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Synthesis/Regeneration 27   (Winter 2002)

Peace in Chiapas:
Farther Away Now than Ever Before

by Andrew Kennis, Independent Media Center
of New York City

México City, Mexico: During March and April, 2001, leaders from the rebel indigenous group the National Zapatista Liberation Army (EZLN or the Zapatistas) made a historic trip from Chiapas through a dozen states in Mexico, ending with a stop in Mexico City that attracted close to half a million people. Following this historic trip, the EZLN received narrow approval to make addresses to Congress for one day (speeches that the National Action Party would boycott).

It was during this time that achieving a peace settlement between the EZLN and the Federal government seemed closer than ever before. Ironically, however, it was no more than a month after the end of the caravan and the addresses to Congress that a very different situation developed, where recent government measures, according to some commentators and public officials, provided “an ultimatum for war.”

Zap Caravan Demands Not Being Met

The purpose of the caravan this past spring was to publicize and garner public support for the preconditions the EZLN had been demanding for the renewal of peace negotiations: the withdrawal of Mexican armed forces from seven key military bases in Chiapas (over 250 other bases, however, would remain intact); the release of all Zapatista political prisoners; and the passage into law of the Commission for Concordance and Pacification (COCOPA) provisions that would implement the San Andrés accords.

President Fox has indeed closed down all seven military bases (although another one was created in Patihuitz, a location nearby). As for the Zapatista political prisoners, only 9 remain where well over 100 had been imprisoned before the caravan.

Nevertheless, the one demand that has been the most elusive to implement throughout the Zapatistas’ existence has been the implementation of the San Andrés accords.

History of the San Andrés Accords

The San Andrés accords were a set of agreements that both the Mexican Federal government and the Zapatistas agreed to in 1996. The specifics on how the accords could be implemented were provided by the recommendations of the COCOPA commission (the commission is comprised of legislators from the different parties in the Mexican Congress). The COCOPA provisions were approved by the Zapatistas but vetoed by then-President Ernesto Zedillo and never brought before the legislature. Zedillo’s veto came despite the fact that his administration had signed the accords with the Zapatistas. Therefore, the accords were agreed to, but had no provisions for implementation.

The Zapatistas’ demand was clear: the provisions for implementation of the San Andrés accords must be passed without change. That demand was not met, however.

Fox re-introduced the COCOPA provisions into Congress as one of his first acts in December, 2000. The Zapatistas’ demand was clear: the provisions for implementation of the San Andrés accords must be passed without change. That demand was not met, however.

The Mutilation of the “Indigenous Rights Law”

Rather than officially recognize indigenous autonomy in the Mexican federal constitution, the “indigenous law” passed by Congress gives up this responsibility to local states. Such an action is problematic, in that it prevents autonomy for the many indigenous groups whose territory comprises different states, as is often the case in southern Mexico. For decades, the resources (hydro-electric power, oil and wood are prominent examples) of indigenous lands were exploited by non-natives and often sent to Mexico City, without benefits bestowed on the people who live in such territories. The gutted legislation made sure that this problem was not addressed, by omitting the right of the indigenous peoples to the collective use and enjoyment of the natural resources found on their lands and territories, “except under the terms [already] established by this Constitution.” In the passage of the transformed legislation, somewhat surprising was that the center-left party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), voted unanimously in favor of the bill in the senate. The official explanation was a hope to be able to bring about changes to the legislation in the future. Nevertheless, it is arguable that a more accurate explanation for the PRD’s senate vote can be found in a statement from one of its leading senators, Demetrio Sodi de Tijera, who is a member of the COCOPA commission. Sodi de Tijera suggested that the changes made to the indigenous law—and the indigenous law itself—simply were not that important, since “Indian peoples practically do not exist” today, and among those who do, very few are organized in just a handful of “small communities.” Whatever the motive for the PRD in the Senate, the PRD’s bench in the Chamber of Deputies (the other Congressional body in Mexico) did not accede to such thinking and voted unanimously against the gutted legislation (along with three Workers Party deputies and five PRI deputies from the southern and highly indigenous populated state of Oaxaca). Nevertheless, the Chamber still passed the legislation on April 28, as the PAN (National Action Party) unanimously voted along with many PRI deputies in favor of the law (the final vote count was 386–60).

Rather than officially recognize indigenous autonomy in the Mexican federal constitution, the “indigenous law” passed by Congress gives up this responsibility to local states.

Because the legislation was a constitutional amendment, a majority of the respective Mexican state legislatures had to approve the law as well. Immediately following the Congressional approval, though, denunciations of the law came from a range of different sources.

Outcry and Opposition

Strong opposition to the transformed indigenous law came from a wide range of groups and individuals, including public officials, religious leaders, a number of indigenous groups, civil society and of course the EZLN.

PRD deputy Héctor Sánchez López, president of the Indigenous Affairs Commission in the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of Congress), went so far as to call the reform bill “an ultimatum for war.” Former PRI deputy Enrique Ku Herrera, now the leader of the Mexican Indigenous Council, voiced similar sentiments calling the Senate’s actions a “provocation for war.”

The list of opposition from the sector of society most affected by the law, the indigenous people themselves, was not a short one, and included the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), the National Plural Indigenous Assembly for Autonomy (ANIPA), the Yaquis of Sonora, the Guerrero Council “500 Years of Resistance,” and even President Fox’s own representative for indigenous affairs, Xóchitl Gálvez. The CNI announced it would be carrying out a series of national mobilizations to “resist” the imposition of what it considered a constitutional counterreform on indigenous rights.

The Zapatista response to the changes of the indigenous rights legislation was strong, as their communiqué denounced the passage of the transformed law as a “mockery” of the San Andrés Accords. Rebel spokesperson Subcommandante Marcos declared that the name of the “indigenous rights” bill would be better termed the “Constitutional Recognition of the Rights and Culture of the Landowners and Racists.”

Meanwhile, the EZLN further announced that its liaison with the government, Fernando Yañez Muñoz, would “completely suspend his work as contact between the EZLN and the Federal Executive,” and all subsequent “contact between the Fox government and the EZLN” would be halted until “indigenous rights and culture are constitutionally recognized in accordance with the Cocopa initiative.”

In explaining their strong opposition to the legislation, the EZLN stated that the changed bill “completely ignores the national and international demand for recognition of indigenous rights and culture ... and reveals the total divorce between the politicians and popular demands.”

“We know what is coming,” added Marcos. “A media campaign against ‘Zapatista intransigence,’ an increase in military pressure, reactivation of the paramilitary groups, offensive, etc. We’ve seen this film, and we know how it ends (just ask Mr. Zedillo).”

Marcos’ prediction from the spring proved to be accurate based on increased military presence and harassment in Chiapas. According to recent human rights reports, the military has returned to its traditional helicopter fly-bys, its patrols, and also deployed a military convoy in the community of Samaritano.

The municipality of El Trabajo and ejido authorities from Roberto Barrios cited increased threats from paramilitaries, in the form of death threats, destruction of houses, animals killed, assaults, false accusations, and false “trials” by members of the paramilitary group Paz y Justicia. (Paz y Justicia is perhaps best remembered as the group responsible for the 1997 slaughter of 45 indigenous civilians of the pacifist Catholic community of Acteal. Most of the victims were women and children.). There have also been physical and verbal attacks against Zapatista support bases and international peace camp members, and sabotage against a regional clinic and an autonomous school.

During the first week of July the total number of states in favor of the measure reached 17 (ratification into the Mexican Constitution required at least 16 of Mexico’s 31 state legislatures—excepting Mexico City).

Meanwhile, however, the States with the highest respective indigenous populations, Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero all rejected the bill. In the case of Guerrero, rejection came soon after a June 12 peaceful occupation by the indigenous group, “500 Years of Resistance.”

The governors of the two highest indigenous populated states both strongly condemned the legislation throughout its existence, and joined a growing number of individuals and groups who are launching various legal challenges to the amendment

The Supreme Court has already granted a hearing to a complaint by an indigenous municipality in Puebla, while the municipalities of Altamirano, Palenque, Tila, San Jerónimo Tulijá, Salto de Agua-Palenque and the Tuxtla region will make a formal complaint to “demand our rights of access to state institutions as citizens, as well as our rights to take control of matters that affect us directly.” Other groups, including the Network of Community Advocates for Human Rights, are planning legal challenges as well.

Congress Passes Amendment

Shortly after the state legislatures approved the transformed indigenous rights law, the legislation was also ratified via the PRI-PAN majority in Congress. The “authors” of the law in the Congress pushed the decision through the session of Congress on July 18, bypassing regular parliamentary practice and congressional norms in Mexico. The irregularities surrounding the decision included changing the date it was to be discussed as well as the order of the day in Congress. One Mexican newspaper commented that the decision was made via a kind of Mexican version of fast track.

Meanwhile, former members of the National Intermediation Commission (CONAI), responsible for brokering the 1996 San Andrés Accords between the Zapatista Army and the federal government, issued a sobering report this week on the future of the peace process in Chiapas. The group warned that, with the ratification of the “indigenous law,” there are no short-term conditions for a resumption of dialogue and negotiations, and that the “political transition” in Mexico is simply not capable of constructing a solid peace process at this time.

Even worse, they pointed out, is that the message being sent is that “politics is still not capable of being offered as a form of participation and dispute for all sectors and all causes. Thus, for various sectors, the rationale for the use of arms remains in effect....”

If you would like more information on the Zapatistas and their respective struggle, visit the following web page: http://bari.iww.org/~iww-nyc/CUNY

To communicate with the author of this article, you can write to: AndrewInMexico@yahoo.com

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