A Visit to Taniperla

By Richard Plevin

Chiapas is not the news you read in the paper, nor the daily ration of horror. Chiapas is a place of dignity, a source of rebellion in a pathetically numb world. We should continue traveling to Chiapas and talking about Chiapas. They are asking us to do this. A sign hanging at the exit of the Polhó refugee camp reads: "When the last of you has gone, what will become of us?"

They don't know that once you have been to Chiapas you can never leave.

- José Saramago

It's our second checkpoint of the morning. An hour earlier, in El Real, a couple of sleepy troopers had asked our names and nationalities, scribbled down our license plate number, then let us pass without incident. This time, six teenage soldiers in full battle fatigues have encircled our minivan, glaring at us from all sides, cradling automatic weapons. The head honcho and one of his underlings approach the side door, which we open.

"Buenos días. Where are you going?" Our group leader, Francisco, steps out to address them.

"We're going to Aguas Azules." Francisco smiles like an extroverted tour guide, offering the name of a well-known ecological preserve in southeastern Chiapas, just beyond the community of Taniperla.

"Where are they from?" asks the soldier, nodding toward the eight gringos in the back of the van.

Francisco explains that we are all Americans except for himself and the driver.

The soldier scans our faces, pausing to contemplate Pedro, a Yaqui Indian from Arizona. Then, in violation of Mexican law, the soldier asks to see our passports. In Mexico, only immigration officials have this authority. For that matter, the entire checkpoint is unconstitu- tional: All law enforcement falls to civilian authorities under Mex- ico's constitution. The army is limited to such activities as defending borders.

Ostensibly the checkpoint serves to enforce the law of firearms and explosives, but it is not firearms that they aim to control. Looking past Francisco, the officer asks us, "You're not going to do any type of investigation?"

The checkpoint is actually part of a government crackdown on foreign "observers." To be an "observer" in Mexico requires a special visa whose pre-conditions (such as detailing all places and people to be visited) render it worthless for professional human rights workers and impossible to obtain for anyone else.

The 83 participants of the Mexico Solidarity Network's Tri-national Friendship Delegation to Chiapas are not professional human rights observers, just concerned citizens from Canada, Mexico, and the United States who want to know, first hand, what is happening in Mexico's poorest state. Our mission is one of well-being. Various communities have invited us to visit, share their lives, and hear their stories. These activities fit the strictest requirements of Mexico's tourist visa, which specifically permits visits of culture and friendship.

Playing Soldier with U.S. Rifles

We pull away from the checkpoint, leaving the soldiers in our dusty wake. Wending through a succession of increasingly jarring dirt roads, the group falls quiet, gazing out into the passing scenery. The lush hills and valleys of the highlands offer endlessly changing and consistently beautiful landscapes. There are many indigenous people walking along the road, mothers with small children, men and boys with machetes. But my mind continues to dwell on the sixteen-year-olds playing soldier with made-in-the-USA rifles and Humvees. Do these children actually believe they are enforcing the law of firearms and explosives?

We finally arrive in Taniperla, coasting to rest in front of a cluster of rickety wooden homes. A dozen men, a few women and a gaggle of curious children approach the van. We emerge from the vehicle, pressing dozens of hands and exchanging countless buenos días.

Alejandro, one of the community leaders, welcomes us and leads us to a large communal center. The building sported a roof until three months ago, when, immediately after declaring the creation of an autonomous government, the community was "dismantled" by the federal army and state police. All that remains is what didn't burn: four cinder block walls and a dirt floor.

Inside the community center, scores of villagers are milling about. We have arrived in time for the corn festival. Besides dancing and eating, this year's festival will include prayers for rain. The villagers expect widespread hunger this fall, given a drought and a spate of suspicious firestorms. Today, however, food is available for all. A leathery old woman hovering over an enormous aluminum cauldron offers us chicken soup in scuffed plastic bowls of translucent colors. Even the vegetarians in our group consume the soup in an act of solidarity.

A group of musicians arrive with violins, guitars and a huge guitarrón. As they huddle together to tune their instruments, Alejandro asks us to a meeting at his house, just outside the community center. It's a humble, single-room structure of flimsy wood slats and a dirt floor. A cooking fire smolders in the corner on top of a primitive stove. A well-worn hammock stretches from corner to corner, separating the cooking and sleeping areas.

Alejandro begins by telling us that the community is afraid. Although they were expecting us, they would like to review the letter of introduction provided to us by a trusted non-governmental organization in San Cristóbal. Balancing hospitality with precaution, our hosts explain that they are worried because of ongoing threats against community members. Moments earlier, two undercover members of the state police were discovered in the community center asking questions about our delegation.

As Alejandro reviews our credentials, an announcement in Tzeltal crackles from a distant loudspeaker. He stops reading, listens, and exchanges a few words with the compañeros. He tells us that the priistas, inhabitants of the pro-government side of the community, who live half a kilometer away, are being called for a meeting. Rather than remain with us in the breezy comfort of the house, our hosts take position outside, addressing us through two cutouts that serve as windows. As our eyes adjust to the dark interior, the men's faces fade into silhouette, framed in the glare of the July sun, reappearing when they glance over their shoulders, which they do frequently.

Juanita and the Marauders

Alejandro introduces a shell-shocked woman named Juanita who offers her eyewitness account of the events of April 11, 1998. She tells us that at five in the morning, the army, the state and federal police, and members of paramilitary groups entered the communal land, burning houses and documents, destroying food, robbing the cooperative store, and stealing their hard earned money. Juanita drones in a soft monotone, rarely lifting her unfocused gaze from the floor. "We never did anything. We are now very poor - we won't have a good harvest and we don't have money to buy what we need. We are not happy to live like this."

Next a young man named José tells us that his father was one of the eight men arrested on false charges and taken to Cerro Hueco prison in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, a day and a half away by foot and bus - if the family had money for the trip, which it doesn't. His father's absence, José tells us, is causing his mother and his young siblings great suffering.

After thanking the villagers for their testimonies, Francisco informs our hosts of our plan to visit the priistas. The announcement is met with wide eyes and tense glances around the room. The community leaders confer in Tzeltal, their voices low, their words clipped. Although they had permitted us to record the testimonies, they suggest that we remove the tapes to prevent the priistas from hearing their words. They warn us that the priistas will tell us that the zapatistas set fire to the priista coffee fields, when it was actually the army that set the fire to force the men out of the woods.

Leaving behind the welcoming zapatista side of the community, we start across what has become a militarized buffer zone. The community's elementary school and health clinic are protected behind rolls of cortina wire, transformed into a military base for the Bases de Operaciónes Mixtas-the combined forces of army, police and immigration officials - since shortly after the April 11 operation.

Three military men meet us as we reach the base of the hill leading to the priista community. One is clad in the olive green of the army, another in the blue and black of the state police. They are accompanied by a tall, curly-haired man wearing a tank top and shiny black nylon shorts. Although he does all the talking, he reveals neither his name nor the authority he represents. He wants to know why we're here, and tells us that it would be best if we would leave; if we stick around, we might be detained, then his guys would have to get involved, which would be uncomfortable for everyone. "You know," he confides, "these Indians are very confrontational."

Francisco insists that we want no trouble; we're interested only in meeting the people and saying hello, talking to them for a short while. The one in shorts tells that if we intend to visit, we must first confer with the responsables - those responsible for the community.

We proceed up the hill into the small priista community, smiling and greeting the women and children, who glare at us from doorways and windows, ducking inside if we pay them too much attention. Halfway up the hill, a group of 25 to 30 men and boys have congregated in the shade of a low building, waiting for us. There isn't a friendly face in the crowd.

We are directed to two men, perhaps in their thirties, sitting on a short cinder block wall in front of the pack. The one on the left greets us coldly, immediately informing us that their community is not interested in foreign observers. The one on the right tells us that they watched us arrive in the zapatista community and attend the "little party." He spits out the disparaging diminutive, fiestita, more angry with his zapatista neighbors than with us.

While we are talking, the green uniform and the blue uniform arrive, quietly taking position behind us. Blue scribbles notes; Green looks bored, hands behind his back, his expression cool and vacant.

A man in the back, with crossed arms and a creased brow, calls out: "We're fed up with foreigners!" Yes, they are angry, especially since early May, when a large group of boisterous and troublesome Italian visitors pushed past an immigration checkpoint, visiting Taniperla against the wishes of authorities. Another man calls out, "We don't need foreigners here-we can solve our own problems!"

We Don't need foreigners here!

Francisco explains that we neither want to, nor are we able to, solve their problems. We want only to speak to them, to visit them, just as we did with the zapatistas.

One of the "responsables" asks to see our tourist visas, which we present. One by one, he jots down the names and numbers in a large, tattered notebook. While no civilian has the right to ask for such documentation, we comply to show good faith, recognizing that such data is useful only to immigration authorities, to whom it will surely be delivered. But our gesture is in vain-after recording our information, he tells us that we must leave.

Francisco asks the leader what will happen if we stay the night with our friends. "Well," he says, "the people from the other districts will come, and they won't be happy." The threat is unspoken but significant: the last two groups of foreign visitors were chased from Taniperla by these same priistas wielding sticks and throwing stones.

But We are Turistas!

The other "responsable" holds up a typewritten agreement between representatives of priista minority from Taniperla and the two other communities. The document is dated April 26, 1998 and is signed with three scrawled names and one inky thumb print. The agreement states that they want neither foreign observers nor non-governmental human rights groups in their communities. If visitors come anyway, they will be urged to leave immediately. If the word of the community is not heeded, "other measures" will be taken.

"But," we insist, "we are not observadores." We are turistas. We're here out of friendship, no more. Obviously, we are being somewhat disingenuous. Although we are tourists, and although we are breaking no laws and are staying out of Mexican political matters, we are indeed observers. We observe poverty and fear; we observe the occupation of the school and health clinic. We observe the minority of the community dictating that the majority cannot receive guests, and that their threats are overheard by, and apparently acceptable to, both the army and police. We observe armed roadblocks, and we can't help but observe their overwhelming concern that we might be observers.

While Francisco discusses our dwindling options with the leadership, Pedro, the senior member of our contingent, takes a silver box from his shirt pocket. Keeping one cigarette for himself, he extends his arm towards the men nearest him. At first no one responds, so he verbalizes his offer. One man, still scowling, takes a cigarette and nods gracias. Another man accepts the offer, then two more. As Pedro holds out his lighter for each, their harsh faces soften, tense shoulders begin relax and the first crack of a smile appears. Pedro explains that he too is indígena, and that his tribe is divided between Arizona and northern Mexico. He was raised speaking Yaqui, Spanish and English. The men listen silently, respectfully, nodding occasionally.

Accepting their unwillingness to negotiate, we say our goodbyes. We tell them that we know there is a lot of tension and that it might not be the best time to visit. Perhaps some other time? Yes, they agree, perhaps. We return down the hill, disappointed, but relieved at being the first international delegation in months that was not run out of town by an angry mob.

We return to the zapatista community, reporting our exchange to Alejandro. At first he stomps about, fuming, insisting that they have done nothing wrong. "The priistas are the minority - not just in Taniperla, but in the municipality. How dare they tell us what to do?" He feels that the community must not yield to these threats, saying "Simple fear is going to defeat us!" He asks if we plan to stay or go, but we return the question to the community - it is they who are most at risk if we stay, so it is they who must decide. Alejandro leaves to discuss the matter with his compañeros.

In his absence, our group discusses our two uncomfortable options - stay and risk a violent confrontation, or leave at the first sign of trouble, showing the community that our solidarity is only skin deep. An important part of our mission is accompaniment - which we can't demonstrate by leaving. We vote unanimously to stay if the community leaders wish us to stay, or to leave if they prefer to avoid confrontation.

As we wait somberly for an answer from the community leaders, exchanging forced smiles and small talk, two chicks cluck their way across the dirt floor and begin tugging slivers of meat off a dusty, cooked chicken wing, apparently not recognizing the victim as one of their own, nor seeing their own fate in that of their fallen comrade, who was likely a member of their own family. The chicks eat their fill and wander back out into the sunlight.

Several men are now returning with our bags, piling them just outside the door. A decision has been reached.

the dangerous typewriter

Relieved, yet disappointed, we gather our belongings and our weary bodies into the van. Two men from the community squeeze in, requesting a ride up the hill, just a short distance outside Taniperla. One of the m n carries a sack of food, the other hauls one of the Zapatista's most dangerous weapons: a manual typewriter. We drop them by a path leading into the woods, presumably to where the other community leaders are hiding. Without lingering over the goodbyes, they thank us for our visit and invite us to return as soon as possible. They climb down and disappear into the Chiapan jungle.

The van accelerates onto the rough road, and the delegation members settle in for the six-hour journey back to San Cristóbal. The group is quiet, fatigued, and sad. Most of us will never again venture to Taniperla. Nor, as Saramago points out, shall we ever truly leave.

Note: all names have been changed.

Richard Plevin is a political activist based in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at rich@plevin.com.

This is Richard Plevin's second trip to Chiapas. The first visit was shortly after the massacre in Acteal. This time he had to pretend not to be an observer.

Priista versus Zapatista

The term priista refers to supporters of the ruling government, who are identified as members of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional or PRI. It is notable that the term "paramilitary" is not often used to describe armed bands. The opposition communities simply call the paramilitaries priistas.

Similarly, the army, police, and paramilitaries make little distinction between members of the zapatista army (EZLN), zapatista civilian support bases, members of the opposition Partido Revolucionario Democratica (PRD), or religious communities like Las Abejas, who support demands for justice, democracy, and indigenous rights but reject armed struggle as a means of realizing them. All of these are considered zapatista, including the 45 unarmed members of Las Abejas who were massacred in Acteal last December.

Membership in an opposition party is rightly viewed as an affront to the monopoly of power that has resulted from seven decades of single-party rule. Either you are for the ruling party, or you are against it - this is the dividing line around which the violence revolves.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1998

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1998, page 21. Some rights reserved.

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