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Mexico’s Zapatistas warn Chiapas is on ‘the verge of civil war’

In a statement signed by 1,000 leading figures, including Noam Chomsky and Diego Luna, the EZLN say that they are coming under attack from paramilitary groups, who act with the ‘passive and active complicity’ of the authorities

Members of the EZLN in the community of Morelia (Chiapas) in April 2021.
Members of the EZLN in the community of Morelia (Chiapas) in April 2021.Eduardo Verdugo (AP)

On May 22, Jorge López Santíz was hit by a bullet. It was an attack that also hit the heart of Mexico’s Zapatista Movement, the far-left group that controls territory in the southern state of Chiapas.

López Santíz was injured in a paramilitary attack against the Moisés Gandhi community, which is part of the Lucio Cabañas municipality controlled by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). The aggression appears to have been the final straw for the Zapatistas, which has said enough is enough.

The group — which for years has been hesitant about public announcements — has denounced the rise in violence in Chiapas, and called an international day of protest on June 8.

Contrary to tradition, the announcement was not made via a press release from Subcomandante Galeano — the man behind the ski mask who has symbolized the movement since he went public in 1994 under the nom de guerre Subcomandante Marcos. Instead, the Zapatistas issued a statement that was signed by more than 800 international organizations and more than 1,000 leading political and cultural figures, including U.S. intellectual Noam Chomsky; actors Diego Luna, Gael García Bernal and Daniel Giménez Cacho; director Alfonso Cuarón; and writers Guadalupe Nettel and Gabriela Jáuregui.

The statement in support of the Zapatistas calls out the rise of paramilitary attacks against the autonomous community, and the impunity with which they are met by both the state and federal government. To protest the violence, the Zapatistas have organized a demonstration in Mexico City, as well as other actions.

Actor Daniel Giménez Cacho (center) and others speak on behalf of the Zapatista movement, this Wednesday in Mexico City.
Actor Daniel Giménez Cacho (center) and others speak on behalf of the Zapatista movement, this Wednesday in Mexico City.José Méndez (EFE)

“Chiapas on the brink of civil war”

López Santíz was seriously wounded in the May 22 attack, as was Chiapas. The aggression was the work of the Regional Organization of Coffee Growers of Ocosingo (Orcao), a paramilitary group that has been threatening Zapatista autonomous communities for years. The May attack was only the latest chapter of an armed conflict with deep historical roots.

“Chiapas is on the verge of civil war with paramilitaries and hired killers from various cartels fighting for [control] of the territory against self-defense groups, with the active or passive complicity of the governments of [Chiapas Governor] Rutilio Escandón Cadenas and [Mexican President] Andrés Manuel López Obrador,” the Zapatistas stated in the document released on Wednesday. The claim is not new: the guerrilla group warned about this same violence in September 2021, when two of their militants were kidnapped.

According to a May report from the human rights group Frayba, Chiapas has become overrun by organized crime and armed groups, with “evident links to government and companies.” The document highlighted the same problems raised by the Zapatistas and their allied groups: forced displacements, arbitrary detentions, torture, attacks on human rights defenders and journalists. According to Frayba, this is taking place amid growing militarization, state and parastatal counterinsurgencies against the EZLN — there are 147 military camps close to their communities — and the efforts of surrounding peasant and indigenous movements.

The EZLN statement argues that the Orcao attack is part of the systematic dispossession of lands controlled by Zapatistas and other indigenous communities. According to the group, this is happening to make way for government projects such as Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life), an initiative from López Obrador that provides economic funds in exchange for certain types of crops, like fruit trees or timber. “Programs such as Sembrando Vida and other similar projects foster confrontation between communities historically deprived of their lands and their rights,” reads the document, which says that these projects are used as “mechanisms of political control and bargaining chips” to allow organizations like Orcao to “access supposed benefits that these programs provide, at the cost of the theft of the Zapatista autonomous recovered lands.”

Zapatistas at a community meeting in January 2014.
Zapatistas at a community meeting in January 2014.Giles Clarke (Getty Images)

“War against indigenous peoples”

The Zapatistas also held a press conference in Mexico City on Wednesday to warn about the situation in the southern state. Actor Daniel Giménez Cacho, the star of Bardo (2022), the latest film by Alejandro González Iñárritu, was tasked with expressing Zapatista security concerns.

“The Zapatista Army of National Liberation, which has maintained peace and has developed its autonomous project in its territories and which has tried to avoid violent clashes with paramilitaries and other forces of the Mexican State, is constantly harassed, assaulted and provoked,” he said.

“Since the end of the 20th century up until now, the EZLN has opted for a political struggle along civil and peaceful paths, despite the fact that their communities are attacked with bullets, their crops set on fire and their cattle poisoned. Despite the fact that instead of investing their efforts in war, they have done so in building hospitals, schools and autonomous governments that have benefited the Zapatistas and non-Zapatistas, governments from [former Mexican president] Carlos Salinas to López Obrador have tried to isolate, delegitimize and exterminate them.”

“This war is against the indigenous peoples of this country,” Carlos González García, of the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), added at Wednesday’s press conference. “What’s happening in a shocking way in the Chiapas region where the Zapatista communities are located is part of a whole policy and a whole reality that our country has been experiencing for years. Militarization has been growing since 2018 [the year that López Obrador came to power] like never before.”

The activist argued that programs such as Sembrando Vida are used as a tool for control in regions where the “federal government promotes strategic megaprojects, such as the Maya Train or the Interoceanic Corridor of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.”

These same complaints were raised at the beginning of May, when 700 of the guerrillas met in a Zapatista community in the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas as part of El Sur Resiste (The South Resists), which brought together diverse communities threatened by the Mexican government’s megaprojects.

Experts agree that the high-tension situation in Chiapas is of great concern. According to an opinion column in La Jornada, a newspaper close to the Mexican government that has distanced itself from the Zapatista movement: “Chiapas is a powder keg that can explode at any moment.”

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