Chiapas, the darkness they won’t show the Pope
Flor Goche, Desinformémonos
Pope Francis (Papa Francisco) will arrive in Chiapas on February 15th. He will first visit San Cristobal de las Casas, a place emblematic in Mexico for the racism that is practised there on a daily basis, while paradoxically, the city is located in a valley surrounded by a combative indigenous population.
Isaac Guzman / Colectivo Tragameluz
Here he will officiate mass in the municipal sports centre, where in the entrance they will re-create the frontage of the Cathedral of San Cristobal, colourful standard of the city with its plaza full of craft workers from the area. The official protocol is that, following the homily, the head of the Catholic church in the world will receive a Bible translated into Tsotsil from a select group of indigenous.
Afterwards, Pope Francis, during his first official visit to Mexico, will be visiting Tuxtla Gutierrez, the city that is the headquarters of the public authorities of Chiapas, where he will meet with an equally select group of believers in a sports centre of 60 thousand square metres.
Representing Mexican society, the “good indigenous” and the “good Mexican” will be there: the fragmented reality that the Mexican government wants to show the pope.
Around 100 million pesos have been allocated for the organization of the visit, all that money coming from the public purse. This represents another paradox because in Chiapas the poverty index is rising, while the education, health and infrastructure index is falling, according to the national statistics. However, the government is working hard to embellish the image of the urban city; in the field trips to identify and attack possible risks; and in the recruitment of more than 30 thousand volunteers.
However, the Catholic church no longer has hegemony in Chiapas. 60 per cent of the indigenous population are not Catholic – the indigenous population represents 50 per cent of the total population and they live in more than 70 per cent of the territory of Chiapas. Many of the indigenous are now evangelical, “an important growth” said the anthropology expert in Chiapas, Arturo Lomeli Gonzalez. In fact, the municipal president of San Cristobal de las Casas, Marco Antonio Cancino, is an evangelical.
Noe Pineda / Colectivo Tragameluz
Given that the discourse of the leadership of the Catholic Church is one of forgiveness and forgetting, we will have to be attentive to the main paradox of the papal visit to Chiapas, an entity which like many other regions of Mexico and Central America carries long-term problems, the resolution of which has been postponed for the convenience of interests of a diverse nature.
One of the main examples of this paradox is the specific case of the Maya-Tsotsil group Las Abejas of Acteal. According to Arturo Lomeli, Las Abejas is the most vulnerable organization in the whole state because, even though they keep up a fight of resistance against the government, they are not Zapatistas.
The basic demand of Las Abejas is for justice for the massacre that took place on December 22nd 1997, when 45 members of their community who were praying in church were brutally murdered. The ideology of Las Abejas “has gone beyond evangelical Catholicism” to “create their own form of religion.” They have incorporated indigenous elements and some elements from the classical Maya into traditional Catholicism.
Catholic discourse is based on the principles of forgiveness and forgetting, but Las Abejas go further and include the principle of justice. However, conservative preachers tell them that they have to leave their dead to rest in peace without justice. This is the main paradox. The Pope speaks of justice “but let’s see what happens with this case,” says Arturo Lomeli, author of Las instituciones político religiosas de los pueblos indios de Chiapas.
According to Pedro Faro Navarro, Director of the Human Right Centre Fray Bartolome de las Casas (Frayba) located in San Cristobal de las Casas, in the Chiapas of governor Manuel Velasco Coello -current president and member of the Green Ecologist Party of Mexico (PVEM)- “the whole picture is fairly dark and it seems to be getting more complicated through a sustained, corrupt and evil institutional action to generate violent scenarios.”
As a consequence, among the 13 indigenous Maya and Zoque peoples in the state there is “a strong humanitarian and human right crisis and a persistent denial and concealment of the conflicts, which are being administered, instead of resolved.”
This dark scenario is one that the Pope Francis is not going to see. Nor will he see that of the control and continuous plunder of their land, which exists today due to the imposition of the structural reforms, and is worsening and becoming “fertile ground.”
However, faced with this difficult situation, different ways arise of defending territory, which is “the backbone of the indigenous communities” and life: the ways of the Zapatista movement, and those of the adherents of the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle, and, in general, all the movements and efforts that support autonomies.
Carla Morales / Colectivo Tragameluz
In contrast, with the leadership of the Catholic Church far away from the reality of the people, Frayba –a secular organization inspired by Catholic Church and founded by Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia- articulates itself with “the church of the faithful people (el pueblo creyente)” which according to Pedro Faro “is strong, dynamic and active because it is a church that asserts the historic demands of the indigenous communities.”
In an interview with Desinformémonos, both Arturo Lomeli and Pedro Faro talk about the main problems of the southern Mexican state and its people, who are mainly indigenous. This scenario, however, is not going to be shared with the Pope in his visit.
Territorial dispossession caused by mega-projects, militarisation, paramilitarism, ungovernability, forced displacement, surveillance and harassment against those who defend human rights, torture, unjust imprisonment, feminicide, migration, presence of criminal groups.
Arturo Lomeli said that “not even with all the prayers of the Pope, will the violence and all the problems stop.”
Over the Chiapas landscape an increasing number of mega-projects that involve dispossession are currently being planned. Mining, infrastructure, tourism, highways and renewable energy, these projects are reinforced by the new structural reforms.
Referring to mining concessions, it is well known that already 200 concessions have been given, mainly in the region of the frontier with Guatemala and the northern part of the state. According to Arturo Lomeli, mining itself is not the main issue, but the way they exploit the landscape. It is “extractive capitalism that destroys the territory.”
Pedro Faro says that mega-projects violate the communities which defend their autonomy. They also violate the rights of the indigenous communities, such as the right to consultation, which have been granted by national and international laws. “Indigenous communities are clear that they don’t want these projects because they mean that their sacred territories, their ancestral lands and their forests will be taken away.”
Even though, as Arturo Lomeli says, “in political terms there is a respectful discourse towards Zapatismo, the reality is different.”
Frayba affirms that incursions by the Mexican Army, particularly in Zapatista territory, continue, along with the monitoring and military harassment towards the Zapatista Junta de Buen Gobierno in la Realidad.
To date, Pedro Faro confirms, Chiapas is the state which has the largest number of military camps. Just in the grey area or conflict zone there are around 72 camps. The military occupation is like the “war strategy of the hammer and the anvil, whose main objective is to fence in the Zapatista movement.”
Paramilitarism and new forms of counter-insurgency
At least six paramilitary groups have been acknowledged in Chiapas since the emergence of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). Their worst actions date from the 1990s, a period in which they were strongly supported by the State, when paramilitary groups were responsible for the displacement, execution and disappearance of people, but they were never fully dismantled.
Noe Pineda / Colectivo Tragameluz
Paramilitarism is maintained thanks to the “wall of impunity” which is sustained by the Mexican State. The groups and the weapons are still there and they reappear when the government considers it necessary, as in the case, for example, in the municipality of Tila, says Pedro Faro.
Since 2000, Frayba has identified a change in the official counter-insurgency strategy, which in the past was operated in a privileged manner through paramilitary groups. Now co-optation and social programmes are the favourite tools used by the government.
In respect of co-optation, Pedro Faro says that several organizations that previously were identified as left wing, have dramatically changed the orientation of their politics in exchange for handouts. This, for example, is the case with the Central Independiente de Obreros Agrícolas y Campesinos Histórica, which in 2014 declared itself to have self-defence groups, which today, with all the support of the government, are responsible for aggressions and displacements against various communities.
These groups prevail, above all, “in Zapatista regions or where there are new projects claiming autonomy or generating an alternative to the capitalist system”, he points out.
Arturo Lomeli elaborates on this theme. He says that in the 1990s, around 70 thousand hectares were occupied by Zapatista groups. Some of them were occupied with the help of certain left wing organizations. However, following the co-optation by the Government of the leaders of these organizations (among them, the Organización Campesina Emiliano Zapata, the Coalición de Organizaciones Autónomas de Ocosingo and the Asociación Rural de Interés Colectivo), at the beginning of the year 2000 they started evicting Zapatista families from around 70 places located in the municipalities of Chilón, Tila, Yajalon, Sitalá, Ocosingo and Las Margaritas.
In seven communities in Chiapas: Oxchuc, Chanal, Huixtan, San Juan Chamula, Ixtapa and Altamirano, there is, to a greater or lesser extent, a situation of ungovernability and violence perpetrated by the State.
The conflicts originate in struggles between the political elites that have to do, for example, with the imposition of various municipal presidents from the PVEM, the political party that is governing the state.
These are places where “simulated democracy”, “neo-liberal democracy”, is more apparent. Places where the official positions are inherited between families, either congenitally or through political relations; in addition, in these places the manipulation and purchase of consciences rules, in line with the worst practices of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), says Pedro Faro.
In this regard, Arturo Lomeli clarifies that alongside the indigenous world of the Zapatista left, there is also an important sector articulated with the political system, which depends on the projects and on government support. It is the indigenous pro-government world; the one that participates in the “receiving things fairs” in exchange for votes.
According to Frayba, there have been at least four recent forced displacements in Chiapas which involved some 70 families: Viejo Velasco (2006), San Marcos Avilés (2010), Banavil (2011), Primero de Agosto (2012). These displacements are mainly related to internal armed conflicts organized by the State through power groups.
There are other displacements related to religious conflicts or the imposition of mega-projects.
As a consequence of the construction of the Chichoasen II hydroelectric dam, the people of the municipality are currently living with the risk of forced displacement
Monitoring and aggression against defenders
A symbol of “State terrorism”, in 2015, Frayba was aware of the following cases of vigilance and aggression against defenders of human rights: harassment toward the Centro de Derechos Humanos de la Mujer de Chiapas; three raids and various damages against the Servicio Internacional para la Paz; a raid on the home of Julio Ortega, member of the Comisión Sexta of the EZLN; assaults, death threats and defamation against Father Marcelo Perez and the Parish Council of Simojovel, who have revealed the criminal powers that operate in the region; infiltration by some members of the Army in order to engage in espionage, as happened in a caravan of solidarity with La Realidad.
Frayba, in fact, has many precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, due to the constant surveillance they have experienced, not to mention the obstruction of their work documenting the inside of the prisons.
In 2015, Frayba documented 17 cases of torture, mainly against males. The pattern identified is as follows: before the torture begins, local authorities use excessive physical force to make an arbitrary detention. Their main objective is incrimination for certain prefabricated criminal offences.
Previously, the favourite targets for torture were the social fighters. Today it is generalized and used indiscriminately against anyone who expresses any claim, or even against those who were accidentally just passing by a protest.
Although Frayba is not aware of any recent case of political prisoners in the state, Pedro Faro says that prisons in Chiapas are full of people who are unjustly imprisoned. Many of them, he explains, are indigenous imprisoned because they don’t have a lawyer, through false accusations, or simply because of their condition of marginalization and poverty.
The defender highlights the poor prison conditions and the violations of due process which are characteristic of these cases. And he adds: “The state prisons are being transformed into areas of torture and terror to break a human being”.
Currently Frayba is following two cases of feminicide perpetrated in the state. Pedro Faro comments on the increasing number of these cases where “government actions are derisory” since the state institutions, “grounded in a patriarchal system”, allow and tolerate violence toward women.
Fabian Vidal / Colectivo Tragameluz
Although migration took an upturn at the end of the 1990s, between 2000 and 2005 the phenomenon has seen a decline, derived from various causes. Even so, most of the income of families in Chiapas comes from remittances, comments Arturo Lomeli.
Migration is an excuse for the prolongation of the military presence in Chiapas and also brings other problems as a consequence, such as crime and people trafficking.
Despite the official discourse that Chiapas is one of the safest states in Mexico, Frayba states that the presence of criminal groups is evident, particularly in the border area: in Tapachula and Palenque. Pedro Faro says: “state authorities are not doing anything to dismantle these groups. The Army and the local government protects them and the local press hides them.”
Translated by the UK Zapatista Translation Collective