THE VIEW FROM MEXICO The Army Unleashed BY ELIZABETH KADESKY Oxchuc, Chiapas, Mexico SEATED ATOP the rear of an Army truck in his signature whites and beiges, Emilio G6mez Santiz looks something like a malign Mahatma Gandhi in a peace parade gone awry. Gomez Santiz, the mayor of the indigenous highland Chiapas village of Oxchuc, is taking the opportunity to give the Mexican military a tour of damage wreaked by the invading Zapatista National Liberation Allay 15 days before. Obligingly, the Army commander follows from burnt office to shotup home, finally stopping at the concretefloored wooden shacks where 16 of Gomez Santiz’s political enemies live. Two soldiers rouse the first victim of this roundup from his sleep. In a wrinkled t-shirt and with mussed hair, Agustin Gomez Lopez blinkingly comments, “I have no idea why they’re arresting me, they haven’t told me.” Newly resurfaced two days later, Gomez Lopez limps over to a crowd of townspeople and, with a teacher translating from the Mayan Tzeltal into Spanish, explains the derivation of his new black eye and the bruises up and down his legs. With a list of the mayor’s seven henchmen who beat him up, Gomez Lopez reports, “They told me I was a guerrilla and they’d killed the last guerrilla they found. They said I was planning to kill the mayor.” The arrests in Oxchuc were the latest in the Army’s blustering attempts to root out members of the Zapatista National Liberation band of mostly indigenous peasants who, taking their name from the campesino hero of Mexico’s 1910 Revolution, touched off a civil war in the Southern Mexican state of Chiapas this January 1. While the Army’s presence raised the question of who had conspired in the Zapatistas’ New Year’s insurrection, the arrests in Oxchuc, with its population of 35,000 agrarian Tzeltal peasants, seemed just another indication of how favoritism, fixed elections, a shortage of land and poverty have created conditions for the Zapatista revolt. My sources tell me Agustin Gomez Lopez is not a Zapatista. Rather, he and the 15 others arrested in Oxchuc that Sunday belong to a political association, Tres Nudos, whose leaders are either Zapatista or just share the tenets of the Zapatista program, depending on whom you talk to. The Army claims half the town is Zapatista; a local teacher who supports rebels tells me it’s just Tres Nudos’ leaders; while those in Tres Nudos ‘say only a few teenaged peasants have joined the guerrillasand they’re off in the jungle fighting. “We want just what the Zapatistas want,” a local elementary school teacher and one of Tres Nudos’ leaders, Francisco Gomez Sanchez, puts it. “For 500 years we’ve had nothing,” he says. “We have no land, no houses, the government doesn’t help us. Peasants here don’t eat for three days. Maybe they’ll eat one bowl of pozole a day. We solicit the government for help, we ask and we ask and nothing ever happens. Years pass without a solution. If we don’t have rights,” Gomez adds in the oftrepeated Southern Mexican equivalent of ‘No Justice, No Peace,’ “there won’t be peace.” When I meet Gomez he has just adjourned a meeting of Tres Nudos, a gripefest of some hybrid of Spanish and Tzeltal from which I can make out only a few Mexican expletives and phrases. “Roads,” “electricity,” “drinkable water” and “they’ve told us to go to la chingada,” or roughly, hell, stand out. But it’s also clear that politics as well as basic human needs play a major role among the discontent of Oxchuc. Those at the meeting complain of being blackballed by the mayor, whose alliances with the governor of Chiapas and the central government in Mexico City allow him to deny his political opponents a host of government services. “He wasn’t even democratically elected, because all the community didn’t participate,” Tres Nudos member Domingo Sanchez Gomez says. “We were marginalized. If we went near the Municipal Palace to vote they’d threaten to beat us up. This is why we started the Civil Association.” Lest there be any doubt that opposition to the government is fueled by the notorious political corrup-. don that has kept Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary over 70 years, a glance at the rubble on the floor of Oxchuc’s PRI headquarters tells it all. Among the mess of papers the EZLN left after occupying and trashing the Oxchuc office is a stack of blank ballots for a 1985 mayoral election. Choices: the PRI candidate and “other.” What is a political party doing with blank ballots? No one answers this question, but Mayor Emilio Gomez does provide some new insight into the nature of Mexican democracy when he responds to a question about the number of those arrested. “I’d really have no way of knowing,” he tells me, wide-eyed. When reminded I’d just witnessed him fingering suspects hours before, G6mez Santiz simply simply shrugs. I think to raise this issue with Francisco Gomez the next time I see him, which should be at an interview we’ve scheduled for the following morning. The next day, however, begins inauspiciously when Gomez fails to show up. It gets worse two hours later when the buzz of an Army biplane and two helicopters makes all conversation impossible. Moments later, chaos overtakes the town’s central plaza, which empties within a matter of minutes as hundreds of Tzeltales run into the hills. At that moment, 40 Army trucks and severl hundred soldiers roll into town. By the end of the day the Army and the mayor’s henchmen will have made their arrestsand Francisco Gomez will have disappeared. “Obviously,” the proZapatista teacher comments about the Tres Nudos’ leader, “he knows a lot of things.” In the days of chaos following the invasion of Oxchuc, there is a perpetual kaffeeklatch on the dirt street outside Oxchuc’s primary school, the complex of Elizabeth Kadesky is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. 20 FEBRUARY 25, 1994 r ,'”r!!!..r.” 0!-!!^”. sw
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