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Chiapas: The End of the Silence

Through Violence?




By Rocìo Campos

TFF Peace Antenna



January 2000

Visit to Chiapas

This report is based on a visit to San Cristûbal de las Casas and Acteal in the state of Chiapas, in the Mexican Republic, during the month of July of 1999. It accounts for my experience, views and encounters with different sides of the ongoing conflict in this part of the country. To share these observations and conclusions is an attempt to seek peace in Chiapas and a concern for peace in the world.

We have to unlearn we are disempowered, realize the importance of our resources and the responsibility we have toward peace as individuals, citizens, researchers, activists, and, most importantly, as human beings. "Our power to empower is perhaps the most important role we can play in the 21st century. The more individuals who feel empowered to work in their own systems for peace and conflict transformation, the closer the world comes to that critical mass that will allow for a massive leap in consciousness, allowing new processes for peace that were previously unimaginable to become normative, and easy" (Diamond, 85).

Mexico has a wide variety of natural resources including petroleum, hydroelectric and uranium reserves. However, the standard of living is close to subsistence among most of the rural population of the country. Chiapas, with 73,724 km2 in the south east of the Mexican Republic, has a population of 3,584,786 inhabitants that spread throughout 111 municipalities and 20,102 centers of population with 99.25% of rural villages. "30.1 percent are illiterate, while 62% did not complete their primary education. More than 35% of the dwellings lack electricity or drainage, 51% have earthen floors and 70% are overcrowded"(Katzenberger, 33) [1].

Moreover, health services are concentrated in large urban areas and there is a shortage of medical personnel and equipment. Curable diseases, commonly gastrointestinal in nature, either parasitic or infectious are the main causes of illness and death. The indigenous population is more than 36% of the total population of the state, who are divided up into 10 different ethnic groups, whose ethnic identity is based upon their differing traditions, starting with the languages spoken by each of them: tseltal, tzotzil, tojolabal, chol, lacandûn, mam, chuj and zoque.

At present, the crisis in Chiapas can be defined as a low-intensity, internal, class, asymmetrical conflict deeply rooted in Mexican history, where generations change, but indigenous people continue living in poverty as they face a trend toward the polarization of wealth and uneven distribution of resources. "When disputes escalate, new lines of demarcation are drawn, and often historical events are juxtaposed with contemporary feelings of insecurity and injustice, fueling the need for confrontation" (Rupensinghe, 57).

The EZLN (The Zapatist Army of National Liberation) mainly formed by indigenous people - uprised in Ocosingo, Chiapas against the Mexican federal government on January 1, 1994 - the same day NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) formally operated between Mexico, US and Canada. The open military confrontations of the first days ended shortly with a cease-fire. Initial peace talks tried to settle the conditions that could lead to a dialogue of negotiation. These talks were held in the cathedral of San Cristubal de las Casas. They were mediated by the CONAI (National Mediation Commission), headed by former bishop Samuel Ruiz and ended with an agreement to meet at the negotiation table.

The Zapatistas - EZLN supporters - followed the ideals of Emiliano Zapata, one of the leaders of the Mexican Revolution (1910) who fought for land and liberty, and condensed their demands in ten points: work, shelter, health, independence, democracy, land, food, education, freedom and justice. These points, sum up their economic demands looking for equity and a political and social reform looking for autonomy. In order to start dialogue rounds with the government the ten points were divided into several areas. Negotiations took place in San Andrès Larrainzar in Chiapas with the assistance of a mediation team known as COCOPA (Commission for Agreement and Appeacement: made up of representatives of the political parties).

The results of the negotiation were called the San Andrès Accords and they were to be gradually passed by the COCOPA to the federal government in order to be translated into law. The final translation of the first round of agreements did not satisfy the EZLN, so they refused to leave the arms as they originally agreed. The government then refused to withdraw its military troops from Chiapas [2].

Since 1994 Subcomandante Marcos, one of the most popular leaders of the EZLN, has actively used the Internet to involve national and international civil society. Individuals and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from all over the world have been participating directly and indirectly in the conflict looking for solutions [3].


San Cristûbal de las Casas, July 1999

The urban areas in Chiapas account for the 45.5% of the population and include Tuxtla Gutièrrez (capital of the state), Tapachula, Comiten de Dominguez and San Cristûbal de las Casas, famous among tourism not only for its Mexican Colonial style, but for hosting revolutionary tourism attracted by the Zapatist movement.

Mainly young people from Mexico, US, Canada, Germany, France and other European countries fill the city, so one can hardly listen to Spanish in a café or in the streets. The picture is very similar to that of Cuba, where foreigners come, support or simply observe the local reality in the middle of the overwhelming beauty of the jungles, sierras, canyons and volcanoes.

While some walls frame phrases as "Fuera el Ejèrcito" ("Army go Away"), some of the locals say the movement is over. Others blame Samuel Ruiz, former Bishop of the San Cristûbal Archdioceses, for encouraging the indigenous people to join the EZLN. This fact, they say, has made many people loose not only religious faith, but also their lives.

Some people fear to remember they had the courage to rebel against the government and fight for what they consider fair. Another body of opinion fears to forget these same ideals and are still fighting and/or supporting those who are willing to risk their lives, trying to change a history of oppression, abandonment and genocide. The EZLN fears to be wiped out by the Mexican Army. They realize their power to fight is vulnerable to the Army's power to annihilate them and their demands. In order to compensate this evident asymmetry, they try to empower themselves by using the media to reach national and international civil society in a wider struggle for social justice.

Many NGOs have been working in the area and have established modest offices in order to facilitate moral and physical aid to the people directly affected by the conflict. I had interviews and conversations with members of SIPAZ (International Service for Peace), the Human Rights Commission Fray Bartolomè de las Casas (CDHFBC), the office of Enlace Civil (Civic Linkage) and Christian Peacemakers Team (CPT). All these NGOs are concerned in a particular way with the movement. Like them there are other organizations that according to their particular views and skills, try to help the local people handle the consequences derived from the conflict.

A German activist of SIPAZ explained that their members - from Germany, Uruguay and Spain - take turns to be permanently in Chiapas and work directly with the indigenous people. They coordinate activities that try to help them deal with their suffering after loosing relatives or being displaced from their communities by the threats or vandal actions of some paramilitary groups.

The CDHFBC regularly publishes reports concerning human rights issues. They gather information through a specialized team of political analysts who visit the different indigenous communities. They also prepare and sell videos, books and photocopied material about the Zapatist movement in Spanish and in English.

Enlace Civil is an organization in charge of delivering identity cards (IDs) for all of the activists that visit the area. In order to get this card, it is necessary to bring a letter from the sponsoring NGO one is representing. Without this ID it is very difficult to access the areas where the EZLN leaders are based. Hence, it is highly recommended to have it, especially at the military checkpoints.

The role of NGOs has made State's repressive practices more visible, particularly during armed conflicts. This fact has made NGOs undertake interventions to relief suffering and promote all three generations of human rights, knowing that although they may be foreign, they are not foreign to the causes they are protecting (Mary B. Anderson, 353). However, all NGOs, national and international, know their susceptibility to misjudgments, for what they acknowledge their responsibility and legitimate their actions through accountability.


Acteal, Chiapas, July 1999

Acteal was unfortunately familiar to me after the massacre of December 22, 1997. This was one of the main reasons that brought me here. The trip usually took two hours. At San Cristûbal a small van (usually with eight more people) will drive me to Chenalhû. From there I would take another one to Yabteclum and from Yabteclum the last one to Acteal. As I was leaving San Cristûbal and went up the mountainous roads, the landscape dramatically changed from poverty to extreme poverty. The preponderance of rural areas becomes much more illustrative as one walks through the unpaved, dirty streets, where women sit with their bare-foot babies selling fruits, seeds and hand-woven clothes to the locals.

My non-indigenous features immediately caught the attention of the military at the established checkpoints. Their job is to look for drugs and arms and to do social service for the different communities. Their questions, however, were not directed towards any of that. They asked me: Where are you going? May I see your ID? What kind of work are you doing? What is the purpose of your trip? When I handed my driver's license to identify myself, they wrote down my name and some other information from it. The same procedure was repeated several times when I crossed the checkpoints on the way to Acteal.

As I entered Acteal, I realized there are more indigenous people that speak Spanish as a second language, than Spanish speaking people that know any of the dialects spoken in this region - me being one of them. I had no idea of tzotzil, but the local people treated me in a friendly manner and greeted me in their language. A bunch of lollipops opened my way to meet Cecilia, a beautiful nine-year-old girl that spoke Spanish and served as a translator between her friends and me. As we licked our lollipops, they taught me a few words in their language and laughed at my tzotzil pronunciation.

The children were not afraid to approach the visitors and their parents were not afraid either. The leaders of Las Abejas (The Bees) - nonviolent group formed mainly by tzotziles and founded in 1992 - were willing to talk and share their experiences as we ate a dish of warm beans and hand-made corn tortillas. They know the importance of being open to people who try to help and learn, regardless of their nationality, age or gender. They even built small, simple, wooden rooms for those visitors that wish to stay over for a few days, weeks or months.

Members of the Directive Council of Las Abejas, explained that some of 330 of their fellows were displaced to Acteal after having fled the violence perpetuated by paramilitary groups in their communities since mid 1997. They described the events of the massacre of December 22nd, when a large paramilitary group, wearing police-like uniforms, entered the community and started shooting with high caliber weapons against the crowd, which was fasting and praying for peace. None of the victims was armed, and when the shooting started they tried to flee. Fifteen children, twenty-one women and nine men were killed; twenty-five more people were wounded. Members of Las Abejas said that the paramilitary groups they know are supported and trained by the government of the state of Chiapas, supplied with arms and formed mainly by members of the ruling PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) [4].

All the injured were taken to different hospitals where various problems arose in their treatment and rehabilitation. Deficiencies in medical attention, lack of interpreters and the repetitive denial to grant access to medical reports to their families were common and difficult to handle. Finally, in the process of rehabilitation, the irregular manner in which the indemnified were paid provoked the victims and their families' indignation.

People in Acteal praise the people that died in the massacre. They build a temple where all the bodies are buried and pictures of them hang in the walls. Cecilia remembered her friend Sofia and other girls with whom she used to play. For the people in Acteal, the EZLN has a particular way of solving conflicts, which they do not share but respect. Just in the same way they would not accept others force them to use violent means, they do not interfere with the use of violence by the EZLN. They live together and pray together hoping to return to their homes and work their land.

Human rights and human development are mutually reinforcing and interdependent. Correspondingly to the United Nations Declaration on the Right to Development (1986), development is defined as a comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process, which aims at the constant improvement of all the well-being of the entire population of all individuals. Nevertheless, as long as civil, political, economic and cultural rights are not attained within a society, the right to development will remain distant and denials or violations to human rights will be more the rule than the exception, particularly in times of conflict.

Following the Declaration, States have obligations such as 'to eliminate the massive and flagrant violations of human rights'; 'to formulate national development policies' and 'create the national conditions favorable to the realization of the right to development'. In Mexico, these duties are now threatened by the federal government's fear to loose political power by accepting all the demands of the EZLN or by allowing foreign intervention or participation in domestic matters. The government fears the outburst of a greater national upheaval and not being able to keep things quiet before the presidential elections in the year 2000. There is panic perhaps to loose control over one of the richest states of the Mexican Republic that generates over 13% of the nation's electricity and 52% of the country's hydroelectric power.

The government's attitude today, might resemble more the criteria of conflict management than that of conflict resolution. What we have seen until now, are actions devoted to regulate violence through conciliatory gestures, military operations and counterinsurgency actions that make impossible an atmosphere of trust, real negotiation and dialogue. Although conflict management may be seen as a necessary phase that describes the present stage of the conflict, it will not succeed toward conflict settlement under the traces and experiences of massacres and human right's violations. We, as civil society, fear to stay at this stagnant point and not reach the non-violent satisfaction of the underlying needs and interests of the conflicting parties.


Final Observations and Recommendations

It is a prime fact of observation that none of the parties involved here are uniform or homogenous. Marcos is not representing each and every indigenous in Chiapas or in Mexico. Whether they may agree with the ideals of the EZLN, it is clear that not all the indigenous groups are part of the EZLN or agree with the means of the Zapatist Army. Similarly, the actions of the Mexican government do not speak for all the Mexican people.

I was alerted of the existence of more than two parties in conflict with more than one way of perceiving reality. It is not only the EZLN and the federal government, but also the government of the state of Chiapas, the paramilitaries, relief and humanitarian NGOs, and the different indigenous and displaced groups. There is always more than one angle to a conflict, more than one interpretation and more than one way to solve it. It is clear that cultural diversity in Chiapas stands for different views and ways of perceiving life, future, threat, security, peace and conflict. Let us listen to the needs that go beyond NAFTA's ideals; the need to preserve community's traditions with dignity. This is what author Carlos Fuentes has to say:

"The Chiapas rebellion in January 1994 revealed that, if Mexico had one foot in the First World, it still had the other foot in the Third World: it is a country with 40 million people living in poverty, 17 million in extreme poverty, out of a growing population of 90 million (which will reach 100 million before the century is over). How do we feed, educate, provide jobs for, and simply raise millions out of misery or at least offer them a measure of hope?" (Fuentes, 166).


Non-violent alternative guidelines

The conflict is heavily militarised. The more hurt and humiliation done both ways, the more difficult I suspect it will be to find a viable solution. From a conflict-resolution/transformation viewpoint it is essential, therefore, to investigate whether the areways to reach what the UN-based world norm stipulates: peace with peacefulmeans. Here follow some elements that I find essential:

*Examine the social, economic, political and cultural causes that nourish the dramatically uneven distribution of resources and infrastructure within Mexico.

* Pay close attention to the richness within indigenous diversity and listen not only to their fears and threats, but to their own solutions.

* Assume the importance of civil presence - national and international - in the conflict zones as a deterrent of physical violence, particularly when these are well known NGOs.

* Promote the demilitarization of the state of Chiapas.

* Open up to the observation and recommendations of international organizations and mediation teams that have played leading roles in conflict resolution around the world. If we consider foreign advice as a threat to national sovereignty, we are limiting our conflict resolution scope. Qualified foreign advice should be seen as another tool, probably very useful due to its objectivity and experience.

* Monitor the application of the Mexican Constitution.

* Apply the same norms and opportunities to all parties.

* Protect human rights, in general, and minority rights, in particular through the supervision of a permanent body e.g. through an ombudsman that would inhibit abuses and investigate citizen's complaints against the government.

* Compensate victims who have lost family members and belongings.

* Participate in peace-missions seeking peacebuilding: strengthen the prospects for internal peace and decrease the likelihood of violent conflict by supporting local efforts toward democratic governance, equitable access to resources, rule of law and coordinated work of the different actors involved.

* Supervise that financial aid is administered properly and effectively reaches the people in need.

* Study the transition from conflict management to conflict resolution.

* Map democracy and peace from the top down and from the ground up (people, displaced, locals, NGOs), where democracy is built into the peace process to achieve a more democratic society that respects ethnic communities.

* Acknowledge the importance of NGOs and civil society as entities that collect information and offer alternative resources to the different parties in conflict.

* Broaden the participation of actors. Organize conferences, talks and debates, where old ideas are refreshed and new ideas are born.

* Alert the parties in conflict of the importance of trust-building in order to look for the opportunities to talk and get to the table. Wasting these opportunities is only delaying peace and prolonging grievances.

* Encourage serious journalism with conflict analysis, rather than sensationalist columns and bloody scenes, by writing and sending letters and alternative articles to newspapers, TV broadcasts and radio programs.

* Support people who are interested in peace and conflict resolution to share their ideas, proposals and questions and build a transnational brainstorm that may result in creative, desirable and possible ways, schemes or strategies toward sustainable peace and conflict transformation.


What I learned

Two weeks in Chiapas helped me view these guidelines and encouraged me to come back, not once more but many times, with wider perspectives and hopefully better tools than my own good will. Only then, with more time, ample observation, careful listening and team work these guidelines may be articulated in desirable and possible strategies, that may speak for the responsibility, awareness and solidarity of international civil society toward peace and justice.

The trip also left me with lots of questions like What can still be done at this stage? How can we break this eternal impasse or take advantage from it? Isn't there a middle point between passivity and violence? How many types of suffering do we have to understand in order to help others help themselves? What are the limits of empathy? Would we be aware of the indigenous' rights in Chiapas and other parts of the Mexican territory if Marcos and his followers hadn't used violent means as they did? To what extent does violence alert us of peaceful alternatives?

Individuals and NGOs that use non-violent means and still fight should keep on doing so, by supporting, formulating and answering questions that need to be answered if we expect to understand the limits, capacities and unexplored dimensions of peace and conflict resolution.




Anderson, Mary B., (1996), "Humanitarian NGOs in Conflict Intervention", in: Managing Global Chaos. Sources of and Responses to International Conflict, Chester A Crocker and Fen Osler Hampson (eds.), (United States Institute of Peace Press: Washington, D.C.): 343-354.

Diamond, Louise, "Multi-Track Diplomacy in the 21st Century", in: People Building Peace. 35 Inspiring Stories from Around the World, (European Center for Conflict Prevention: Utrecht): 77-86.

Fuentes, Carlos, (1997), A New Time for Mexico, (University of California Press: Los Angeles): 226 pp.

Katzenberger, Elaine, (ed.), (1995), First World, Ha Ha Ha! The Zapatista Challenge, (City Lights: San Francisco): 254 pp.

Rupesinghe, Kumar, (1998), Civil Wars, Civil Peace. An Introduction to Conflict Resolution, (Pluto Press: London): 25-58.




EZLN background and analysis:>

Zapatistas in cyberspace:

Marcos' speeches:


• Governmental institutions


Instituto de EstadÌstica, GeografÌa e Inform·tica, (INEGI),
(Statistics, Geography and Computer Science National Institute):

Gobierno del estado de Chiapas (Government of the state of Chiapas):

Secretaria de Gobernaciûn (Minister of Interior)


• Human rights organisations

Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray BarolomÈ de las Casas

Servicio Paz y Justicia

Enlace Civil

Mexican Academy of Human Rights

La liga mexicana por la defensa de los derechos humanos (Mexican League for Human Rights)

Comisiûn Nacional de Derechos Humanos (National Commission of Human Rights)



[1] For more information on the Chiapas and Mexico in general see: Consejo Nacional de PoblaciÛn (National Population Council) at The last national census was made in 1990 and it is done every 10 years, the next one will be in 2000.

[2] Gary H. Gossen offers an overview of Marcos in the article: "Who is the Comandante of Subcomandante Marcos?"(1996), in: Indigenous Revolts in Chiapas and the Andean Regions, Gosner Kevin and Arij Ouweneel (eds.), (Latin American Studies: Amsterdam): 107-120.

[3] The original version of the San Andrès Accords, the modifications done by the COCOPA and the final observations of the government are all clearly illustrated in a comparative chart at:

[4] The PRI has been the party in power since 1929. Presidential elections take place every six years in Mexico and alternative parties as the PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) - a left-wing party - and the PAN (Party of National Action), a right wing Christian democratic party, are ready to challenge the PRI in the presidential elections of 2000.




Rocio Campos

Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies

University of Notre Dame

P.O. Box 639

Notre Dame, Indiana 46556-0639 USA

Phone (219) 247 1786













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