Chiapas Peasants Reclaim Land They Say Was Stolen By Ranchers

Invigorated by the Mayan uprising, peasants are brandishing titles and occupying lands; ranchers worry they'll be sold out in peace talks


Campesinos or peasants in this part of Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, have not forgotten the date or the rancher who, they say, stole their communal farm. On Feb. 6, 175 years later, they settled the score.

About 70 families took over the Santa Clara cattle ranch in southern Chiapas, becoming a small part of a huge peasant land invasion sparked by the New Year's Day Mayan Indian uprising.

``If we tried to do this a year ago, the police would have been sent to dislodge us because the government always protects the ranch owners. The jails are full of Indians,'' says Samuel Diaz Guzman, a member of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and a campesino union leader.

Amid the delicate truce between the Mexican government and the Zapatista National Liberation Army, neither the police, the Army, nor the ranchers are venturing out of Chiapas's main towns. In their absence, Mr. Diaz Guzman estimates, campesinos have occupied more than 30,000 hectares (74,100 acres). Diaz Guzman, a Bachajon city official, says the campesinos have land titles from 1744. The campesinos have been filing legal petitions in regional courts since the mid-1970s to win back their land, but so far no current land-owners have been evicted.

``For a long time, we've known that this is our land. When the Zapatistas forced the governor to step down, that gave us our opportunity,'' says Martin Jimenez Navarro, standing in a new hut on the Santa Clara ranch. Nearby, more tar-paper huts are going up. What if the police come to evict them? ``We are ready to die for our land. If we die, our children will take the land.''

Although preliminary peace agreements - including proposals for resolving land disputes - between rebel and government negotiators are expected to be announced any day, the Chiapas countryside is tense. Ranchers are indignant about the government's passivity as their property is occupied, cattle are stolen, and homes ransacked. They fear they are being sold out in the closed-door negotiations. Two weeks ago, the government negotiator told ranchers they would have to put the nation's interest before their own.

``The government says to be calm,'' fumes Martin Fernandez Aguilar, a rancher who claims his 300 head of cattle have been stolen. ``How can we be calm if they're taking our land and everything on it?''

The campesinos occupying the Santa Clara ranch near Bachajon say they do not want cattle, just land. But some 40 miles south, near Morelia, ranchers claim the problem is less one of land invasion than cattle theft. Pro-government campesinos have been threatened or cajoled into coming to refugee centers in major towns. The ranchers say the only people left in the countryside are Zapatista sympathizers.

``They're dividing up the cattle between the communities. They've won the war, now they are dividing up the spoils,'' says rancher Alberto Urbina.

A visit to some of the nearby ranches supports the ranchers' claims. At the Cruz San Martin, a coffee plantation and cattle ranch, the only occupant is the caretaker, Lisandro Lopez Perez. ``We had about 200 head [of cattle]. On Feb. 8, they came in the night. Maybe 10 men. They took about 150 head,'' says Mr. Lopez, a Tzeltal Indian who struggles with Spanish, his second language.

Lopez suspects most of the cattle have been herded to land around Morelia. But residents sharply deny accusations that they are stealing cows or horses. ``We don't know anything about missing cattle. What cattle? We have our own two or three head each,'' says resident Nicolas Gomez Chavez. ``The ranchers always use this justification. They take their own cattle so they have an excuse to repress us,'' says Mr. Gomez, who appears to be an unelected community leader.

The resentment evident in the voices of the campesinos can be heard here too. ``A cattle rancher buys up the best land and leaves us the steep hills to work,'' Gomez says. ``When we try to organize and fight back, they call us agitators and throw us in jail. Who can we complain to? The cattle ranchers are the mayors, the judges, and the PRI officials. We have no place to turn.''

Negotiations between the Zapatistas and the Mexican government are only a part of the peace process, Gomez says. What is most relevant, he says, is what those living in the Chiapas countryside resolve.``The government can agree. The Zapatistas can agree. But if the cattlemen and campesinos don't agree, there won't be peace here.''

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