In the last three years, aggression towards EZLN (Zapatista) sympathisers in Mexico has intensified. As a result, displacement has increased, with many finding refuge in Acteal.
PUEBLA EJIDO*, Chiapas – At 2pm on 20th July 2013, the Puebla Ejido’s PRI commissioner Agustín Cruz Gómez released a warning to the community in the Tsotsil language via loudspeaker: “Someone has poisoned the communal water tank”. The community, deep in the Chenalhó municipality, was also warned that the lives of a hundred people were at risk.
Four hours later, Cruz (also a Presbyterian minister) claimed that the only two Zapatistas in the community – Mariano Mendéz and his son Luciano – were to blame. He also led the mob that went to their house, beat them, tied them to a post in the basketball court, and threatened to set them on fire.
Cruz doesn’t exactly have common interests with the Zapatistas. The Bartolomé de la Casas Centre for Human Rights (Frayba) points out that he blessed the weapons used to perpetrate the Acteal Massacre of 1997.
The mob also arrived at the house of the Baptist Juan López Méndez – a Zapatista sympathiser. His wife, five months pregnant at the time, tried to stop them from entering, but they pushed her aside and tipped over the furniture. In the commotion, a table fell on their one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. López himself, 26 years of age, was dragged out of the house.
The mob told his wife that they were attacking him because he had poisoned the community’s water. López, subsequently also tied to a post, heard people in the crowd saying “bring petrol” and “let’s burn him”.
The three accused were eventually sent to the official authorities, accused of possessing illegal firearms, drug dealing, and gang membership. Although they never received payment for the damage done to their property, they were soon set free due to the lack of evidence regarding each claim made.
A Series of Attacks
These accusations represent just one part of a series of violent events that led to the forced displacement of 17 families (18 men, 19 women, and 62 children) from the Puebla Ejido. These families were given refuge by the civil society group Las Abejas (a pacifist group linked to the Zapatistas) in Acteal. The majority of the exiles now belong to this group.
The Zapatistas have frequently denounced the intensified harassment and dispossession suffered in 20 communities in five of its Caracoles – autonomous Zapatista regions. In the Ejido, meanwhile, Cruz denies the acts of violence, sustaining that the 99 people are “self-displaced’, having “left voluntarily” and not because anyone forced them out. “They say I’m a paramilitary [but] I don’t [even] know what that means”, he asserts.
Víctor Hugo López, director of the Frayba Centre, says this was not an isolated case, but simply one more in an aggressive campaign of threats, kidnappings and dispossessions against Zapatistas and their sympathisers. He affirms that these actions “have displaced 200 people in the last three years from communities like San Marcos Avilés, Comandante Abel, and Banavil”.
No Going Back
In the dark, wooden room used as a kitchen by the displaced families in Acteal, a pan boiling beans sits on top of glowing pieces of coal. Virginia López Sántiz watches over the group’s only meal with a sorrowful expression: looking downwards with her body reflecting a feeling of defeat.
Virginia arrived in Acteal on August 26th 2013, with six children between one and sixteen years of age. Her husband, Nicolás Arias Cruz, is the representative of the seventeen exiled families who, exiled from their homes, spend cold nights sleeping on sacks, sharing the few blankets they possess.
The family fled after Agustín Cruz ordered the destruction on April 19th 2013 of a chapel being built by a group of Catholics. Nicolás was one of the members of the group, and he also belonged to Las Abejas. He was one of the people who reported the actions of the politician. Cruz, meanwhile, claimed they hadn’t asked for permission to demolish the old chapel and that, because it was on Ejido land, he reserved the right to destroy the one they were building in its place, later fencing off the land.
After July’s accusations, the accused, along with four others who acted as witnesses in the lawsuit against Cruz, could not return to the town. Although the state government had established a ‘round table’ (mediated by the federal government and the media) to encourage reconciliation, the seven exiles saw their vehicles attacked with stones by youngsters when they were returning. As a result, they felt they had to pull back.
Nicolás explains how “they burned two houses; a dog; our pozol (fermented corn dough) and beans; our firewood; and five crosses we had in storage”.
A day later, the parish priest of Chenalhó, Manuel Pérez Gómez, went to the Puebla Ejido along with the state authorities to verify the integrity of the Catholic group. A crowd detained him, beat him, tied him up, and threatened to douse him in petrol. Only after five hours in captivity did they release him.
This was the moment when it became clear that the inhabitants would have to leave their homes behind permanently and head into exile in Acteal.
A Clean Conscience
On that afternoon, the newspaper El Universal travelled along the rough dirt track to this small community surrounded by wooded mountains. Cruz showed them the pile of rocks left behind after the demolition of the 38-year-old Catholic chapel. He then revealed the remnants of the reconstruction effort that the politician had allegedly stopped in its tracks. When asked who had destroyed the building before its construction could advance, Cruz replied that “some kids” had done it, trying to deny any responsibility for the act.
When the commissioner showed the paper around the town as part of his first official interview with the media, youngsters looked down at them from their roofs, while the municipal police (who had arrived in the town after August’s unrest) stayed inside their outposts.
Cruz made it clear that, in his town of around three thousand inhabitants, there are people from ten religious denominations, including Catholics, Baptists, and Pentecostals. However, his own church is clearly the brightest and most colourful – even though it is still under construction.
With his church in the background, the minister denied the aggressions and death threats suffered by the displace families, saying “there are no threats – nothing – they left voluntarily”. When asked if they could return, he said “sure, let them return. This is their Ejido. They were born here. Why do they want to suffer far away from here? We want a peaceful solution. Why would we want so much trouble?” At the same time, however, he rejects the exiles’ demands of punishment for those responsible for the crimes committed against them. “Right now, we’re not asking for justice. It’s better that there’s peace. And if they want peace, they’ll need to calm down too!” The tour then moved on, towards the basketball court where the three people accused of poisoning the water supply had almost been burned alive.
El Universal asked if Cruz had “blessed the arms used in the Acteal Massacre”, as the Frayba Centre claims, and if his conscience was clean. He replied to the first question, saying “If Frayba has a witness who can testify, let them speak up. The fact is that it’s pure gossip.” To the second, he answered “Of course! That’s why I’m seeking peace – so people calm down. As a minister, I love both God and my neighbours in the Ejido.”
A Government Counterinsurgency Strategy
Hugo, meanwhile, considers the forced displacement of the exiled families as part of the State’s counterinsurgency plan against the Zapatistas – a campaign aimed at “fighting against the civil society bases so that any EZLN expansion or territorial control is prevented”.
He also points out that there is a recurring pattern of “harassment; displacement; arbitrary deprivation of life or freedom; and kidnappings – all of which are executed by members of the community who are affiliated to a political party”. He also says that these communities are suffering a gradual or total dispossession of their land and crops, alleging that the government gives ‘support’ to “whoever is prepared to fight against civil and Zapatista resistance”. The “return of the PRI”, in his opinion, “means the return of the perpetrators”.
*Ejido = System of communal farming
Translated and adapted by Oso Sabio from an article by Laura Castellanos, published in Spanish at http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/nacion-mexico/2014/ezln-a-20-anios-migran-por-hostigamiento–976881.html Friday 3rd January 2014
For more on the Frayba Centre, see: http://www.frayba.org.mx/sobre_nosotros.php?hl=en