The War Against the Peoples of Chiapas

Mujer Tojolobal en Las Margaritas, Chiapas. Photo: Fermín Ledesma Dominguez

Hermann Bellinghausen


May 2023

I base the present testimony on my daily experience as a reporter, a permanent envoy of the national newspaper La Jornada to cover the social and political movement unleashed on New Year’s Day 1994 in all the indigenous regions of Chiapas. I resided in the city of San Cristobal de Las Casas, in the Altos region of the state, from the first week of January 1994 until mid-2014. During that period, especially the first 15 years of my stay, I also spent time in various communities of the Mayan peoples in the Lacandon jungle, the Altos and the Northern Zone. In some of the Tojolabal, Tseltal, Tsotsil and Chol communities I came to feel at home, in theirs.

My work was to listen to them, to witness their events and tragedies, to document the evolution of their autonomy and the hidden war waged against thousands of communities by the Mexican State, its Armed Forces, its intelligence services, its unofficial versions of the facts, the often serious aggressions against the native population of the mountains of Chiapas, of Mayan and Zoque lineage. I gave a daily account of this in reports, chronicles and news articles published in La Jornada and often translated into other languages and disseminated abroad.

The movement of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), initially bellicose, soon became peaceful, although in resistance, through a fragile truce. The latter was put at risk again and again by the covert and repressive actions of the Mexican Army and the national, state and municipal police corporations.

The extent and coherence of the Zapatista movement, composed practically only of indigenous people, with very precise demands, expressed since January 1, 1994 in the Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, was surprising and unusual. Always showing a rigorous discipline and a sensible control of its firepower, the EZLN had organized support bases in all the official municipalities of exclusive or majority indigenous population in Chiapas.

The conflict was central to the national political agenda and to the Mexican government. Locked in a chain of denials, falsehoods and half-truths, the State aimed to contain and destroy the rebel movement from the first days of 1994, even during the presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari, and more clearly and deeply since the beginning of the presidency of Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, in December of the same year.

Before getting to the central point of this testimony, which is the forced disappearance of Antonio González Méndez, indigenous Chol and support base of the EZLN, on January 18, 1999, in the municipal capital of Sabanilla, it is worth mentioning how the covert war, undeclared and unacknowledged by the authorities, against the Zapatista movement and sympathetic but peaceful organizations close to the diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, led by Bishop Samuel Ruiz García, was experienced on a daily basis. The latter frequently suffered massacres, disappearances and displacements. But the obvious target was the Zapatista support bases, seeking to provoke armed responses from the EZLN and to annul the truce decreed by the Congress of the Union with the Law for Dialogue, Conciliation and Dignified Peace in Chiapas, in March 1995. Just a month earlier, on February 9, President Zedillo had ordered the military occupation of the recently declared Zapatista autonomous municipalities; that is, almost all the indigenous regions of Chiapas.

The Mexican State, through the Federal Army, launched the Chiapas 94 Campaign Plan (announced on January 3, 1998); this established the counterinsurgency offensive that would define subsequent events. The true implications of the strategy would be seen over the next five years.

Militarization was direct in dozens of rebel or pro-government communities, mostly associated with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), still hegemonic at the time, mimicking the national State, the government of Chiapas and the Armed Forces. For those of us who observed the so-called conflict constantly and in person, a drastic change in the way in which the State sought to “resolve” the conflict became evident. By getting “into the heart and soul” of the people, and “taking the water from the fish of the guerrilla,”  as dictated by the Pentagon’s counterinsurgency manuals applied in Guatemala and Vietnam.

Although these strategies were intended to be implemented throughout the Zapatista zone of influence, they did not take hold in all of them (for example, in the Lacandon Jungle canyons). The first clear manifestation of the “civilian armed groups,” an eternal euphemism for paramilitaries, was in the Northern Zone of Chiapas, inhabited mainly by Mayan Choles. In the municipalities of Tila, Sabanilla, Salto de Agua and Tumbalá, the official hegemony of the PRI was transformed into the real predominance of the organization Desarrollo, Paz y Justicia (Development, Peace and Justice), which soon began its violent actions.

Some of their main leaders had criminal records in the region from the previous decade; now they became obvious allies of the military command that occupied municipal capitals, roads and indigenous towns. The municipal capitals of Tila and Sabanilla were controlled by Paz y Justicia; the respective parish priests lived practically under siege in their temples and the parish priest of Sabanilla, a Spanish citizen, would soon be expelled from the country by the Mexican government.

In other rebel regions, despite the militarization, the public presence of the Zapatistas was maintained, who openly guarded territories in resistance, organized around five “Aguascalientes” (Zapatista meeting and self-government centers). In the Northern Zone this was much more difficult, especially after 1995. The violence of the armed civilian group was demonstrated constantly. Communities in Tila and Sabanilla had to move, fleeing from looting, rapes of women and executions, under the indifferent gaze of federal troops and police forces.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is aware of the important reports published by the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Center and other defense groups (including the United Nations Rapporteur for Indigenous Peoples). The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) itself has sent observers. There, details, testimonies and documentation of the events that took place during the covert war, also known as low intensity warfare, “delegated” to armed groups that were neither military nor part of the federal army, abound.

In August 1995, the San Andres Larrainzar Dialogues began between the Mexican government and the general command of the EZLN, with the mediation of the National Intermediation Commission (CONAI) headed by Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia and the assistance of a commission of senators and deputies appointed by the Congress of the Union, the Commission for Concord and Pacification (COCOPA). On more than one occasion, the tense and delicate talks between the rebels and the government were sabotaged by armed attacks in the Northern Zone, burning of hermitages, deaths and disappearances.

By then, the Northern Zone had become difficult to navigate. It was particularly dangerous for civilian observers, human rights defenders and journalists. With its headquarters in the Tila community of Miguel Alemán, Paz y Justicia was spreading terror among the Zapatistas and their sympathizers (loosely identified as members of the Party of the Democratic Revolution and Bishop Ruiz García’s Catholic Church).

When in my journalistic work I visited the communities and the displaced people’s camps in Tila and Sabanilla, I tried to enter through one side and leave through another, so as not to return to the military and, above all, the “civilian” controls of Peace and Justice. He always thought twice about making these trips. Between 1996 and 2000, on more than one occasion, outside observers were attacked, even shot at. Bishop Ruiz Garcia himself was attacked on two occasions; the second, on November 4, 1997, in the company of Raul Vera, assistant bishop of the diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas.

One aspect worth mentioning is the proximity, to say the least, of the top military commander in Chiapas, General Mario Renan Castillo, to Paz y Justicia. A Fort Bragg graduate and specialist in counterinsurgency practices, he could be considered the architect of the government’s counterinsurgency plan that deliberately militarized and paramilitarized the indigenous regions with a Zapatista presence. All of this is duly documented in reports that the IACHR has been aware of for years.

It is also worth mentioning the subsequent paramilitarization of Los Altos, in the Tsotsil region. With the beginning of 1997, the presence of a new paramilitary group became generalized in the municipality of Chenalhó, which was never identified under a precise name. Like a contagion from the neighboring Northern Zone, armed civilian groups in visible collusion with federal troops and police forces (both for operating and training as well as for the transfer of arms) unleashed a chain of aggressions against Zapatista communities and the Civil Society Organization Las Abejas. The Acteal massacre on December 22 of that same year was a tragedy foretold. Unlike what was happening in Tila, Sabanilla, and soon Chilón (where the criminal-paramilitary group Los Chinchulines operated), in Chenalhó the journalistic observation and documentation by the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Center (CDHFBC) and other independent organizations was continuous; there were even moving reports on commercial television. To no avail.

As one of the correspondents and envoys of La Jornada, I covered the events in Chenalhó throughout 1997. Ten years later I published the book Acteal, crimen de Estado (Ediciones La Jornada, Mexico, 2008), recapitulating what happened in Chenalhó that year and the following months. The notoriety of the events, particularly the massacre against followers of the pacifist group Las Abejas, did not prevent the State from hiding and denying its responsibility. The application of justice was limited and ultimately betrayed. The armed group was never disarmed, the material perpetrators were not punished, and the application of justice against some operators of the Chiapas state government was insufficient.

In 1998, paramilitary violence spread in Los Altos de Chiapas. In the municipality of El Bosque, the criminal group Los Plátanos, openly associated with the federal army and the judicial police, was active. They carried out a massacre in the community of Union Progreso, this time against Zapatista support bases, while the municipal seat, declared autonomous, was violently occupied by the Federal Army, which at the same time carried out another massacre in the community of Chavajeval. On March 14, 1997, the Army and police forces had already carried out the massacre of San Pedro Nixtalucum (El Bosque), assassinating four Zapatista civilians and displacing 80 Tsotsil families.

The MIRA group operates in the Lacandon Jungle with relative success. In Chilón, Los Chinchulines destroy homes, rob and murder EZLN sympathizers. In 1998, the Chiapas government, supported by this type of unofficial group, violently “dismantled” the autonomous Zapatista municipalities of San Juan de la Libertad (El Bosque) in Los Altos, Amparo Aguatinta (Las Margaritas) on the border, and Ricardo Flores Magón in the Lacandon Jungle of Ocosingo.

Mujeres de Taniperla, Chiapas. Pintura de Teolinca Escobedo

In some way, during this period, the action of paramilitary groups, always officially denied, was “normalized.” Between 1995 and 2000, in Tila, Sabanilla, Tumbalá and Salto de Agua, murders, including mutilation of bodies, forced disappearances, rape, destruction of villages and forced displacement of hundreds of Chol families became recurrent. The EZLN establishes new settlements, on lands recovered after the uprising, for its bases in Los Moyos and other communities of Tila and Sabanilla.

Thirty-seven forced disappearances, 85 extrajudicial executions and some 4,500 people displaced by the paramilitary group Organización Desarrollo Paz y Justicia have been documented in these Chol municipalities. As highlighted in CDHFBC (Frayba), the situation is known to the IACHR in case 12.901 Rogelio Jiménez López and Others v. Mexico.

All of the above is to give context to the forced disappearance of Antonio González Méndez, which has been thoroughly investigated by the CDHFBC since then, without the case having received the benefit of justice from the authorities to date.

Antonio González Méndez, a member of the EZLN Support Bases, at the time of his disappearance was responsible for the “Arroyo Frío” cooperative store located in the municipal capital of Sabanilla. This made him a visible figure in the Zapatista movement, in a town that, as already stated, was under the control of Paz y Justicia. Their members governed the municipalities of Sabanilla, Tila and Tumbalá. That is, the municipal police and its investigative bodies worked for Paz y Justicia, in turn openly associated with the occupying federal army.

The alleged perpetrator of the disappearance, a member of Paz y Justicia, has been identified. This has not served to clarify Antonio’s disappearance, much less to provide restorative justice for his family. Here we find, as in dozens, perhaps hundreds of cases, the repetition of impunity as part of the counterinsurgency pattern. The protection of the prosecutors’ offices for the actions of the paramilitary groups was apparent 

It is essential to emphasize that, to date, the federal government maintains a position in which it denies having developed this counterinsurgency strategy. This unwavering denial represents a serious obstacle for the understanding of the victims and the search for truth and justice. In order to advance in the full pursuit of justice, it is indispensable for the Mexican State to overcome this position, which the facts themselves have denied, and which has been amply documented.

I believe that the forced disappearance and very likely murder of Antonio Gonzalez Mendez is part of the operating scheme of the Desarrollo, Paz y Justicia Organization. It is in fact one of the last episodes of that atrocious five years in the Northern Zone. With the change of government (and ruling party) in the country and in the state of Chiapas at the end of 2000, the belligerence of Peace and Justice diminishes, and even more so when the new state government of Pablo Salazar Mendiguchía imprisons some of the leaders of that organization, although they are never prosecuted or convicted for their participation in the crimes of the paramilitary organization.

In conclusion, I am convinced that the disappearance of Antonio González Méndez is part of the modus operandi established in the Northern Zone of Chiapas by the Desarrollo, Paz y Justicia Organization and its allies, with direct responsibility of the three levels of government. It obeys the guidelines of the Chiapas 94 Campaign Plan, in the same way as the numerous incidents and violent acts that were occurring at the time against the communities that were in resistance and were building their autonomy as native peoples in spite of everything.

Original article in the Ojarasca supplement No. 315 of La Jornada on July 8th, 2023.
English translation by Schools for Chiapas.

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