Mexico: The Agua Azul dispute

Orsetta Bellani, Latinamerican Press (Photos: O.B.)

From their vehicles, tourists stared in awe at the hooded Tzeltal indigenous people, who were sat on the edge of the road that leads to the Agua Azul waterfalls. Their machetes and facemasks were incongruous with the image of a quiet earthly paradise that is promoted by the state government of Chiapas.

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) sympathizers from San Sebastián Bachajón were charging tolls and distributing flyers to the tourists. In a statement, they explained their Dec. 21, 2014 decision to retake control of the portion of their ejido (communally-owned land) where the toll booth for access to the waterfalls is located.

“The comisariado ejidal (the ejido administrative official) Alejandro Moreno Gómez does not provide information about the money that comes from paying at the entry or the gravel bank. We want to appoint someone else who can manage the resources that are ours,” explained an ejido member to Latinamerica Press.

On Jan. 9, the farmers were evicted by government order and then, while they were blocking the road, they were attacked by agents of the State Police who fired at them for about 20 minutes. Two people were injured.

In a further attempt to intimidate the residents, on Mar. 21, 600 troops of the public forces, which respond to the orders of Moreno Gómez, according to the ejido members, burned the ejido regional headquarters in San Juan Bajachón, built by the adherents to the EZLN Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle (2005) — a statement against the capitalism that “turns everything into merchandise, turns people, nature, culture, history, conscience into merchandise” — near the waterfalls.

“Is demonstrated again the policy of death and corruption of a bad government, its contempt for the people and human rights, because of his ambition on our territory to strip the land, water and everything that exists in our country to make money as if these are merchandise,” denounced the residents.

Attacks against common landowners
Few tourists know that Agua Azul, the location of the beautiful turquoise waterfalls amidst wild vegetation, is one of the most contentious areas of Chiapas. In 2008 the US tourism consulting firms EDSA and Norton Consulting recommended to government authorities to ensure that visitors feel safe and protected in the region.

“The Zapatista movement is still strongly associated with Chiapas,” wrote the consulting firms in a document on the development strategy for the construction of a luxury hotel in the area. “Chiapas is still considered unsafe by many who are not familiar with the region.”

Three years later, on Feb. 2, 2011, 17 tourists who were in Agua Azul had to leave the area by air. That day a pro-government shock troop attacked the Zapatista sympathizers who were managing the toll booth. Subsequently there was a clash that killed a member of the assault troops, Marcos Moreno García, while state and federal police, supported by army troops, arrested 117 sympathizers.


“We have no problems with the owners of the restaurants that are in the area that is part of the Tumbalá Municipality. But here, where the toll booth is, is our territory, and the money belongs to us,” stated Juan Vázquez Guzmán, leader of the supporters of the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle (2005) of San Sebastián Bachajón, on June 2012, to Latinamerica Press.

Less than a year later, Vázquez Guzmán, who was 32 years old and had two children, was murdered outside his home with six shots. A similar fate occurred to his friend Juan Carlos Gómez Silvano, who was shot 20 times in an ambush on Mar. 21, 2014.

Six months after the death of Gómez Silvano, three Bachajón ejido members were arrested and tortured with the charge of attempted murder of a uniformed officer, a charge based only on police officers’ testimony. “Their detention was revenge for having sought justice for our friend Juan Carlos,” denounced Domingo Pérez, spokesman for the Zapatista sympathizers of San Sebastián Bachajón, at a press conference in Sep. 2014.

What is disputed in Agua Azul is more than the control of the money charged for entering the area. Since 2000, the government has been planning to build a theme park on the banks of the waterfalls, which would be part of the Palenque-Agua Azul Waterfalls Integrally Planned Center (CIP), an infrastructure network planned as part of the Mesoamerica Project — the new name of former Puebla Panama Plan that promotes regional integration and development and coordinates the efforts and actions of the nine states that make up the Southeast region of Mexico, the seven countries of Central America, Colombia and the Dominican Republic — which the government hopes will transform Chiapas to a new Cancun.

Chiapas, the new Cancun?
According to former State Senator for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) María Elena Orantes López, the CIP would generate revenues of US$6.8 billion per year. 30,000 jobs would be created for the indigenous communities in the area, but they would “not participate in management positions, but with their labor,” as Roberto Albores Gleason, the former Secretary of Tourism of Chiapas, stated in 2008.

The firms EDSA and Norton Consulting recommended the former governor of Chiapas Juan Sabines Guerrero — who ended his term in 2012 — to finalize the acquisition of the land adjacent to the waterfalls before attracting investments. The construction of the new electrical network that will support the project is already finished, foreseen in the 2007-2012 Institutional Program of the Chiapas Secretariat of Tourism. The plan included the relocation of indigenous communities from six municipalities in the area, opposed by the support bases of the EZLN and its sympathizers.

The CIP also plans other projects, such as the construction of a new international airport in the city of Palenque, which opened in February 2014, and a superhighway between this ancient Mayan city and San Cristóbal de Las Casas. The government says that the 105-miles highway will benefit all surrounding communities, although much of the population is against the project because of the environmental damage that it would cause and because the true purpose of the highway is to accelerate the plundering of Chiapas’s resources.

In 2009, the government was forced to suspend the highway construction plan due to popular opposition, particularly from the Mitzitón community, which was victim to the violence of the paramilitary group Army of God. After five years, in 2014, technicians came back to take measurements on land that is in the path of the alleged highway, and the villagers were summoned to meetings with government officials to discuss the highway. However, the superhighway and theme park projects in Agua Azul are an enigma; they appear and disappear from official documents.

“The government does not want to provide adequate information to the communities so they do not know the extent of the damages. It does not give details because it knows that it will have a very strong social opposition,” says Ricardo Lagunes, attorney for the communal landowners of San Sebastian Bachajón, to Latinamerica Press.

Last January the ejido members of Mitzitón, following the example of communal landowners of Los Llanos (Municipality of San Cristóbal de Las Casas), filed a precautionary measure to prevent the construction of the highway. Subsequently, the authorities denied their intention to build the highway. However, the 2014-2018 National Infrastructure Program estimates an investment of 10 billion pesos ($644 million) for the construction of the highway between San Cristóbal de Las Casas and Palenque, and 1.2 billion pesos ($82 million) for “CIP support projects.”

Article published by Latinamerican Press on 3.30.2015:

Versión en español: