Mexico: Confrontation in Chiapas

Revolutionary Worker #949, March 22, 1998

After 45 Indian campesinos were massacred by a pro-government paramilitary squad last December, Mexico's President Ernesto Zedillo declared that he would make new efforts to revive the peace talks with the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and bring "order" to the state of Chiapas. What has this meant for the people of Chiapas?

Villagers have seen new army camps and roadblocks go up right next to their communities, after the Mexican government poured thousands of additional troops into what was already a heavily militarized area. Helicopters and aircraft fly low over the villages--to frighten the people or perhaps in training for future bombing and strafing. Troops regularly enter villages, demanding to search the houses under the pretext of looking for "illegal weapons." Sometimes the soldiers take what little possessions the people have. Meanwhile, the reactionary paramilitaries are allowed to continue their activities against the people. Many peasants have been forced out of their homes and into refugee camps, where food is scarce and health conditions are dangerous.

A recent visitor described the situation in these camps: "The refugees have little food or medical assistance, and their camps are in the bitter cold of the highlands--some are located 7,600 feet above sea level, in an area that has the heaviest rainfall in all of Mexico. Infant mortality, a chronic problem in Chiapas, must be extremely high in the camps. On a tape recording I made of interviews with refugees in a camp near Polhó, the voices of the refugees, eager to tell their stories, were drowned out by the coughing of the children." (Alejandro Nada, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March/April 1998)

There have been many confrontations between the people and the government's armed forces. On January 12, the state police fired their guns directly into a crowd of protesters in Ocosingo. Guadalupe Méndez López, a 38-year-old Tzeltal Indian, was killed instantly when a bullet struck her in the heart.

The New York Times (3/6/98) described events at the village of San Jerónimo Tulijá. On March 1, an army convoy tried to enter this community in the lowland area of north Chiapas. Hundreds of women--armed with wooden clubs--marched onto the soccer field and began shoving the soldiers. The troops fired tear-gas canisters to drive the people back. When the military came back three days later, they were met by demonstrators "lined up in regimental rows of 100 each." Among them were "many young men with red bandannas tied around their faces and olive green backpacks, the uniform of Zapatista fighters." After a tense stand-off, the army pulled back for the day.

As Zedillo and the Mexican government cynically talk "peace," their armed forces in Chiapas are intensifying the attacks against the people and tightening the encirclement of the EZLN guerrilla strongholds.

Government's Counter-Insurgency Dual Tactics

The December 22 massacre in the mountain village of Acteal was carried out by one of the paramilitary groups linked with the PRI--Institutional Revolutionary Party, the largest ruling class party in Mexico. PRI controls the federal government and many of the state governments, including in Chiapas.

After the Acteal massacre, the government arrested some people and replaced a few officials. But Zedillo and other top PRI officials denied they had anything to do with the paramilitary groups. In reality, the paramilitaries are a major part of the Mexican government's counter-insurgency strategy in Chiapas (see sidebar).

Acteal is in the Los Altos (highland) region of Chiapas, where thousands of Indian campesinos, led by the EZLN, rose up in armed rebellion on January 1, 1994. Since the uprising, the Mexican government--with U.S. support--has been carrying out counter-revolutionary dual tactics in an attempt to suppress the just struggle of the peasant masses.

On one hand, the PRI government has held on-and-off talks with the EZLN and floated out promises of "reforms" and "economic development." In 1996 Zedillo even signed the San Andréas Accords, pledging autonomy for the indigenous people in Mexico--although he has repeatedly blocked moves to actually carry out the agreement.

At the same time, the government has flooded the Los Altos region with army troops and laid siege to the EZLN bases in the Lacandón Jungle. About 70,000 troops are now stationed in the region--one-third of the entire Mexican army. And the troops, working with the police and the paramilitaries, are carrying out a reign of terror against the supporters of the EZLN. The government moves in Chiapas have led to intense polarization in the area--with some villages dominated by pro-PRI forces and others controlled by EZLN supporters.

The paramilitary squads had been stepping up their activity in the period leading up to the December 22 massacre in Acteal. On September 19, paramilitaries brutalized Zapatista supporters and burned down dozens of homes in several communities. Seven family members were killed in Limas Chitamucum on October 2. On November 4, the paramilitary group Paz y Justicia tried to assassinate Bishop Samuel Ruiz of San Cristóbal--who has been accused by the government of belonging to the EZLN. In February of this year, the bodies of seven EZLN supporters were found in a cave near the village of Petpejel --apparent victims of the paramilitaries. The men had been missing since October.

According to some estimates, at least 1,500 have been killed by the paramilitaries in the two years leading up to the massacre in Acteal. Thousands of people have been forced out of their homes by these pro-government thugs. In the Chenalhó region of Los Altos, where Acteal is located, an estimated 30 percent of the population have become refugees.

In an interview with the New York Times in January, Ernesto Zedillo said he was changing his strategy in Chiapas in the wake of the Acteal massacre. The tensions in the area, he claimed, came from the government being "too soft" and not having a "strong presence" in the area. So he declared, "I want to have the presence of federal institutions and at the same time seek negotiations."

What this "change in strategy" amounts to is even more blatant militarization in Chiapas--while the government prattles on about "peace."

The EZLN leadership is warning that the government may be preparing for major military offensives. Since 1994, the EZLN has avoided confrontations with the Mexican army, and now they have retreated deep into their bases in the Lancandón Jungle. After winning control of these areas with relative ease in 1994, the EZLN has maintained them as concrete displays of their strength and backups for their political struggle with the government. This is bound up with their whole strategy.

The Zapatistas have made it clear that they are not about seizing overall revolutionary political power in Mexico. Their vision differs from the Maoist path of New Democratic Revolution in many ways. While they have emphasized democracy and autonomy for indigenous people, the EZLN does not have a program of overthrowing the current political order and establishing the rule of peasants and workers in all of Mexico. And while they have mobilized the peasants to take up arms, they do not have a strategy of protracted people's war--surrounding the cities from the countryside.

Military Backing from the U.S.

Another move by the Zedillo government following the Acteal massacre has been to attack the international support for the EZLN. The immigration police deported several supporters on charges of "visa violations" and said they were investigating dozens of other people. The government and the official media has used the presence of supporters from outside Mexico to accuse the EZLN of being "controlled" by foreigners.

It is ridiculous for Zedillo and the Mexican ruling class to make such an accusation. These are the same sell-outs who signed the NAFTA Treaty, opening the doors even wider for the U.S. and other powers to kick campesinos off the land and set up sweatshops to make superprofits off the labor of Mexican workers. And these are the same imperialist-backed oppressors who are increasingly relying on U.S. military aid and training to suppress the people in Chiapas and elsewhere.

As in a number of other Latin American countries, the U.S. military backing for the Mexican government is mainly carried out under the cover of the "war on drugs." According to the Federation of American Scientists, "Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the White House drug policy director, traveled to Mexico in March 1996, smoothing the way for an agreement between the two governments which has resulted in Mexican soldiers beginning to train at Ft. Bragg and other American bases, and in the gift of 73 `surplus' helicopters, four C-26 surveillance planes, night vision goggles, radios and other military equipment. In addition, the White House has requested $9 million in military aid for Mexico for fiscal year 1998 (up from $3 million in fiscal year 1996) for the purchase of new weapons from the U.S. arms manufacturers."

A major increase in U.S. arms transfers to Mexico took place after the 1994 Chiapas uprising--when U.S. military sales jumped from $16 million the previous year to $54 million. Over 700 military officials from Mexico have trained in the U.S. over the past 10 years--more than from any other Latin American country. And in 1996-97, over 3,000 Mexican soldiers received training at Ft. Bragg from the Green Berets--the U.S. "special forces" unit notorious for their anti-people tactics from Vietnam to El Salvador.


Four years ago, the Chiapas uprising shook all of Mexico and sent shockwaves around the world. It caused nightmares for the rulers of Mexico and their backers in Washington. Today the demands of the peasant masses in Mexico for land and liberation remain as urgent as ever.

An account from two Mexican university students who recently visited Chiapas gives an idea of what the people are faced with: "As we passed through the two villages... we observed tremendous poverty; water is obtained by collecting the rain, the earth is barely fertile and only a few cornstalks are visible, around which people were picking the last remaining ears. The few animals around--pigs, sheep, burros, horses, hens and a few cows--are used for subsistence by the residents...[We met with] several men who commented that they estimated the military personnel they had seen numbered around 2,000, dispersed in small groups throughout the mountainside. Occasionally they would enter the cornfields to frisk and interrogate the campesinos who were working there. They told us they were afraid the military would come into the community to search the houses and threaten the families... It's important to be watching what happens in Nuevo Mexiquillo, they told us, because at any time they could be assaulted by the armed forces."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)