Chiapas: the law of déjà vu

Kitchen of displaced Tsotsiles in Aldama. Photo : Luis Enrique Aguilar
Kitchen of displaced Tsotsiles in Aldama. Photo : Luis Enrique Aguilar

By Hermann Bellinghausen

Governments may change, but the counterinsurgency war against the people in Chiapas is ongoing; and judging by the events of recent months in the mountains of the Mayan territories, in 2020 it worsened on a scale not seen for years. Since 1994, five presidents and three political parties have filed through the federal government, and in the state, eight official governors from five parties. The great militarization continues around and within the indigenous communities, as the profound demands for self-determination that gave rise to the Zapatista uprising that year remain unfulfilled. The legitimate autonomy of the autonomous Zapatista municipalities is neither recognized nor respected; in the same vein, extractive activities, agro-industry, infrastructure and tourism projects move forward in spite of the indigenous communities, rebellious or not, in the Highlands, the northern zone, the Lacandon Jungle and the border region of the jungle.

What has been seen in recent months, particularly during July and August, confirms that the same counter-insurgency manuals of a quarter of a century ago are still being applied (with some adjustments for the local context) that the Pentagon generated for its war in Vietnam and against the Guatemalan revolution: “winning hearts and minds” and establishing local armed groups that erode and combat popular resistance.

Given the rhetoric of Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government, the concept of resistance of the people must seem unwieldy. If things have “changed,” what need do the native peoples have to resist? But neither centralist voluntarism nor magical-ideological thinking are enough. Nothing beats out reality, and the facts speak for themselves. In these weeks of 2020, the feeling that we have already seen the succession of events that are unfolding in indigenous Chiapas is inevitable.

New-old forms of co-optation, divisionism, control and chaos are  deployed across the territory by the centralism of the Secretariats of Welfare and Agriculture, operated by the same local political class as always, and oiled by the shameful neo-indigenism of the new-old National Institute for the Development of Indigenous Peoples.

Meanwhile, we are witnessing the intensification of conflicts, or rather, of aggressive actors who take advantage of new and old territorial disputes between peoples, propelled by the paramilitary groups born during the Zedillo administration in Chenalhó, Tila, Chilón and Ocosingo. The perpetrators of the Acteal massacre are in force among the new armed forces, now publicly presented and televised, which are relentlessly attacking a dozen and a half communities in the neighboring municipality of Aldama, in the Altos Tsotsiles.

Similarly, in the Chol region, a group that never died has been recycled, only changing in its acronym and partisan contributions, colloquially known as Peace and Justice. In tseltal lands, those Chinchulines of Chilón, as well as the failed “guerrilla group” called MIRA in the jungle of Ocosingo, rise again from their ashes, today through an alleged quesque revolutionary indigenous “army,” which up to now is known only to the media.

Add to this the renewed raids by organizations long ago absorbed by the government. In military terms, in Chiapas the same powers of the supreme government continue, be it the PRI, PAN, PRD or Morena. We see this in the aggressiveness of an organization once in resistance, a decomposed Organization of Coffee Growers of Ocosingo (ORCAO) that operates between Oxchuc and Ocosingo against the support bases of the EZLN and other independent organizations. With repeated violence, particularly by ORCAO truck drivers, they gained visibility with the burning and looting of a grain (coffee bean) warehouse in the autonomous municipality of Lucio Cabañas at the Cuxuljá crossroads on August 22. This organization disputes land recovered after the 1994 uprising; even though it abandoned the resistance years ago, it has endorsed successive governments and linked itself to criminals in the region.

Of all these events and their ramifications, the most disconcerting is that which concerns San Pedro Chenalhó and its explicit paramilitary groups, the only side to which the Mexican State and its civilian satellite organizations give credit in the revived territorial conflicts with the municipalities of Chalchihuitán and Aldama which have resulted in deaths, wounded people, the looting of villages and crops, robberies, terrorism, dispossession, and finally, the forced displacement of hundreds of indigenous people in these two municipalities (and sometimes within Chenalhó, since in the region of Los Chorros and Ejido Puebla, hostility against Las Abejas de Acteal is manifest, although under the guise of “religious differences”).

In the same vein we find the forced but much publicized “amicable agreement” of the government, in relation to the massacre of Acteal that took place in 1997, signed with a minority split-off of the original group of survivors of Las Abejas de Acteal, put in place with the regime.

The paramilitary structures of that time remain intact, without ever having seized a single weapon from the paramilitaries (whose weapons are growing). The intellectual perpetrators remain unpunished, as does the federal army, which encouraged, financed and trained these “armed civilians.The September 3 agreement with  the Secretary of Governance , as in the case of the 43 disappeared and murdered students of Ayotzinapa, that “will get to the bottom [of the case]” without touching the armed forces, that is, without touching the bottom.

The growing danger of the violence exerted from the community of Santa Martha against the inhabitants of the region traditionally known as Magdalena (formerly part of San Andrés Larráinzar, and since 1999 the official municipality of Aldama, to limit Zapatista autonomy in the  heart of the most traditional Tsotsil world;  it should be remembered that the municipal seat of San Andrés has been occupied since the 1990s by the autonomous Zapatista civilian government, and in response the paramilitary government of Roberto Albores Guillén split San Andrés Sakamch’en de Los Pobres, as the Zapatistas call it, in three by creating Aldama and Santiago El Pinar).

Additionally, mutatis mutandis, the Lopez Obrador regime repeats,  and even escalates, the discursive hostility against the civil and human rights organizations that they document from the people who are persecuted, violated or in resistance. At this point in the century we are also talking about defenders of the territory and the environment, of the political rights of the original peoples to be guardians of their own security and to exercise community self-government.

With a devious logic, the president tried to expose human rights centers, media and civil organizations as destabilizing entities, financed by the “Gold of the Foreigners,” whose avid purpose is to oppose the great mega-projects of his government. With this, he “puts them,” as we saw in the painful case of Samir Flores murdered in Amilcingo, Morelos. He already criminalized them with a white glove on the mouth of his acting commissioner Jesús Ramírez Cuevas on August 28, when he “exposed ” the team at Indignation, the Regional Indigenous and Popular Council of Xpujil, and the Mexican Center for Environmental Law. These organizations legitimately participate in the peaceful opposition to the so-called “Mayan Train” (which, by the way, would also pass through the northern strip of Chiapas, a very attractive tourist area, rich in unique natural resources and spoils from the cutting-edge agro-industries that “Vice President” Alfonso Romo likes so much; his business interest has no qualms about attracting and taking advantage of foreign and transnational capital, more affiliated indeed with the power of Washington than the foundations demonized by the president).

In this vein, independent civil organizations, of an “inconvenient” nature, are today as much or more undesirable than in the times of Zedillo and Albores. As has been the case for decades in Chiapas for the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center, they are targets of military intelligence, susceptible to threats and smear campaigns.

Chenalhó’s escalation against Aldama follows a disturbingly similar pattern to that of the 1997 crisis of paramilitary violence. Displacements of families left in conditions of helplessness and fear, forced by gunfire to leave their homes and plots of land. They survive in precariousness, hunger and cold. The state does not take care of their health, security or food, except for the supply of processed food and flour which has little nutritional value but  is profitable in terms of propaganda.

Armed men dressed in black concentrate at strategic points, shoot down the slopes, they hole up and cross the border river without the state police or the National Guard (that is, the federal army) doing anything to stop them. (Ah, but one day they dismantled the barricades of the attackers, and so on.)) Instead, it is the paramilitaries who disarm the police, withdraw the docile National Guard, and take over the disputed territory. They shoot, wound, slander, and persecute “the others” (people like the ones the reader can see here in Luis Enrique Aguilar’s photographs). It is not a macabre fantasy to fear a new massacre like those that took place in Los Altos and the northern part of Chiapas between 1996 and 1998. We have already seen the scenario.

Meanwhile, the federal government establishes friendly agreements with some victims of the past and presents them as the nut of its policy of detente, without the Armed Forces assuming any historical responsibility. Meanwhile, violence is repeated, and their alliance with the caciques of Chenalhó is not very different from the one famously maintained by Zedillo and General Mario Renán Castillo, insofar as militarization is maintained. For the displaced Indians, only the political parties change their names.


To the indigenous people things are given, granted, and “fulfilled” (as long as they are not the San Andres Accords, of course). Nothing is expected of them except their gratitude. They are never considered worthy of governing themselves, or deciding on their territories and their world. They are recruited electorally, they are not listened to. And if they don’t conform to the State, they are repressed, denied, maligned and criminalized.

Resistance, legitimate as it is, continues to be illegitimate for the Mexican State, which consequently does not accept any real autonomy, despite the fact that there are even international standards. Self-determination, appropriate forms of justice, government, education and health are anathema to the imaginary Mexico (as Guillermo Bonfil said), today represented by the dominant capitalist classes and a personalist and centralist government.

Indigenous resistances will not cease to emerge beyond the erosion  and permanent negation on the part of the state. We see this in the Chimalapas, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the Yucatan peninsula, Morelos, the Purepecha plateau, Atenco, the mountain of Guerrero. Not only in Chiapas. As in all wars, even the “soft” ones, the State only thinks about the defeat of its enemy. That here would be internal, but it is not even recognized as an enemy. The Zapatistas and the Indigenous National Congress have spoken of a prolonged “war of extermination”, which happens, as revealed by the management of the mining and tourist concessions, and the six-year mega-projects that the government imposes presenting them as virtuous, by exposing them to real or media violence. Yes, they are good business for the investors and would create “sources of work” that would de-populate the land, that is, they would be instrumental in the dispossession and at the expense of the original peoples/ keepers of these lands.

This article was originally published in Spanish in the Ojarasca supplement of La Jornada on Saturday September 12th, 2020. This English interpretation has been re-published by Schools for Chiapas.

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