Chiapas analysis prepared by the Washington Office on Latin America
from the Mexico Solidarity Network, Aug 5, 1998
As you are preparing for the July 29 subcommittee hearing on the conflict in Chiapas, Mexico, I wanted to bring to your attention a number of issues that may help place the conflict in a broader context, and highlight significant implications for United States policy.
It is easy to dismiss the Chiapas conflict as an isolated problem with few implications for the United States since the Zapatista rebels do not represent a military threat to the government. Yet despite their limited military capacity, the Zapatistas have developed strong political support in Chiapas, throughout Mexico, and internationally. While most of their sympathizers do not support armed struggle, the conflict in Chiapas is a reflection of the broader struggles for democracy, human rights, economic survival, and cultural identity common to Mexicans across the country. The fundamental issues at stake in Chiapas have broad acceptance among Mexico's political opposition and have fueled similar conflicts in neighboring states, including armed insurgencies operating outside of Chiapas. The failure to resolve these conflicts in a peaceful, negotiated manner has resulted in growing tensions, worsening human rights violations, and spreading violence. Left unresolved, the conflicts in Chiapas and elsewhere will threaten Mexico's national stability and United States national security.
With Chiapas representing potentially significant risks for the United States, it is important for the U.S. to systematically monitor the human rights problems in southern Mexico, urge the government of Mexico to take steps to reduce tensions, and pursue a negotiated solution to the armed conflict and underlying grievances. It is equally important for the Administration and U.S. Congress to evaluate U.S. military assistance programs with Mexico, including counternarcotics training programs, to ensure that U.S. assistance does not become entangled in counterinsurgency campaigns, or contribute, directly or indirectly, to worsening human rights problems in Mexico. Finally, Congress should actively oversee all U.S. military programs with Mexico to ensure that these programs do not undermine long-term U.S. interests such as the development of strong, democratically accountable institutions under civilian control.
Key points to consider in the hearing follow:
1) Mexico's main insurgent group is very different from insurgencies in Colombia. The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) is not actively engaged in combat with the Mexican military. There are periodic clashes between the forces, but there are no ongoing confrontations or offensives. Second, there is no specific evidence or reports linking the EZLN to drug trafficking activities. The EZLN does not depend upon the illegal drug trade as a source of financial support or political strength. Finally, the EZLN is relatively small and does not represent a military threat to the Mexican military.
2) While the EZLN does not represent a serious military threat, its influence extends far beyond its military potential. The EZLN has a strong social base in large areas of Chiapas, and has a significant political following throughout the country and internationally. In Chiapas, Zapatista sympathizers can be broken into two groups - those who identify openly with the Zapatistas and are known as "Zapatista bases" (bases Zapatistas), and those who identify with the struggle for indigenous rights but have distanced themselves from the armed struggle. The Zapatista bases have been on the front-line of the movement to declare autonomous municipalities and establish independent "autonomous" governments based on traditional forms of indigenous self-government. While the Zapatistas' military capacity has not increased significantly since the initial cease-fire in 1994, their base of support has grown in other areas of Chiapas and around the nation.
3) The Mexican government has dealt with the Chiapas conflict and the EZLN variously using military and political strategies. Direct military confrontations between the army and EZLN have been minimal since the original cease-fire in January 1994. Nevertheless, the enormous presence of Mexican troops in the state has added to greater tensions among the civilian population and resentment about the military's intimidation tactics. The army has used its presence, aerial surveillance, and sweeps through pro-Zapatista communities as a show of force and a way to intimidate Zapatista supporters.
Thus far, dialogue has failed to produce a negotiated solution to the conflict. For nearly two years, the Mexican government and Zapatista representatives and advisors met to discuss issues related to indigenous rights and culture. The dialogue concluded with the signing of a first agreement, the San Andres Accords, between the government and Zapatistas in February 1996. The accords sought to resolve fundamental demands of indigenous peoples by acknowledging the legitimacy of traditional forms of self-government among indigenous peoples. The accords also required numerous statutory and constitutional reforms. A multi-party congressional commission (COCOPA) set up to assist in the negotiations was charged with translating the Accords into a legislative and constitutional reform package. The Zapatistas expressed reservations about COCOPA's subsequent proposal but accepted it as the best that could be expected. In November 1996, President Zedillo rejected the COCOPA proposal stating that he had 27 reservations regarding the Accords.
Since then the negotiations have been at a complete standstill. In June 1998, Bishop Samuel Ruiz resigned as the official mediator between the government and Zapatistas after repeated attacks on his credibility by the government and the lack of progress in implementing previously negotiated agreements. Bishop Ruiz's resignation made clear that the negotiating process had effectively ended.
4) Despite a cease-fire between the government and EZLN, political violence and human rights violations have continued to grow. According to the State Department's annual report to Congress on global human rights conditions, more than 500 hundred people have been killed in the northern area of Chiapas since 1994. Human rights experts estimate that as many as 1,500 people have been killed in Chiapas since the conflict began, but less than 200 in direct confrontations between the government and the EZLN. For example, 45 unarmed civilians were gunned down by paramilitary forces backed by the state police on December 22, 1997, as they were fasting and praying for peace in the tiny village of Acteal.
EZLN forces and their followers have also been accused of carrying out attacks against government forces and sympathizers. In the municipality around Acteal, Zapatista sympathizers are reported to have killed or attacked nearly 20 pro-government civilians in less than a year.
5) One factor contributing to the violence is the existence of armed civilian groups, sometimes known as paramilitary groups. According to Mexico's Federal Attorney General, there are as many as 12 such groups operating in Chiapas. In two well-documented cases, government officials have assisted and supported these paramilitary groups in committing gross human rights violations. The paramilitary group known as "Development, Peace, and Justice" has received direct aid from the state government for its development projects at a time when the organization has been implicated in serious human rights violations, including an attack against two Catholic Bishops. A second group involved in the Acteal massacre received direct support from the Chiapas state police including logistical support and training. The relationship between the Mexican army and paramilitary groups has been less clear, although it is believed that the military allows them to operate with impunity and has done little to disarm them.
6) Conflict has also resulted over the so-called "autonomous municipalities." The failure to implement the San Andres Accords has focused attention on the more than thirty "autonomous municipalities" established by Zapatista sympathizers since the armed conflict began. A critical issue for the Zapatistas and their followers has been the right to use traditional indigenous forms of decision-making to establish self-government at the local level. The Zapatistas' push for autonomous municipalities is, in part, a reflection of the loss of public confidence in rural Mexico in the established electoral process dominated by the ruling party for nearly 70 years.
While some of the autonomous communities have not functioned as government entities, others have begun to provide local services such as birth records and to regulate community decisions. Zapatista sympathizers believe these forms of governance are included in the San Andres Accords negotiated with the government, and are therefore legitimate. The state and federal governments have not recognized them as legitimate, nor have they accepted the provisions dealing with autonomy in the San Andres accords.
Fearing that the autonomous movement was beginning to spread as the San Andres process began to unravel, the government moved aggressively against the most active autonomous communities beginning in January 1998. In June 1998, police and military forces moved to break up two autonomous communities, resulting in the detention of approximately 150 people, 10 deaths, and over 20 injured. In one case, nine people died in a rare clash between the army and Zapatista forces when the military and state authorities moved to break up an "autonomous" Zapatista community in El Bosque.
For his part, the governor of Chiapas has announced his intention to unilaterally redraw municipal lines in the state to create 17 new municipalities in Chiapas. While the creation of new municipalities is part of the peace accord, it is supposed to be the result of negotiations with Zapatistas and local communities.
Establishing new municipalities and declaring communities "autonomous" has been the source of great conflict and violence, and highlights the need for a negotiated solution acceptable to both parties.
7) Armed conflict and serious political unrest in Mexico is not limited to Chiapas. Another armed group, the People's Revolutionary Army (EPR), is operating in several neighboring states, especially in Guerrero and Oaxaca, and has developed a base of popular support. The government has not offered to negotiate with the EPR, nor has a cease-fire has been reached. While open military clashes have been few, they have been bloody. The EPR has carried out several attacks against army patrols, and the army has engaged in an aggressive counterinsurgency campaign that has resulted in numerous reports of serious human rights violations and greater fear among the civilian population. On June 7, 1998, an army unit reportedly on a counternarcotics patrol near the town of El Charco, Guerrero, killed eleven presumed members of an armed guerrilla group either from the EPR or a splinter group known as the Revolutionary Army of Popular Insurgence (EPRI). Eye-witness testimony and investigations by human rights organizations have raised questions about the way in which the victims died.
The EPR made its first public appearance in June 1996 at the first anniversary of a massacre of 17 peasants by Guerrero state police. The EPR is believed to be a loosely formed coalition of largely inactive armed groups from the 1970s and other radical social organizations. The massacre of the 17 peasants was apparently a catalyst for the formation of the new armed group.
8) While the conflicts in Chiapas and other states are rooted in a long history of local conflict they are also a reflection of fundamental challenges confronting all of Mexico. Placing them in a broader national context helps explain why these apparently isolated conflicts are of major concern to everyone in Mexico, and should be to the United States as well. Ultimately these conflicts are about four basic issues that are relevant to all of Mexico: democracy, basic human rights and rule of law, economic development and poverty, and cultural identity.
a) While Mexico has made major advances in its transition to democracy, the political machine that has governed Mexico for nearly 70 years is still thriving in most of rural and southern Mexico. Rural communities and peoples who have sought independence from the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and its local bosses (caciques) have found it almost impossible to challenge the PRI's hold on power. After suffering significant electoral losses in Mexico's northern industrial cities and states over the past ten years, the governing party is reluctant to relinquish control of the critical electoral battlegrounds in the rural south as important state elections approach later this year. Losing control of the south would deal a serious blow to the PRI's strategy for winning the next presidential election in 2000.
For their part, the Zapatistas and their supporters have spurned elections in response to the long history and continuing practices of the one-party authoritarian state. For most Mexicans, democratic advances in Mexico City and northern industrial cities are not guarantees of a long-term democratic transition or respect for local self-determination.
b) With widespread human rights violations and the near total absence of a functioning judicial system in parts of these states, the conflicts also reflect the fundamental struggle for justice common throughout much of Mexico. The Attorney General's investigation into the Acteal massacre found that state police provided training and transportation to members of paramilitary groups, that the state police were present in the town when the victims where being attacked, and that they reported to the state governor's staff that all was well during the tragedy. In addition, there were virtually no investigations nor judicial proceedings related to the more than 30 serious human rights violations that proceeded the massacre that year. Lack of judicial proceedings and police complicity in human rights violations are well documented not only in Chiapas, but throughout the country. Corruption and ineffectiveness in the judicial system undermine basic respect for human rights, weaken efforts to combat corruption at every level of society, and undermine efforts to deal effectively with crime, including drug trafficking.
c) According to a recent World Bank report, poverty and inequality have reached "alarming" levels in Mexico, with the greatest poverty in southern states such as Guerrero, Oaxaca and Chiapas. The Bank reports there are roughly 28 million poor people in Mexico, 47 percent of these are found in rural areas, and 80 percent of indigenous peoples live in poverty. The PRI's caciques have dominated the economic life of rural Mexico, absorbing most of the region's wealth and manipulating federal government assistance programs for their own political and economic benefit. The struggle for land, economic opportunity, and against poverty is at the heart of the conflicts in all of these states, and reflects the desperation felt by many of Mexico's approximately 28 million poor people.
d) Finally, minority populations in Mexico make-up roughly twelve percent of the country's population, or about 10 million people. The vast majority of these are indigenous peoples concentrated in rural areas. Mexico's constitution treats all Mexicans equally, making no special provision for ethnic, cultural, or linguistic diversity. In fact, Mexican society is full of latent racism in which indigenous peoples are often treated as second-class citizens. In practice, they do not enjoy equal access to a justice system that fails to make effective provisions for linguistic obstacles. The education and healthcare systems have largely ignored the needs of minority populations, and consequently they have been cut off from the benefits of a modernizing economy. The government and the private sector have withdrawn financial support for traditional sectors of the economy, such as small-scale agriculture and crafts, leaving peasants and indigenous people with few economic alternatives. Immigration to urban industrial cities in the north and the United States have been one important way for indigenous and poor peasant populations to survive.
9) Given Mexico's historic sensitivity to foreign interference, the conflicts in Mexico present unique challenges for United States foreign policy. Left unattended, these conflicts represent a major threat to stability in Mexico, and ultimately United States national security. Yet direct U.S. intervention or efforts to dictate a solution are likely to be counterproductive.
The United States must continue to respect Mexico's sovereignty while also calling attention to the serious human rights problems in Mexico. Scrutiny of human rights problems is permissible under international law, and is not a violation of national sovereignty.
The United States must also take steps to ensure that its own assistance does not contribute to worsening human rights conditions. With most cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine entering the United States through Mexico, the U.S. has made training the Mexican military in counternarcotics techniques a priority in its efforts to combat illegal drugs. According to official documents, roughly 1,000 Mexicans received counternarcotics training in the U.S. during 1997.
But according to statements by U.S. officials and trainers reported by The Washington Post, there are few distinctions between training for counternarcotics and counterinsurgency. Since end-use monitoring of military training is not done, it is possible, and indeed likely, that U.S. counternarcotics training is being used for counterinsurgency purposes in southern Mexico. Many of the military troops in Guerrero are variously involved in fighting drugs and combating the EPR. The deaths of eleven alleged members of a rebel group in El Charco, Guerrero in June 1998 originated as a counternarcotics sweep, according to military statements. Likewise in Chiapas, the Mexican military uses laws designed to combat drug trafficking as a justification for is presence and maneuvers in Zapatista areas even though there is no credible evidence of Zapatista involvement in drug trafficking.
Even if the U.S. is not directly engaged in the conflicts in southern Mexico, the perception is that the U.S. is playing a role through its counternarcotics programs. It is vitally important for the U.S. to develop mechanisms that will ensure U.S. counternarcotics programs do not become entangled in the armed conflicts in southern Mexico, or contribute to a worsening human rights situation through its military training programs.
Finally, the United States should urge the Mexican government to vigorously pursue a negotiated peace settlement before these conflicts spread further and threaten Mexico's national stability and United States national security.