Fifteen years ago, in early 1987, I journeyed to the capital of the southern state of Oaxaca, searching for a massacre.
At an activist farmers’ conference in the north, a young campesino had painstakingly written out on ruled schoolbook paper for me, the names of 28 men, their 22 widows, and the 70 orphan children they had left behind when they were ambushed in the southern sierra of Oaxaca on April 11, 1986, by armed men from a rival village. Oscar had seen the rigid, blood-caked bodies sprawled everywhere in the forest with his own eyes and he gave me the address of lawyers in the Oaxaca capital who knew of the killings. The lawyers, in turn, drew me a map and told me where to find the bus that would take me to Santa María Zanisa in the district of Sola de Vega, a heavily forested region in the mountains above the Pacific beach towns of Puerto Escondido and Puerto Angel, where Zapotec Indians, Mixtecos, Chatinos, and Mestizos live in isolated and often rival communities. Be careful who you talk to, the lawyers warned me.
But in Santa María Zanisa no one would talk to me about what had happened that April day when men with guns from Amoltepec had lain in wait in the forest, the ownership of which has long been in dispute. The killings were already six months old when I came to Zanisa and the bones of the dead had grown cold in the town graveyard. Instead of a story, I wrote a sad poem and went away.
Today, in 2002, the man who was convicted of organizing that murderous attack, Antonio Roque, is the municipal president of Amoltepec. He arrived at that position after spending the past 13 years in the state penitentiary, where he led a prison uprising that resulted in an additional 10 deaths. In the district of Sola de Vega, where 300 campesinos have been killed in such blood feuds since 1935, men like Antonio Roque, who are prepared to kill to defend their village lands, are heroes.
The violence and bloodshed has never abated. Gunfire again broke out last month when 28 men and boys from the Zapotec community of Xochiltepec returned from work at the sawmill in the next county. As the workers, with their paychecks in their hands, rode home, the dump truck rounded the curve at the stop called Agua Fría (“Cold Water”), and men leapt from the trees and blasted away with automatic weapons. Then they forced the driver, who was not from Xochiltepec, to dump the dead and dying out on the ground, where the killers supplied those who were still alive with coups de grace and stripped them of their earnings, before disappearing back into the forest. The vital statistics were no less horrific than at Zanisa 16 years before and just a few miles west of Agua Fría–26 dead, 16 widows, 87 orphans. Massacres are measured by such score cards in Mexico.
It took state police a day to reach the crime scene from the capital 300 kilometers away–they explained that they had no money for gas. Then they rounded up 17 men and boys from a settlement two mountains away, Las Huertas, and hauled them off to the state penitentiary. The villagers of Las Huertas complain that the police broke into their homes and stole money.
Such massacres have persisted in the district of Sola de Vega ever since the Conquest. In 1725, the Spanish Crown awarded the forest to one town (Textitlan, the jurisdiction to which Xochiltepec belongs) at the expense of another (Teojomulco, the jurisdiction to which Las Huertas belongs) and the battle was on. In this century, the bodies of Indians have continued to. fall. In 1935, after land reform under President Lázaro Cárdenas rearranged ownership of forest lands in the region, 20 Indians were eviscerated–machetes and not machine guns were the weapons of choice back then. In 1954, a score more were sacrificed in the war in the forest, which now had been joined by five municipalities and countless villages. In 1986, Amoltepec went up against Zanisa and 28 were killed. In 1996, 10 died in a gunfight between Teojomulco and Texmelucan, another ancient rivalry, and in 1998, 14 more fell when Teojomulco and Textitlan faced off. Now it has happened again.
“Up here, if someone kills your grandfather, you go and kill him. Then his son comes to kill your son. It is never finished,” a veteran campesino from Xochiltepec recently told a big city reporter.
As in most mass killings in Mexico, there were clear signals that big trouble between Xochiltepec and Teojomulco was on the way. In 1942, the county in which Xochiltepec is located was awarded 50,000 acres of first-growth pine and oak by the government agrarian bureaucracy–but subsequent litigation by surrounding municipalities has whittled its holdings to nothing. In 1999, under permits granted by a government controlled by the then-ruling (71 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI, Xochiltepec was allowed to exploit 10,000 acres of forest land traditionally claimed by Teojomulco, effectively encouraging one community to cut down the trees claimed by another. The PRI often used the agrarian bureaucracy to service its electoral clientele and keep the campesinos divided and under the thumb of local “caciques,” or rural bosses.
But this past December, the permits to cut the disputed forest lands were extended–not by the PRI-controlled government but by the Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources in the administration of President Vicente Fox, a member of the conservative National Action Party (PAN).
According to press reports, Oaxaca authorities hold a list of 660 agrarian conflicts in the state, 53 of them starred as “extremely dangerous.” Nine of the starred conflicts are in the district of Sola de Vega. Federal forestry guidelines discourage the granting of permits in areas where violent conflict over the land is pervasive.
Shooting exploded in Xochiltepec in January, just two weeks after the extension was granted–persons unknown raked the primary school with 2,000 rounds of automatic weapon fire, locals testify. In March, two men from Teojomulco were gunned down while reconnoitering in the forest. Nonetheless, PRIista Governor José Murat–familiar with the tensions in the region ever since taking office on the January 1998 day that a Teojomulco-Textitlan battle killed 14–did not act to tamp down the conflict. Similarly, in Chiapas in December 1997, another PRI governor, Julio Ruiz Ferro, failed to take action after a series of 30 killings in Chenalhó County culminated in the massacre of 46 Tzotzil Indians at Acteal.
Scapegoats are essential to Mexican massacres and the tragedy at Agua Fría is no exception. The PRI points fingers at the PAN and the PAN at the PRI. Governor Murat, who fancies himself a champion of the Indian peoples, assails the Mexican Congress for passing a flawed Indian Rights law, which he somehow blames for aggravating the land feuds in Sola de Vega. But a lot of fingers are being pointed at Murat too, and his tenure as governor suddenly seems shaky. Chiapas governor Ruiz Ferro was forced to resign after Acteal, as was Guerrero’s Rubén Figueroa after state police massacred 17 farmers at Aguasblancas in 1995.
And, of course, everyone is pointing fingers at the endemic poverty that lacerates the southern sierra of Oaxaca, where the collapse of international coffee prices has forced Indian communities to survive by cutting down their forests. In Sola de Vega, a cubic meter of old growth can bring a hundred Yanqui dollars.
Security forces were responsible for several of Mexico’s most notorious recent massacres–Aguasblancas (1995; 17 dead) and El Charco (1998; l1 dead) in Guerrero, and El Bosque (1998; 10 dead) in Chiapas. Also in Chiapas, the Mexican army is held responsible for the deaths of at least a dozen Tzeltal Indians at Goonchon in 1980. But the murder of 46 Tzotziles at Acteal in 1997 was, like the killings of 26 Indians at Agua Fría on May 31, the bloody handiwork of heavily armed rival villagers. As in Oaxaca where the killings were resource-based–timber–at Acteal it was the coffee harvest that was in dispute.
Drugs are also a prime motivator of mass murder. Eighteen members of rival narco bands were killed on the Coatzalcoacos river in Veracruz in 1985 and 21 died at El Rodeo near Ensenada in Baja California in 1999. The victims of the Baja bloodshed were all Pai Pail Indians. In Sinaloa, 11 were gunned down this past Mother’s Day in Ahoya, and a similar number were annihilated at El Limoncito last year.
Guerrero may be Mexico’s most fertile killing field: Thirty-three coconut farmers were slaughtered in Acapulco in 1969 in a vendetta between rival grower groups. In 1993, 26 members of one family were ambushed in the Guerrero countryside near Ciudad Altamirano. Explained one shooter, “We had to kill them before they killed us…”
The massacre at Agua Fría must make it depressingly clear to Vicente Fox, elected as the President of Change, that nothing at all has changed out in the Mexican countryside. Nonetheless, Fox is not going to let the fresh killings alter his neo-liberal agenda. After four days of silence, the President told an international business luncheon in the swank Polanco district of Mexico City, that he was “profoundly indignant at these cyclical confrontations,” and then went back to wolfing down his steak tartar and glad-handing the visitors. The President has more important business to attend to than yet another Indian massacre.
After my sad visit to Santa María Zanisa 16 years ago, I wrote a poem. It is published in a volume called Whose Bones (Calaca de Pelón, Mexico City.) Here are a few lines:
Oscar told me of the rigid, blood-caked bodies spread everywhere on the floor of the forest over which these two villages fought a 50 year war to an unspeakable death and the government never noticed because both were too small to find on any map with the naked eye…
John Ross has seen just about everything in the past four decades of chronicling life in Mexico.