by Luis Hernández Navarro
The real driving force behind the the territorial boundary dispute between Oaxaca and Chiapas in the Chimalapas jungle is the conflict between the Zoque community members (los Chimas) who defend their lands and natural resources, and the Chipanecan loggers, cattlemen, politicians and narcotraffickers, who plunder and attack the indigenous communities.
In Nudo de Serpiente (Serpent Knot), the extraordinary novel-testimony published in 2004, Alejandro Aldana Sellschopp narrates the kidnapping, just a few hours after the armed uprising of January 1994, of the General Augusto Castillejos (in reality the estate owner, ex governor of Chiapas Absalón Castellanos Domínguez, responsible for the massacre of Wolonchán), held by the then mayor Moisés, of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). At lightning speed, the writer also tells of the pillage of the Chimalapas at the hands of Chiapanecan politicians and loggers.
Aldana Sellschop, intertwining stories of various characters, relates how Rodrigo del Monte, a character in the service of the general’s brother, responsible for the logging of cedar, mahogany and pine, instructs his subordinates: “We will organize the people to cross over to San Isidro la Gringo, in the Chimalapas (…) from there we are close to Santa Maria and San Miguel, where there is a complete mess, because some say that it belongs to Chiapas and others say that it belongs to Oaxaca; and as you will see there is no definitive law and this gives us the opportunity to cut and cut without problems.”
When one of his companions tells him that the dispute had been resolved, Rodrigo responded, “No man, the fucking laws are worth shit, we screwed them moving the the boundaries like 30 kilometers, and its all set, the land is Chiapas now, and whats more, the same Secretary of Agrarian Reform, a certain Rafael Rodriguez, just in april ruled in Cintalapa that the La Gringa is national property and there’s no way for the enemies to do shit about it.”
The novel also relates the moment in which, in the war for timber, the Oaxaqueños took Hernán (Jorge Castellanos Domínguez), the brother of the governor, hostage, while he was devastating the jungle, in november of 1985. In order to release him, they demanded the Governor of Chiapas abandon the plunder of the region. “They beat us –says a character in the book— it got really bad, they disarmed all of us, they beat us up, it turned into a disaster. The worst of them did not respect Mr. Hernán, they tied him up to a stick and they say that the governor Heladio Ramirez is going to turn him over to the general; but I think they are going to kill him.”
The kidnapping of Jorge Castellanos Domínguez is just one more episode in the uninterrupted ancestral struggle of the Zoque communities in defense of their territory. To protect them, in 1867 they bought their own lands from the crown of Spain. In 1850, the then president, José Joaquín Herrera, recognized the document. And in March of 1967, a presidential resolution of Gustavo Díaz Ordaz validated the property of two communities; Santa María and San Miguel.
Chimalapas in Zoque means “golden gourd,” a remembrance of the payment made to the crown to obtain its viceroyalty titles. It is located in the east of Oaxaca and abuts Chiapas and Veracruz. Its surface is greater than that of states like Tlaxcala or Colima. According to Miguel Ángel García, who spent many years dedicated to the defense of the indigenous communities and the biodiversity of the region, it has 594 thousand hectares of land, of which 495 thousand are forests and jungles, which makes it the largest in Mexico and Mesoamerica. (https://bit.ly/3wO1uSR).
Supported by the Chiapanecan government and with federal endorsement, in 1947 five large forestry companies with 25 sawmills were established in the region, headed by the Michoacano Rodolfo Pérez Monroy. Without concern for conservation of the environment or the needs of the population, they ruthlessly exploited the jungle and the workforce. Until, in 1977, villagers and workers revolted and expelled the loggers.
Then, under the leadership of Absalón Castellanos, the invasion continued with cattle ranchers, new loggers and narco cattle ranchers backed by Patrocino González Garrido. Similarly, the state government sponsored migrations of poor Tzotziles from the Highlands of Chiapas, of people displaced by the Cerro de Oro dam1, or victims of the eruption of Chichonal2.
In order to legalize the dispossession of 160,000 hectares of the Chimalapas, in 1995 Chiapas modified article 3 of its constitution. Before that date, the boundaries of the state were clearly established and there was almost no overlap between its boundaries and those of the communities of Santa María and San Miguel. State officials like Julio César Ruiz Ferro and Roberto Albores sponsored the occupation of that territory and protected the looters. To clinch the illegal invasion, the government of Juan Sabines established the municipality of Belisario Domínguez on that soil.
This past November 11th, after a controversy of 10 years, the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation fixed the boundary line between the two states. It established that the municipality of Belisario Domínguez, created unilaterally by the government of Chiapas in 2011 in the Chimalapas, is actually located in Oaxacan territory. The resolution is, without a doubt, a judicial triumph for the Chimas communities in defense of their territory. A victory in the face of which cattle ranchers, narcos, and loggers will not stand idly by.
This article was published in La Jornada on November 16th, 2021. https://www.jornada.com.mx/2021/11/16/opinion/017a1pol English interpretation by Schools for Chiapas.
- The Cerro de Oro dam began construction in 1973 in northeastern Oaxaca, to control flooding in the Papaloapan plain of Veracruz. 26,000 people were displaced when the dam was built.
- El Chichon is an active volcano in northwestern Chiapas. Though it was long presumed to be dormant, in 1982 there were a series of 3 consecutive eruptions which spewed high-sulfur magma, devastating 24,000 sq. kilometers, destroying 9 villages and killing 1,900 people. The eruption of El Chichon had significant climatic consequences.