Zapatista Intergalactica in Chiapas


Although slated to run on July 20-28, the Zapatista "Intergalactica" gathering really began on July 19 in Tuxtla Gutierrez, with an event in the main square in support of the People in Defence of the Land. Several busloads of Zapatistas from Mexico City arrived to join those already there in demanding indigenous land rights.

The indigenous peoples of Chiapas are traditional owners of large tracts of hardwood forests and there has been an upsurge in attempts to drive them off their land, by fair means or foul. "Fair" means amount to theft through the courts — either paying off judges, ignoring their judgements, or both. Foul means include murder, paying some community members to attack (and often kill) their Zapatista neighbours refusing to sell or leave — such as occurred last November in Montes Azules — or the more usual and ever more frequent kidnappings, beatings, and roadside abandonment.

Even ambulances are not exempt from this treatment — I met a woman waiting outside the Zapatista health clinic in Oventic for follow-up treatment from her recent hospitalisation who had a startling story to tell. The Zapatista ambulance taking her to hospital from Oventic to San Cristobal de las Casas on July 8 was set upon by two truckloads of civilian men, who dragged the driver and health promoter from the ambulance and beat them. The valiant driver and health promoter still managed to get her to hospital, despite their own injuries. She considered herself lucky to have been unconscious at the time, or she too may well have suffered at least as bad, if not worse a fate. In Veracruz in February, for example, Indigenous woman Ernestina Asencio was raped by up to nine soldiers, then murdered — yet another of the growing numbers of indigenous Mexicans murdered with impunity.

As the ambulance incident shows, Zapatista medical personnel are spared neither attack nor imprisonment. As a result of events in Sal Salvador Atenco last May, when thousands of police unleashed a wave of terror, Dr Guillermo Selvas and his daughter Mariana are among 28 of those still being illegally detained. Mariana had accompanied her father to provide medical treatment for student Alexis Benhumea, who was dragged to a house unconscious after being hit in the head by a tear gas cannister fired by the Preventive Federal Police (PFP). When Mariana's father left the house to find an ambulance for him, after waiting several hours for one to arrive, he was detained and beaten by police. When Mariana went into the street to see what had become of him, she too was detained, beaten, and sexually assaulted. Like the ambulance driver and health promoter, their sole crimes were to be Zapatistas providing medical care. Benhumea did not survive.

The fallout from Atenco is not limited to those still imprisoned. Jorge Salinas (see <>) told me that his "case" is still ongoing. His physical injuries have largely healed, although he has permanent damage to his hands. He cannot close his right hand, of which two fingers are immobilised. Like most of those detained, he was eventually charged with blocking a public road, but was later released on 15,000 pesos bail (the daily wage is 50 pesos so that is about a year's wages).

Salinas must report to an audiencia every 15 days to sign a form, and although in the last month the reporting place has changed and is now a little closer than the prison he has had to report to for the last year, it is still about 100km from his home. He has to be present from 10am until often 11pm at night for this process, and when asked when his case will be finalised, he said there is no end in sight, and it could go on for years. "It is not a legal process, it is a political process", he said, pointing out that the sanctions will be either a fine or a prison sentence. The only three Atenco defendants to have been sentenced so far received sentences of 67 years, however not one member of the municipal, state, or federal police have been charged, despite the wealth of evidence against them and several national and international human rights reports documenting a litany of abuses.

Although the National Commission of Human Rights made damning comments and produced several recommendations, and the Supreme Court of Mexico subsequently announced an investigation into the events at Atenco, Salinas holds out little hope that anything will come of either. "They are both just part of the total apparatus of the state." But he also had some good news — the defendants are using every available legal resource and recourse, with several successes. Four amporros found in favour of Magdalena Garcia (who nevertheless still remains imprisoned). Garcia, an indigenous woman selling food in Atenco, was swept up in the events, but her continued detention has more to do with her poltical activism as a member of an indigenous women's organisation than anything she did at Atenco.

According to Salinas, there are more than 500 political prisoners currently in jail from several states. The tally of Zapatista dead stands at more than 40, with many more imprisoned and disappeared, while the attempts continue on a daily basis to wrest from them control of natural resources such as forests and water.

Unsurprisingly, political prisoners and the protection of natural resources are high on the second Intergalactica Encuentro agenda, receiving special mention in the speech of Zapatista leader Subcommandante Marcos. He concentrated on the problems of indigenous people in Mexico, in particular the Yaqui, who in October will host the Indigenous Encuentro of the American Continent in Sonara.

It is ironic that the year that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is opened for signing, the country with the presidency of the United Nations Council of Human Rights is providing such a backdrop of exploitation, forced relocation, repression and death of its own indigenous peoples — almost always with total impunity for the perpetrators.

However, the Zapatistas continue building their communities from below and to the left, and several thousand people have again come from all parts of the world to see firsthand and experience how they are going about it, not least because the only improvements to date in health and educational status reported in Chiapas indigenous communities are in the Zapatista autonomous communities, which provide their own health care and education, as well as dispute resolution systems.