Murder in the Lacandón Jungle; background on Viejo Velasco Massacre

Murder and Other High Crimes in the Lacandón Jungle

By: Mary Ann Tenuto-Sánchez

Viejo Velasco Displaced Return to Look For Belongings
Viejo Velasco displaced return to look for belongings

On November 13, 2006, an armed attack occurred against the indigenous community of Viejo Velasco Suárez, in the Lacandón Jungle of Chiapas.  Four people died as a result and another four people are disappeared and presumed dead.  Two people were detained by police, one of them a health promoter from a neighboring community who had gone to help, the other, one of the attackers.  Information about the political organization of those attacked was confusing.  The state government claimed those attacked were affiliated with Xi’ Nich, an independent Chol organization usually friendly (sympathetic) to the EZLN.  Xi Nich claimed those attacked were affiliated with the EZLN.  The EZLN finally released a statement clarifying that those attacked were not Zapatistas. That clarification did not, of course, reveal the political affiliation of the victims.

The attackers were members of the Lacandón Community from Nueva Palestina, recipients of a communal land grant to a group of Indigenous people whose origins are in dispute, but today are known as Lacandón Maya.  After much protest, some Chol and Tzeltal Maya were also included in this communal land grant.  The history is that during the 1950s and 1960s, the Mexican government encouraged land-hungry campesinos from other parts of Chiapas to migrate to the Jungle with a promise of land.  This was done to get those campesinos and their militant organizations off the backs of the mestizo landowners.

After enticing them into the Jungle, the government turned around and in 1972 gave the land to a different group of indigenous people known now as the Lacandóns, placing the land of all the others who lived there in jeopardy.  We are talking about more than one million acres of land given to just 66 Lacandón families (several hundred people), who had not even asked for it!  The government’s treachery caused such an uproar that it soon had to offer some of the other Mayan language groups, specifically Chol and Tzeltal peoples, a chance to relocate within what the government called the Lacandón Community and to own a little piece of the communal wealth.  This offer was on the condition that they would live in specified settlements.  Some accepted.  Other settlers belonged to campesino (peasant) organizations that resisted resettlement and struggled for years to legalize those communities that had already existed prior to the creation of the Lacandón Community.

It was partly from those communities that resisted resettlement and their campesino organization that the EZLN was born.  Not only were those existing communities endangered; all the settler communities, whether inside or on the outskirts of the Lacandón Community were threatened.  Their ability to expand as their population grew was cut off forever by that government decision.  What was the government’s motive for such an apparently stupid decision?   The answer is greed; greed for the precious wood in the rain forest!  The Lacandóns and those Chol and Tzeltal people who accepted living in settlements also agreed to give the government the legal right to cut down mahogany and cedar trees within the Lacandón Community (for a price, of course).  Speculation is that one of the motives for the violent attack on Viejo Velasco is that the community’s land contains a large grove of mahogany forest.  The attackers from the Lacandón Community claim that they are the legal owners of the land on which Viejo Velasco is located and that they want to evict the “invaders.”  This, in spite of the fact that negotiations with Mexico’s Agrarian Reform agency were close to legalizing Viejo Velasco. Plainly, someone did not want that community legalized!

Among the group of attackers were armed men wearing several types of uniforms. Some wore state police uniforms and carried high-powered weapons.  In other words, they carried very expensive weapons only legal for use by police and military.  Where did indigenous peasants get the money to buy such weapons?  At least one human rights group identified them as members of the Opddic, a group of PRI members, allegedly organized and funded by local cattle ranchers and the municipio of Ocosingo, belonging to the PRI. Opddic is the acronym for the Organización para la defensa de derechos indigenas y campesinos (Organization for the Defense of Indigenous and Campesino Rights, in English).

In spite of the fact that the EZLN had clarified that it was not involved, articles soon began to appear in the Mexican press about some Lacandóns fleeing to a museum in San Cristóbal de las Casas, saying that they feared reprisals from the EZLN!

The plot thickened a week after the Viejo Velasco murders when the Opddic announced that it would no longer recognize the authority of the Zapatista Good Government Juntas and that it intended to take back vast quantities of land in four official Chiapas counties (municipios), land now belonging to the Zapatista Caracols of Morelia and La Garrucha.  This is an ominous sign for both independent organizations and for the Zapatista communities. It is very close to being a declaration of war over land and territory!  In the Lacandón Jungle, it’s all about land; who uses it and who controls it.  Mother Earth is the essence of life itself and, like their namesake Emiliano Zapata, the Zapatistas believe that the land belongs to those who work it.  The entire incident in Viejo Velasco and its aftermath reek of a counterinsurgency move.

Several Zapatista Juntas responded to the Opddic threat by saying that they were prepared to defend the land they “recuperated” on January 1, 1994. Then, another player upped the ante even further.  Approximately one month after the Opddic statement, shortly before the Encuentro Between the Zapatista Peoples and the Peoples of the World, an organization calling itself the “Fundación Lacandona, A.C.” (Lacandón Foundation) introduced itself by sending a document to the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center. The document is entitled “The Face of the Lacandón Community” and written by the Fundación Lacandona and the Opddic.  For openers, the document admits that the signers are responsible for the murders in Viejo Velasco!  However, it points to several human rights organizations and the director of Maderas del Pueblo del Sureste and an ecologist, Miguel Angel Garcia, as being murderers of their members.  The human rights organizations targeted by the “Fundación Lacandona” are among those that investigated the Viejo Velasco killings, including Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center.  That human rights center has petitioned the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to ask the Mexican government to take precautionary measures to protect those involved; especially, Miguel Angel Garcia and his family.

According to an article in La Jornada, Opddic grew tremendously during the six-year presidential term of Vicente Fox and the governorship of Pablo Salazar (2000-2006), “occupying territorially spaces before covered by the paramilitary groups MIRA (Canyons Region), Chinchulines (Chilon), and Paz y Justicia (Tila, Sabanilla, Salto de Agua and Palenque).”

The Opddic, which exhibits some characteristics of a paramilitary group, now seems to have all kinds of money with which to entice others into joining.  In the Zapatista autonomous municipios within the two Caracols specified in the Opddic’s document, there are indigenous people who belong to different political organizations living together in the same canyons. There are members of independent organizations, often friendly to the Zapatista communities.  There are also PRI members who cooperate with the Zapatistas, as well as hostile PRI members who do not always cooperate.  There are people of different religions.  Now, some of the independents and many of the friendly PRI members are joining the Opddic! The hostile PRI members have been part of Opddic for as much as four or five years.

This new alliance of forces is worrisome. The Opddic has been causing problems since at least August 2002 when some 200 of its members led an armed attack on Nuevo Guadalupe Quexil. Since then, it has been starting disputes over land with Zapatista communities, threatening to kill Zapatista authorities, entering Zapatista communities and damaging houses.  So far, the Zapatistas have been able to resist without resorting to violence.  As for the Lacandón Community, its relations with other organizations living in the Jungle have not been friendly since the Mexican government and international conservation NGOs allegedly encouraged its members to assert their property “rights” over the more than one million acres of land granted to them by the federal government.

On February 8, Subcomandante Marcos, on behalf of the General Command of the EZLN, made public a strongly-worded communique responding to the Opddic’s threats, alleging that Opddic is a criminal organization which engages in the illegal cutting and trafficking of precious woods, as well as in drug trafficking and stolen vehicles.  The Zapatistas also stated plainly and forcefully that they are prepared to defend all their land against the Opddic.

There is great concern in Chiapas about the imminence of further attacks like the one on Viejo Velasco. The unholy alliance between the Opddic and the “Fundación Lacandona” has specifically threatened the communities of Flor de Cacao, Nuevo Tila, San Jacinto, Ojo de Agua Tzotzil with violent eviction if those communities are not abandoned. The communities threatened are composed of indigenous people belonging to independent organizations and some Zapatista support bases.

These are not interethnic squabbles as some, including the Mexican government, might lead you to believe. This is a continuation of the struggle for land and natural resources that has gone on ever since the Spanish Invaders took the land away from its indigenous owners. Those pulling the strings and doling out the money to the Opddic have economic interests in the jungle’s natural resources; such as, precious woods (mainly mahogany and cedar), water (for generating electricity and bottling), oil and other minerals, ecotourism and biodiversity.

Mary Ann Tenuto-Sánchez
Chiapas Support Committee
February 2007

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