Our Mandate is to Build Alternatives for Life

Interview of Pedro Faro Navarro of Frayba with Gloria Muñoz Ramirez

Pedro Faro Navarro, outgoing director of the Frayba Center for Human Rights.
San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas.
Photo: Noé Piñeda

San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas 

Director of the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Center for Human Rights (Frayba) from 2015 until May 23rd, 2022, Pedro Faro Navarro, defender and poet, speaks in an interview granted one day before leaving the position, of “the alarming crisis of human rights in Chiapas,” from the increase in organized crime that the state has in the lucrative businesses in drug trafficking, migration, and human trafficking; of the aggressions against the Zapatista territories; of the “inaction” of the federal and state governments; of  the historical forced displacement of thousands of indigenous people; of the militarization and paramilitarization; of what provoked the presidential disqualification in Frayba, and in every moment, he refers to the alternative politic that the communities of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) represent.

Nineteen years ago, Faro Navarro joined the emblematic Frayba, created by Bishop Samuel Ruiz García in 1989. He was the director for eight years, and from that vantage, he watched as conflict and human rights violations against the indigenous population grew, in a state in which, at the same time, the construction of autonomy continues being possible. What follows is the interview he offered to Ojarasca and Desinformémonos, in the context of handing over his duties.

Prison: If you don’t struggle, you don’t get out. Frayba has always documented torture and how it has changed over time. Currently, this situation  has reached an extremely critical state because it is part of the epidermis of the Mexican judicial system and of the government of Chiapas, of the justice system. It is an endemic reproduction that is propagated and affects the entire population.

We see that the prosecutors offices have been professionalized to be factories of the guilty. In this period we have seen how people are more likely to leave prison for their dignified action and demands for justice, through protest action like hunger strikes, national and international solidarity, and actions that evidence the violations of their rights, and that the legal process trafficks in formalities and secrecy. This means that he who does not struggle, does not get out.

Just in this period, we were able to free five people, like Juan de la Crus, who was in prison for 11 years without committing a single crime; or Marcelino Ruis, who was in for 20 years; Adrian was in for 17, and Germán y Abraham were in for 13 years. They are indigenous people who entered prison speaking only their language, who did not know what crimes they were being charged with, and without any possibility for defense. They were detained arbitrarily, and tortured and their due process was denied without any substantial evidence to sentence them. They gave them very high sentences. Abraham and Germán got 75 years, Marcelino, 15, and so on like that.

Drug trafficking, migration and human trafficking, the most lucrative businesses of organized crime:

Since I joined Frayba, we identified that there were criminal groups in the territories that were controlling the highlands, the jungle region and the border jungle. This wasn’t talked about openly in the communities. There was a certain fear of denouncing the leader and the criminales. That is not to say that there is not fear now , but before, it wasn’t talked about. 

Drug trafficking and human trafficking are the most lucrative businesses in Chiapas, they are still on the rise in the territory, and we denounced it to the government. What happened in Pantelhó, that later was uncovered, we denounced although not publicly, because we assessed the risks of getting involved with the drug lords and criminality. 

With Enrique Peña Nieto there was a certain containment. The criminal groups were there and they were acting; there was talk of a narco peace between the criminal groups. There was an agreement with the governments because all this crime cannot take place if there isn’t an agreement with the government.

With the arrival of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, with his strategy of “abrazos y no balazos” (hugs, not bullets) and his position of not confronting the crime (which is not to say that I am in favor of confronting it in the way that Felipe Calderón did,) what it provoked is that the criminals control the territories and take over life in the communities. Sind 2018, we have seen a full-bodied presence, with all possible brazenness, of the criminal groups that show up in the territories like Pantelhó, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chamic, and in Frontera Comalapa.

We can’t say that the current government is like the government of Peña Nieto, which was a criminal and narco government, just like that of the PAN. We can’t maintain this with the government of Andrés Manuel, but the institutions have not been cleaned up, like the National Immigration Institute and its ties to criminal groups. 

A few months ago, we saw that all of a sudden, starting with El Machete self-defense groups emerged with high-powered weapons. There the question that arises is where do all those guns come from, and in whose interest is it that armed groups are appearing in different territories. We have seen that El Machete (of Pantelhó) indeed does counteract a criminal group, but it would seem that it is now losing its way and becoming what it wanted to fight. We hope that it will re-find its course, but this has happened in recent months, like what happened in Michoacán.

Militarization and the National Guard: Chiapas has been militarized since 1994. Since then there have been a chain of military posts in order to surround the Zapatistas, though they have now broken the siege with the twelve Caracoles. But even so, there are 72 military posts that although they don’t have the troops that they did in the 90’s, they are still an important presence for intelligence and surveillance of the Zapatistas.

In Chiapas there is a National Guard presence that was sold as public security, so there has not been much opposition from the communities and towns. There is a very important opposition in Chilón, where they protested against the installation of a National Guard barracks. In the Chilón, Yajalón, and Tila corridor, there was a very harsh and criminal paramilitary strategy in the 1990s, which we still don’t know the whole truth about. The most notorious paramilitary group was Paz y Justicia, which was never investigated, and the weapons and organizational structures are still there.

Attacks on Zapatista communities. The Zapatista territories are coveted by the economic and political powers. There is a constant struggle to dispossess them through dams and projects such as the Mesoamerica Project. These attacks on the territory are constant and now we see them in the attacks and aggressions against the communities of Nuevo San Gregorio, for example, or Moisés Gandhi, which are territories reclaimed by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and which have a solid legal foundations in the  the Law of Dialogue and Conciliation in Chiapas, the San Andres Accords, the declarations of the United Nations and the Organization of American States, as well as ILO Convention No. 169.

The particularity of the current attacks on these territories is that the actors are diffuse. The State is apparently insulated from the conflict, but it has a great deal to do with it, because as long as it is the government, it has the obligation to guarantee and protect everyone in the territory. In all the actions against the Zapatista territories there is the presence of a government that claims to be leftist and which has generated a series of social projects for the poorest people of the country. These resources are indeed arriving, but the characteristic of these social projects is that they have an intensely capitalist and individualistic effect that breaks down the community and assembly structures, that is to say, the organizational ways of the peoples.

There are a number of lands, seen from capitalism as idle, that the Zapatistas do not work and therefore these organizations, communities or criminal groups want to occupy them to gain access to these government projects (such as Sembrando Vida). And there are the forms of confrontation. The design, although not specifically designed to attack the Zapatistas, is producing a structural and counterinsurgent assault on these territories.

-In spite of all these attacks, or because of them, the Zapatistas mobilized last March 13 in six points of the state. How did Frayba interpret this departure?

-From time to time, the Zapatistas come out to say “here we are, we are building and acting.” The March 13 demonstration was a continuity of their presence along the same lines that they have already declared in different ways and in different spaces, and that is that they have a frontal combat against the capitalist system. Their stand is for life, for the rights of Mother Earth, and in this context they demonstrated against the war in Ukraine. It was their action and internationalist and human calling, for they do not think of themselves if they do not think of themselves as a “we.”

Historic forced displacement: Currently there is a great crisis of forced displacement, almost historic, in the state. We have counted nearly 14,893 victims of forced displacement and more than 6,300 in a situation of displacement. This has implied a series of very strong impacts on the population. In Aldama, for example, they have created a range of psychosocial impacts of terror. They are war zones.

In Aldama alone there are 3,499 intermittently displaced people, who have to leave every time there is gunfire in the communities, but then they return. What they are completely displaced from is their crop lands. This has been going on since Peña Nieto’s government, but it became more critical with López Obrador’s government. In Chalchihuitán there are close to 1,237 displaced people, and in Pantelhó, 3,205, though some have already returned.

In the jungle zone, we documented the displacement in Chilón by an armed group called Los Peshtoneros, who act and displace the communities. There is also the deplorable ongoing activity of the Regional Organization of Coffee Growers of Ocosingo (Orcao) in the municipality of Moises Gandhi, where they operate in a criminal manner. It is an organization that has deviated from its path, and its ambition now is to benefit from social programs and selling land. Currently there are two Zapatista communities displaced by it, La Resistencia and Emiliano Zapata.

All of this is happening before the total and ominous silence of the state and federal governments. We have clearly denounced it before the government and judicial authorities, but they do not act to stop the paramilitary actions with criminal groups.

There is also a very strong displacement in the border area of Nuevo San Gregorio Chamic by known criminal groups, such as the Jalisco Cartel – New Generation and the Sinaloa Cartel. We have received reports of forced disappearance and displacement of more than 50 families. Nuevo San Gregorio is a ghost town and a war zone.

The populations denounce the presence of criminal groups linked to the municipal governments in Comitán, Chilón, Ocosingo, Chenalhó, Pantelhó and right here in San Cristóbal de las Casas, with the motonetos and the power groups that control the markets.

This generates an environment of very high insecurity. But we hope to reverse these actions. We have been building spaces to be able to reverse the situation from the civil society, from the diocese of San Cristobal, from the organizations that are in the territory and in the towns, so that it does not increase. The experts say that this is the beginning of what happened in Sinaloa, Guanajuato or Guerrero, but we hope that this is not the case, and that we can do something about it. We do not expect anything from the government, because we see that the governments are not responding.

Participation of bishop Raúl Vera in the changing of directors.
To his right, Dora Roblero García who now fills the position.
Photo: Noé Piñeda

Chiapas is a disaster. Chiapas is a total disaster, as the presidential spokesperson told Doña Concepción Villafuerte, founder of the Tiempo newspaper and also of Frayba, together with her husband Amado Avendaño. There is no government, neither state nor municipal, that can bring order to the rampant and ever-increasing violence.

As long as Chiapas continues in these circumstances, and as long as the people continue to struggle and resist and build alternatives for life, Frayba will be at their side. That is the mandate that Tatik Samuel Ruiz left us. He used to say that he was converted by the indigenous people, because from the poverty, misery and discrimination, he opted for the poor. The mandate and the path of Frayba is with the struggles and resistance of the people.

Now, in this context, the teaching of high dignity of the peoples is more glorious, both of the Zapatistas and of those who are organized in the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), who are building autonomy and self-determination.

The handover. I leave with a mission accomplished, in the sense that we had to be part of a process, and that we faced this time with the lessons learned by the people in their journey. I would say that it is a mission accomplished, although with many pending issues. I will continue in the trenches of both the defense of human rights and poetry and the construction of what will allow us to change this system.

We hope that the debacle of the planetary system does not reach us beforehand, and that we can see this humanity as we want it, and as it is already being built in different places, as in the Zapatista territories.

This piece was published in the Ojarasca supplement, No. 302 of La Jornada. https://microadmin.jornada.com.mx/ojarasca/2022/06/10/201cnuestro-mandato-es-construir-alternativas-de-vida201d-302-2912.html. English interpretation re-posted by Schools for Chiapas.

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