Last Monday's massacre in Aj'teal, Chiapas, which left 45 dead and 20 wounded, had been announced and anticipated for months. Mexico has seen marches, US delegations, local pleas and testimonies by the walking wounded sleeping under plastic sheets without blankets or food. But it wasn't enough.
The local Indian people denounced the exaggerated militarisation of Indian villages in Chiapas and the proven links between armed paramilitaries and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary party, (PRI). Last Sunday Mexico's daily paper 'La Jornada' published a document signed by state governor Julio Cesar Ruiz Ferro, confirming the handover of US$450,000 to 'Paz y Justicia,' a PRI-linked paramilitary group. The alarm bells sounded but Chiapas governor Ruiz Ferro simply denied the existence of any paramilitary groups and carried on with business as usual.
Last Monday morning however the illusion was shattered. Between 11am and 3pm, 60 armed men surrounded hundreds of refugees huddled under a plastic tarp in Aj'teal, north Chiapas, mercilessly cutting down the defenseless displaced people. The refugees had fled their homes after threats by paramilitaries with names like Red mask and Anti-Zapatista Revolutionary Movement, who have spread fear and violence through the Chenalho municipality. The rise of the armed groups coincided with the growing influence of Zapatista supporters who have successfully installed an autonomous ruling assembly in the area.
In Chenalho like all Chiapas villages there was only one political party until 1994, the PRI, which won upward of 100% of votes in local and national elections. Once the local officials delivered the votes to the PRI, the villages remained at peace. After 1994 however, villagers openly supported the demands of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, (EZLN) and in last year's municipal vote, 63.2% of Chenalho's villagers cast a vote for Zapatista-linked candidates.
The defeated PRI 'caciques' (local political bosses) sought help from security forces to prevent the Zapatistas from gaining further ground, hence the threats, burned-out homes and 4,500 displaced people.
The state governor Julio Ruiz Ferro denied the existence of the paramilitaries, inserting large paid advertisements in the national press, announcing the return of displaced people and financial aid to rebuild homes and replace lost possessions. Just a week ago this journalist visited Chenalh'o municipality to witness the living conditions of Chiapas' displaced.
Across a mist-filled muddy hillside close to Polh'o, in the municipality of Chenalho, there were 23 families, 106 men, women and children, living under a leaky tarp sustained by six wooden poles. The coughs and sneezes of the children announced the camp, where the local Zapatista-led council opened the village doors to the refugees, but had no food, blankets or shelter to offer.
The bloody massacre, painfully reminiscent of Central America and Colombian wars, is a wake-up call to Mexico's complacent ruling party. There will be loud condemnation by Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, by state officials, opposition parties, church representatives and the press.
But the structures which led to the creation of the irregular Rambos will remain untouched. The key factor in sustaining those paramilitaries is the impunity of armed forces and PRI-linked officials. On January 7th 1994, hundreds of troops occupied the village of Morelia, inside the conflict zone, looking for Zapatistas. Three elderly men were tortured, disappeared and killed. In June 1994 three Tzeltal women were raped by a dozen soldiers at an army roadblock outside Altamirano. Not a single soldier has been prosecuted. In sharp contrast, one soldier who is safely behind bars is General Felix Gallardo, imprisoned after his public call to create an army ombudsman.
The Chiapas scenario has been played out in Colombia, where paramilitaries were first trained by the army, financed by landowners and acknowledged by no one. Then came the first deaths, bringing horror, condemnation and eventually resignation. The paramilitaries are a frankenstein with a life of their own now and some 20,000 would-be Rambos are sowing death and destruction in Colombia's tortured countryside.
In the past month the deaths in Colombia have become football scores, one day 15 dead, 14 the next, then 23 then 30, a grisly necro-statistical count. When the international outcry became too loud, Colombian authorities located and detained a renowned paramilitary leader within 48 hours, despite years of denial of their very existence.
The only way to end the violence in Chiapas is to resolve the deep-rooted causes which gave rise to the 1994 rebellion. The first step has already been taken, in January 1996, with the signing of the San Andres peace accord on 'Indigenous Culture and Rights,' but the government has blocked all attempts to implement the accord. The US public and the Bill Clinton administration have considerable influence over Mexican affairs and should act now to prevent further bloodshed. ends..
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