Indigenous of Aldama, Chiapas, between famine and gunfire

More than two thousand indigenous Tsotsiles from the municipality of Aldama sleep and wake amidst the fear of an ambush. In a notebook they have written down the 98 times they have been shot at, during the last three months, from a mountain adjacent to their land. In the face of the indifference of the authorities, on July 14th humanitarian organizations brought some beans and corn, because the famine is already reflected in their bodies.

Text and Photos by Ángeles Mariscal

ALDAMA, CHIAPAS —  On Manuela Sántiz Hernández, her thinness is a product of insufficient food. You can see it in her cheekbones and her body, it looks like that of an adolescent that has barely begun to develop. She is 24 years old and responsible for eight children. Three are hers and five were  from her mother-in-law, who died and left five small children orphaned. 

They all lived in the community of Yetón, one of the 11 hamlets where 60 hectares of land are located that their aggressors from the municipality of Chenalhó try to take from them by means of armed force.    

The dispute for these lands, the villagers explain began 7 years ago, but in recent times escalated to the level that has led to the forced displacement of 115 families, a total of 2 thousand 36 people. 

“One night they entered the house, put a gun to our heads and told us that we had to leave, and we left…we don’t have anything, everything stayed there, absolutely everything, our belonging, our harvests, our house. We have to start over, says Manuela. 

Monday the 14th of July, in the morning, representatives of each of the 115 displaced families arrived at the municipal seat of Aldama. There, each family received a sack with corn, a little bit of beans and salt.

This food was acquired with the donation of individuals in solidarity, which were collected by the Trust for the Health of Indigenous Children (Fisanim) an organization promoted by the actress Ofelia Medina. This ration of food could last them between 15 and 20 days. 

The indigenous families were grateful for the solidarity, but they reiterated, “We are going to keep fighting for those 60 hectares because they are our lands. We want them to return them to us, because it is from there that we get our food, our daily sustenance,” explained Rosa Sántiz Sántiz. 

With the help of another woman translator — because Rosa speaks primarily Tsotsil — she demanded that the government “give us a solution to this conflict, because we are already tired.”

Literally tired. Rosa Sántiz Sántiz gets up at three in the morning to boil the beans and corn, prepare the tortillas that they will eat during the day, her husband and her four children. Before the sun rises, the whole family begins to walk the path that will take them from the community of San Pedro Cotzilnam to the village of Santiago El Pinar.

In Santiago El Pinar, for 80 pesos daily, they work from 7 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon in the harvest of coffee. 

Rosa has the organizational and the leadership capabilities that make her one of the representatives of the commission of displaced community members; and coordinates the distribution of food. In Aldama, the displaced have organized themselves to resist the aggressions of their neighbors of Chenalhó. 

 The apparent dispute is over 60 hectares of adjacent land between both municipalities; but the armed civilians of Chenalhó have expelled inhabitants of Chalchihuitán, and peasants within Chenalhó. All based in armed aggression. They use, according to the shots that can be seen in the walls of the homes, high-caliber weapons and assault rifles. 

Rations of corn beans, soap, oil , and soap pictured are dispensed to the families.
Photo: Ángeles Mariscal

“Don’t fall into provocation”

On January 23rd 2019, faced with the denunciation of the aggressions of armed civilians the federal government was forced to set up a detachment made up of federal and state police and the Mexican army. 

The aggressions did not stop with this measure. The armed civilians continued shooting and to date, the displaced account for 15 wounded by firearms and 7 of their comrades murdered, among them Ignacio Pérez Girón, municipal trustee of Aldama. 

A few months following their deployment, the detachment of police and military withdrew; they agreed to carry out patrols, but with the onset of the pandemic, they became sporadic, and the aggressions intensified. 

In the group of displaced Martin Sántiz Sántiz is the one in charge of writing each time they are shot at from the mountains of Chenalhó. Carrying a little book where he writes the numbers, he pulls it out and counts 98 recent aggressions. The last one, a few hours before they arrived at the municipal seat to receive the food donations.

He explains that he carries this log to make the report that he turns into the Chiapas District Attorney’s office. When it is turned in, “I always ask them how the investigations are going and they always tell me that it is still yet to be complete.”

In the four recent months, he relates, the patrols of police and military only happen once a week. They walk around on the road, look for where the shots are coming from, and then leave. What they tell us is: you keep silent, don’t fall into provocation.”

The government of Chiapas, explains Manuel Melesio Sántiz López, another of the displaced, has offered to divide the land and relocate the affected families to a ranch in the municipality of Ixtapa, a place of infertile land where the prolonged use of agrochemicals has totally depleted the fertility of the soil. However, the same authorities have suspended the process for a possible relocation.  

On the other hand, at the beginning of March, the Attorney General’s office detained Cristóbal Sántiz Jiménez, one of the spokespeople for the displaced. To date, Cristóbal es being held in the El Amate prison. With his arrest, the demand for the release of the community leader is now added to the demand for the restitution of their lands, and an end to the aggressions. 

“This pandemic has complicated everything because there is a shortage of food; there is a very severe crisis economically, and of work, because in the town of Aldama we work in the countryside, we live from the countryside and we are of the countryside,” asserts Silvia, an youth from the area that has had to leave her studies to take up leadership in systematizing the problems, and serving as a link to the outside.

Denunciations of the situation in Aldama have reached the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), the Inter-American Commission (IACHR), and the Subsecretariat of Human Rights of the Ministry of the Interior. No declaration or intervention by these bodies has served to stop the violence. In addition to the months of the pandemic, there has been famine, as displaced peasants have had difficulty finding work.

Besides humanitarian organizations, specialists also worriedly watch the situation of the displaced people of the zone. Anthropologist Araceli Burguete, who knows the region well and is a member of the Center for Higher Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS), explains: “the path to peace in Aldama is very clear. First, attend to the displaced population and the humanitarian emergency. “

Also, “take effective measures to halt the violence and to give assurance to the population; disarm the aggressors, investigate and punish, and dismantle the armed groups. These are minimal measures that can contribute to restoring peace and the coexistence between two communities of ancestral tradition in this territory.”

But, as a matter of urgency, “prevent more deaths of the defenseless population.”

A Displaced Girl is Injured

Amidst a famine situation in which 2036 indigenous people of Aldama live, a girl, María Luciana Luna Pérez, of 13 years of age, was shot twice by a firearm as she was embroidering in the courtyard of a home in the village of Cocó, one of the 11 locations that live under siege of armed civilians. 

According to the hospital report from Aldama, María Luciana, received two gunshot wounds, one in the eye and the other in the chest. The shots came from the village of Nech’en Santa Martha Chenalhó, and were directed toward the community of Cocó Aldama.

Just last Tuesday the displaced indigenous of Aldama reported that until that day, they had counted 98 armed aggressions in the past three months by people who shot at them from adjacent mountains toward their towns.

Martin Sántiz Sántiz reported that they keep this log to make the report to hand over to the Chiapas Attorney General’s office. It detailed that since the beginning of the pandemic, the numbers of patrols of the military and police in the region have diminished. Now they only travel the main road in the region once a week, “they walk around on the road, look around for where the shots are coming from, and leave. What they tell us is this: You keep quiet, don’t fall into provocation.” 

This article was originally published in Spanish in Pie de Página on the 17th of July, 2020. https://piedepagina.mx/indigenas-de-aldama-chiapas-entre-hambruna-y-disparos/   This English interpretation has been re-published by Schools for Chiapas.