Can Chiapas Change?

After Vicente Fox toppled the PRI in Mexico's presidential elections, Chiapanecans elected their own opposition governor. But Zapatista rebels and sympathetic citizens are tempering their hopes with realism, knowing that the province's chronic political violence will probably not end soon.

| Tue Oct. 3, 2000 3:00 AM EDT

The opposition's stunning victory that shattered the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party's (PRI) 71-year hold on power in Mexico this summer sparked hopes that the long-running conflict in the state of Chiapas might be resolved. Those hopes rose still higher in August, when Chiapanecans elected their first non-PRI governor, a 46-year-old lawyer named Pablo Salazar.

But continuing political violence throughout Chiapas will make it difficult to reach reconciliation anytime soon.

Since 1994, when the rebel Zapatista National Liberation Army rose up in arms demanding land, justice, and rights for the indigenous descendants of the Maya in Chiapas, the number of army bases and pro-government paramilitary squads in the state has multiplied markedly. Since talks between Zapatistas and the government ground to a halt in September 1996, Chiapas has settled into a kind of low-intensity warfare that has claimed scores of lives.

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Salazar has said he will make it a top priority to remove the government troops (which number between 20,000 to 60,000, according to human-rights groups) stationed in Chiapas, establish dialogue with the rebels, and dismantle pro-government paramilitary groups. Mexico's maverick president-elect Vicente Fox has also expressed his government's commitment to restarting the peace talks and to passing laws to broaden indigenous rights.

"In order to create new conditions for dialogue, our challenge is ... to take Chiapas out of a dynamic of war, and to insert it into a dynamic of peace," Salazar said in a recent interview.

But such moves could provoke a violent reaction from the pro-government paramilitaries, who now feel abandoned by the system. The US State Department has described these groups as private "militias ... [that] often employ police and military personnel." According to the Centro de Investigaciones Económicas y Políticas de Acción Comunitaria (CIEPAC) research center, based in San Cristobal de las Casas, there are at least 27 armed paramilitary groups operating throughout the state, most of which are well-armed and firmly convinced that their poverty is a result of the Zapatistas' rebellion against the state. Amnesty International has expressed "deep concern" that the paramilitaries could attack opposition communities in Chiapas following the elections.

Salazar, who previously served on a congressional peace commission, said he'll move to put the groups in check. "When the paramilitary groups are stripped of the impunity that the government offers them," he says, "they will start to dissolve, once they have to confront the law."

All this talk has made people like Victor Manuel Suarez, 19, a state policeman in the conflict-ridden northern Chiapas town of Sabanilla, a little hot under the collar.

"Things were better before human rights messed everything up," said Suarez. "Before, if we saw a pretentious individual walking down the road, we could pick him up, take him back to the base, and treat him like he deserved to be treated. But we can't do that anymore because the human-rights people will interrogate us. Instead of protecting public officials, all they do is protect the Zapatistas."

Suarez's hometown of Sabanilla is a primary base of operations for the bloody Peace and Justice paramilitary group, which received about US$1.6 million in "development funds" from the state government between 1997 and 1999.

Just 15 minutes down the road from Sabanilla, Peace and Justice members were holding a tense vigil around the ballot box on election day in the mountain village of Buenavista, intimidating Chiapanecans who might vote for the opposition. Adan Cruz, who was representing Salazar's opposition coalition at the voting booth, said he feared the violence would continue.

"Here they can kill you and no one ever finds out about it," he said. Cruz, a local high school student, said he decided to work for the opposition after losing his cousin to a paramilitary attack in 1997.

The lines of vigilantes watching over the voters had little regard for the international delegation of electoral observers visiting that day. Every time Cruz attempted to speak, a congregation of 15 men wearing army fatigues would encircle him, standing in a silent, menacing group.

"I don't care who hears me anymore. People here are assassins, and they have always been assassins," said a visibly shaken Cruz, as he prepared to make a formal complaint that local authorities had used the town loudspeaker that afternoon to announce that everyone had to vote for the PRI. "The municipal president gives out money to Peace and Justice members and the police give them arms."

According to the independent Fray Bartolome Human Rights Center, government funding of paramilitary groups is meant to cause "the social dislocation of indigenous communities and to eliminate political and religious leaders."

In December 1997, paramilitary groups massacred 45 indigenous people. Yet the Mexican attorney general did not move to create a special office to investigate paramilitaries until after the PRI-dominated state Congress had passed a law guaranteeing amnesty to all "armed civilian groups" except the Zapatistas.

Stripped of its traditional source of support, the fractured Peace and Justice could perpetrate more violence, be it against rival paramilitary camps or against communities that supported the opposition.

But by 8 p.m. on the night of the elections, the men haunting the polling booth in Buenavista were wearing broad smiles; despite Salazar's victory, the PRI held strong in their town.

For opposition representative Cruz, Salazar's victory offered a glimmer of hope. "If Pablo Salazar hadn't won, the repression was just going to get worse."

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