Face to Face With the Military in Chiapas, Mexico

by Marc Becker

Special to the February-March 1998 issue of the The Post Amerikan (Bloomington, Illinois)

Over the New Year's holiday, my spouse and I traveled to Chiapas in southern Mexico to help build a school, to learn more about what is happening in that country, and to take a stance for peace and justice. We found ourselves, however, in a politically tense and militarized situation which threatened to explode at any moment. For me, this experience brought back strong memories of being 23 years old and driving over landmined roads in northern Nicaragua singing Dire Straits songs to myself to keep from going loopy. This is the story of what happened to us.

Chiapas: A History of Marginalization

On January 1, 1994, Maya Indians in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas launched an armed uprising against the Mexican government. Calling themselves the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army of National Liberation), they took over highland towns, including San Cristóbal de las Casas and Ocosingo. They protested centuries of oppression, exploitation, and exclusion from society. The Zapatistas, as they are commonly known, take their name from the Mexican Revolutionary war hero Emiliano Zapata who fought 80 years earlier for land and liberty. The uprising, which began the same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, shocked people in Mexico and around the world.

Chiapas is an isolated area of Mexico. Originally, it had been part of the Central American country of Guatemala and only later became a Mexican state. The 1910-1920 Revolution made sweeping and progressive changes in Mexican society, but these changes were never felt at the country's southern border. Chiapas remained isolated and impoverished in 1994 when the Zapatista guerrillas decided to take things into their own hands and force changes in society.

People have asked whether this uprising is the last hurrah of 1980s-style leftist guerrilla wars in Central America or the beginning of a new type of ethnic struggle in Latin America. Because of its history, economy, language, and culture, Chiapas is much closer to Central America than Mexico. While guerrillas throughout Central America were signing peace accords and laying down their weapons, Indians in Chiapas were quietly planning to launch a new guerrilla war. Although concerned with all of the economic and class issues common to Marxist struggles in Central America, this struggle added clear new ethnic components. Above all, this would be an Indian struggle for land, autonomy, freedom, respect and liberty.

Massacre of 45 Indians at Acteal

On December 22, 1997, paramilitary troops massacred 45 Tzotzil-Maya Indians in Acteal, Chenalhó, in the same general area where we would be traveling. Several dozen gunmen affiliated with and supported by the ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party (the PRI) spent over four hours hunting down and killing men, women, and children. In total, 16 children and 21 women were killed, 25 were seriously injured, and about a dozen were disappeared. Survivors reported that the gunmen, armed with AK-47 assault rifles, listened for crying babies in the brush, hunted them down, and killed entire families.

The people killed at Acteal were civilians who supported the opposition Zapatista movement. Despite a ceasefire and signed peace accords, the Mexican government has expressed a desire to wipe out, to "liquify" this opposition. The best way to do this is by erasing their civilian base of support. The army as a formal institution of the Mexican state, however, cannot directly carry out this operation. To do so would mean that the Mexican government would have to face political, economic, and diplomatic sanctions from European governments and possibly even the United States.

Rather than risking such sanctions, the Mexican government trains, equips, and supports informal paramilitary forces to carry out such campaigns. The members of these forces are local wealthy landowners who would lose their privileged position in society if a successful revolution would redistribute wealth and resources equally to the impoverished and marginalized Indians and peasants living in Chiapas. These paramilitary forces use such oxymoronic names as Paz y Justicia (Peace and Justice) and Guardias Blancas (White Guards).

The strategy which these paramilitary forces appear to be following is to conduct egregious attacks on the Zapatista civilian base of support, thereby attempting to force the Zapatista guerrillas to respond militarily. This would therefore legitimize the formal Mexican military forces moving in and militarily crushing the armed opposition. The result would be a bloodbath, and the end of people's hopes for social change and justice in Chiapas.

Pacifism in a Violent Land

I grew up in a family with a long pacifist tradition. I have a cousin who almost went to prison for refusing to register for the military draft in the 1980s. My dad spent 3 years working with a health clinic in Taiwan rather than fighting in Korea. My grandfather went to Canada so that we would not be drafted in World War I. My great-grandfather left Russia so that he would not have to serve in the Czar's army. And so my family history goes back for centuries. More important than consciously avoiding military duty, however, is the long struggle for social justice, and in this struggle a person occasionally has to take risks. Sometimes the risks are very great, and the penalties greater than what one would face picking up weapons and joining a military force. Anyone who thinks pacifists are cowards has never met a true pacifist.

In the mid-1980s I worked with Witness for Peace in Nicaragua. In 1979, Sandinista guerrillas swept into power promising social reforms much like those for which the Zapatistas in Chiapas are currently fighting. This was an inconvenient state of affairs for the wealth elite and their supporters in the United States, and so they trained and armed the contra rebels. Much like the current paramilitary forces in Mexico, these extra-legal forces were not beholden to any laws and freely attacked, killed, and destroyed civilian populations. We discovered that the presence of United States citizens in militarized areas in Nicaragua stopped these attacks. If a United States citizen was killed, there would be a political backlash and the United States congress might cut off their military aid.

A similar situation with some interesting twists currently exists in Chiapas. In Nicaragua, my Nicaraguan friends would tell me to get my gringo face up in the front window of the vehicle to reduce the threat of the contras ambushing us. We traveled to Chiapas in a caravan of four buses with students from Mexico City. We internationalists hid among the students at immigration, police, and military checkpoints so that we would not be arrested and deported from the country.

We entered Chiapas in the immediate aftermath of the massacre at Acteal convinced that our presence would reduce tensions in the area. The military wanted to remove all international presence and attention in the area so that they would have free reign to conduct a campaign of terror against the Zapatistas. If we reported their human rights abuses, it would restrict their actions. Likewise, the presence of internationalists would cause the Zapatistas to hesitate in launching a military attack. It would be bad press for them if unarmed foreigners were accidently killed in an offensive. Although a risky endeavor, we were optimistic that our presence would help bring peace to the region.

The Displaced at Polhó

On December 30, a week after the massacre at Acteal, we traveled to the community of Polhó where the survivors of the massacre were gathered in refugee camps. We delivered humanitarian aid and spent hours listening to testimonies about the massacre and other human rights abuses. The stories were all depressingly similar. Paramilitary forces supported by the ruling Mexican government party (the PRI) came in and shot, raped, and killed sons, daughters, mothers, and sisters. It gave me a sense of deja vu listening to the stories of survivors describing the horrors of contra attacks in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

While we listened to these accounts the Mexican army and public security forces were stationed around the refugee camp. After dark when we were ready to board our buses and return to our camp, the community sent us a message requesting that we ask the military to leave. This was, after all, the same military which had just trained and equipped the paramilitary forces which had massacred their families and neighbors.

We returned to where the army troops were stationed. We stood in a silent vigil demanding that the troops withdraw from the area. The air was tense as a soldier dropped the tailgate on their truck. What was their plan? Were they going to arrest us and throw us on the truck? Were they going to shoot us and throw our dead bodies in the truck? We held our ground. The truck rolled backwards toward our line. The soldiers slowly climbed into the truck and drove away. We cheered! We had gone face to face with the Mexican army and won! The next day the news media reported this event as an appropriate civilian response to a highly charged and militarized situation.

Into the Mountains

On the evening of January 1, we gathered after supper to discuss all of the events surrounding us. Commandante David, one of the Zapatista's principle leaders, interrupted our animated discussion. In a low voice which would not carry, he informed us that there was a possibility that paramilitary forces might attack our camp that night. We would have to evacuate under cover of night on foot. "Go quietly and calmly. Take what you can carry and everything will be alright," he told us. Although some internationalists unaccustomed to being told what to do protested, he made it clear that there was no room for discussion. "Es un orden." "It's an order." Then, with a deep sense of urgency in his voice, he whispered, "Preparate! Preparate!"

We gathered our sleeping bags, food, and what little we could carry and met back at the central auditorium. About three hours later the signal came to leave. Holding on to a cord so that we would not be separated in the night, we moved out of the auditorium and up to the main road. We trotted along the road for about a kilometer before beginning an ascent up a steep, muddy trail. Heavily-armed Zapatista soldiers with radios guarded over our column of evacuees.

For about an hour, we slipped and fell up the dark and muddy trail, trying to move as quickly and quietly as possible. Finally we arrived at a village high up in the mountains. We were told we would be there for a while, but we might have to move on later that night. Planes and helicopters buzzed overhead. We were told to extinguish our flashlights and cover ourselves with plastic, a measure which seemed futile if the planes had infrared equipment. Some people tried to sleep. Others stayed awake, both from the cold and the sheer terror of an imminent attack by the same people who ten days earlier had conducted the massacre at Acteal where they had demonstrated their total lack of concern for civilian life, including that of women and children. In a situation like this, being an internationalist did not mean anything. If there was an attack, we would be killed along with everyone else.

I had not been this terrified since evacuating a family who had just escaped from the contras in northern Nicaragua in April of 1986. As we drove them to safety dodging puddles in the road where the contras hid landmines, Sandinista soldiers patrolling the area yelled at us that the contras were going to get us. We knew they were there, and we knew that at that point our lives did not mean anything to them. Much like the contras who killed Ben Linder, the civil engineer from Oregon who was building micro hydroelectric plants in Nicaragua, the paramilitary forces in Mexico would have killed us, partially because human life means nothing to them and partially to discourage other internationalists from following in our footsteps.

Finally, daylight broke in the eastern sky. We received word that although the military was near, we would return to the camp, gather our stuff, board the buses, and leave for Mexico City. In the daylight, the trip back down the mountain was easier. We gathered the belongings we had left behind at the camp and said our goodbyes. A kilometer from the camp, we passed military trucks which were waiting there. The following day, the villagers at Oventic once again had to evacuate their community because of repeated threats. Military patrols were much more severe and, according to press reports, there were rigorous checkpoints throughout the area. The government increased its talk of "liquidating" the Zapatistas.

For many of us on this trip, this was a deeply troubling, terrifying, traumatizing, and politicizing experience. We went into this camp with the intent of building a school, not of being involved in overt political actions. But when the Zapatista army protected us from the Mexican army and their brutal extra-legal paramilitary forces, it is difficult to remain politically neutral. We became players in a deadly game with ever-increasingly higher stakes. This is not a time to back down. Justice and life itself hangs in the balance.

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