ity, but 47 to 91 percent of the residents of indigenous communities involved in the current fighting do not have lighting in their homes. Illiteracy in the communities embroiled in the violence reaches 70 percent, according to census figures, while the national average is 12.6 percent and the figure for the state’s capital largely inhabited by non-Indians is 11 percent. In some villages, 90 percent of the population does not have primary education. The marginalization of Chiapas’ Indians is linked with racism. Only 30 years ago, Indians could not walk or the sidewalks of the state’s main cities. The practice of throwing any sum of money at indigenous merchants and taking their produce is still encountered. The term indito, or little Indian, is a common racial insult. Almost 27 percent of the 3.2 million people surveyed in the state census of 1990 reported speaking an indigenous language, but that number is thought to be low because indigenous respondents fear identifying themselves. Mexican author Carlos Montemayor, an expert on Mexican guerrilla movements, said that to begin to understand, North Americans should compare Chiapanecas to blacks at the height of the Jim Crow period of legal segregation in the Southern United States. “This discrimination is the origin, in great part, of the economic inequality, as well as the land seizures and the lack of respect and security for indigenous communities,” he said. Chiapas’ poverty and racial division began with the Conquest, as Spanish land owners forced Indians to work as slaves on large ranches latifundas. Sixteenth-century Friar Bartolome de las Casas was the first to argue that indigenous people had souls and were thus worthy of conversion and humane treatment. Later, Mexican-born mestizos, the descendants of Indians and Europeans, controlled large tracts of land called haciendas and used the Indians as cheap labor. Armed with force and debt, hacendados held such tight reign on their laborers that Mexico City newspapers referred to Chiapas in the 19th century as the “slave state” of Mexico. The Mexican Revolution of 1910 ended such semi-feudal forms. Article 27 of the progressive 1917 Constitution gave the government power to expropriate land and institutionalized the communal ejidos. The constitution also set limits on how much land a single person could own. Chiapas’ geographic isolation also kept it outside the Revolution and the ensuing land and political reforms that helped ease tension in the rest of Mexico. By the 1960s, the Chiapas Indian population was too large to survive on the land traditionally allotted to them. Petitions for constitutionally mandated land extensions became more frequent and violent. Indians who received permission to clear tracts in the Lacandona rain forest many times found themselves forced out by politically connected cattle ranchers when the work was complete. After decades, blocked by bureaucracy, Indians in the 1970s and 1980s began squatting on tracts left vacant by large landholders who evaded land limitations by registering deeds in relatives’ . names. Police and armed guards hired by landowners often violently swept off the squatters, according to the Minnesota rights group and the Mexican church-sponsored Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center in Chiapas. A recent case in the Ocosingo district, scene of heavy fighting, helps explain indigenous groups’ frustration. After waiting years for permission to occupy an adjacent land plot, leaders of the Abasolo ejido received what they believed was state authority to move onto the land. Hundreds did. However, six months later community leaders were jailed in February 1992 on charges of cattle rustling, aggravated robbery, property damage and plundering, newspapers and , rights groups reported. There are many other cases. Near the Las Margaritas district, another scene of heavy fighting, 150 men, woman and children were arrested in 1992 while peacefully protesting government sales of wood cut on indigenous lands, said Nash, citing newspaper articles. A United Nations group in the area pressured for their release, which came a few days later, she said. In the city of Palenque, which borders the fighting zone, 200 police agents arrested 300 indigenous demonstrators who were staging a sit-in to protest farril taxes and the lack of Indian interpreters in the local prosecutors’ office. Police arrested 103 people and threatened some with torture and death if they did not identify their leaders, the detainees told the Minnesota group. In Chiapas, after decades of relative peace, a volatile mix of economics, racism and repression has finally ignited. “I can’t think of one single thing that would spark this violence on January 1, 1994,” said the Minnesota Advocates’ Sarah DeCosse. “I think all of these things are woven. together. Indian people in the state of Chiapas recognize they are second-class citizens.” Crushing the Uprising Human rights groups in Mexico cried for restraint on January 6 as reports of civilian deaths and the execution-style killing of rebel guerrillas began to trickle out of the battle zone. President Carlos Salinas sent the director of the government’s National Human Rights Commission to Chiapas the previous day and the U.S. group America’s Watch announced it was sending a delegation to the region. The Federal Attorney General’s office told the Mexico City newspaper La Reforma that eight of the 26 rebels autopsied had been killed execution style, with gunshot wounds to the back of the head. Soldiers fired on and killed six people riding in a public mini bus near an army base January 5 outside of San Cristobal de las Casas. The dead included a young indigenous girl and a baby, said reporters who witnessed the scene. Officers said the dead were guerrillas because a handgun and clothes like the rebels’ ragtag uniforms were found in the van. Questionable military practices have been mounting in the region since March, when two men in the indigenous town of Mitziton were dragged from their homes March 28 by military officers investigating the deaths of two off-duty soldiers in the area. The pair told local and international human rights investigators that they were taken to the Rancho Nuevo military base and interrogated. One man, Rafael Heredia Lopes, 39, said he was made to -lie on a tire, with his hands tied between his back and his head, as large quantities of water were forced down his throat. Later, an officer placed a rifle to his head and told him to confess, Heredia told investigators. Hours afterward, at the La Merced prison in San Cristobal, a site temporarily held by the rebels, Heredia said a man raised a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. The gun was unloaded. On March 29, 400 soldiers surrounded the village of San Isidro and temporarily detained 15 residents, villagers Alberto Shilon and Mariano de la Cruz told the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, a lawyers’ group. About 200 soldiers returned to San Isidro April 25. Shilon and de la Cruz said they were beaten with guns and kicked while being questioned about the two dead soldiers. While flat on their backs, their mouths were forced open and 20-liter containers of water were poured over their mouths and noses, the pair reported. They both believed they were going to die. The soldiers returned to the village for a third time on May 8, to find it deserted. On May 24, at least several hundred soldiers surrounded the town of Patate Viejo, a village of about 100 Tzeltal Indians. Many of the residents were accused of harboring guerrillas. According the villagers, nothing larger than a 22-caliber rifle, legal under Mexican law, was found. Several villagers reported looting by the soldiers. Eight Patate Viejo residents were charged with “treason,” defined in Mexico as armed resistance with the help of foreigners. Two Guatemalans also were detained, outside of the village. Soldiers said the foreigners were forming guerrilla cells. Human rights investigators said they appeared to be innocent merchants. The treason charges were eventually dropped, but four Patate Viejo men and one Guatemalan were still being held in October, four months later. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21
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