ORCAO, the paramilitary arm  


Above: The mural ORCAO destroyed in Ricardo Flores Magón autonomous Zapatista municipality

By: Luis Hernández Navarro

Just last September 11, two Zapatista authorities from the Patria Nueva good government junta, of Caracol 10 (Ocosingo), José Antonio Sánchez Juárez and Sebastián Núñez Pérez, were kidnapped. They were disappeared for eight days. They were also dispossessed of a radio for communication and 6,000 pesos in cash.

It was not a minor event. The provocation was obvious. That day, the Extemporaneous, a Zapatista airborne delegation of 177 people of Maya roots, was in Mexico City to undertake its expedition to Europe.

The Regional Organization of Ocosingo Coffee Growers (ORCAO), a paramilitary organization responsible for multiple aggressions against the Zapatista support bases in the last 20 years, perpetrated the kidnapping.

The first attack took place on October 28, 2001, when members of this group arrived in the community of Cuxuljá to paint over the mural of the New Dawn of the Rainbow [1] commercial center, created by various autonomous municipalities in rebellion, set a fire, threatening and beating up those who were there. Since then, and with different pretexts, attacks against the rebel support bases have not stopped.

Cuxuljá means Living Water in the Tseltal language. It is part of the municipality of Ocosingo. Some 1500 people live there. For them, water is sacred. Before, it was called “Enchantment Well.” The well gives its inhabitants identity (https://bit.ly/2WhONlG).

In December 2000, the EZLN demanded three signs from the government of Vicente Fox to renew the peace talks: fulfillment of the San Andrés Accords, the release of Zapatista political prisoners and the “withdrawal and closure” of seven Army positions, of the 259 that it had at that time in the conflict zone.

One of those positions was Cuxuljá, on the highway that links San Cristóbal and Ocosingo. The military presence in the community was not secondary. The town is part of a corridor of great geopolitical relevance. It’s a key point of communication for eight autonomous municipalities and a complex social network. Thus, when the soldiers abandoned it, the government replaced them with a counterinsurgency that had a civilian and indigenous face: the ORCAO.

Simultaneously, according to what three autonomous communities warned in October 2001, the Army coopted three community members, who, armed and in uniforms, tried to kill the children of Zapatista authorities, and distributed marijuana seeds for sowing. “To this denunciation –they pointed out– we added the harassment that soldiers, Public Security and Federal Highway Patrol have done about our new store that we’re building in our place that belongs to us at the position that the federal Army abandoned in Cuxuljá.”

The ORCAO was formed in 1987, starting from the work of the Catholic Church with 12 communities in Sibaca. It spread with [land] invasions to the fincas [2] close to Ocosingo, and to towns in the municipalities of Chilón, Oxchuc, Huixtán and Altamirano. In part, it’s a product of the 1974 Indigenous Congress in San Cristóbal and the mobilizations against the extinct Mexican Coffee Institute for better coffee prices, more collection centers and more support, in which the Union of Unions was also formed. It also struggled against the agrarian backlog and opposed the reforms to constitutional article 27. In 1992, it participated in the days to commemorate the 500 years of indigenous, black and popular resistance and vindicated indigenous self-determination. At some point it joined the Emiliano Zapata National Indigenous Campesino Alliance (Anciez, its Spanish acronym). It was part, until its expulsion in 2015, of the Unorca (https://bit.ly/3goUvWS).

The municipality of Ocosingo was constituted in 1921. It was the most extensive in Chiapas. In July 1999, as part of the counterinsurgency policy of “Croquetas,” Roberto Albores Guillén, [3] it was divided to form two new municipalities: Marqués de Comillas and Benemérito de las Américas.

The state, and especially its jungle region, was militarized. So much so that Juan Vázquez, one of the leaders of the ORCAO, now dedicated to businesses, denounced before being coopted by the government, that Chiapas was dressed in green… because of the number of soldiers deployed there. Despite that, on December 19, 1994, the EZLN broke the military siege and founded 38 autonomous municipalities in rebellion, nine in Ocosingo.

When, on April 11, 1998, the federal and state governments launched a violent police-military operation in Taniperlas against Ricardo Flores Magón autonomous municipality, it had as one of its objectives to destroy a beautiful mural that has been replicated by hundreds in different countries, the ORCAO allowed it.

Endowed with a military structure, weapons and uniforms, the association soon forgot its origins and became a paramilitary-style force against Zapatismo. Its leaders became municipal, state and federal public officials during the governments of Pablo Salazar and Juan Sabines. Juan Vázquez was appointed first secretary of Rural Development and then secretary for reconciliation, and Nicolás López (now deceased), director of the Coordinating Center of the National Indigenist Institute in Ocosingo. For more than two decades it has received millions of dollars in governmental resources for a multitude of projects, including cattle ranchers, the engine to parcel out common land.

The political decomposition of the organization has walked hand in hand with the personal degradation of its leaders. With the passage of years and several internal crises, leaders like José Sánchez and Tomás Santiz Gómez, even more violent than previous ones and at the service of a diversity of interests, took control of the association, which divided. Its strike force accommodates to the interests of the highest bidder. Its support for the Green Party in Ocosingo has brought it important dividends.

In Chiapas there is not a series of isolated inter-community conflicts, but rather the crisis of a regional system of domination. The ORCAO is one more piece of that model, one of its paramilitary arms. That crisis places the state, as the Zapatistas warn, on the brink of civil war.


[1] Nuevo Amanecer del Arco Iris

[2] Fincas are large estates or plantations.

[3] Roberto Albores Guillén was the governor of Chiapas from January 1998 to December 2000. Subcomandante Marcos nicknamed him Croquetas, which means dog biscuits in Mexican Spanish.


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Tuesday, September 28, 2021


Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee

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