February 22, 1998, 12 noon. Today, we received news of the assassination of Mr. José Tila Lopez Garcia, a displaced person from the Yosiya community.
Only yesterday morning we, the delegation from the International Civil Observation Commission for Human Rights, were interviewing representatives from northern Chiapas, one of them being José Tila Lopez Garcia, who travelled more than six hours from his community to give his testimony and denounce the human rights situation in the zone. On his return about noon, he and his companions were intercepted by eight heavily armed members of the paramilitary group, "Desarrollo, Paz y Justicia" who have instigated a number of shootings. This murder illustrates the systemic violence of Chiapas, the emergence of paramilitary appendages to the political party (PRI) in power.
About 40 members of the Commission had arrived two days before in two buses at a small community for displaced people in the Zona Norte. This is a six-hour drive from the area best known for violence by the army, the state police and paramilitary groups, who work in collusion. Other groups of the Commission spread out into the other communities
It was early evening, already dark and without electricity. After preliminary discussions and a warm welcome under candlelight, we ate from the food we had brought with us and retired for the night, crowding into two small cement buildings normally used as classrooms.
The real testimonies took place the next day at about nine. Already the warm sun was on us. Tables and chairs had been set up at the edge of an open space in the camp.
Suddenly a group of about 20 Zapatistas appeared with black knitted balaclavas over their faces to protect their identity. We listened to their testimony:
"Other communities are worse. We cannot circulate freely. We are completely encirced and can't work in the fields."
"Crops are destroyed. You see how the people live here. We live worse than you. We have only tortillas and rice, not much else."
"The State Police have come here, as many as 800, with helicopters. One of our people was killed by a grenade. For several days we were forced to flee. Not even a chance to take food with us."
"Justice and Peace are manipulated by the government, given arms."
"Take our testimonies to your countries and tell about the persecution of our people."
Mid-morning, about 15 of us left the main group and walked about an hour and a half walk through forest and farm land to talk with members of Justicia y Paz. They refused to speak with us. We decided to return back to Misopa when unexpectedly, three young men from neighboring communities, one of them José Lopez Garcia, approached us. They had seen us enter the area and were anxious to speak to us. They told stories similar to ones we had already heard and denounced Justice y Paz. José Lopez was killed shortly afterwards. The group obviously meant to send send a message to the indigenous people and to the Commission: "Don't interfere, or else!"
For the most part, this type of violence occurs with impunity. The Commission sent a communiqué and formally read it at a special press conference, followed by a moment's silence in memory of the dead man. The next day a delegation went to the community to meet with the family and attend the funeral. When they got there, their passage was blocked by about 200 local people representing extreme right wing groups, including Justice and Peace, and PRI.
Origin of the Commission
In early February, the Centre de ressources sur la non-violence (where I work) received a fax asking us to take part in the International Civil Observation Mission for Human Rights in Chiapas, where a massacre of 45 people recently had taken place. We agreed that I would go. In all, 210 participants joined of whom seven were from Canada. Most were from Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland and Greece.
Our first preliminary meeting took place in a convent in Mexico City on February 15 where many of the delegates were lodged. The Commission would refuse the "protection" of the army while in the country.
On February 17 it was reported in all the newspapers that 5000 indigenous people marched on the streets on the second anniversary of the San Andres Accords. This agreement offered the indigenous people changes in the consititution which would establish rights to land, education, health care, and the protection of their culture. Negotiations are stalled, but a meeting was planned with the chief negotiator for the government.
The next day we had briefing meetings all day at the university, planning visits to the areas where much of the violence is taking place and the presence of the army is strong. We would also visit prisons, municipalities, and officials from national and state governments and immigration.
The work of the Commission begins
February 17 was a day of travel by air to the capital of Chiapas and then on a two-hour bus ride to San Cristobol. The next day we met at the Cathedral in San Cristobol before dawn where 8 buses awaited, stocked with food and water.The first stop was a refugee community, under clear blue skies. Several hundred people in bright Mayan costumes gave us an exuberant welcome, accompanied by a trumpet band. Many of them - including including men, women and children - had their faces covered. Several of community leaders addressed us. Our visit represented a bit of hope. At least while we there, the army was not in sight. After a couple of hours we divided into several groups, one going to Acteal and ours to Pantelho, a relatively new refugee community.
Before we split up we had to undergo a check-up from the national immigration police. A white civilian truck blocked our passage while 200 visas were "verified" one by one, a procedure which took more than two hours. From our point of view it was obvious harassment.
To get to Pantelho our two buses went as far as a foot path which led us to a suspension bridge over a river. As we were warned, the two-and-a-half-hour trek was difficult, due to the sharp incline of the terrain and the tropical heat. The place was inaccessible for security reasons, but familiar to our guides. We arrived early in the evening at dusk, and accepted the community's invitation to stay for the night. We left early the next morning about six without having interviews but coming to a deeper grasp of the poverty and isolation of the community.
Back in San Cristobol I spoke briefly with a Swiss woman whose group had gone to Acteal and listened to the survivors of the massacre. In spite of the tragedy they were not seeking revenge, but a peaceful solution to the situation in Chiapas. A small group met with the Mayor of San Cristobol, who did not have many kind words about the 25,000 or so Mayan refugees who were forced to live on the streets because of the violence in the surrounding area.
Militarization of Chiapas
During our stay in Chiapas the only military presence we saw were a few small army posts alongside the road. The people told us that during the presence of the Commission in Chiapas the army was not much in evidence. Just the same, it was common to see soldiers in non-combat roles, such as paving roads.
The government says the improved roads are for the benefit of the communities but also it gives the army easier access into the territories. Also, we were told that about one-third of the Mexican army is in the conflict zones in Chiapas. (These figures were contested by the Ambassador of Mexico to Canada, Sandra Fuentes, who stated at the Consulate in Montreal that the number of troops was closer to 5,000.)
The emergence of paramilitary groups in Mexico
As shown by the death of José Tila Lopez Garcia, there has been a rapid increase of paramilitary groups in Mexico, especialy in Chiapas in recent years. The latest figure is 14. The group, Desarollo Paz y Justice, in particular, was founded and is directed by Samuel Sanchez Sanchez, a PRI member of the state legislature. Their purpose is to provoke conflict in the communities, displace the people, and destroy the infrastructure of popular organizations. This done by threats, kidnapping, assassinations, burning of homes, torture, theft of land and personal property. They are linked to large landowners and the PRI and cooperate with the military and police.Their arms and money come from these sources.
Report of the International Civil Observation Commission
The final report of the Commission, completed at the end of March, gives a detailed account of the testimonies of the people interviewed. It lists 91 denunciations of human rights violations as expressed by people in the communities, underlining the fact that 66.7% of the population of Chiapas suffer from malnutrition and 69% from illiteracy, while 67% lack electricity. Of the total population of 3,600,000, around 1,200,000 are indigenous. It strongly recommends the application of the San Andres Accords, thereby entrenching indigenous rights in the constitution and in law. It will be distributed widely and presented to Lloyd Axworthy, Canadian Foreign Minister. Among its recommendations: put an end to militarisation and paramilitary groups; put a stop to impunity for those who commit crimes against human rights; grant amnesty to all political prisoners; return displaced people to their communities of origin, and appoint a special U.N. observer for Mexico.