The NI Interview
Dan Kaplan visits the homeland of the Zapatistas in southern Mexico
and talks with human-rights activist Ricardo Carvajal.
There is nothing to distinguish the small wooden doorway from the other residences on this back street in San Cristóbal de las Casas. Ricardo Carvajal, a tall, broad-shouldered man in his mid-thirties, answers and welcomes me into the courtyard of his office. Carvajal is Director of Servicio Internacional para la Paz (SIPAZ), a human-rights monitoring organization which keeps a watchful eye on the volatile southern state of Chiapas, reporting what it finds directly to the international community. It was here in January 1994 that the Zapatista Liberation Front staged their rebellion, protesting against the growing poverty and repression of the region’s indigenous majority.
Inside Ricardo Carvajal’s small office is a kitchen, a few woven throw rugs and some bookshelves. But nothing to suggest SIPAZ’s main job – providing unarmed support and protection to people and communities in Chiapas who are threatened with violence.
When I ask him how the daily lives of indigenous people in Chiapas have changed since the 1994 rebellion he pauses to compose his thoughts, switching smoothly from Spanish to English when he wants to stress his point.
‘The situation is actually much worse. In late 1994 the army surrounded the Zapatistas. Then in February 1995, when they discovered the identities of Subcommandante Marcos and other leaders, they moved in with a full frontal attack. People were forced to flee for their lives. Back in the jungle their villages were burned, their tools destroyed and their livestock slaughtered. Now, two years later, the army is still there. There are encampments along the rivers, each with 500 soldiers. The soldiers use detergents and chemicals; they defecate in the river, not far from many villages. They eat US-supplied military rations and throw the cans in the water. They’ve contaminated the rivers and made the water supply unusable.
‘And you know the river is central to life in an indigenous village. Women wash clothes in it and get water for drinking and preparing foods. People bathe in the river. But now the women are afraid even to go near the river. And the men are afraid to walk to their fields to tend their crops. Two growing seasons have been lost. There is pervasive hunger. The Catholic aid agency Caritas predicts an epidemic next year and has appealed to the international community for three million dollars in assistance.’
According to Carvajal the Government has yet to take the peace negotiations seriously. In fact there are now twice as many Mexican soldiers in Chiapas as there were a year ago. SIPAZ is concerned that the peace process will be lost in the rhetoric of this year’s political campaigning. ‘The Government still treats the people of Chiapas with disdain,’ Carvajal says. ‘At the recent round-table discussions, even while talking to them about rights, they treated them with racism. Indigenous people are treated as inferiors. The Government has no intention of resolving the issues; instead they use the talks to suppress the people, both militarily and politically.’
SIPAZ is a member of a network of organizations called Estacion Norte. These groups maintain a presence in the Northern Zone of Chiapas, the most dangerous part of the state right now. Recently some members accompanied a two-ton shipment of food and medicine to an isolated community there. The shipment was stopped by 200 men with machetes and guns, a private army hired by a local landlord. Ironically the gunmen called themselves ‘Peace and Justice’.
‘They detained us for over three hours,’ Carvajal says with a hint of anger. ‘They went through our belongings, taking our documents and notes. They stole all the supplies, two tons of food and medicine. The police were there the whole time, just watching. After three hours they finally intervened to free us. They made us leave immediately, without our cameras or recording equipment.’
Carvajal describes another incident which a SIPAZ team went to investigate. In May 1996 a paramilitary group known as the Chinchulines initiated a campaign of terror in the town of Bachajon. When the SIPAZ team arrived, including a journalist working for Associated Press, there were 12 or 13 houses still burning. Much of the town had been destroyed.
‘A woman came running into the street, screaming,’ Carvajal recalls. ‘She was screaming: “They’ve killed him, they’ve killed my brother.” It turned out her brother was the leader of the Chin-chulines. At that point a crowd surrounded us, telling us to go away. They said: “We don’t want any human rights here. It only causes us more trouble.” In many places in Chiapas human rights is a bad word. People are punished for talking to us.’
For Carvajal the struggle in Chiapas is about both democracy and institutional corruption. ‘There is an incredible difference in money and power here. For a transition to true democracy, this gap must be reconciled. But this gap is not limited to Chiapas or just to indigenous people; it’s a national conflict. There are over 40 million Mexicans living below the poverty level.’
Equally important, he believes, is the need to allow political space for contending views. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has governed the country for nearly 70 years and corruption is endemic. When asked what would be needed for a resolution in Chiapas, he is straightforward: ‘The PRI must disappear,’ he says, ‘or at the very least, not control the entire government. The level of power belonging to the people must be raised for democracy to exist in Mexico.’
The fact that the Zapatistas succeeded in forcing the Government to the discussion table is a sign of hope for Mexico’s poor. And there are clear signals that the pressure will continue. In Chiapas today one slogan is widely heard: ‘Never again a Mexico without us.’
SIPAZ publishes a quarterly report and disseminates first-hand information directly from Chiapas on its Website
( http://www.nonviolence.org//sipaz ). It also distributes Urgent Action Alerts and updates on specific human-rights violations in Chiapas via e-mail. Contact: [email protected] for more information.