Road of Resistance
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A fresh, humid breeze was blowing. It was the dawn of the 1st of January of 1994 and fog still covered the mountains of southeast Chiapas, in Mexico. Juan Vázquez Guzmán was only 13 when he saw how thousands of men and women, hooded and armed, emerged from the mist of the Lacandon Jungle. “We declare war our bad government”, they said. No one expected it, although Juan had seen them prepare since he was a baby.
“We are the product of 500 years of battles. We, the deprived, are millions and today we say, enough!”. That is how the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) was born. This guerrilla force from the Mexican state of Chiapas rebelled to reclaim work, land, shelter, food, health, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace.
As most Tzeltal indigenous young men, Juan Vázquez worked with his father in the cornfields and coffee plantations located at the common lands – in San Sebastián Bachajón, Chiapas. They had strong hands and empty stomachs. They ate whatever the soil and their sweat gave them. “We depend on our land; an ancient legacy from our ancestors and a legacy for the future generations”, ponders Juan. Since he was an adolescent he has walked on the side of the Zapatistas. He is committed to the fight for their rights as Mexicans and as indigenous people, in a region where institutions have been absent and the citizens forgotten.
The imbalance of land ownership has always been the focus of the Mexican uprisings. In 1910 only 1% of the population owned 97% of the land. In Chiapas a handful of families had taken over the land of the indigenous communities. The indigenous people from Chiapas worked as slaves in those ranches, which were mainly farms raising livestock. After the Revolution, led by Emiliano Zapata, there was an agrarian reform that established the concept of “ejidos”, State land whose ownership and use belongs to the “ejidatarios”. The journalist Luis Hernández Navarro says that “The Mexican Revolution did not reach Chiapas. Some land was distributed, but the land ownership structure remained untouched. This way the power has stayed in the landowners’ hands”.
“Even if they try to turn it into private property, we will not allow it”
“Our Ejido San Sebastián Bachajón was established in 1980 and is one of the largest in the country” assures Juan. He warns “Even if they try to turn it into private property, we will not allow it”.
The Zapatistas made an agrarian reform from below. They seized lands and distributed them. Years of negotiations with the Mexican State came, seeking the recognition of indigenous rights, culture and land. However, the main parties in the country did not comply with the various agreements reached with the movement. Meanwhile, the Zapatistas chose to build their autonomy. They created their own self-government by organizing health, education, justice and production plans in their territory.
In 2006, the EZLN started a new political initiative called “the Other Campaign”. They were trying to join forces with other movements around Mexico and the world. “Zapatismo worked as an umbrella, inspiring and covering different communities”, points out Hernández. That is what happened to the San Sebastián Bachajón ejidatarios, who decided to join the fight led by Juan Vázquez, far away from the weapons but with the same demands. “This is a project where we all fit, and where we want to defend what we are”, he stated. He became the General Secretary of the organization and later on its Human Rights Promoter. The ejidatarios were inspired by the Zapatistas’ words: “Build from below, get away from electoral calendars, fight for your land”. The greatest threat to them remains large economic projects of the Federal Government. In the end, mining, infrastructure and tourism threaten their source of life – the land.
“Te yo taln ten nanatil lux cuxul sol xchulel ten lumaltic”
The heart of our Mother Earth lives in the spirit of our people.
National Indigenous Congress, August 2014
“What we’re experiencing is a dispossession”, explains Juan Vázquez while looking at a map. He is in one of the organisation’s offices that were built in an area “recovered” by the EZLN in 1994. “Before, the chiefs were the ones who took away our land, now it is the interests and investments of the government that threaten us”. The plans for the building of a super-road threaten the ejido where they live, San Sebastián Bachajón. The road would cross and destroy their crops and communities. “The government wants to attract foreign investors to build hotels”, says Juan. “They are trying to connect the two main tourist cities of San Cristóbal de las Casas and Palenque, as well as exploiting other areas like the waterfalls of Agua Azul.
“Chiapas is poor, poor because of bad governments”
EZLN, june 2014
“They want to dispossess us unfairly from almost 600 hectares of land that belong to us by decree, violating our rights as ejidatarios”. The former common land commissioner, Francisco Guzmán, had assigned those 600 hectares to the Government of Chiapas and to a Commission for the protection of natural areas.
He defended the tourist development of the area: “New businesses will come, and more investment. It benefits me”. The walls of his house evidence his good relations with the regional and national authorities. He poses in photographs next to governors and senior officials. Meanwhile, he reminds us that there needs to be an investment in infrastructure to progress. Francisco Guzmán had given away the common land without the authorisation of the Ejido Assembly, the main decision-making governing body. Faced with this, the ejidatarios, led once again by Juan Vázquez, filed a protection claim in the State court.
Juan Vázquez Guzmán
“Corruption is found in the three levels of government: local, state and federal. And we only want to protect our natural resources”, reports Juan Vázquez. The National Fund for Tourism has been trying to develop tourism in the area for more than a decade with a project including luxury hotels, golf courses and shopping areas. It was originally planned during the former State legislature of Juan Sabines and continues as part of the agenda of the current Chiapas governor, Manuel Velasco.
Manuel Velasco won the Chiapas state elections in 2012 after spending millions of dollars on campaign advertising. The poorest state of Mexico was heavily indebted by the end of the former governors’ tenure, yet Manuel Velasco spent 10 million dollars on personal promotion in his first year in office alone. The Mexican media speculates that he is preparing to run for president in the 2018 national elections. He has been dogged by many financial scandals: the Chiapas Organization of Independent Builders has reported cases of privileged treatment he gives to some businesses, most of them recently founded by family members and friends. They assure us that these companies have received multi-millionaire contacts for paving works.
“Chiapas has everything that tourists can look for. Whatever they’re looking for they’ll find here together with the warmth of the Chiapas people”, announced Velasco in a speech promoting private investments. “They want to use us as cheap labour: waiters taking orders from the tourists”, answers Juan Vázquez, “It isn’t true that this project will benefit us, they’re just trying to legitimize their plans”.
The Agua Azul waterfalls are turquoise and transparent. On the horizon you can see the dense, green jungle of this Chiapas paradise. A few tourists walk along the jungle trails, while others enjoy the fresh water. According to the project, miles of accommodation will be built here for elite tourism. “The super-road is for private vehicles, for tourists that will pay tolls”, says Juan, “It doesn’t benefit us because we do not depend on the road, but on the fields”.
Different worlds breed different views of Chiapas: where some see money and development, others see water and land, as a continuation of their culture, history and existence. In an area rich in natural resources, the focus of the project are big hydroelectric plants, mining concessions and tourist development. Many transnational companies are trying to implement Velasco’s plan through Mexican government institutions while the people of Chiapas are excluded from their natural wealth. According to official data from 2014, 76.2% of the population of Chiapas is poor, and 31.8% survives in extreme poverty. Malnutrition and death are commonplace, especially amongst indigenous people.
Money is just part of human ambition, but land isn’t.
“Tourism in Chiapas has become a strategy of the rich and the government to break the resistance of the Zapatistas and other communities organised in “the Other Campaign”- the political initiative to defend indigenous rights- to facilitate the dispossession of their land”, explains Hermann.
According to his analysis, tourism is the first action in evicting the indigenous communities from their land, which will end their resistance and pave the way for other transnational companies to enter the area. “Of what use is a road like that to us?” asks Juan, “We do not have money to buy a pair of shoes and less even for a bike or a scooter. Money is just part of human ambition, but land isn’t. Someday I’ll be gone, but the land will remain forever”.
Violent evictions, threats, blows… Since the beginning of the resistance, the battle at Bachajón has had plenty of critical moments and more than 100 members of the movement have been incarcerated. According to Ricardo Lagunes, lawyer for the defence of Ejidatarios’ rights, Juan Vázquez was arrested in 2011 without a warrant, at the request of a former authority in the ejido. After a couple hours he was released without any legal documentation. “The government is authoritarian. There’s been harassment. We’ve been targets of repression because this organisation in defence of natural resources does not suit the government”, explains Juan, “They are trying to provoke a confrontation between indigenous people”.
“Our efforts are for peace, their efforts are for war”
EZLN, May 2014, Chiapas, Mexico
Since the first years of the uprising, armed groups related to political parties and businessmen have arisen. They have maintained a permanent low-intensity conflict and counter-insurgency. Some of the methods that they use to spread terror among organized communities include trespassing, death threats, torture, rape, enforced disappearance and murder. The Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Centre has documented decades of the Chiapas conflict, including the forced displacement of over 12,000 people. According to their reports, “The Mexican government implements counter-insurgent strategies designed to erode autonomous organizations and deepen the expropriation of indigenous land”. The counter-insurgent tactics range from military strategies to economic ones. The first include the creation of paramilitary groups, according to the Plan Campaña Chiapas 1994 of the Ministry of Defence. The latter involve the targeted use of government grants to divide the Zapatista communities.
In 1997 the Acteal Massacre took place, setting a bloody milestone in the long history of paramilitary attacks in Chiapas. According to the investigator Gilberto López, the counter-insurgency “became a clandestine arm of the army, able to undertake tasks that they cannot perform in the open. Zedillo was the one to push it forward, but the USA were the ones that showed him how to do it”. In 2006 there were 79 military bases in Mexico, with 56 of them located in Zapatista area. In spite of a truce with the EZLN, the pressure around the autonomous territory has intensified.
“The land saw us be born, gave us life and, finally, we rest in it eternally”
EZLN, August 2014
On the night of the 24th of April of 2013, tragedy hit San Sebastián Bachajón. Juan Vázquez had returned home late, after a long day’s work. He made himself a hot cup of coffee in his wooden kitchen, with a dirt floor and a tin roof. He heard a van pass by on the nearby street. Someone knocked on the door. He opened it and was greeted with six high-calibre bullets. Upon hearing the gunshots, his father and his brother ran out to see what was happening. They found Juan’s body in the yard, covered in blood. They could not hear his last words. He was already dead, at 32 years old.
Authorities failed to respond to first-hand testimony warning of the threats directed at Juan.
No one has been arrested since. Authorities failed to respond to first-hand testimony warning of the threats directed at Juan “They said that he had to quit rallying the people or they’d kill him”, says lawyer Ricardo Lagunes. “Francisco Guzmán, the former Bachajón commissioner, told him in front of a large group of people”.
A mound of coffins pile up in Francisco Guzmán’s business. Just like in a noir novel, the former commissioner owns a funeral home called “El Triunfo”, the triumph. When we talked to him, far from regretting Juan Vázquez’s death, he justified it: “They didn’t rule an arrest warrant against him [Juan], and even if they had they wouldn’t have caught him.
He was free, so people say: there is no other solution. That is why there’s been death”. Simulating the action of loading a gun, he adds “There’s no other option but to… shoot at once”. Less than a year later, the organization lost another member. Juan Carlos Gómez, the 22-year-old regional coordinator, was ambushed and killed by more than 20 gunshots. Direct links between a paramilitary group (the OPDDIC) and Mexican authorities and army have been proved. The ejidatarios of Bachajón and the Zapatista people of the area have repeatedly reported harassment from this organization.
RALLY IN MEMORY OF JOSÉ LUIS ”GALEANO“, ZAPATISTA KILLED BY PARAMILITARIES IN LA REALIDAD – MAY 2014
On May of 2014, around 15 people attacked a Zapatista meeting with machetes, sticks and assault weapons in La Realidad. The armed group chased and killed José Luis Solís, a zapatista member. Another 15 Zapatistas were injured. The clinic and the community school were destroyed. “The paramilitaries from La Realidad are paid for, organized, directed and trained by the three levels of the “bad governments” in order to divide and provoke the Zapatista people and the Zapatista autonomous government”, reports the “Junta del Buen Gobierno”, the Zapatista “Good Government Council”, in a statement released a few days later. The attack on La Realidad was perpetrated by a different paramilitary group, Cioac-H, linked to the PRD (Democratic Revolutionary Party). According to an investigation made by the journalist Luis Hernández, “this organization has agreed on all kinds of agreements with the different governments of Chiapas”.
“We are the guardians of this land, of this country, Mexico, of this continent and of the world”
EZLN, August 2014
Despite this war against them, they continue to build an autonomous political proposal. The ejidatarios from San Sebastián Bachajón organized in “the Sexta” continue resisting. “They thought that if they killed Juan they’d finish us. But there’s many of us supporting this fight. We will continue defending our land”, reiterates Domingo Pérez, the current leader. The building of the road has been paralyzed for now, but the interests and the businesses that promote the project do not falter. It is a battle between two ways of living and feeling the land. It is a fight that, as Juan repeated, wants to “build a single where many worlds can fit”.