A Zapatista sign
|Commanders and leaders|
|Carlos Salinas de Gortari||Subcomandante Marcos|
|Casualties and losses|
45 civilian casualties 
The Chiapas conflict (Spanish: Conflicto de Chiapas) generally refers to the Zapatista Uprising and its aftermath, but also deals with the relationship between the indigenous peoples and subsistence farmers in the Mexican state of Chiapas.
History and socio-political background (1910–2003)
Historically Mexico is characterized as a country founded upon a Spanish elite system which featured limpieza de sangre or cleanliness of blood, a legal system characterized by feudal land tenure, and an economic system which featured an exploitative system which furthered social inequalities. The issue over land rights and social rights dates back to the Mexican War of Independence when the colonial Mexican-born people of Spanish origin known as the Criollos rebelled against the Spanish Bourbon crown as a means of protecting and furthering their own land and social rights against foreign Spanish authorities. The same issue appeared amongst the non-Criollos population in later years, especially among the Mestizo population during the 19th century. The uprisings by various Criollo, Mestizo, and eventually Indian populations against perceived ruling class interests groups crystallized in the Mexican Revolution of 1910, when poor farmers and other marginalized groups, led by Emiliano Zapata, rebelled against the government and large land tenants made up of mostly Spanish families who had cozy relationships with central strongmen.
Hewing to a Marxist dialectic of class warfare which believed that the rural land system based upon old Spanish law rather than diffuse socioeconomic issues had perpetuated a corrupt system, revolutionary leaders in conjunction with collaborating ruling class families instituted wealth redistribution whilst maintaining the essence of private property. Consequently, the years after the revolution (1917–1934) saw agrarian reforms, and in article 27 of the Mexican Constitution the encomienda system was abolished, and the right to communal land for traditional communities was affirmed. Thus the ejido-system was created, which in practice should comprise the power of private investments by foreign corporations and absentee landlords, and entitled the indigenous population to a piece of land to work and live on. The compromise recognized the right of individuals to own private property and of associations, whether Indian or other, to similarly own property, thereby allowing for security, safety, and property of the mostly Spanish upper class whilst elevating Indian and Meztizo groups to equality before the law while simultaneously allowing them to retain their traditional pre-colonial and colonial customs and rights.
However, since the issues of material and political equality were more complex than simple Marxist land class problems, rather than instantly bringing about an increase in material wealth and standard of living, the living conditions of most of the country remained as before. This was especially true in the Yucatán peninsula where stubborn resistance of the Mayan population along with complex historical development features, kept the geographical area divided between an almost wholly European property owning and wage earning population living along the coasts and certain inland areas and the interior which in essence remained a Mayan country of collective ownership. Consequently, removed from the overall Mexican economic system, the native Mayan Indian nation remained as a free but marginalized underclass much the same as before the revolution.
The hardened division of class and race remained in the Yucatán until the 1950s when various Mexican central government initiatives were launched with the aim of modernizing the Mayan communities and reducing poverty by integrating Mayan families into Mexico through new economic opportunities with the larger Mexican economy. Perceiving the lack of sufficient jobs in the city and desirous of not upsetting the Mexican communities in the cities, the government encouraged and steered many landless farmers, mainly Mayan Indians, into settling in the uncultivated Lacandon Jungle and the abandoned white farms which had suffered an enduring economic depression of the previous twenty years. However, although this kept a social crisis from occurring in the cities, it enraged many displaced Mexican farmers, especially of Criollo class, whose rights to land and title were supposedly being ignored in contravention of the compromise of the Mexican revolution. Thus, during the 1950s and 1960s, this immigration of Mayans into former white lands led to land-related conflicts and an increasing pressure on the rain forest which in turn led to environmental degradation and further economic ruin of the rural economy. Furthermore, rather than bring individual Mayan families into the practice of private property and the larger Mexican economy, the process backfired as much of the surplus Mayan community moved from its traditional areas into the new lands. As the crisis threatened to grow into rebellion by the mostly European population, and realizing that the ecological ruin caused by the movement wasn't being mitigated by economic prosperity within the Mayan population, the government decided to halt the migration. To halt the migration, the government decided in 1971 to declare a large part of the forest (614,000 hectares, or 6140 km2), encompassing both the previously unsettled regions and the former Mexican-owned farms, as a protected area: the "Montes Azules Bio-sphere Reserve". They appointed only one small population group (66 Lacandon Indian families) as tenants (thus creating the Lacandon Community), thereby displacing 2000 Tzeltal and Chol families from 26 communities, and leaving non-Lacandon communities dependent on the government for asserting their rights to land.
Since the 1980s and 1990s, Mexico's economic policy concentrated more on industrial development and attracting foreign capital. The Salinas government initiated a process of privatization of land (through the PROCEDE-program). In 1992, as a (pre)condition for Mexico for entering the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the US and Canada, art.4 and art.27 of the Constitution were modified, by means of which it became possible to privatize communal ejido-land. This undermined the basic security of indigenous communities to land entitlement, and former ejidatorios now became formally illegal land-squatters, and their communities informal settlements.
On 1 January 1994, the day on which NAFTA became operational, an armed insurgence broke out, led by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). Their rebellion was directed against the marginalization of the indigenous population, the 1992 amendment to the Constitution, and the expected results of NAFTA, and they demanded social, cultural and land rights.
The government responded by militarisation of the region, and after 12 days a precarious ceasefire was declared. These developments attracted a lot of international attention. While human rights organisations emphasized the marginalization of the indigenous population, Riordan Roett (adviser to the Emerging Markets Group of the Chase Manhattan Bank) stated in January 1995:
"While Chiapas, in our opinion, does not pose a fundamental threat to Mexican political stability, it is perceived to be so by many in the investment community. The government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and of security policy."
Just 2 days later the Mexican army came into action to bring the Zapatista occupied areas back under their control, but they did not succeed in arresting subcommandante Marcos or other leaders of the EZLN. To break the gridlock peace negotiations were started in March 1995 in the village of San Andrés Larráinzar.
In 1996 the Comisión de Concordia y Pacificación (COCOPA) presented a proposal of constitutional reform (the Cocopa law) based on the San Andrés Accords to the EZLN and the federal government. As a gesture of political will to solve the conflict peacefully the Zedillo-government signed this proposal, thereby recognizing the indigenous culture and its right to land and autonomy (in concordance with International Labour Organization convention 169, signed by Mexico in 1990).
These agreements however were not complied within the following years and the peace process stagnated. This resulted in an increasing division between people and communities with ties to the government and communities that sympathized with the Zapatistas. Social tensions, armed conflict and para-military incidents increased, culminating in the killing of 45 people in the village of Acteal in 1997 by para-militaries.
Internationally this atrocity led to great upheaval. The European Commission, at that time negotiating an Association Agreement and Free Trade Agreement with Mexico, adopted in January 1998 a resolution in which the involvement of the Mexican army and local government in the para-military violence was condemned, and President Zedillo was encouraged to re-initiate the peace process. The European Parliament even proposed to postpone the ratification of the agreement.
Nevertheless this treaty came into effect on July 1, 2000, one day before presidential elections in Mexico were scheduled. After 71 years in power the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had to make way for the neoliberal National Action Party (Mexico) (PAN), the party of Vicente Fox, whose main electoral promise was to solve the conflict with the Zapatistas within 15 minutes, and to ensure 7% of economic growth. When Fox entered office in November 2000, he pledged to honour the San Andrés Accords.
To enforce their demands in Congress, the Zapatistas organized a march to the capital in March 2001. This turned out to be in vain when Congress adopted an amendment to the constitution and ratified a diluted indigenous rights law, which was not in concordance with the San Andrés Accords. This new law was criticized by the International Labour Organization (ILO) for violating ILO-convention 169, and the National Commission for Human Rights demanded the change to be annulled.
The EZLN felt betrayed and suspended all dialogue with the government, and the Zapatistas unilaterally installed Juntas de Buen Gobierno (communities of good governance) in 2003. The peace process has been in a gridlock ever since, and armed conflicts frequently make casualties, often involving para-military groups. (see the list below)
Social development policies
Although and because the Chiapas conflict is intricately linked with low intensity conflict and fourth generation warfare, it is important to stress that the conflict is not only about military or para-military action against armed rebels. Addressing the problems in the region with social development programs are often interpreted by the target group as "counter-insurgency light"; as a means to divide and rule.
Since the creation of the Lacandon Community (1971) and the growing tensions in the region, and even more so since the Zapatista uprising (1994), the government has been faced by three challenges:
- preservation of the rainforest in the Lacandon region
- combatting poverty & stimulating citizenship among the communities in the Lacandon region
- control over the socio-political situation in the Lacandon region
These goals have been included in several social development programs. Examples are Programa Solidaridad, Plan Cañadas, PIDSS, and Prodesis.
Plan Cañadas (1994–2001) (cañada = glen or valley) was conceived after they found guerrilla training camps in the Lacandon Jungle in 1993 (just before the Zapatista uprising). This programme was aimed at suppressing the expected uprising by social means, by giving support to people who were more favourably disposed to the government, and thus ensuring their loyalty to the state. Over time Plan Cañadas was criticised for being a counter-insurgency project ("counter-insurgency-by-other-means", or "counter-insurgency light") designed in the framework of the low intensity conflict:
"It was in the aftermath of the rebellion that the Mexican government began to devote resources to the region for development, establishing the Cañadas Programme. However, a few years after the initiative was introduced it became highly criticised because of its counter-insurgent character (it offered resources in exchange for the abandonment of the Zapatista cause) and because of its failure in promoting development."
Plan Cañada's successor was the Integral Programme for the Sustainable Development of the Jungle: PIDSS (Programa Integral para el Desarrollo Sustentable de la Selva). This project, that started in 2001, was introduced as "a joint effort to foster development in a participatory way". Goals were to change the relationship between government and society, foster social reconciliation, exclude paternalism, promote participation, and endorse real development projects. The implementation of the programme was achieved through the creation of 34 micro-regions (similar to those under which the Cañadas Programme worked). However, PIDSS received much of the same criticism as Plan Cañadas:
The outcomes of the Programme fall short of those expected. The types of projects that appear in the development plans are the same as those promoted during the Cañadas Programme. [...] Villagers in the region display much disillusionment and discontent. In fact, in most of the interviews it was affirmed that the present programme was worse than its predecessor. [...] The situation suggests that the authorities did not take properly into account the difficulties that the new initiative would encounter and which are the source of its problems. [...] A very important source of conflict has come from the groups that benefited most from the Cañadas Programme. These groups have fought very hard to keep their privileges and to return to the previous model, [...] which has distorted the operation of the programme and led to further conflict. [...] Moreover, the presence of Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities in the region, which do not desire any relationship with the Mexican government and thus do not participate in the PIDSS, complicates things even further. Disputes over land are very common, and the presence of paramilitary forces confronting the Zapatistas makes the situation even more difficult.
There is a lack of coordination between different government institutions, and even some divergence of objectives. The state government, for instance, seems to perceive hidden interests among the officials of the federal government for the PIDSS to fail. [...] The technicians of the federal government seem to be much better prepared than the others, which allows them to dominate and impose their decisions. [...] The technicians seem to have a disproportionate amount of discretionary power. This is dangerous if we take into account that the main problems of the Cañadas Programme came through the behaviour of some of the federal government technicians. And in fact our research has shown that in some communities complaints about the counter-insurgency behaviour of the technicians have began to appear.
Another source of problems for the PIDSS seems to lie in the notions of participation and development pursued and those of the different actors. From the very beginning there was a general agreement that the Programme had to be participative and foster development. However, no effort was made to reach an agreement on what these concepts mean and entail. The result is that, for instance, the PIDSS has sought participation of the population in a very limited way.
In the interviews with the social organisations it was also argued that their problems to participate were due to the fact that they defend a notion of development that is opposed to that of the government. They argue that the PIDSS is an element that has to be related with the wider Puebla-Panama Plan, which is a regional development plan based on the implantation of low-wage factories (maquiladoras) and similar liberal economic initiatives. In opposition to this, people in the communities talk about the importance of land and about maintaining their way of life. Again, these elements are not taken into account in the design and operation of the Programme, and as a consequence have a negative impact in its outcomes.
- The permanent conflict in the area and past development initiatives are important determinants that should have been better taken into account and incorporated in the design of the program.
- Issues regarding coordination among different levels of the administration have proved to be a source of problems. These appear at the level of objectives, but also in the day-to-day operation, with the important role of the technicians and their discretionary power as a key issue.
- The underlying notions of development and participation certainly determine the nature of the initiative and people's expectations of it, and thus have to be dealt with from the beginning. Promoting participation but then to have it managed through questionnaires in which people have no input and which are filled in by secondary school students implies an understanding of the concept that is, at the very least, problematic.
The follow-up of PIDSS was Prodesis (2004–2008), an EU-Chiapas cooperation project targeted at 16 of the 34 micro-regions identified by PIDSS. The difficulties this new project encountered were exactly the same as the PIDSS-project stumbled upon:
- It was argued that "Prodesis sought participation of the population in a very limited way".
- Also there were accounts of "counter-insurgency behaviour of the technicians".
- Moreover, the fact that Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities do not desire any relationship with the Mexican government prevents full participation of the whole target group, leading to "further conflict between and within communities".
- Finally, it was argued, Prodesis interpreted the problems in the region along demographic lines, "ignoring the cultural and socio-political history of the region" (i.e., the fact that a large part of the population defends a notion of development that is opposed to that of the government, and stresses the importance of land and maintaining their way of life).
All of these projects (Cañadas, PIDSS, Prodesis) have been criticized for being actually counter-insurgency projects, aimed at controlling and pacifying the population, rather than improving their living conditions and resolving the conflict by addressing the land issue. Because of scepticism among the target groups of these programs (for lack of consultation, transparency and democracy, by being top-down and counter-insurgent, and having no respect for the population or local organizations) many projects fail. Therefore a future challenge for the government (federal or state) is to:
- preserve the rainforest, as well as to
- improve the social conditions of the population, but
- without being suspected of counter-insurgency and low intensity warfare.
List of violent incidents and intimidation in the Lacandon region (1995–2008)
(for a full chronology of events (1821–2009) see: the SiPaz Chronology)
- Throughout 1995 & 1996: Violence in the Northern Zone (assassinations, displacements, ambushes, roadblocks, etc.) in the area of Chilón-Bachajón.
- 14 March 1997: In San Pedro Nixtalucum (Municipality of El Bosque), in a repressive display, the state police assault civilians sympathetic to the EZLN, resulting in 4 deaths, 29 wounded, 27 detained and 300 displaced.
- 4 November 1997: Attack on the bishops of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas near Tila, Northern zone of Chiapas.
- End of November 1997: More than 4,500 Indigenous (from "Las Abejas" and Zapatista sympathizers) fled the violence in the municipality of Chenalhó.
- 22 December 1997: Massacre by paramilitaries of 45 people, the majority of whom are children and women belonging to the civil group "Las Abejas," refugees in Acteal, municipality of Chenalhó.
- 11 April 1998: The autonomous municipality Ricardo Flores Magón is dismantled in a police and military operation in the community of Taniperlas, municipality of Ocosingo. Nine Mexicans are detained and twelve foreigners are expelled from the country.
- 1 May 1998: In a police and military operation the autonomous municipality of Tierra y Libertad, with its municipal seat in Amparo Agua Tinta, is dismantled. 53 people are detained.
- 3 June 1998: In a joint police and military operation, more than a thousand members of the security forces enter Nicolás Ruiz. The police detain more than 100 community members.
- 10 June 1998: In a military and police operation to dismantle the autonomous municipality of San Juan de la Libertad, located in El Bosque, 8 civilians and 2 police are killed.
- 3 August 1998: The Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Center for Human Rights releases a report that says that in the last 6 months in Chiapas there were registered 57 summary executions, 6 political assassinations and more than 185 expulsions of foreigners. It denounces that in these times there were in the state a number of cases of grave torture, dozens of attempts on the lives of Human Rights Defenders; and against civil organizations and social leaders; and hundreds of military and police actions in the conflict zone.
- First two weeks of June 1999: Significant increase in military and police incursions in Zapatista communities; arbitrary detentions of presumed Zapatistas; harassment by military personnel at the military bases; and concentration of troops. Each of the incursions involves the participation of between 100 and 1000 military and police personnel.
- 26 August 1999: Confrontation between the army and Zapatista support bases in the community of San José la Esperanza, municipality of Las Margaritas. Three indigenous people are detained and 7 military personnel receive machete wounds.
- 18 October 2000: President Zedillo expropriates 3.5 hectares of the ejido Amador Hernández, a Zapatista community in the municipality of Ocosingo, to build new military installations.
- 13 November 2000: The community of Miguel Utrilla, municipality of Chenalhó, violently prevents the Procurer General of the Republic from carrying out an operation composed of 150 federal judicial police and 20 agents of the Public Ministry the goal of which is to look for firearms in the hand of paramilitaries.
- 19 October 2001: The assassination of Digna Ochoa, lawyer and human rights defender. More than 80 NGOs demand an expeditious investigation of the assassination of Digna Ochoa.
- 7 December 2001: During the year, the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Center for Human Rights has documented 45 cases of human rights violations in Chiapas. It declares that it is an important decrease in terms of past governments, but at the same time the fact that there have not been forceful responses to the denunciations "opens the door for more violations to continue to be committed."
- 31 July 2002: The autonomous municipality Ricardo Flores Magón denounces that a group of 40 armed paramilitaries from the PRI community San Antonio Escobar, attacked the Zapatista support bases in the La Culebra ejido.
- 7 August 2002: José López Santiz, tzeltal campesino and EZLN supporter, is executed on the outskirts of the community 6 de August, of the autonomous municipality 17 de November.
- 25 August 2002: At the Amaytic Ranch, armed PRI supporters kill two Zapatista authorities of the autonomous municipality Ricardo Flores Magón (Ocosingo). Another Zapatista is assassinated in the autonomous municipality of Olga Isabel (Chilón).
- 2 September 2002: Declarations from the Attorney General of Justice of Chiapas, Mariano Herrán Salvati on the death of four Zapatistas last August conflict about "traditions and customs or bands of delinquents." "There have been found in these conflicts no undertones of an ideological order."
- 6 July 2003: Violent acts take place during the legislative elections in indigenous regions of Chiapas, principally in San Juan Cancuc, Zinacantán and Chenalhó. At the federal level, the largest rate of absenteeism was registered in the recent history of the country.
- September/October 2003: A series of conflicts between members of the Independent Center of Agricultural Workers and Campesinos (CIOAC) and Zapatistas, around the detention of Armín Morales Jiménez by militants of the EZLN for the accused crime of abuse of confidence.
- 22 January 2004: The houses of the community of Nuevo San Rafael in Montes Azules Reserve were all burned. According to the Secretary of Agrarian Reform (SRA), the inhabitants had voluntarily decided to abandon their homes and return to their places of origin. NGOs accused the SRA of having divided the population so as to force residents to leave the reserve.
- 10 April 2004: Zapatista supporters from the municipality of Zinacantán were ambushed by members of the PRD, leaving dozens wounded and displacing 125 Zapatista families.
- 23 April 2004: Noel Pável González, student at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and the National School of Anthropology and History, was found murdered in Mexico City. Elements of the investigation point towards the involvement of the ultra-right group "El Yunque."
- 4 July 2004: Families from the community of San Francisco El Caracol in the Montes Azules Reserve were moved by the government to a "new population center" called Santa Martha in the municipality of Marqués de Comillas.
- 23 January 2005: In the municipality of Palenque, 160 Tzeltal families were displaced from the biosphere reserve of Montes Azules to the community of Nuevo Montes Azules.
- 15 August 2005: The Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Center once again denounced the forced displacement of several families in the community of Andrés Quintana Roo, in the municipality of Sabanilla, due to aggression and threats made by people linked to "Desarollo, Paz y Justicia" (Development, Peace and Justice).
- 6 September 2005: A confrontation between Zapatista support bases and the rest of the population in the community of Belisario Domínguez in the municipality of Salto de Agua.
- Mid October 2005: Members of the Organization for Indigenous and Campesino Defense (OPDDIC) were planning to dismantle the autonomous municipality of Olga Isabel, and detain the local authorities.
- 2 November 2005: In El Limar, in the municipality of Tila in the Northern Zone of Chiapas, over 200 people from eleven communities met to commemorate the more than 120 murdered or disappeared individuals from the region between 1994 and 2000.
- 5 August 2006: A violent police operation was carried out to expel 30 Zapatista families in the community of the Ch'oles, autonomous municipality El Trabajo (Tumbalá), in the Northern Zone.
- 13 November 2006: Violent confrontation in the natural reserve of Montes Azules, Chiapas. Hundreds of armed peasants from the Lacandona Community attack 17 families living in Viejo Velasco Suárez. As it happened in a very isolated area, this aggression brought great confusion about the number of victims and their possible belonging to EZLN. Finally the outcome was: 4 people dead (including a pregnant woman) and 4 people disappeared, probably executed.
- 18 August 2007: A joint police and military operation to evict 39 families (members of the communities of Buen Samaritano and San Manuel, in the municipality of Ocosingo) was conducted in the Biospheric Reserve of Montes Azules.
- 27 April 2008: At least 500 police violently entered the community of Cruztón, in the municipality of Venustiano Carranza, Chiapas.
- 4 June 2008: A military and police incursion in the vicinity of the Zapatista Caracol (local administrative center) La Garrucha, as well as in the support base communities of the EZLN, Hermenegildo Galeana and San Alejandro.
- 23 July 2008: The Human Rights Center Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas denounced that state police assaulted campesinos as well as observers from the Other Campaign in the community of Cruztón, in the municipality of Venustiano Carranza.
- 3 October 2008: A violent operation carried out by federal and state police left a toll of six dead (4 of whom were executed according to the testimony of community members), 17 wounded, and 36 people detained, almost all of whom were members of the ejido Miguel Hidalgo, located in the municipality La Trinitaria, Chiapas.
- Acteal massacre
- A Place Called Chiapas
- A Massacre Foretold
- Lacandon Jungle
- Women in the EZLN
- "sipaz.org/crono/proceng.htm". Sipaz.org. 1994-01-01. http://www.sipaz.org/crono/proceng.htm. Retrieved 2013-10-29.
- "Brad Parsons, Mexico: US Bank Orders Hit on Marcos". Hartford-hwp.com. http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/46/025.html. Retrieved 2013-10-29.
- [dead link]
- Oriol Mirosa-Canal: Evaluation of the Integral Programme for the Sustainable Development of the Lacandon Jungle (PIDSS), Mexico 2002; Internship report for the DRC on Citizenship, Participation and Accountability
- Brief history of the conflict in Chiapas (1994–2007)
- Full chronology mentioning all events relevant to the history of the region
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