Peasants pay with their lives in secret war against Zapatistas

Assassinations, kidnappings and torture are turning Chiapas into a powder keg, writes Phil Davison in San Cristobal de las Casas

With Mexico's Zapatista guerrillas trapped in the Lacandon jungle, the Mexican government and army is waging a "secret, low-intensity war" against suspected Zapatista supporters, mainly poverty-stricken Indian peasants.

Human rights officials say paramilitary groups, armed and backed by the military and police, have assassinated an average five peasants a day over the last few months in the south-eastern state of Chiapas, where the Zapatista rebels rose up in 1994 and have widespread support.

Peasants have also been thrown off their land, detained and tortured if they are suspected of even sympathising with the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), the officials say.

The incidents have turned Chiapas, particularly the northern part of the state, into a powder keg. Locals talk of the potential for civil conflict in the run-up to nationwide legislative elections in July. Communities are split between support for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) of President Ernesto Zedillo and the centre-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which backs the social aims of the Zapatista rebels.

The presence of tens of thousands of troops in the state has added to the tension.

In the community of Agua Blanca, troops and police recently arrived by helicopter to harass women working in coffee plantations, according to one eyewitness. The security forces, known to locals as the BOM (an acronym for Joint Operation Force), said they were looking for weapons. When they found none, they forced the women to pose with the army or police rifles, the witness said.

It was not clear whether the BOM detained any of the women or were simply threatening them with future arrest if they had anything to do with the Zapatistas.

"The frontline war lasted only 12 days with the Zapatista uprising of January 1994," said Pablo Romo of the Fray Bartolome Centre, a leading independent human rights group which defends Chiapas's native Mayan Indians. "Now, it is a secret war of low intensity, a psychological war. There have been bombs, kidnappings and shootings aimed at suspected EZLN sympathisers, human rights groups or social workers."

At least 16 firebombs or molotov cocktails have been thrown at the offices of human rights groups in San Christobal over the past five weeks. A leading human rights activist, Javier Lopez Montoya, was kidnapped with his wife and children last November and has not been seen since.

A colleague of Mr Romo at the Fray Bartolome Centre, Jose Montero, was wounded in the arm when gunmen in civilian clothes opened fire on his car last month. Mr Montero said he saw uniformed police with the gunmen.

Mr Lomo and Mr Montero say they are in no doubt that the gunmen belonged to the so-called Paz y Justicia (Peace and Justice) group which they describe as paramilitary. The group is made up of hardline PRI supporters, led by the party's legislator in Chiapas, Samuel Sanchez, and reportedly armed and backed by the army and police.

Ex-members of Peace and Justice were quoted here this week as saying they had been given military training and were told to "do away with the Zapatistas".

Peace talks between the Mexican government and the EZLN have been stalled since last September. The guerrilla leader Subcomandante Marcos, known for his black balaclava and pipe, remains in hiding in the Lacandon jungle east of here with several hundred men. His supporters believe he is planning a new operation, more likely to be a propaganda coup than a military assault.

While the leader himself has not been seen for weeks, his image is everywhere in San Cristobal. You can buy a Marcos T-shirt for pounds 4, a Marcos balaclava for pounds 1, a Marcos-doll key ring for 40p or a Marcos clock for pounds 5.

And on the edge of the jungle, his men still rule the roost although they are blocked by the army from moving west. One of Marcos's top aides, Comandante Tacho, organised a culture show in rebel-controlled territory this week which featured the United States folk-rock group The Indigo Girls and a group of American Indians who performed a fire dance in support of the Zapatistas.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty

Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
Designer Oscar de la Renta takes a bow after showing his Spring 2015 collection in September, his last show before his death
fashionThe passing of the legendary designer has left a vacancy: couturier to America’s royalty, says fashion editor Alexander Fury
Life and Style

Company reveals $542m investment in start-up building 'a rocket ship for the mind'

Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why