Chiapas: Paramilitary action continues

Orsetta Bellani, Latinamerica Press (Photo: O.B.)

The front porches of the homes in Ejido Puebla, in the southern state of Chiapas’ Chenalhó municipality, are covered with coffee beans. Since October, the residents of this indigenous Tzotzil Maya community in a corner of the Chiapas highlands have been harvesting the seeds that are now drying under the sun. On January 17, after five months of exile, 14 of 17 Catholic families from the community who were displaced returned to Ejido Puebla, accompanied by international observers.

“In April 2013, the Presbyterians knocked down the chapel we were building and in July 2013, without proof, the commune’s commissioner [of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)] Agustín Cruz Gómez accused the two Zapatistas in town of poisoning the communal water tank. Since then, the priístas [members of the PRI], started harassing us,” Nicolás Cruz Pérez, spokesman for the displaced residents, told Latinamerica Press. “Today we returned to our community and found our land and our homes ransacked.”
The displaced families of Ejido Puebla — a base of support for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), and members of Pueblo Creyente and the Civic Organization Las Abejas de Acteal, both Catholic pro-Zapatista organizations — sought refuge in the town of Acteal. There, in Dec. 1997, approximately 100 militants from PRI affiliate group Máscara Roja, or Red Mask, attacked about 300 indigenous Tzotzil. Forty-five of them were killed: 9 men, 15 children, and 21 women, four of whom were pregnant.
The region was in upheaval at the time due to paramilitary violence following the uprising of the EZLN on Jan. 1, 1994, in defense of the rights of the indigenous communities; the landowners, known as hacendados, had organized vigilante “shock groups” to confront them.

The killers next door
According to a petition filed in 2005 before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) by Las Abejas and the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Center (Frayba), which was accepted in November 2010, Public Security Police operatives were 200 meters from the chapel and did nothing to stop the massacre in 1997. Moreover, the complainants denounced the existence of a state policy “designed to commit widespread and systematic attacks against civilians carried out by paramilitary groups financed, trained and protected by national authorities to weaken the bases of the EZLN and the communities that have expressed their sympathy.” The government has always denied a role in the massacre, instead claiming the event was the result of religious conflicts between indigenous groups.
Of the 75 Máscara Roja paramilitaries imprisoned for the Acteal massacre, 69 were freed in Aug. 2009 due to irregularities in due process, such as suspects arrested without warrants. Many of them returned to the area, according to Las Abejas; the group is concerned they could attack again.
“Some of the paramilitaries who participated in the Acteal massacre are originally from Ejido Puebla. Among them is Jacinto Arias, who at that time was president of the Municipality of Chenalhó; he was incarcerated for 14 years, today he is free and returned to the town,” Víctor Hugo López Rodriguez, director of Frayba, told Latinamerica Press. He believes there is a link between Arias’s return to the community and the displacement of Catholic families.
Likewise, the residents of Chiapas’ Zona Selva Norte, about 120 miles north of Acteal, must live alongside their relatives’ killers: paramilitaries from the group Development, Peace and Justice, who have operated in the area since the 1990s. Armando Díaz, an ex-paramilitary with the group, provided a statement to Frayba in 2004, saying that the irregular militia is portrayed as an organization of farmworkers, therefore receives government subsidies, which it in turn uses to buy arms.

Low-grade war
From Dec. 6-7, 2013, in the Chiapas community of Susuclumil, the pre-trial hearing of the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (PPT) took place — an international, non-governmental court that sets out to denounce the perpetrators of human rights violations, although their decisions are not binding, in its chapter devoted to the low-grade ongoing conflict in Chiapas.
Speaking to the PPT, Frayba attorney Pedro Faro claimed that from 1995 to 1999 — a period in which the militias were most active — Development, Peace and Justice and other paramilitary groups were responsible for 81 extrajudicial killings, 36 disappearances, and the displacement of more than 3,500 residents of communities around Tila, Sabanilla, Tumbalá, Yajalón and Salto de Agua, in northern Chiapas.
Faro said the counterinsurgency plan from the Secretariat of National Defense, named “Campaña Chiapas 94,” took root locally and expanded into the highlands, favoring “paramilitary action with the goal of crushing the increasing influence of the EZLN, [by] committing systematic attacks against the civilian population.” The paramilitary groups, he added, were made up largely of indigenous campesinos that belonged to the PRI, and their crimes included extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, threats, robberies, forced displacements, and arson.
After 2000, when the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) came to power, the counterinsurgent strategy shifted and focused on government assistance projects with the objective of dividing communities and buying off their leaders, added Faro.
The TPP, which will next hold a session in May 2014 in the city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, concluded that the Mexican government and the Armed Forces are responsible for human rights violations committed in Chiapas since 1994, following the EZLN uprising, because it covered up and contributed financially to the paramilitary groups.

Article published by Latinamerica Press on 21.02.2014:
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