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Draft Proposal for Mexico Solidarity Network delegation to Chiapas, July 2-9, 1998

War Escalating in Chiapas

by Wendy Courtemanche

"Somos turistas"—"We are tourists."

The soldier at the military checkpoint on the road to Polhˇ, Mexico, inspected our bus, accepting our explanation that we were taking food donations to the displaced population living in the region.

Our group, 15 visitors on a delegation to Chiapas organized by Global Exchange, (a group which organizes "Reality Tours" to teach visitors of local life and struggles) was traveling to the autonomous municipality in which Acteal is located, to meet with Luciano, the EZLN representative there. His message to us would echo a recurring theme throughout this trip.

"We want all the world to know that Chiapas is full of soldiers, 75,000 of them," explained Luciano. "There are 18 military camps just in Polhˇ We are totally surrounded by the military."

One of the results of the ongoing militarization in Chiapas is an increasing number of persons displaced by violence—10,500 in the highlands alone, with estimates of up to 20,000 total in the state. Lack of resources such as shelter, health care and especially food, is a major problem in the makeshift camps set up to house this population. In the intensifying climate of xenophobia in the region, the Mexican government has refused the help of the International Red Cross.

The previous day we had met with a representative from the CONAI (the National Mediation Commission). He stated that the militarization in Chiapas had worsened following the Acteal massacre, with the justification that the soldiers were helping to protect the communities from further violence. The CONAI, headed by Bishop Samuel Ruiz, had just released a statement to the press condemning the militarization and the following day the church door had been firebombed.

The communities we visited did not feel protected by this military presence. In Polhˇ, Luciano told us, "The government is not willing to resolve the problems in Chiapas- it just wants to kill all the indigenous. We feel closed in, like pigs in a pen. The only thing the government ever sends us is bullets."

In the community named Che Guevara we spoke with Isidro, the municipal president (similar to a mayor in the US), about why they had chosen to form an autonomous community the previous September.

"The ranchers had taken the land of our grandparents and great-grandparents, who were sent into the mountains to live in caves. They were left with bones while the ranchers ate meat. The government has treated us like animals.

"Now we've reclaimed our land but they won't leave us in peace. We have to stay alert like animals who can't sleep for fear of what may happen to them."

Military bases now surround all these "communities in resistance," as they call themselves, in an ever-tightening noose. Men in these communities are no longer able to go out to work. The soldiers have brought drugs, prostitution, and STD's, even AIDS, into these villages. There have been reports of bags of poisonous snakes being dropped from military planes over fields being readied for planting.

In La Realidad, another community, residents live in fear from the military's constant air maneuvers over their community. Planes fly so close to the ground that the faces of the pilots can easily be seen, and children throw stones at them in dead earnest of reaching them. Hermann Bellinghausen of La Jornada, an opposition daily, writes that he has "never seen such a real and terrible representation of the story of David and Goliath."

Bishop Samuel Ruiz described to us the government's current strategy as one of "taking the water from the fish" by attempting to destroy the communities which are the bases of support for the Zapatistas.

"Acteal," Bishop Ruiz began, referring to the 'Christmas massacre' of 45 unarmed indigenous people near the town of Chenalhˇ, "was not an isolated event, but the result of a deliberate strategy of violence, an intentional act against those involved in construction of autonomous municipalities, which the San Andres Accords said were going to be formed."

The targets of this undeclared war are not only EZLN supporters but any group that advocates for change or resists the monopoly of power held by the PRI (which ruled unchallenged for nearly 70 years) and by wealthy landowners. A legacy of violence continues unabated against members of opposition political parties, especially the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution, a legally recognized party, which split from the monopolistic PRI in 1988), and against campesino groups who have organized themselves around issues of land reform. A parallel campaign is also being waged against the Catholic Church, which has chosen to stand with the poor and dispossessed in Chiapas.

From all we saw and heard in Chiapas, it is obvious that the situation is at a crisis point, and the level of the intensity of this crisis is rapidly escalating. In the past few weeks, military raids on autonomous communities have intensified, with increasing numbers of arrests of Zapatista supporters and expulsions of international human rights observers. It is imperative that we actively demonstrate our support for those struggling for freedom and democracy in Chiapas as well as our concern regarding the repressive actions of the Mexican government.

On April 25 in Washington, DC, 250 activists from around the country met for an emergency caucus on the war in Chiapas. Out of this meeting, the Mexico Solidarity Network was formed to coordinate actions and communication regarding the current situation in Mexico. Several immediate actions that have been recommended include "Mexican Mondays," for calls and faxes to the US and Mexican governments to voice concerns about Chiapas, and a plan for a large, high-profile delegation to Chiapas, currently scheduled for July 2-9.

For more information about the Mexico Solidarity Network, call Kevin Kresse at (919) 416-0574.

  Wendy Courtemanche is a nurse living in Carrboro. This was her fourth trip to Chiapas. She plans to return there this summer to work as a volunteer.  
Draft Proposal for Mexico Solidarity Network delegation to Chiapas, July 2-9, 1998

Rationale: The moment is right for a large national delegation to Chiapas, Mexico. Human rights abuses are rampant and increasing throughout the state. In many cases, international observers form the only line of defense for indigenous communities. As part of their strategy of low intensity warfare, the Mexican government began a campaign of expulsions against foreigners early this year. The result is less human rights observers, at a time when they are needed more than ever. A national delegation of 100 to 200 organized along the lines of the recent successful European delegations will send a message to the people of Chiapas that they are not alone. And alarge high profile delegation will send a message to solidarity activists in the U.S. encouraging their travel to Chiapas.

Organization: The newly formed Mexico Solidarity Network is leading a nation-wide effort to organize a delegation of 100 to 200. Since the Mexico Solidarity Network has only one staff at this point, the project will succeed with the active participation of the Network Council and grassroots groups. Information can be centralized in Chicago at the temporary home of the Network:

Mexico Solidarity Network, 4834 N. Springfield, Chicago, IL 60625

Tel: 773-583-7728 Fax: 773-583-7738

e-mail: alex2051@xsite.net

Logistics: The trip is scheduled for July 2-9. The delegation will work with indigenous communities, the Fray Bartolome Center for Human Rights, the Diocese of San Cristobal and others to develop an appropriate itinerary.

Delegates will travel to San Cristobal de las Casas for an orientation. The rest of the schedule will be determined in the coming weeks in consultation with counterparts in Chiapas. It is unlikely that Mexican government officials will meet a delegation traveling on tourist visas (see below), so it probably doesn't make sense to spend time in Mexico City.

Visas: It is important that the delegation respect the sovereignty and laws of Mexico, especially immigration laws. Under Mexican immigration laws, visitors that participate in cultural or educational exchanges need a tourist visa (FMT). The delegation is going to learn, to observe and to visit friends from the community of humankind. As such, delegates should plan to travel using tourist visas rather than the more difficult to obtain FM3 visa. All delegates should respect Mexico's laws, especially those against foreign intervention in domestic political affairs.

Total cost including airfare from Mexico City $640.

Scholarship fund: The number of scholarships will depend on the number of delegates and extra donations that are received by the Network for this fund (but we hope to have 75 scholarships of $640). The Network Council should establish a scholarship committee with two tasks: raise money for the scholarship fund and award scholarships to applicants based on criteria to be determined by the committee and approved by the Network Council.

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