“Estampida” – a 4 minute animation by Mexican electronica trio Titan – watch this!
“Estampida” – a 4 minute animation by Mexican electronica trio Titan – watch this!
The banner, unveiled by opposition deputies last week in the federal congress, reads:
You wouldn’t let a drunk drive your car, right? So why do you let one drive the country?
It’s common knowledge that President Calderon has a drink problem, and the story might have stopped there.
However, Carmen Aristegui, one of Mexico’s more respected radio and TV journalists, took the opportunity to ask on her radio programme whether the President’s drink problem might in fact be a legitimate issue of concern. Not unreasonable considering the disaster overtaking the country.
The next day Aristegui was sacked by her employers. They and the government deny that there was any pressure from the president to fire her, but no-one believes them.
Her sacking has caused a national outcry, and has now become an international news story (eg http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-12414223).
It’s a public relations disaster for Calderon. It’s widely known that he’s an alcoholic; the question people are asking though is why he doesn’t have any sober advisers around him, who might stop him making such a mess of things.
The immediate reasons for the protest were the murders of Marisela Escobedo in December, and of Susana Chavez last week.
Marisela Escobedo had a small furniture business in Ciudad Juarez. Her daughter Rubi, disappeared in 2008. Marisela got no help from the police, but eventually managed, entirely through her own efforts, to track her daughter’s violent partner down in Zacatecas, another state. There, the local police bodged two attempts to arrest him.
Finally he was arrested, confessed to murdering Rubi, and led the police to her remains. In August this year he was tried and, despite the confession, given an unconditional release by the court’s three judges; many suspect they were paid off. Marisela then set up a permanent protest outside the state governor’s office in Chihuahua City, demanding justice. On 16 December she was gunned down; the next day her brother-in-law was kidnapped and murdered. The judges who heard the case have been suspended; the killer is still absconding.
Susana Chavez was a poet and an activist who campaigned against the killings of women in Ciudad Juarez. On January 11 she was found murdered; her assailants had cut off her right hand.
The nearest highland town to here is San Juan Chamula, six miles away, over the lip of the volcanic crater in which San Cristobal sits. Chamula is famous around here for various things, though the main tourist attraction is its church which mixes Christianity with Mayan religious customs. We got bored one afternoon and drove over to have a look.The road to Chamula is an experience in itself, and one of the stranger development projects I’ve seen. The route out of San Cristobal is scarred with potholes and bumps, but as you reach the boundary of the Chamula municipality a pristine dual carriageway appears. This continues for a few miles until the outskirts on the other side of town, where once again the road returns to single lane highway in poor condition.
The town of Chamula is poor and rubbish strewn and not very attractive. Driving in, we had to weave round a couple of drunks staggering up the main street.
The church itself sits in the central plaza. Being larger than any other building in the town it’s imposing and a contrast to the surrounding mess.
On the inside it’s unlike any other church I’ve visited. There’s little natural light; instead hundreds, maybe thousands of candles sit on the floor, which is also strewn with pine needles. There’s little decoration though each wall is lined with painted mannequins of saints each holding a mirror, apparently to deflect evil.
The altar is largely obscured by decorations and flashing Christmas lights, but behind it hangs an effigy of Saint John the Baptist. Jesus himself only gets a modest location off to one side, though this isn’t uncommon in Mexican churches where the Virgin of Guadalupe often gets pride of place.
There are no pews or chairs, and the strangest thing in the church is the way people make their devotions – parting the pine needles and placing more candles and bottles of coke or other soft drinks on the floor before kneeling to pray. Photos of the interior are forbidden and the church wardens apparently go nuts if you even try; I found a couple of pictures on the internet which give some idea of what it’s like.
Chamula is a stronghold of the Mexico’s former ruling party, the PRI. Apart from the church, it’s also famous for the rigid grip that the municipality’s political leaders hold over the population. While formally elected, in practice the leaders’ rule is underpinned by violence.
The local political system is a direct inheritance from the colonial period. Historically Chiapas had little in the way of natural resources; the reason the Spanish conquistadors founded San Cristobal in the otherwise remote Chiapas highlands was to make use of the labour of the indigenous Mayan population.
While the Spanish colonists themselves (and their mestizo descendents, locally known as coletos) lived in San Cristobal, the indians lived in the surrounding villages and townships like Chamula. Then, as now, local economic and political arrangements were designed to transfer as much wealth as possible to San Cristobal’s coletos, with some modest benefits for the local indigenous chiefs, or caciques. On a day to day basis, the extraction of tribute and forced labour was managed by the caciques.
The caciques still run Chamula, though these days the main lines of power go via the local PRI up to its patrons in the state and federal governments. Chamula’s extraordinary road makes more sense in the context of this political system. Having a dual carriageway running through their town provides scant benefit for the local people, of whom only a tiny proportion have a car. It makes more sense however as a prestige project dreamed up by the town’s leaders, and a lucrative construction contract awarded by the government to the local leaders as a reward for their support.
In passing, the distinct political system in Chiapas’ Zapatista communities can be understood as a direct inversion of the caciquismo practiced in Chamula and other PRI strongholds. The Zapatista municipalities are run by councils whose members rotate regularly (so no-one becomes the chief) and which have equal numbers of men and women. Alcohol is banned, development projects are decided democratically by the community, and any support (and therefore interference) from the government is emphatically rejected.
Given the dire poverty in Chiapas it’s not surprising that there has been strong resistance to the rule of the caciques. Although Chamula’s population contains Zapatista sympathisers, in recent decades dissent has been publicly manifested by a large section of the population converting to one of several evangelical Protestant sects, originally brought to Chiapas in the 1950s by missionaries from the US. Although on the surface an issue of religious affiliation, the fact that central Chamula’s leaders double as elders of the church makes the phenomenon of Protestant conversions a distinctly political one.
The conversions brought a violent reaction from Chamula’s elites, and since the 1970s, tens of thousands of evangelicals have been expelled at gunpoint from the Chamula municipality and their lands confiscated. On some estimates 50,000, or roughly a quarter of San Cristobal’s current inhabitants, are expelled Chamulans.
As Chamula and San Cristobal are only a few miles apart there are considerable tensions. Things are currently quiet compared to the early 1990s, when the two sides fought gun battles in the so-called misery belt of informal settlements which surround San Cristobal, where the expelled Protestants made their homes.
In public, Chamula’s leaders say they are the fierce protectors of the town’s customs and autonomy; R’s friend simply calls them Chamooligans.
On 22nd December R and I drove up to Acteal for the village’s annual commemoration. As the crow flies, it’s less than 30 miles from San Cristobal de las Casas. It took us two hours to drive there however as the road is small and winds its way up and down through the Chamula and Chenalho valleys before reaching Acteal. The village itself is divided into two parts. The upper half is occupied by Zapatista supporters, the lower half by Las Abejas, a community of religious pacifists who came together in the early 1990s in response to the political turmoil and violence in Chiapas.
Acteal is perched on the edge of a mountain and has stunning views of the surrounding country, but it’s otherwise a small, non-descript, poverty stricken village, much like hundreds of others in the Chiapas highlands. It would be an obscure place had it not been for the killing of 45 of its inhabitants by paramilitaries on 22nd December 1997. Until the Zetas killed a group of Central American migrants northern Mexico last August, Acteal was the single most violent atrocity in Mexico in recent memory. The massacre has become a cause celebre in Mexico, not least because of the government’s role in orchestrating it.
Each year Las Abejas commemorate the anniversary of the massacre. They buried their dead together in the centre of the village and constructed a small open air auditorium over the top; this provided the venue for speeches and declarations through the day. The event attracts a range of human rights and political groups. The commemoration this year was attended by about 60 or 70 people beyond those from the village itself, most appeared to be Mexicans but there was also a sprinkling of other foreigners.
The liveliest group was a contingent of activists from the town of San Salvador Atenco, just outside Mexico City. Atenco has its own story, but is linked with Acteal for the suffering meted out to it for crossing the powers that be. In May 2006 the government of the State of Mexico responded to an altercation in Atenco’s market by ordering in thousands of riot police to restore order. The people of Atenco were already famous for having successfully prevented the federal government building a new airport on their land, and the events of May 2006 were widely interpreted as the government taking its revenge.
Two teenagers were shot dead. More than two hundred of Atenco’s townspeople were arrested, with many subjected to sexual abuse and other forms of torture. The community leaders who had led the anti-airport campaign were also rounded up. Their leader, Ignacio del Valle, was sentenced to 65 years in gaol. When the prosecution complained that this was too short, the sentence was extended 112 years. Eleven others also got exemplary sentences. After a lengthy appeal and a national and international campaign, launched at the commemoration in Acteal last year, Mexico’s Supreme Court decided last August that there was no case to answer, and freed the Atenco prisoners after four years in prison.
Ignacio del Valle arrived in the early afternoon with seven others from Atenco. His group were armed with machetes and guitars, and walked into the centre of the village with machetes raised, singing songs and shouting slogans. Later in the afternoon he made a passionate speech, thanking those who had campaigned to get him out of prison. He also pointed out that the fact that the government had had to release them showed it could be beaten.
The unexpected highlight of the afternoon was the moment at which, slapping his machete against the floor and followed by his guitarist, he started to dance through the auditorium, pulling the audience behind him. The sight of a middle aged man with a red bandanna and straw hat singing and skipping at the head of a giant conga changed the sombre atmosphere. Until that point the women of Acteal stood had stood impassively at the back, but as Ignacio’s giant conga took shape most of them broke into smiles.
The massacre itself can only be understood in the context of the Zapatista uprising and the counter-insurgency tactics employed by the government in its aftermath. The uprising started on 1st January 1994 and ended 12 days later after a one-sided and bloody confrontation between the rebels and the Mexican army. Following intense pressure from within Mexico and internationally, both sides agreed to a ceasefire and negotiations. These eventually ended with the signing of the San Andres Accords in 1996, which met some of the Zapatistas’ demands.
Although signed by the government’s negotiators, the Accords were never ratified by the government and remain to this day a dead letter. In place of a negotiated settlement the government instead launched a counter-insurgency campaign. On the one hand, it increased spending on social programmes in Chiapas, handing money to communities that opposed the Zapatistas. On the other, it armed paramilitary groups under the auspices of local leaders affiliated to the ruling party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI for short.
The government has always denied that it armed (and continues to arm) any paramilitaries. However, researchers in the US have used Freedom of Information legislation to obtain cables sent by the US’s Mexico City embassy to Washington on the situation in Chiapas. Cables from 1999 describe in detail how the Mexican military responded to the Zapatista rebellion, and how paramilitary groups were organised and armed with approval from the Mexican President’s office. (see for instance www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB283/acteal_02.pdf)
In many communities, the paramilitaries are interchangeable with supporters of the PRI, and are therefore known as priistas. The tragedy of Chiapas is that the paramilitaries and Zapatista rebels come from the same indigenous communities, and in some cases are directly related. The violence therefore had an inter-communal character, stirred by local conflicts over resources. At Acteal, these included attempts by the local priistas to take control over a local gravel pit and the wholesale of coffee, the main local exports.
Through the summer of 1997 the level of violence spiralled as paramilitary groups rampaged through villages in the Chenalho valley, stealing crops and goods, burning houses and on occasion killing those thought to be Zapatista supporters. Thousands fled their homes, and some of Las Abejas from outlying communities gathered for safety in Acteal.
According to survivors, around 60 paramilitaries arrived at Acteal early in the morning of 22nd December. While the Zapatista supporters in the upper village immediately fled, most of the families from Las Abejas gathered in their chapel, hoping that as pacifists they would not be counted as direct parties to the conflict, and praying for deliverance.
As the killing started the villagers scattered. According to survivors accounts, the paramilitaries stayed for several hours, searching out and killing whoever they could find. At the end of the morning 45 people had been murdered. Most of the victims were women and children between the ages of 13 and 22; four of the women were pregnant. 25 others were seriously wounded.
The Mexican army units in the area stood by as the killers went about their work. The nearest army base is less than 2 miles away, located at the top of a ridge and controlling the main road junction in the vicinity. The soldiers did nothing, and must have been aware of a large body of armed men passing along the road. There is also a military radio station directly across the valley from Acteal, with nothing between it and the village to break the sound of echoing gunfire. After the massacre the soldiers blocked the road and muddied the scene of the crime by removing the bodies and cartridge shells.
After commemoration finished we went to have a last look around the village before heading back to San Cristobal. In the small wooden chapel, with sides still punctured with bullet holes, a street performer from Mexico City was rehearsing a performance with a group of village children to be held the following morning. He explained to us that, as with the rest of the commemoration, the aim is to remember the dead but also to look forward, and that the performance had been created with this in mind.
As we left it was hard not to make comparisons between the performance and a Christmas school play. Except that in place of celebrating peace and goodwill, the children instead remember the day the government chose to set an example to anyone tempted to rebel, by slaughtering a village of pacifists.