.

Various rights groups have sent hundreds of activists to Chiapas as observers. The harassment by the Mexican government of these observers, who have played a key role in documenting and denouncing abuses, shows how important they are. They should be encouraged in every possible way.

Only the evildoer fears the light. Each time the spotlight of public opinion has focused on Chiapas, as after the Acteal assassinations last December, the killers are reined in. When the spotlight is turned off, they strike again, as in El Charco and San Juan de la Libertad last month. The light must be kept burning brightly.

National Catholic Reporter, July 17, 1998