Mexico Stung as Army Swarms Over Chiapas

Tensions continue to rise since a Dec. 22 massacre. Army's presence rankles.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A pilgrimage to a massacre site - less than two weeks after the brutal killing of 45 people there - began with sliding down a path in two inches of wet mud.

Last month, a resident in the Mexican village of Acteal led the way into a chapel where people had been "praying for peace, asking for deliverance from the violence" that had made them flee their homes when they were attacked by some 40 or 50 armed men.

The man said his daughters escaped the attack by hiding in a gully where the attackers threw the bodies of their victims when it got dark. Nearby, a terrace has been cleared of banana trees and coffee bushes for a mass grave. It is covered with palm branches, flowers, and rows of candles.

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Mexico isn't usually thought of as a country with a civil war. The war declared by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation dropped from the news when a truce began weeks after a few thousand militant peasants took four town halls in 1994, demanding democracy, justice, and land. It regained attention in February 1995, when President Ernesto Zedillo sent the Mexican Army far into jungle and mountainous areas, only to halt this action in the face of major public protests across Mexico and from the international community.

The government has continued a low-intensity conflict since that time, with about 40,000 Mexican troops positioned within half a mile of many Chiapas villages, sometimes outnumbering the local residents. Protests against the Army have gone unheeded.

Mounting tensions

Tensions here have been moving toward a crisis point since the December massacre in Actal of Indians who supported the Zapatistas. The government has tried to solve the problem by pouring in troops to quell the violence, but in the eyes of Chiapas's four indigenous groups, the Army is the problem.

After the massacre, the government immediately took charge of the investigation. Mexico's attorney general has issued a report that paramilitary groups were responsible, along with state and local officials and police, who knowingly allowed the massacre to take place. While many of the 60 people under investigation are members of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the government denies any involvement.

Mereille Roccatti, president of the National Human Rights Commission, announced last Wednesday that the commission's official investigation had found no federal culpability at all.

Despite a march of 500,000 people two weeks ago to protest government involvement, the ruling party is unlikely to be forced to reconsider its position.

Mr. Zedillo has had to face questioning from international leaders and accusations from Mexican citizens. This puts him in a difficult position: Mexico has been negotiating a trade agreement with the European Union, where there have been protests against the violence in Chiapas. Also, the United States has continued to pressure Mexico regarding drugs and illegal immigrants flowing over the border.

Paramilitary activity

In addition to the Army presence, there is growing paramilitary activity - threats, torture, and killings. Young landless men are recruited by ranchers and local government. These paramilitary groups foster disputes and violence. Most of the victims are unarmed civilians, and as many as 8,000 people have fled their homes. In one village last month, fleeing civilians' last sight was of their houses being set on fire.

Refugees recently recounted the fear that is being instilled by armed groups. The groups include people previously considered to be neighbors. Now these armed groups steal livestock and extort pesos. "They robbed us, and we had to be silent," sobbed one woman in the staccato Tzotzil Indian language, who asked that her name not be used.

As one refugee put it, "We believe God says not to kill. But we are sympathizers of the Zapatistas because we know the government promises, but we never see any results. The Zapatistas went against the government, and the government can't handle that."

Community leaders accuse the state of funding and organizing the paramilitary groups to keep the indigenous insurrection under control. "The government's strategy is to divide: to create confusion and difference," says Jos Francisco, a Roman Catholic lay worker. "I see an aggression in the Army that's not shown itself so obviously before. Kidnappings, disappearances, all of that stays under the surface. But this militarization makes me afraid."

Observers are concerned that the increasingly tense situation may erupt. "Ex-militaries and ex-agents of Public Security are training [paramilitary groups] in a hidden war. There is going to be a bloodbath," Bishop Raul Vera Lopez wrote in a letter to Mexico's secretary of government Oct. 18.

One of the paramilitary groups, Desarrollo, Paz, y Justicia, is accused of carrying out the massacre in Actal. It denies the accusation. Its leaders say the Army's presence is necessary. "The government has put back displaced people with military support, but there's no dialogue, no understanding. Communities are divided," co-leader Samuel Sanchez Sanchez says.

The government, meanwhile, is eager to prove that it cares about Chiapas, where 70 percent of the people live without electricity or clean drinking water.

On Jan. 9, President Zedillo announced that health and social service aid would be sent to Chiapas so that displaced people could return to their homes. But many of the refugees refused the aid out of distrust for the PRI, which they hold responsible for the massacre.

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