Mexico: On the Offensive

Women in the refugee camp of Xoyep, blocking
the military from entering their community.

On the Offensive:
Intensified Military Occupation in Chiapas
Six Months Since the Massacre at Acteal

A special investigative report by Global Exchange
June, 1998

Versión española



  1. Glossary of Key Terms
  2. Preface
  3. Important Note
  4. Executive Summary
  5. Text of Report
  6. Map of Chiapas
  7. Recommendations


Glossary of Key Terms

National Mediation Commission. Composed of persons of recognized moral prestige in the country and presided over by Bishop Samuel Ruiz.
Commission for Agreement and Pacification. Made up of representatives of the political parties represented in the national Congress.
Zapatista Army of National Liberation
low-intensity warfare
A counterinsurgency military strategy designed to combat popular uprisings by breaking up their organizational efforts. Fundamental components include misinformation, psychological tactics, military pressure, and attrition--all of which instill fear and insecurity.
Northern Zone
An area in the north of Chiapas severely polarized along social, political and even religious lines, where paramilitary groups are very active.
paramilitary groups
Armed groups that act on the fringes of the law, for the most part made up of peasants and indigenous persons tied to the PRI. Typically characterized as defending political and economic interests of the powerful in the region.
Institutional Revolutionary Party. The political party that has ruled Mexico since the late 1920s at the end of the Mexican revolution.
San Andres Larrainzar
The town where, on February 16, 1996, the government and the EZLN signed historic peace accords on the rights of the indigenous peoples.



The following report was researched and written over a two-month period by a team of three Global Exchange researchers in Mexico City, San Cristobal de las Casas and the conflict zone of Chiapas.

Global Exchange has maintained human rights monitoring activities in Chiapas since the military offensive against the EZLN began in February 1995 and has established a close working relationship with local non-governmental organizations and autonomous communities in the region.

At the core of this paper are powerful testimonies from indigenous communities describing in vivid detail the day-to-day reality of living under intense military occupation. While these testimonies stand alone, we explain their relevance within the context of the low-intensity warfare that the Federal Army is waging against these communities, including data about increasing levels of militarization in Chiapas and their political, social and cultural effects.

The testimonies are the authentic voices of indigenous people from the communities of Morelia, 10 de Mayo and Nueva Esperanza in the Municipality of Altamirano, and La Garrucha in the Municipality of Ocosingo. Morelia and La Garrucha are also the headquarters of the Autonomous Municipalities of 17 de Noviembre and Francisco Gomez respectively.

This report also includes interviews with a constitutional expert in Mexico City, as well as representatives of the National Intermediation Commission (CONAI) and health promoters and professionals in San Cristobal de las Casas. These in-depth interviews helped to shape and inform our analysis.

Secondary sources include reports on military and paramilitary build-up by prominent Mexican human rights organizations and international NGOs, political analysis magazines, national newspapers, communiques from autonomous municipal leaders, and other peasant organizations.

One of the major challenges for researchers who work in conflict situations is the lack of statistics and the reluctance of people to come forward with information, particularly the victims of violence. In compiling this report, we were particularly anxious to record the most important voices in this conflict--those of the indigenous people themselves. Three years of field work and building relationships in Chiapan communities has enabled us to produce this report.

Important Note - June 10, 1998

On June 7, 1998, Samuel Ruíz, Bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas, tendered his resignation as head of the CONAI (National Mediation Commission) and chief mediator between the government and the EZLN. Samuel Ruiz is referred to and quoted in this report, as is the CONAI, which dissolved itself in conjunction with the bishop's resignation.

In his resignation statement, Samuel Ruíz blamed the government for the breakdown in the peace talks and accused President Zedillo of sponsoring "a constant and growing governmental aggression" against himself and the mediation process.

The bishop's comments add to the considerable weight of evidence contained in this report that the Federal Government has systematically undermined the efforts of Mexican civil society, and the CONAI in particular, to create a dialogue process "with peace and dignity". The withdrawal of Bishop Ruíz from the mediation process has now left a dangerous vacuum in the peace process that has already led to increased tension and bloodshed in the state.

There is widespread concern that the government will seize upon the Bishop's resignation as an opportunity to strengthen its own agenda for resolving the conflict without mediation, and so pave the way for a military offensive against the EZLN and its support base communities.

The first signs of a major escalation in the conflict took place on June 10th, when violent exchanges took place between Zapatista sympathizers and Mexican security forces in the autonomous municipality of San Juan de la Libertad. These were the first armed confrontations between the Zapatistas and security forces since the federal army violently occupied areas of EZLN influence in February 1995.

As this report goes to press there is still considerable confusion about the sequence of events--security forces stopped foreign and national journalists from gaining access to the area--but initial testimonies from Mexican human rights observers report loss of life on both sides, particularly Zapatistas who tried to prevent the municipality from meeting the same fate as those of Roberto Flores Magon, Tierra y Libertad and Nicolas Ruiz.


Executive Summary

In the six months since the massacre at Acteal on December 22, 1997, the Mexican Government has launched an aggressive military offensive against the support bases of the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation). In January this year, the Federal Army began a systematic process of incursions into indigenous communities during which it detained Zapatista leaders, destroyed property and, more recently, dismantled the entire infrastructure of dissident municipalities. The intensification of the military occupation of Chiapas, now estimated at over 70,000 troops, is part of a wider low-intensity warfare strategy designed to break the resistance of rebel communities.

The government has justified the invasion of indigenous areas as an attempt to disarm pro-government paramilitary groups, bring humanitarian aid to vulnerable communities, and introduce a peace-keeping force to prevent further massacres. Six months of military operations, however, have not resulted in major arms finds, nor the disarmament of paramilitary groups--which continue to act with full impunity in areas of army occupation. Despite the army's social labor campaign, the well-being of occupied communities has gone into sharp decline as people are displaced and normal economic activity disrupted.

Mexican constitutional experts have told Global Exchange that, in their opinion, the activities of the Federal Army are illegal, in that they violate the Mexican Constitution and the Dialogue and Reconciliation Laws (established in 1995 to encourage the talks process), and abuse the Firearms and Explosives Law (which can only be applied in peace time by civilian authorities).

Indigenous women confront the Mexican military

Furthermore, the military offensive coincides with a government campaign to discredit the EZLN and the introduction of a legislative initiative on indigenous rights that bypasses the San Andres Accords (signed by both parties to the conflict in 1996). Since Acteal, the government has erroneously equated the EZLN with pro-government paramilitary groups as part of its strategy to reduce the status of the original uprising to an inter-community conflict between rival indigenous factions.

More than three years of military occupation has taken a heavy toll on the social and economic fabric of the self-declared autonomous communities. The presence of federal soldiers has contributed to the rapid deterioration of community health by introducing a wave of social problems including alcoholism, drug abuse, prostitution, and sexually transmitted diseases. These problems have been exacerbated by the government's attempt to discredit and politicize the activities of independent health care providers, such as non-governmental and international health organizations working in the communities.

Communities of Zapatista supporters have responded to the government's new offensive by forming non-armed civil defense groups. These groups, largely made up of indigenous women, have had success in defending their communities against unwanted intrusions by the military, despite the use of excessive force against them.

Global Exchange calls on the Mexican government to immediately cease all offensive military action in Chiapas and pull back all troops from Chiapan conflict areas in order to foster an atmosphere conducive to peace and to create preconditions for further dialogue with the EZLN. Further, Global Exchange calls on the US government and the international community to cooperate in encouraging the Mexican government to make peace in Chiapas and respect the human rights of all its peoples.


On The Offensive: Intensified Military Occupation in Chiapas Six Months Since the Massacre at Acteal

The massacre at Acteal on December 22, 1997, in which 45 indigenous people were murdered by members of a pro-government paramilitary group, represented an important turning point in the Mexican government's strategy towards the conflict in Chiapas.

In the three weeks following the massacre, the response of the administration of President Ernesto Zedillo was not to disarm the paramilitary groups responsible for this and other killings, but rather to implement and rationalize a plan of military build-up and incursions in the three regions of greatest Zapatista influence: the highlands, the northern zone and the eastern jungle area (often referred to as the "conflict zone").

As On the Offensive reports, one-third of Mexico's Federal Army is currently stationed in Chiapas, with over 6,800 soldiers permanently stationed in the explosive Northern Zone. Military patrols in the Zapatista-influenced jungle area of Chiapas have tripled in recent years. Since December 1997 alone, the Mexican Army has entered nearly 60 communities.

It is important to remember that the EZLN, for its part, has adhered to a cease fire since January 11, 1994.

This significant military build-up in Chiapas, as the individuals interviewed for this report testify, has had a disastrous impact on the economic, social, cultural, and ecological fabric of the affected indigenous communities. Ironically, the Mexican government's use of militarization as a response to a conflict with roots in economic and social problems has actually exacerbated the underlying injustices from which the Zapatistas draw their significant community support.

President Zedillo's renewed effort to suffocate the indigenous uprising in Chiapas has collided with a long-held administration priority--presenting a democratic, modern, tolerant and stable image of Mexico to international investors and the public. The militarization of Chiapas and the intensification of hostilities between supporters of the Zapatistas and Mexico's ruling party, the PRI, does not bode well for the stability of the still fragile democratic openings won in recent years by the Mexican opposition.

In the first part of this report, the Mexican government's reasoning for the presence of the military in Chiapas is examined. Next, the report reviews the military build-up, its constitutional implications and the varied effects it has had on Chiapas' indigenous communities. Finally, residents of these communities give first-hand testimony of the incursions, attacks and brutalization they have suffered at the hand of the Mexican Army. The report concludes with a series of recommendations for the Mexican and U.S. governments and concerned individuals and organizations.

The Militarization of Chiapas

In a recent interview with Global Exchange, Samuel Ruíz, the Bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas and President of the National Intermediation Commission (CONAI), concluded that "what happened in Acteal in a certain way was the end of a previous phase for the army, because Acteal gave them the opportunity to position themselves, with a certain justification, in Chiapan communities that are Zapatista support bases. The lowest figure we have had recently is 74,000 soldiers: we have an incredible map showing all the places where they are. What's more, [it is] an army that no longer has any relationship with the dialogue process, but marches according to its own logic." (Please see "Important Note".)

Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark described the militarization of Chiapas during his visit to the region in April this year as "an enormous army occupation against its own people, much larger than Bosnia." (La Jornada, April 2, 1998)

The Federal Government has presented the increasing military presence as an attempt to reestablish law and order in the communities. The Mexican army is not an army of occupation, they argue, but a peacekeeping force needed to prevent further outbreaks of violence between rival indigenous groups.

Within a week of the Acteal massacre the government positioned more than 6,000 troops in the previously unoccupied highlands region. Their official mission: to disarm 'groups of armed civilians' that had been operating freely in the area and to provide humanitarian assistance to displaced communities.

The Mexican government's claim that the army was in Chenalho to provide emergency aid provoked an angry response from the president of the rival autonomous municipality of Polho, the Zapatista authority responsible for sheltering the thousands of people who had been displaced by paramilitary violence. On January 9 this year, he told the new governor of Chiapas: "We, the indigenous people, are no longer going to trust in the Federal and State governments, and even less in their federal soldiers that surround and besiege our communities with their tanks, armored cars, helicopters, planes and weapons of war. It is not enough to supply us with food, a few sheets of corrugated iron and a few meager pieces of clothing to resolve our grave situation and satisfy our hunger. These little presents that the government is handing out will run out in a few days, while the poverty, hunger and illness will remain with us forever."

All the paramilitary groups so far identified (up to 12, according to Attorney General of the Republic Jorge Madrazo) are self-confessed supporters of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Mexico's ruling party. Despite the heavy military presence in these areas, none of the groups, including Paz y Justicia (which has reportedly received close to half a million U.S. dollars from the PRI-controlled state government) has so far been disarmed.

Human rights organizations, including Global Exchange, continue to receive reports from many vulnerable community organizations, including Las Abejas, a religious organization dedicated to peaceful social change whose members were massacred at Acteal, that armed gunmen are still operating in their area. Rumors of 'another Acteal' in Chenalho have persisted since the army took control of the municipality.

Two weeks after the troops moved in to various Chiapan communities, Mariclaire Acosta, President of the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH), stated: "as of now we have no news that any paramilitary groups have been disarmed, but there have been accusations of numerous illegal incursions into communities by the Federal Army, and their subsequent abuse of the inhabitants....with this lack of commitment on the part of the Federal Government, they will not be able to detain the members of these death squads, especially those responsible for the genocide in Acteal and the murder of more than 500 indigenous community members." (La Jornada, January 8, 1998)

The Commission for Concordance and Pacification (COCOPA), a congressional commission that includes representatives from all five political parties, added its voice of protest by saying: "As of today, we do not have any indication that they [the Mexican Army] have acted in any way against any paramilitary group, while at the same time knowing exactly where these groups are located. What is the army doing carrying out incursions into La Realidad, Morelia, and communities with a strong Zapatista presence when the paramilitary "sanctuaries" are in Los Chorros and Pechiquil, in Chenalho, and in Tenejapa...?" (La Guerra en Curso [The War Underway], Centro de Derechos Humanos "Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez," Feb. 1998)

Onesimo Hidalgo is a member of the research and information team of the National Intermediation Commission (CONAI). In an in-depth interview with Global Exchange to discuss the militarization of Chiapas, he goes even further, blaming the Federal Army's inaction on direct collusion with local PRI supporters. "The paramilitaries and the army are one and the same," he told Global Exchange. "If you want evidence of government involvement in the growth of paramilitaries, you need look no further than the set of photographs published in Proceso magazine, in which the State Security Police are clearly working side by side with the paramilitaries." (Proceso, March 1, 1998)

Recent testimonies from communities belonging to the autonomous municipality of Roberto Flores Magon concur. The municipality's headquarters, Taniperlas, was overrun by security forces on April 11, 1998. Twelve international observers and 9 Mexicans were detained by security forces following the raid. According to both Zapatista sympathizers and non-aligned community members, the presence of federal troops, state security forces and judicial police in Taniperlas is now being used as a security cordon to hide the training activities of a new paramilitary group, MIRA (Anti-Zapatista Indigenous Revolutionary Movement).

The Government Strategy

The government strategy can only be understood in the context of the Federal Army's counter-insurgency plan, leaked to a weekly investigative magazine, Proceso, and published on January 4, 1998, the day after the latest army offensive began on EZLN positions. The army's 'Chiapas Campaign Plan 94' was drawn up in October 1994, with full government approval and constitutes the basis of President Zedillo's drive to "eliminate the Zapatista threat." (Proceso, January 4, 1998)

The document calls for the creation of government-supported armed "self-defense" groups, the displacement of rebel supporters to isolate Zapatista insurgents, the "disintegration or control of mass organizations," and the use of psychological operations "to destroy the rebels' will to fight and win the support of the civilian population." If the self-defense groups did not exist, "then they should be created" advised the document, drawn up by Defense Minister Antonio Bazan and Chiapas army commander Miguel Angel Godinez, currently a PRI representative in the Federal Congress.

The document also calls on the army "to limit the negative effects of national and international human rights groups and non-governmental organizations... and provide help to the population through social work."

The emergence of pro-government paramilitary groups in Chiapas has already been well documented by non-governmental organizations and international human rights monitoring bodies. (see Ni Paz, Ni Justicia, Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Bartolome de las Casas, November 1996) Within this report, we limit our scope to examining the role of the Federal Army in the government's ongoing low-intensity warfare strategy against the indigenous people of Chiapas. We will also provide evidence of the heavy toll that military occupation is taking on indigenous communities throughout the state. We evaluate the government's consistent denials that it is waging war in Chiapas in the light of the following facts:

  • More than 70,000 troops (one-third of the Federal Army) are currently stationed in Chiapas, predominantly in the northern zone, the highlands, and the eastern jungle region. (Cuarto Poder, March 6, 1998)
  • There are more than 6,800 soldiers permanently stationed in the northern zone. These troops have yet to disarm any of the paramilitary groups, including Paz y Justicia, which has been linked to more than 60 deaths in the last three years. (La Jornada, December 28, 1997)
  • There are five soldiers for every police officer in Chiapas. (La Jornada, January 14, 1998)
  • Military patrols in the Zapatista influenced eastern jungle area of Chiapas tripled between December 24, 1997 - January 3, 1998. (La Jornada, January 3, 1998)
  • The Mexican Army has entered nearly 60 communities since December 22, 1997. All of these communities have either been recognized as Zapatista strongholds, or as communities sympathetic to the Zapatista movement. (National Intermediation Commission; CONAI)
  • The EZLN has adhered to a cease-fire since January 11, 1994.


Although the Mexican Government has justified the increased presence of the Federal Army with the need to suppress paramilitary groups, the majority of the military operations since the Acteal massacre have taken place in regions where there is a limited history of paramilitary activity. The following are prominent examples of municipalities that have been invaded by the military. Testimonies from members of these communities are highlighted in later sections of this report.

Municipality of Altamirano:

  • On January 1, 1998, the army entered the community of Nueva Esperanza. The community fled to the mountains; the soldiers stayed three days and destroyed personal and communal property.
  • On January 3, 1998, the army entered the community of Morelia, the administrative center of the autonomous municipality of 17 de Noviembre. They searched several houses before being ousted by the organized non-violent resistance of women from the community.
  • On January 8, 1998, the army tried to enter Morelia again but they were stopped by the women, who had established a roadblock to prevent the army from entering the town and destroying property.
  • On January 9, 1998, the army entered the community of 10 de Mayo where they beat women who attempted to prevent the incursion. Sixteen women were injured, as well as nine children, many of whom were in their mothers' arms. Nine of the women were pregnant.
  • On April 14, 1998, federal troops, public security forces, judicial police and immigration officials entered the community of 10 de Abril firing tear gas. Three human rights observers were detained and deported, one young indigenous man from the community was beaten, detained and tortured. Several houses were searched and property was stolen.

Municipality of Ocosingo:

  • On January 9, 1998, the army attempted to enter the community of La Galeana, an EZLN stronghold; the soldiers were driven back by members of the community.
  • On April 11, 1998, a combined force of up to 500 agents, including elite commandos, federal troops, state security police, judicial police and immigration officials entered the newly inaugurated autonomous municipality of Roberto Flores Magon. Twelve foreign observers were detained and deported; nine Mexicans were detained and later imprisoned (including two non-indigenous human rights observers).

Municipality of Las Margaritas:

Mexican soldiers occupy school in Acteal, Chiapas.
  • On May 1, 1998, the army, federal judicial police, state security forces and immigration officials entered the autonomous municipality of Tierra y Libertad. Under the pretext of rescuing a Guatemalan refugee in the municipal jail, they destroyed all municipal buildings and documents, including birth records, marriage licenses, etc. They also stole typewriters and more than 20,000 pesos from the offices. Fifty-three Mexicans were detained, of which eight were later jailed, and eight Guatemalans were detained and deported.

Municipality of Nicolás Ruiz:

  • On June 3rd, 1998, one thousand judicial police officers and federal soldiers took over the Municipality of Nicolas Ruiz, the majority of whose inhabitants are Zapatista sympathizers and supporters of the opposition PRD [Party of the Democratic Revolution]. The security forces entered the town firing tear gas, breaking down doors and arresting 164 people, 16 of whom were later imprisoned on charges of kidnapping and expelling PRI supporters from the community. The remaining 148 people who had been illegally detained in the operation were released the next day without charges.

The security sweep, which was carried out against recommendations made by the government's own National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) in the wake of the Taniperlas operation, was condemned by human rights and opposition groups in Chiapas who accused Governor Roberto Albores Guillen of carrying out a violent "dirty war" against his political opponents in the run up to the state elections on October 4th.

"Over the last 50 days the Albores Guillen interim government has used 4,000 federal soldiers and public security police to dismantle autonomous Zapatista governments and impede the electoral progress of the PRD in various municipalities," according to opposition parties and human rights organizations. (La Jornada, June 5, 1998)

Implications for the Mexican Constitution

"All of the citizens know that the armed forces act in complete accordance with the law, with a strict code of ethics."
-President Zedillo, February 1998

According to Mexican constitutional expert and attorney Barbara Zamora of the National Association of Democratic Lawyers, the activities of the Federal Army in Chiapas are in direct violation of the constitution. "The army should be in their barracks," she told Global Exchange in an interview conducted in her office in Mexico City. "What's more, they should only leave their barracks by presidential order, and even then, the President has to consult the Congress of the Union. These are important guarantees to protect Mexican citizens against their own armed forces." The role of the army, she explained, is limited to protecting the integrity of Mexican national territory and should not be employed against its own people, especially when a state of war has not been declared and a dialogue process, albeit suspended, is in progress.

"The excuse that the Federal Army is applying the Fire Arms and Explosives Law to disarm paramilitary groups is clearly false," she said, "as the very laws cited by the government do not give the army this authority. The Fire Arms and Explosives Law only gives SEDENA [the Mexican Defense Department] the right to keep a registry of individuals and their weapons, and does not give them the authority to disarm groups or search their communities."

Even if there were provision in this law for the military to search for weapons, it would be in direct contradiction with Article 129 of the Mexican Constitution, the supreme law of the nation which states: "In peace time, no military authority can carry out functions other than those directly related to military discipline". This means that the Federal Army does not have the authority to set up road blocks and check civilians' personal papers (as it has been doing since the start of the conflict). Nor can they enter communities to search for weapons or interrogate their inhabitants.

Zamora believes that "the government is only using the Fire Arms and Explosives Law as a pretext for justifying its illegal occupation of Chiapas. The previous excuse--that the army was involved in combating drug-trafficking--wasn't working out for them, so now they're using this law to explain their unconstitutional presence in the state." Zamora also argued that the Federal Army is breaking agrarian laws referred to in Article 27 of the Constitution by occupying ejido (communally held) lands without the permission of their authorities.

In addition to violating the Mexican Constitution and the Firearms and Explosives Law, the Federal Army's activities in Chiapas contradict the letter and spirit of the Dialogue and Conciliation Laws established in March 1995 to facilitate the peace process between the Federal Government and the EZLN. The violations of the Dialogue and Conciliation laws are based on the government's refusal to continue recognizing the EZLN as a legitimate armed organization made up of 'non conformists' struggling for 'just demands', and its failure to guarantee free transit between the communities, or maintain an atmosphere of peace and reduced tension to facilitate dialogue.

In the six months since Acteal, the government has gone out of its way to discredit the EZLN by publicly identifying the organization as similar to the paramilitary groups in Chiapas. By doing so, the government has deliberately reversed the process of recognition and adversarial legitimization that it acceded to at the begining of negotiating the San Andres Accords in 1995.

In January 1998 the new Interior Minister Francisco Labastida Ochoa, who was appointed in the wake of the crimes at Acteal, stated that "the Mexican military has the official task of disarming all armed groups in Mexico, including the EZLN." The same month, Defense Secretary Enrique Cervantes stated that, "the application of the law [Firearms and Explosives] cannot be particular and cannot have exceptions." The government's repeated linking of the EZLN (whether directly or indirectly) to the disarmament of pro-government paramilitary groups is part of a strategy to reduce the status of the conflict in Chiapas to that of an intercommunity conflict.

Such a redefinition of terms facilitates the repositioning of the Federal Army so it can act as arbitrator between warring groups, rather than as the EZLN's main adversary. This tactic was given further voice by President Zedillo on April 14, 1998 during his state visit to Venezuela, where he described the EZLN as "the principal paramilitary group in Chiapas."

Gonzalo Ituarte, Technical Secretary of the CONAI, disputes the notion that the EZLN is just another paramilitary group: "It is necessary to detain and disarm all paramilitaries, but the EZLN is in the process of negotiating with the government about the possibility of disarmament, and this, along with the fact that the EZLN hasn't used arms since January 11, 1994, makes it clear that they should be treated differently from paramilitary groups." (La Jornada, January 8, 1998, p. 8)

The original objective of the Dialogue and Conciliation Laws (per Article 4) was "to create conditions that correspond with the process of dialogue and conciliation" between the EZLN and the Mexican Government. This includes the commitment to "maintain the suspension of judicial action against members of the EZLN, who, in their totality, are no longer subject to judicial proceedings." The Dialogue Laws also commit the Government to guaranteeing "the free transit of the leaders and negotiators of the EZLN and assure that they will not be personally or physically interrogated by any federal authority."

Thousands of testimonies given by members of indigenous communities in the three occupied regions of Chiapas provide evidence that, contrary to its stated mission of fostering an atmosphere of peace and reconciliation, the army occupation has only generated further violence and mistrust.

As mentioned earlier, recent political arrests at the inauguration of the autonomous municipality Ricardo Flores Magon and in the autonomous municipality Tierra y Libertad were carried out by an integrated police and Army troop contingent. The 11 prisoners from Ricardo Flores Magon, and the eight from Tierra y Libertad bring the current number of alleged Zapatistas behind bars to 56. These most recent detainees are being jailed on political charges such as "rebellion" and "usurpation of authority."

Members of EZLN support communities report being harassed and interrogated on a regular basis, both within their communities and while en route to other places. During a Global Exchange interview at the CONAI, when asked if the Mexican Government has respected the spirit of the Dialogue and Conciliation Laws, Onesimo Hidalgo replied that, "they have clearly not followed the laws, because they have been using planes and helicopters to check on these communities in the name of either drug enforcement or 'humanitarian' work."

The use of the Federal Army at road blocks and check points along the highways of Chiapas may violate the Constitution because the army is carrying out civilian duties such as identity checks. During interviews with Global Exchange, community representatives say the military checkpoints violate the 1995 Dialogue Laws and the Accords of San Miguel because they inhibit free civilian transit. This specific agreement between the EZLN and the Federal Government states that the government will not position the army on the highways of Chiapas. Hidalgo added, "Of course, the government doesn't want to recognize that this is a war, but the military blockades are a clear indication that the government is at war."

Impact of Low Intensity Warfare on Community Life

The strategy of the army's low-intensity war against the EZLN is to destroy their capacity to resist occupation by undermining the social and economic fabric of their support bases. Direct action against the communities is facilitated by the spreading of social problems that arise naturally from the close proximity of military bases to indigenous communities. The alien presence of federal troops has had a corrosive effect on social and cultural life in indigenous communities. San Cristobal Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia says that the military presense in some cases is "destroying the very souls of the communities." (At the Edge of Light: Images of the Chiapas Highlands and Jungle, p. 6)

The evidence of this strategy is most obvious in the conflict zone, or jungle area east of Ocosingo, where the Zapatistas have their traditional support base. The region has experienced a dramatic increase in the levels of prostitution, alcoholism and drug abuse since February 1995 when the Federal Army entered areas that had been under exclusive Zapatista control after the 1994 uprising. The wave of social problems created by the Army presence has seriously undermined the health and morale of occupied communities.

The presence of thousands of federal troops and their military bases has introduced prostitution into hundreds of indigenous communities. PRODUSSEP is a local NGO that specializes in providing health services in the conflict zone. To get professionals' first-hand accounts of the health problems in the area, Global Exchange conducted in-depth interviews with health providers from PRODUSSEP in their San Cristobal offices. They reported that "there is not only a direct relationship between prostitution and marital breakdown, but a direct correlation between the presence of prostitutes and the spread of serious sexual diseases, including AIDS." Many local women take up prostitution due to economic desperation. Some are lured by soldiers who ask for sex in lieu of change for 100 or 200 peso bills offered by soldiers in exchange for washing services or tortillas that cost only a small fraction of that amount.


Community members ask soldiers to
leave occupied school in San Geronimo
Tulija, Municipality of Chilon.

Indigenous communities in Chiapas, particularly in more remote highland and jungle areas, are unprepared to tackle these problems. Some communities have little education about the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases. Even under ideal circumstances, community education on sexual health issues would be a delicate long-term project. In marginalized and militarily besieged communities it is far harder. As PRODUSSEP points out, "it is very difficult to get community members organized to learn about the diseases and then follow up with educating the rest of their community on how to protect themselves and fight against the continuing spread of the disease."

The Federal Army has also been instrumental in spreading alcohol abuse to communities that were previously dry, either out of cultural practice, or because of prohibitions introduced by the EZLN. The growth of alcoholism has had a devastating effect on the health and social cohesion of Zapatista support base communities. Alcohol abuse has also increased the level of domestic violence against women and children, compounding inter-personal conflicts already primed by poverty and the military occupation. Though increases in domestic violence are always hard to measure, health providers from each of the organizations we interviewed noted an increase in battered women in communities where achohol use has become a problem.

Impact on mental health

NGOs and health promoters report increasing rates of mental illness such as depression and other stress-related diseases. They cite the pressure of military occupation as a major contributing factor. A community member of La Garrucha, the capital of the autonomous municipality of Francisco Gomez, summarized the situation when he told Global Exchange: "The majority of us had never seen soldiers before. Since we've had to live with the military so close to our community we have had many problems. For example, the women have always gone down by the stream to get water and firewood, but now with the presence of the soldiers so close to the stream, the women can't go there anymore. What's more, they've brought prostitution with them, and this is a very bad custom for us. It effects us all, and it is obvious that they are not respecting us, or our way of life."

"In our community the army has set up camp in our grazing areas with our cattle in them. However, the army won't let us come close to their camp so we can't get to some of our animals. We have also had problems with the trash, because the army doesn't know how to throw their trash away: they throw it all over the place, wherever they want. As a result we have had cattle, horses, and pigs die on us because they eat the plastic that has been carelessly discarded."

"There are regular airplane and helicopters flights low over our community, extremely low. One helicopter that flies by takes pictures of us. The whole time [of the occupation, the Army] has been cutting down trees in areas that we left as a natural reserve belonging to our ejido. The soldiers have even started to build houses on our land, in this same area that we had left as a reserve. All in all, we live with the fact that every day we are in danger. Every day the army trucks pass by here, sometimes stopping to take photos of us, and sometimes just to scare us, but always they pass by here. Soldiers regularly stop us to ask us 'where are you going?' and 'what are you carrying?' They have even set up check points on the highway to search community members who pass by. There hasn't been any kind of tranquility here since 1995."

An example of this general practice took place on March 24 of this year when the community La Realidad had nine distinct military aircraft make 28 circular passes over their homes and inhabitants in one day. (La Jornada, March 27, 1998)

The relationship between psychological well-being and physical health is well known. "We don't eat when we start hearing the rumors that the army is coming," a woman from Morelia explained to us, "so we start to suffer from hunger. The children, the little ones, they don't eat either, because their mother's breasts don't fill with milk. And so of course we all get sick."

Impact on Ecology

The presence of more than 70,000 federal soldiers in Chiapas has also taken its toll on the delicate ecology of areas already threatened by population growth. Land and water resources are being contaminated, compromising local people's health and jeopardizing the sustainability of these resources for future generations. As a representative of PRODUSSEP explained: "the federal soldiers are bathing themselves and washing everything in rivers that cannot handle such a drastic increase in use, especially since the soldiers don't treat the water source with respect." When they wash their vehicles, troops use damaging chemicals and other non-biodegradable products that pollute the water supply. They also accelerate the deforestation process by chopping down trees for fire wood. When out on patrol they frequently trample the crops of local communities."

Reports from La Jornada confirm this assessment of damage to communities; "The fragile social and community life of indigenous communities is being destroyed by the presence of soldiers. They don't build military camps in accordance with military regulations; they defecate wherever they want; they leave trash everywhere; they penetrate the living spaces of the inhabitants; they search people's homes as if they were police with warrants; and they rob these communities of what little they own; they foster and promote prostitution which was previously completely unknown and, worst of all, they intimidate and threaten these populations on a regular, even daily basis." (Arnaldo Cordova, La Jornada, January 14, 1998)

Impact on Local Economies

Three years of military occupation have seriously disrupted the local economy. The constant incursions that have taken place since the beginning of this year have had a devastating effect on communities that are already living on the edge of subsistence. The constant state of alert means that men have been unable to tend their fields, even to harvest their corn, while women are afraid to collect firewood or carry water. This has resulted in constant food shortages and a threat to the lives of vulnerable people, particularly the elderly and children.

Longer term development projects are also disrupted. These projects represent the efforts of indigenous communities to develop their economic potential beyond day-to-day survival. They are also the economic foundations of the newly emerging autonomous municipalities. These activities include agricultural cooperatives producing corn, coffee, and honey, as well as livestock rearing for consumption and sale to external markets. Examples of women's cooperatives include bakeries, vegetable gardens, artisan workshops, chicken-raising projects, and cooperative stores.

Losses are difficult to quantify, as many of these projects are still very small scale and at the planning stages. However, one coffee cooperative in the highlands, Union Majomut, had to cancel eight contracts signed for a net price of US$560,000. The coffee could not be harvested because of the increase in paramilitary activity in that area, including the Acteal massacre, which prevented people from accessing their fields. This money would have provided income to more than one thousand families.

The constant disruption of these projects has dealt a devastating blow to the long term survival of these communities. As women from Morelia explained: "Here we are, working with our hands, content just to be working to feed our children. Since January we have heard constant rumors that the army is coming back. And as women we can't work in peace at our houses, in our kitchens, because we keep hearing the helicopters pass by. We can't work in our women's cooperative either. That's what the government wants--for us to be unable to work in our cooperatives, because we're working for ourselves and the government wants to take away our right to work and organize ourselves. We can't work in our vegetable gardens or our bakery because we see that the helicopters keep coming, flying really low."

Impact on Health Care Access

Non-governmental health organizations are not only concerned about the deterioration in community health arising from military occupation, but accuse the Federal Government of actively creating conditions that prevent Zapatista support bases from obtaining the health services they need.

In December 1997, Physicians for Human Rights carried out a fact-finding mission to Chiapas in which they investigated the politicization of health care and treatment in the conflict zone. The conclusion of their report was as follows: "Evidence collected by PHR strongly suggests that Mexican government programs to alleviate poverty and social inequality in Chiapas are cosmetic in nature, and that the government has abdicated its responsibility to ensure the provision of politically neutral health care to civilians in the conflict zone. At best, government health and other services are subordinate to and distorted by government counterinsurgency efforts. At worst, these services are themselves components of repression, manipulated to reward supporters and to penalize and demoralize dissenters. In either case, government health services in the zone are discriminatory, exacerbate political divisions, and fail utterly to address the real health needs of the population." (Violations of Human Rights: Medical Ethics and Medical Neutrality in Chiapas, Mexico, Physicians for Human Rights, December 1997)

The report details how the Mexican government is violating international standards of medical neutrality "based in international humanitarian law, particularly the 1949 Geneva Conventions and subsequent protocols," by discriminating against health care providers that work in pro-rebel communities: "While public health-care providers in the zone do suffer from significant shortages in supplies and staff, non-government providers who work in and with pro-rebel communities lack access to funding, supplies and other support from the public health system, often working without basic medicines and immunizations. As a result, health conditions in pro-rebel villages are noticeably worse than those in pro-government villages."

The discrimination that independent health care providers experience at the hands of the government helps shed light on the motives of the Federal Army's recent Social Labor Program. Marcos Arana, Director of Defending the Right to Health, an NGO working with displaced communities in Chiapas, told Global Exchange in a recent interview: "The medical assistance provided by the army is no more than a Trojan Horse for penetrating the communities. In other words, medical treatment has become yet another weapon of war against the EZLN support bases. It is also a violation of international humanitarian law, which states that medical attention in situations of armed conflict should be provided by neutral third parties."

Communities' Response

In January 1998, hundreds of indigenous villages organized themselves to mount an unarmed defense strategy for their communities. The objective was to prevent further incursions by the Federal Army, without escalating the conflict. The vast majority of the civilians that block the entrances of villages are women. On a regular basis they confront heavily armed soldiers (who sometimes wear riot gear) with sticks, rocks and voices full of pent up fear and rage accumulated over four years of low-intensity warfare.

For many members of Zapatista support base communities, the current level of militarization is reminiscent of the military offensive that began February 9th, 1995, when the Mexican Army swept through the conflict zone. At that time, entire villages fled to the mountains where they stayed for days, weeks, or even months, until the Dialogue and Conciliation Laws established the conditions for their safe return. Women from Morelia told Global Exchange how their experiences in February 1995 influenced the decision to defend their communities: "We don't want the same thing to happen that happened on February 9th [1995], when we fled from our homes and the children were suffering from hunger. We watched them suffer a great deal--we didn't have food to eat. The children all got sick, they all had fevers. We all got sick. That's how we see it, that we don't want to suffer again like that in the mountains. That's why we are defending our community."

There are a number of reasons why the women decided to act on behalf of their communities. The first is that the presence of women is more easily interpreted as defensive and therefore less confrontational. Secondly, there is a history of indigenous men being kidnapped, interrogated, tortured and killed when the army enters indigenous communities.

Women also suffer directly from these incursions since it is their homes, cooperatives, livestock and gardening projects that are destroyed by the soldiers. They are also subject to intense sexual harassment.

"We held a meeting and decided that we were going to chase the army out if they came," a woman from Morelia testified, "that's why we did what we did on January 8 [1998], because the army came back again and we drove them out. We thought, well, if they want to shoot us, then they'll shoot us. We're ready to defend our community, and to protect the men, because if they take our husbands away, they'll torture them, they'll kill them, like what happened on January 7 [1994], when they killed our three compañeros. We don't want there to be any more deaths."

Women from Zapatista support base communities have organized to defend their communities in several regions. They have also made agreements to support other communities coming under attack. On January 1 of this year, for example, women from all of the communities neighboring La Nueva Esperanza joined together with that municipality's residents in an effort to chase out the army.


Women from La Galeana run soldiers out of their community.

On January 3, the army entered Morelia, taking the community by surprise. The women quickly organized themselves and 60 of them managed to drive out over 100 federal soldiers who were breaking into houses and searching them. Fearing that the army would return, they set up a 24-hour checkpoint on the road. The army returned five days later. This time the women not only prevented troops from entering Morelia, but chased them several kilometers down the road to ensure that they departed.

Women from other communities have met with less success and have suffered brutal treatment from soldiers, particularly when international human rights obervers are not present. On January 9th, a day after the women from Morelia had chased the soldiers down the road, the army beat women and children trying to defend the entrance to the community of 10 de Mayo.

The fact that indigenous women from many Zapatista support bases and non-aligned communities have confronted the military in Chiapas demonstrates their courage and is a clear sign that the EZLN does not want to go back to war, despite severe provocation. "The demand that the Mexican Army leave our indigenous communities is not just in the interest of a few of us--it is the principal demand of the indigenous people of Chiapas and has been expressed over and over since the soldiers entered our territory in February of 1995." (Maria Nunez, ARIC-Independiente y Democratica)

The Reality of Military Presence in Chiapas: Voices from the Communities

President Zedillo describes the Mexican Army as "an army of peace," but since January 1, 1998, the Federal Army has carried out a systematic campaign of harassment against Zapatista communities. This harassment has taken many forms including: the establishment of additional army bases and roadblocks near indigenous communities; troop movements in trucks, jeeps, and tanks; low level helicopter and airplane over-flights; interrogation of indigenous peasants; abuse of the local environment and agricultural resources; and systematic destruction of communal property.

Below we compare some of the official statements by President Zedillo about the activities of the Federal Army in Chiapas with testimonies that we have gathered from indigenous people on the ground.

"Mexicans are very lucky to have an army that is totally different from the other armies of Latin America. We are very lucky."
(President Ernesto Zedillo, La Jornada, February 13, 1998, p.12)

On January 1, 1998 the Mexican Army entered the community of Nueva Esperanza at 11:00 in the morning during the community's celebration of their new basketball court. After the Federal Army surrounded the village, community members fled to the mountains. According to women from the community, "the Mexican Army ate all of our chickens, about 50 from the women's cooperative, using our pans to cook them and spilling all of our corn, beans, sugar, salt and gasoline onto the floor....while robbing us of over 20,000 pesos." In the men's store, "the army took all of the drinks, cookies, chiles, sardines, and medicine, while robbing the store of over 27,000 pesos."

Women from Nueva Esperanza organized and returned to their community to demand that the soldiers leave. Women from several surrounding communities arrived in Nueva Esperanza to support them in their resistance to the military intrusion. Women from Puebla Vieja stated that, "the soldiers told us to return to our community, because if we didn't they were going to make us their women for the night." According to women from El Nance, "the military basically used all of the community's houses as their play things--even using the fireplaces as toilets." Women from the community of Nueva Puebla reported that, "after we asked the soldiers to leave because they were on campesino land and were not invited, they began to hit some of the women."

"These exemplary soldiers are insulted, and hit by women and children who are sent to do this, but the soldiers tolerate all of the provocations because they are well aware of the situation."
(President Zedillo, La Jornada, February 13, 1998, p.12)

On January 9, 1998, the army entered into Community 10 de Mayo where it was reported by community members that 16 women and nine children were beaten by soldiers after defending their community from intrusion. A group of 45 women with their children approached the soldiers and asked them where they were going. According to members of the community, the soldiers and state security forces had brought shovels of various sizes with them and a truck full of rocks, as well as firearms. They verbally attacked the group of women and children, shouting, 'What are you doing in the road, filthy Indians' and 'Shut up, dirty Indian whores'. The soldiers then attacked the women, throwing stones at them, hitting them with their shovels; they then kicked them, grabbing some of them by the hair and throwing them on the ground where they stomped on their feet and legs with their boots. They also used the butts and barrels of their weapons to beat them. They pushed them towards a ravine, throwing at least one of them over the edge, while threatening to rape them.

The children who were being carried by their mothers were injured as the soldiers threw stones at them, hit them with clubs and tried to snatch them from their mothers. Several women with children were thrown to the ground. One of the women who had recently had an operation to remove a cyst from her abdomen fainted, falling down. The soldiers shot at her, at least once very close to her body so that she would stand up. The women and children who had fallen were forced to get up with blows from the butts of rifles and shovels. Another woman who was approximately seven months pregnant was hit in the abdomen with the barrel of a gun, producing a visible injury; another pregnant woman's foot and left leg were severely swollen from the blows.

This attack lasted two hours and resulted in injuries to 16 women and nine infants. The children incurred injuries consistent with blows to the neck, head, legs, arms, and back as they were being carried in their mother's shawls. A seven-month-old baby girl lost consciousness from the blows she received during a period of more than an hour. Thirty-six hours later she was still vomiting and crying, refusing to take her mother's milk. Another one-year-old received a blow to the head and also lost consciousness. Two women received deep cuts to their head. Until international observers arrived, the community was too frightened to leave in order to seek medical attention, as they were afraid of being attacked on the road by groups of PRI supporters or by federal soldiers.

"The army will not repress our indigenous brothers."
(President Zedillo, La Jornada, February 20, 1998, p.1)

On January 3, 1998, the military entered the community of Gabino Barrera where community members reported that "the army trampled on all of our corn, all of our beans, they trampled on everything that was in our milpa because our milpa is down close to the river where the soldiers were....Almost everything was lost, the corn, the beans, we didn't harvest anything because they trampled on all of it. This whole incident has humiliated and frightened us because we've never seen the army come into our community. We are afraid to leave for fear that they will find us on the road. We think it's more dangerous for the men, but we are also well aware that the army could assault or rape us if any of us were found walking outside our immediate community."

"Our armed forces are an army for peace."
(President Zedillo, La Jornada, February 20, 1998, p.1)

In the latter part of January 1998, the Federal Army entered several communities in the municipality of Tila, in the northern zone. On January 20, troops invaded the community of Jolja and proceeded to search for enclaves of arms with a metal detector, while detaining five men who were later turned over to the Public Security Forces of Yajalon. The names of the men detained were provided to the Federal Army by members of the paramilitary group, Paz y Justicia. On January 26, the army again entered the community of Jolja and detained four more young men, stripped them of their clothes and shoes, took the bananas they had harvested while working in their banana plantation. As they continued through the community's corn fields and coffee plantation they demanded identification from everyone they encountered. On January 28th, the Army brought six Federal Army Trucks full of soldiers into the community of Masoja Yochija, accompanied by the Tzaquil director of Paz y Justicia, Mateo Garcia.

"Today I reaffirm that those who shamelessly do not hesitate to use Indigenous women and children for their own provocations, and would not stop short of using them as cannon fodder, will always meet a moderately firm army, yes! but also an army with prudence. They will meet an army ready for action, yes! but also an army of serenity. And they will meet an army moderately bold, yes! but also an army of discipline and patience."
(President Zedillo, La Jornada, February 20, 1998, p.6)

Women from Morelia testify that: "on the 15th of March the helicopters began patrolling again over our community. Ever since then, they haven't left us in peace. Every day they fly by really low, every day we're on alert because of the helicopters. That day the helicopter was trying to land, and when we saw how low it was flying, we went running to look and we planted all these big poles in the ground so that it couldn't land. The children were also frightened, because the helicopter tried again to land right by the school. For about five minutes it was trying to land, hovering very low. All the children went running out into the central plaza [next to the school].

"We've already seen the many things that the army does, because we saw that they killed our three comrades on January 7 th 1994. We don't want that to be repeated. The government sends its army to kill the people. And they torture us. We've already seen how they tortured the three comrades that they killed, that is why we don't want the army to come to our community. We were looking for the comrades for almost a month and we didn't find them. Then we heard that they were already dead. All that was left was their pants, their shirts, and their shoes that had been thrown away. We went to go get their remains and only their bones were there. We just recognized the poor comrades' clothing, torn by the dogs that had eaten the bodies. Nothing was left but their bones. And there still hasn't been any justice. What we see is that as one of us kills someone, they send us to Cerro Hueco [Prison], but if the government comes to kill us, the campesinos, there is no justice.

"We can take care of ourselves. We work with our own sweat. We're not asking for money from the government. What we want is for them to comply with the accords that they signed in San Andres."


Since the massacre at Acteal, the Zedillo Administration has stepped up its efforts to suffocate the indigenous uprising in Chiapas. The government's use of military and paramilitary force has collided with another long-held administration priority--presenting a democratic, modern, tolerant and stable image of Mexico to international investors and the public at large. Thus, even while tossing aside a signed peace agreement and rupturing the hard-won consensus for a peaceful negotiated solution to be forged by intermediaries from Mexico's civil society and legislature, the Administration has shied away from legalizing its military occupation by declaring a state of emergency in Chiapas. The government appears to fear that such a declaration would strengthen calls for international mediation of the conflict.

The current government strategy is dangerous and irresponsible. It threatens to destroy Mexico's fragile democratic opening and has the potential to dangerously destabilize the country.


Map of Chiapas.


North American friends of Mexico have the complex task of formulating a coherent response to this distressing situation. They must take into account both the sovereignty of Mexico as well as principles of international and hemispheric solidarity in matters of human rights and political freedom as expressed in continental, hemispheric, and global agreements, as well as in historic practice.

Historically, Mexican governments have distinguished themselves by taking positions independent of the US on foreign policy issues. Since 1994, however, the Zedillo Administration has embraced a strategic military alliance with the US. Arms aquisitions have risen sharply and last year over one thousand Mexican military officers received Pentagon training of one sort or another.

US policy makers contend they are building up the military to stop the flow of narcotics into the United States and because the Mexican police--at all levels--are too corrupt to be relied on in interdiction efforts. Given abuses of power in Chiapas and elsewhere, as well as abundant evidence that narco-corruption extends into the military as well as political ruling circles, the US narco-rationale for an escalation of the strategic military alliance is weak. The United States should have zero participation in President Zedillo's war in Chiapas.

To the Mexican Government:

  1. Halt all offensive military action in Chiapas, pull all troops back from Chiapan conflict areas and disarm pro-government paramilitaries to foster an atmosphere condusive to peace and reconciliation and to create preconditions for further dialogue with EZLN.
  2. Seek a peaceful solution to the conflict in Chiapas--one which guarantees the rights of indigenous peoples there and throughout Mexico.
  3. Compensate communities which have sustained damages in military raids and give resettlement grants to the displaced in order that they may return to their homes and work.
  4. Detain and prosecute paramilitary organizations and those members of the army and police who have been accused by human rights organizations and citizens as having illegally attacked, robbed and terrorized Chiapan communities.
  5. Release all political prisoners, particularly those held without evidence following military raids on communities.
  6. Ensure that human rights groups, churches, community organizations and NGOs within Mexico are able to gather information and offer unrestricted humanitarian assistance in Chiapas free of harassment by the military and police.
  7. Allow unrestricted access to all of Mexico, including Chiapas, by national and international delegations of human rights observers wishing to assess the human rights situation.
  8. Stop the deportations of international partners of Mexican humanitarian organizations.
  9. Allow unrestricted access to Mexican and foreign media to Chiapas and the entire Mexican Republic to fully report on the situation there.
  10. Ensure the immediate distribution of relief aid to displaced and vulnerable communities under the direction and supervision of the International Red Cross and other independent non-governmental organizations.

To the US Government:

  1. Cease all US arms sales, military assistance and training to Mexico on the grounds that support for a military that violates human rights is illegal under US and international law.
  2. Call on the Mexican Government, as a respected NAFTA partner, to uphold human rights, cease its military occupation of Chiapas and seek an immediate peaceful solution to the conflict which guarantees the rights of the indigenous peoples.
  3. Send a delegation of US Congresspeople to observe and report on the human rights situation in Chiapas and call on the Mexican Government to allow unrestricted access to all national and international human rights delegations.
  4. Make emergency relief aid available to displaced and vulnerable communities on condition that it is distributed under the supervision of the International Red Cross and other independent non-governmental organizations.