ANATOMY OF A PARAMILITARY ATTACK: A REPORT FROM SAN MANUEL
By: Mary Ann Tenuto-Sánchez
“Manuel Velasco state paramilitary chief, Enrique Peña Nieto supreme paramilitary chief”
That’s what the letrero (hand-painted sign) says in front of the Zapatista bodega at the Cuxuljá crossroads in Chiapas. Manuel Velasco is the governor of Chiapas, a member of the Green Ecologist Party of Mexico (PVEM). Enrique Peña Nieto is Mexico’s president, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
The front of the bodega is painted with an amazing mural representing the 13 demands of the Indigenous peoples that belong to the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN): housing, land, work, peace, health, food, democracy, freedom, independence, culture, justice, information and education. The mural also depicts important aspects of life in the Zapatista communities: production, education, health and solidarity. It represents the collective work of various international artists in solidarity with the Zapatista Movement, including some from the United States.
Those peaceful demands and life in the Zapatista communities are in sharp contrast to counterinsurgency tactics the government applies against these communities. The paramilitary attacks on San Manuel autonomous rebel Zapatista municipio are only the most recent example. San Manuel is one of the 4 autonomous rebel Zapatista municipios (counties) belonging to Zapatista Caracol 3, La Garrucha.
On July 25, 2014, nineteen paramilitaries entered collective workspace in San Manuel armed with .22-caliber weapons. They burned the letrero saying: “Compañero Galeano lives,” fired shots into the air, constructed houses, threatened to dispossess the Zapatistas of Egipto and El Rosario of their lands, killed a young steer and then left.
A week later, on August 1, they returned and fired a few shots and killed another young steer. That night, when 32 civilian Zapatistas (women, young children and the elderly) living in the nearby Egipto autonomous community saw some of the paramilitaries coming towards the community in the middle of the night, they fled to save their lives and avoid another massacre like Acteal. The collective workspace is located on land recuperated as a result of the 1994 Zapatista Uprising.
A few days later another nearby Zapatista community, El Rosario, found a horse that belonged to one of the Zapatistas dead from abdominal injuries. And, when a Zapatista encountered one of the paramilitaries, the paramilitary said: “Be careful, because I’m going to kill you!”
The paramilitaries come from the Pojcol ejido, in the official municipio of Ocosingo. Pojcol is not located close to San Manuel. They are members of the Regional Organization of Ocosingo Coffee Growers, also known as ORCAO, its initials in Spanish.
On the morning of August 6, the paramilitaries arrived again with guns and a chainsaw. They cut trees and fired shots into the air. When they were leaving that afternoon, they fired 5 shots upon passing the house of a Zapatista. And, when passing Kexil (known by its inhabitants as Nuevo Guadalupe), they fired 2 shots over the house of another Zapatista.
One week later, on August 13, nine Zapatista families built houses (one containing a a grocery store) on the collective workspace, thereby founding the new autonomous Zapatista community of San Jacinto. Some 250 Zapatistas were also present to clear the land for planting.
The next day, August 14, in the wee hours of the morning, 18 paramilitaries, armed with shotguns and .22-caliber weapons, surrounded the collective workspace and fired their guns into the air for about 40 minutes. The attackers shouted: “these weapons we use are from the government;” and “this land is ours and does not belong to those fucking Zapatistas.” At the same time they warned the Zapatistas that they had 6 hours to leave. The 40 residents of San Jacinto left, together with the 250 Zapatistas clearing the land. The paramilitaries then destroyed the nine houses and stole the merchandise in the store. They also burned all the clothing left behind in the houses, destroyed 150 roofs made of nylon and canvas and stole the machetes that were being used to clear the land. When threats of violence continued, women and children also left El Rosario later that night.
Capitalism is responsible for the attacks in San Manuel
Two members of the Chiapas Support Committee, including this writer, visited the Caracol of La Garrucha on September 4 and 5 for several reasons, among them wanting to learn more about the San Manuel attacks and displacements described above. The Path of the Future Good Government Junta received us Friday morning and the conversation quickly turned to the San Manuel attacks.
“Each person in the region contributed a few pesos to the displaced families because they lost everything when they fled for their lives. They are trying to resolve the problem peacefully,” the spokesperson for the Junta told us. “Currently, the displaced are in ‘other communities.’ The government pays the ORCAO members to attack, but capitalism is responsible for the attacks in San Manuel,” he concluded. He also reported that San Manuel’s municipal government lost $460,000 pesos because of the attack (approximately $35, 380.00 US dollars). In response to our request to visit San Manuel and speak with the autonomous council, the Junta contacted San Manuel. We learned a little while later that San Manuel granted us permission to visit and, consequently, so did the Junta.
In a September 7 interview, the San Manuel autonomous council President said that the displaced women and children are still safe in other communities and that they continue discussions to resolve the problem peacefully, but that it was very difficult because the paramilitaries built houses on the land in question. Asked what the motive was for the attacks, the council president stated emphatically: “pure provocation. They (the paramilitaries) don’t need land; they have land in their ejido. They don’t need the trees. This was a pure provocation.”
Government retaliation for the Exchange
In its August 4 bulletin regarding the attacks in San Manuel, the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center (Frayba) noted: “These new acts of harassment, territorial dispossession and attacks are presented within the framework of the First Exchange of the Zapatista Peoples and the Original Peoples of Mexico “Compañero David Ruiz García,” a meeting with the National Indigenous Congress, which began on Monday, August 4 in the Autonomous Community of La Realidad.” An understanding of this language was expanded in several San Cristóbal discussions.
Friends that attended the August 9 Report from the Exchange between the Zapatista Peoples and the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) say that Subcomandante Moisés announced to the crowd: “the government is attacking San Manuel in retaliation for us meeting here.”
Those of us that follow Zapatista events closely have seen the government’s competitive pattern of behavior. We will remember that when more than 40,000 masked Zapatistas marched in silence on December 21, 2012 in Chiapas, President Peña Nieto responded by announcing his “Crusade Against Hunger” one month later, January 21, 2013, in Guadalupe Tepeyac, deep in Zapatista Territory. He arranged with and paid for Indigenous peoples from all Chiapas municipalities to attend the event. He also brought government officials and his cabinet with him. The government claimed around 15,000 people in attendance. Marcos shot back with a comunicado addressed to “Ali Baba and his 40 thieves.” A graphic of a middle finger was included in the brief comunicado.
It’s important to remember that the PRI returned to power in December 2012, after a 12-year absence while the PAN governed. It is also important to remember that the Zapatistas rose up in arms when the PRI held power and smashed its claims to having achieved First World status. Counterinsurgency against the Zapatistas is real personal for the PRI!
The PRI’s behavior pattern turned repressive, vicious and excessively violent after the Escuelitas in December 2013 and January 2014. A friend that attended the Escuelitas during those dates said that the Zapatistas expected retaliation for the very popular and well-attended Escuelitas. It just didn’t come as quickly as the government’s answer to the resurgence of the Zapatistas on December 21, 2012. The government set it up slowly. On May 2, the CIOAC-H, a campesino organization turned paramilitary group, attacked unarmed Zapatista civilians in La Realidad and brutally murdered a Zapatista support base known as Compañero Galeano.
Finally, as the Zapatista peoples were meeting with the National Indigenous Congress, not only were the violent attacks on San Manuel occurring, but also on August 8, Enrique Peña Nieto headed a ceremony in San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, to celebrate International Indigenous Peoples Day. Hundreds of people attended, including representatives of 68 different ethnic groups.
It would seem that a clear pattern has emerged: When the Zapatistas hold an organizing event to extend and/or solidify their influence, the government either counters with a competitive response or retaliates with violent repression or both, part of its counterinsurgency plan. That plan has always had a strategy of containment; in other words, a strategy to prevent the Zapatistas from growing.
The Southern Border Strategy
In a visit to the Frayba Human Rights Center its director, Victor López, discussed both the San Manuel attacks and the Southern Border Strategy (referred to in Chiapas as ‘Plan Sur’). Frayba is working to mediate the negotiations for an agreement between San Manuel and ORCAO that would allow those displaced to return safely to their homes and communities. He echoed what we had heard about the difficulty of resolving the situation due to the fact that the ORCAO had constructed houses on the site, and he specifically said that the conditions were not safe enough to establish a peace camp. He also agreed that the attacks were in retaliation for the Exchange with the National Indigenous Congress.
“Plan Sur is a pretext,” López said, referring to the Southern Border Strategy recently implemented by the Mexican government. “The ‘containment posts’ are being used to encircle Zapatista Territory in order to contain the Zapatistas! An Army patrol even attempted to enter an autonomous community. The Zapatistas said they were autonomous and did not permit the Army to enter. The soldiers went away.”
The Plan Sur is also being used to severely repress Central Americans. It’s not really about stopping drug traffickers or human traffickers; it’s about repression and containment! It is also about criminalizing immigration-without-permission. Chiapas prisons are filling up with Central American migrants charged with crimes they did not commit. The US government of Barack Obama has pushed for the Southern Border Strategy and is providing some of the funding.