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ANALYSIS: The long, hard road to peace

ANALYSIS: Between War and Peace


In February 1996, more than two years after an Indian uprising began in Chiapas, Mexico, the Mexican government and the Zapatista rebels signed the first in what is intended to be a series of accords addressing the causes of the rebellion. During most of this time, a tense cease fire has prevailed in the conflict area. But the fact that it took two years to reach the first accords reflects the deep distrust between the two parties as well as their widely divergent agendas. On the one hand the Zapatistas have pursued structural change in Chiapas and a broadening of the talks to include national issues. On the other hand the federal government has sought to either stonewall the talks altogether or to reduce their scope as much as possible.

According to many involved in the peace effort, this context underscores the pressing need for a strong international presence to accompany this complex and conflictive process.

The first agreement, covering “Indigenous Rights and Culture,” proposes a major shift in the relationship between the government, indigenous people, and civil society. Its implementation requires constitutional reforms at the federal and state levels to enhance protection of Indian rights, the redrawing of municipal boundaries to ensure both greater local autonomy and more political participation at the state level for indigenous communities, and the establishment of bureaucratic mechanisms for redress of grievances. It also includes a general commitment by the federal government to guarantee the satisfaction of the basic needs of the indigenous communities and respect for cultural traditions regarding election of authorities, administration of justice and native languages.

The federal government has pointed to the agreement as proof that the necessary lessons have been learned and that the peace process is firmly established. For their part the EZLN has referred to the accords as “minimal” and refused to allow filming of the signing ceremony.

In March the parties reconvened to discuss the verification process, which continues to be controversial and potentially disruptive, and to begin work on the second issue area, Democracy and Justice. This will be followed by Welfare and Development and finally Women’s Rights. If the process continues without disruption it may take 12- 15 months.
The talks have taken place against a backdrop of increasing political violence. Paramilitary groups (in the employ of large landowners), state and federal police, and the federal army have all been increasingly aggressive, with poor Indian peasants unaffiliated with the ruling PRI party being the primary victims. The paramilitary groups, operating with relative impunity, are accused of destroying homes, burning fields, beatings and even killings. Police agents have engaged in violent operations to clear peasants from lands they have claimed and occupied. Two such “desalojos” on March 20 and March 21 left five peasants and three police dead and over 100 peasants in jail. Popular movement groups report that more than 600 peasants have been killed in agrarian conflicts in Chiapas in the last two years.

Meanwhile 60,000 troops (more than one third of the Mexican army) are reportedly concentrated in Chiapas, many of them in proximity to indigenous communities in remote rural areas. Community members testify to continual harassment and intimidation by the army, instances of rape, limits on mobility, and other problems that the army brings with it (prostitution, alcoholism, venereal disease, substance abuse, and environmental degradation.)

Human rights and popular movement activists, both Mexican and international, and even pastoral workers have also been the targets of repression and violence. During 1995, five foreign priests with many years of service in the Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas were either expelled or denied re-entry into Mexico. Other foreign nationals were likewise forced to leave.

All of this has increased the already high level of social polarization as well as severe tensions that at times threaten the peace talks. A number of analysts have concluded that this represents a two- pronged government strategy: on the one hand to continue with the talks and on the other to employ the techniques of low-intensity warfare to promote division in Indian communities and to pressure the EZLN to accept its terms.

Nonetheless, in the big picture the process must be viewed in a positive light. Elements of Mexico’s poorest and most marginalized sectors are sitting at the negotiating table as equals with representatives of the federal government and addressing issues with far-reaching implications for Chiapas, for Mexico and even for the Americas.
Meanwhile the historic victims of injustice are still awaiting the translation of promises into deeds.

Recommended Actions

1. Disseminate information on the conflict, such as this report, so as to inform and mobilize international public opinion. Strengthen communication networks for urgent action appeals to authorities in Mexico and other countries as well as international organizations that are in a position to constructively impact the conflict.
2. Communicate with the Mexican government, recognizing the progress in these historic talks and asking for a report on the implementation of the agreements to date and urging the Mexican government to ensure:
* effective implementation of the agreements;
* an end to the military pressure on indigenous communities;
* respect for human rights workers and international observers;
* liberty for political prisoners.
3. Within your organizations, encourage short-term participation in the Civilian Peace Camps in communities suffering harrassment by the Mexican army.


Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center
Francisco Leon 46,
San Cristobal de las Casas Chiapas, Mexico
Tel & fax: 52 967 83548


Lic. Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León
Presidente de la República
Palacio Nacional
06067 México, DF – México
Fax: (int-52 5) 271 1764 / 515 4783

Emilio Chuayffet Chemor
Secretario de Gobernación
Bucareli 99, 1o. piso
Col. Juárez
06699 México, DF – México
Fax: (int-52 5) 546 5350 / 5 546 7380

Lic. Julio C. Ruiz Ferro
Gobernador del Estado de Chiapas
Palacio de Gobierno
Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas – México
Fax: (int-52 961) 20917

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Between War and Peace

For months during 1995, talks between the federal government and the EZLN [Zapatista Army of National Liberation] were hung up on procedural issues and seemed to be going nowhere. The EZLN continued to work outside the negotiating table to galvanize civil society and to regain political initiative. At the end of August, the EZLN, with the assistance of the election monitoring group Alianza Civica, staged a national referendum. At nearly 10,000 polling places across the country, 1.1 million people participated in what amounted to a powerful public display of support for the basic social demands of the Indians. When the talks reconvened in early September, it appeared that the government negotiators had new instructions and were intent on moving the talks forward. The procedural issues were quickly resolved and the stage was set for negotiations on the issues at the root of the conflict.

It was agreed that the talks would be divided into four issue areas (called “mesas de trabajo”):

  1. Indigenous Rights and Culture;
  2. Democracy and Justice;
  3. Welfare and Development;
  4. Women’s Rights.

These are to be followed by two additional issues: reconciliation between the various sectors of civil society and the future political and social participation of the EZLN.

During the first stage of negotiations (five meetings over an approximately five-month period), a series of factors hindered advances in the negotiations. There were human rights violations by the federal army (eg, arrests, rape, intimidation of communities, expelling of internationals linked with the peace process.) There was also a strengthening by authorities of protection for the so called “guardias blancas” (paramilitary groups armed by ranchers to serve their interests).

Finally, after ten months of intermittent negotiations, the first “minimal agreements” were reached on Indigenous Rights and Culture. Much of the agreements’ content was based on international treaties and pacts signed by the Mexican government such as Covenant 169 of the International Labor Organization.

In these agreements the federal government committed to building a new political relation with indigenous people that includes their recognition at a constitutional level and the respect of their “free self-determination” and “autonomy.” The government also committed to assure education and training; guarantee meeting basic needs; promote production and employment; and protect indigenous migrants. All of these commitments and agreements are subject to the approval of federal and state governments.

At a state level the government committed to creating a new constitutional framework that includes autonomy, redrawing municipal borders (particularly in regions with an indigenous majority), increasing indigenous participation and political representation and the election of indigenous authorities according to traditional customs. Now responsibility rests on the Congress of the Union and state legislatures to recognize and establish the characteristics of self-determination and the levels and forms of autonomy. In the case of Chiapas the creation of the following entities was recommended:

  • Commission for Municipal Reform and Redistricting in Chiapas
  • Fourth General Inspector with responsibility for indigenous Issues (within the National Human Rights Commission)
  • Agrarian Bureau to operate jointly with the federal government to provide a just solution to agrarian conflicts
  • Office of Indigenous Defense (public defender) with attorneys and translators
  • Citizen Communication Council to facilitate indigenous access to communications media
  • Office of Communication Ombudsman
  • State Center of Indigenous Languages, Art and Literature.

“Our desires are that all the points agreed to become reality, and that the dialogues continue because this [agreement] addresses only the first point on the agenda.”
–Bishop Sergio Obeso Rivera, President of the Mexican Bishops Conference [CEM]

If the negotiations continue at the current pace, and if they are not disrupted, the various issue areas may be completed in 12 to 15 months. Some official sectors already consider the signing of the first agreements as a definitive guarantee of the peace process:

“The conflict has brought a new dawn because there is an acceptance of sitting down and negotiating, dialoguing for a political solution to the problems. An extremely important step has been taken with the signing of the agreements and now people can breathe in a climate of peace. In addition, the integration of all the political parties in the municipal governments has given us a higher consciousness of the importance and necessity of pluralism, of respect for cultural diversity, and of the distinct forms, ways and customs of the indigenous peoples.”
Margarita Martinez, President of the Institutional Revolutionary Party [PRI], San Cristobal de las Casas.

On the other side, the Zapatista delegation through the voice of Commander Tacho, stated:

” In summary, the agreements benefit the national indigenous movement and local advances are not few; nevertheless, it continues to be only on paper. But with the National Indigenous Forum [a broad movement of indigenous peoples of Mexico], it is possible to create a movement that demands their fulfillment.”

Prior to the signing of these agreements, the EZLN carried out a consultation with its supporters. They approved many of the points of the agreements, but they also raised concerns over the lack of solutions to the serious national agrarian problems (and the consequent need to reform Article 27 of the federal constitution), and the need to develop a policy of sustainability that preserves the lands, rather than just indemnizing damages; a policy that insists on the construction of a new national society based on another economic, political, social and cultural model.

Up until now the parties have not been able to establish the Commission for Verification and Followup (part of the original agreements) due to disagreements regarding its composition.

“We do not believe the government is going to fulfill the agreements.”
— peasant leader from Las Canadas, Chiapas

For the talks on Democracy and Justice on March 20, the government delegation did not bring any guests and only four advisors, while the EZLN named three hundred guests and advisors. (Guests and advisors are terms for those who, at the invitation of one of the parties, offer their perspectives, support and expertise in the dialogue process. They do not directly negotiate.)

Twenty-six of the advisors invited by the EZLN are disappeared and another eighteen are imprisoned, accused of being Zapatistas. This represents a demand that the government provide an accounting for the former and free the latter.
The theme of Democracy and Justice is very complex since it implies national reform with a view towards a true and deep democratization of the political system. At this writing this theme is the object of difficult negotiation in diverse bodies at a national level, such as the political parties and the national Congress.

The initiation of talks on this second issue area was threatened by increasing violence not only in Chiapas, but throughout southern Mexico. In Chiapas a paramilitary group composed of PRI militants, ironically known as Peace and Justice, destroyed the Catholic church, El Senor de Tila, in the community known as Tzaquil.

In an interview with the newspaper La Jornada, Heriberto Cruz Vera, a parish priest in Tila, declared “at least seven Chol indigenous communities have been constantly harassed and terrified by Peace and Justice over the past six months –they have destroyed indigenous homes, fields and coffee lands.” He claimed that “there exists a great interest in dividing or evicting all those who are not official party supporters.”

The military presence in the conflict zone continues to be very strong. There are cases of military camps with 500 soldiers at the entrance of communities of 300 inhabitants. In mid-March reports emerged of new military bases, an increase in military presence in the Lacandon Jungle, and troop movements.

Many people feel that these movements are a way for the government to create provocations and break the dialogue. Some communities fled to the mountains out of fear of a military attack. However, among the ranchers there is more support for the military presence:

” The military is very welcome. They protect us from foreign invasions. In each invasion [land occupation], peasants are found from all the states of Mexico, even undocumented Guatemalans”
— rancher in Comitan.

Meanwhile, the state government continues developing a policy based on patronage and division by making agreements with indigenous and peasant organizations on agrarian contracts outside the dialogue of San Andres (the location of the peace talks). However, the majority have charged that they were forced to sign. The state government threatened to evict everyone from invaded properties that were not listed in the agrarian treaties and in some cases dislodged peasants from lands included in these contracts.

The moment of highest tension in this phase of the dialogue arrived with news of evictions by the state government. One was in Pichucalco on the San Luis farm and the other was in Nicolas Ruiz on the Gran Poder farm, with a toll of eight dead (five peasants and three police), 20 wounded, and more than 100 arrested. This happened at the same moment that President Zedillo declared that the distribution of lands was completed in Chiapas. This provoked the indignation of the Zapatista delegation, in particular Commander Tacho, who said to the government delegation:

” I want them to recognize the pain that we feel for them, because the government they represent is a government of criminals, of deaf and dumb.. of murder …of torture …of disappearances …of jailing …of evictions. We have seen that they come with a mouth to speak, but they have remained mute because their mouths are filled with hundred dollar bills.”
–La Jornada, March 22, 1996

In response, Roberto Alvarado of the government delegation stated:

“…we regret the language that has been used here … if it continues this way, we will stand up and leave [the dialogue].”

Citing the evictions, the Democratic State Assembly of the People of Chiapas (AEDPCH) broke off negotiations over land with the government, and their leaders issued a call to the EZLN “so that together we can respond to the government and look for just solutions”.

The Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center declared:

” We energetically condemn the eviction operations carried out with excessive use of violence on ranches and estates. In these an exceptional efficiency is displayed by the Public Security and Judicial Police forces in the execution of evictions, arrests, and fabrication of crimes against peasants. It is very different when others try to investigate killings or other abuses by them.”

” In the past two years at the margins of the conflict zone, more than 600 peasants belonging to diverse organizations have died due to agrarian problems in Chiapas… The farm workers have been assassinated in confrontations with agents of the state Public Security, by private security forces and paramilitary groups, or by riot police.”
–AEDPCH [La Jornada, February 14, 1996]

Meanwhile, COCOPA (the mediation group comprised of representatives of political parties) is promoting discussion of the agreements on Indigenous Rights and Culture in the national Congress. The Chiapas government has announced that it “is intensifying actions to fulfill the peace agreements and continuing its programs to bring health services, education and infrastructure to the population.” The federal Office of the Interior and the Commision for Verification and Followup (yet to be established) have formal responsibility for overseeing implementation of the agreements on Indigenous Rights and Culture. And the president of the Commission on the Indigenous of the Mexican Bishops Conference announced, “The Catholic church will take up the proposals on Indigenous Rights and Culture and include them in its Indian pastoral work.”

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Chronology of the conflict

January 1, 1994

Previously unknown Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) emerges from jungle hideouts to seize six towns in the highlands of Chiapas. North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) goes into effect. Zapatistas declare that NAFTA is a “death sentence” for the Indians.

January 12, 1994

After heavy fighting for a short period, Mexican government declares a unilateral cease fire and announces its intention to seek a negotiated solution with the rebels. Estimates of the number killed in the fighting range from 145 to 1000.

February 21 – March 2, 1994

Negotiations take place resulting in a settlement proposal by the Mexican government. The Zapatistas return to their communities for consultation and later report that the proposal is rejected by 98% of those polled.

August 6, 1994

6000 delegates from popular organizations throughout Mexico gather in a Zapatista-controlled area to found the National Democratic Convention as a vehicle of civil society to push for democratization and social justice.

August 21, 1994

Ernesto Zedillo of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party, the historic ruling party) is elected president of Mexico, and the PRI candidate for governor of Chiapas claims victory despite allegations of fraud. Other events during this period include numerous land occupations and citizen take-overs of municipal government centers.

December, 1994

Shortly after Zedillo assumes office, the Mexican peso begins a freefall that leaves it at less than half its previous value. Although surrounded by the Mexican army, the EZLN filters through the military’s lines and briefly occupies 38 towns in the highlands. No fighting results. Mons. Samuel Ruiz, Bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas and recognized mediator in the conflict, begins an extended fast seeking to reduce the tension and push the two sides back to the table. The fast ends with progress toward a resumption of talks.

January, 1995

At the one year anniversary of the uprising, informal contacts are re- initiated between the EZLN and the government. The EZLN calls on civil society to develop a broad opposition front against the ruling regime in Mexico.

February 9, 1995

Announcing that the army is to serve arrest warrants on suspected EZLN leaders, President Zedillo orders the army to occupy the area previously controlled by the Zapatistas. The EZLN withdraws to avoid battle and over 20,000 Indian peasants flee from their homes to the hills in fear of the army. The army establishes a strong presence throughout the conflict area. In Mexico City, 100,000 people demonstrate against the army offensive .

March, 1995

President Zedillo signs the Law for Harmony and Pacification in Chiapas (Ley para la concordancia y pacificacion en Chiapas) which rescinds the arrest warrants and re-establishes the negotiation track. Nevertheless, numerous presumed Zapatistas remain in prison a year later.

April, 1995

Contacts between the EZLN and the federal government are renewed with the assistance of the CONAI (National Mediation Commission, presided by Bishop Ruiz) and the COCOPA (Commission for Agreement and Pacification, made up of representatives of the political parties). In the following months successive rounds of talks on procedural issues make little progress.

August, 1995

More than one million people vote in a national referendum conducted at the behest of the EZLN. The vote demonstrates continuing widespread public concern about the conflict in Chiapas and support for the basic social demands of the Zapatistas and for the transformation of the EZLN into a peaceful and independent political force.

September, 1995

In a new round of talks, procedural issues are resolved and a process outlined for dealing with four issue areas (mesas de trabajo): 1. Indigenous Rights and Culture; 2. Democracy and Justice; 3. Welfare and Development; 4. Women’s Rights. These are to be followed by two additional issues: reconciliation between the various sectors of civil society and the future political and social participation of the EZLN.

December, 1995

Large-scale military mobilizations in different areas of the conflict zone increase tensions and fears of a pending attack.

January, 1996

Commemorating the second anniversary of the uprising, the EZLN announces its intention to form a political force (FZLN or National Zapatista Liberation Front). The EZLN convenes the National Indigenous Forum which attracts 300 indigenous representatives from around Mexico.

February, 1996

After five months of talks, the government and the EZLN sign the first agreements on Indigenous Rights and Culture.

March, 1996

In a climate of increasing violence in the countryside that threatens the peace process, the parties agree to seven subthemes on Democracy and Justice and initiate discussions.

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The peace dialogue is developing in a context of militarization and low intensity warfare. It seems each time a round of talks opens, before, during or after, a repressive action against indigenous communities is carried out by the Mexican government: intimidation, threats, land evictions, disappearances, murders, carried out by the military and the various police forces that operate in the state. To this must be added the actions of local political bosses and paramilitary groups. Acting with the impunity extended to them by the government, they impose a rule of terror among the indigenous and peasants.
According to various analysts, the aim of this harassment is to promote discord and division among indigenous communities and to pressure and weaken the EZLN, thus forcing it to accept conditions that the government wants in the talks. According to the EZLN, during the negotiations in February,

” The government offered to diminish the military pressure in exchange for the EZLN renouncing its insistence on including national level issues and contenting itself with local solutions.”

It should be pointed out that the attitude the government delegation presents to the EZLN commanders is far from favoring a climate for dialogue and mutual respect. Observers, advisors, and members of CONAI have stated that — with exceptions such as during the final plenary of the talks on Indigenous Rights and Culture — the government delegates repeatedly display attitudes which are derogatory, humiliating and racist towards the EZLN indigenous delegation.

In regard to the Zapatista strategy, we view as a positive contribution the efforts they have carried out since the cease fire of 1994 to seek peaceful and political options to the conflict. Their insistence that the dialogue must address solutions to national problems and not limit itself to the state of Chiapas has been one of the most controversial themes. However their proposals are consistently directed towards giving the initiative to civil society in order that it might carry forward a program of peaceful change, relating to the distinct oposition sectors, without excluding anyone, with a call to seek unity and respect diversity.

Nevertheless, in the conflict area the social polarization is extreme. Recourse to violence is an increasingly common – albeit useless – means of resolving the primarily agrarian problems in the state.

Commenting on this phenomenon, the President of COCOPA, Heberto Castillo, observed,

” It is deplorable that this coincides with the moment in which the dialogue for peace is developing in Chiapas. We exhort the federal and state authorities and social organizations to declare a social truce to end actions such as taking lands and evictions that inevitably end in confrontations. We are profoundly distressed about this.”
(Expreso, March 23, 1996)

” One cannot blame only the government for non-fulfillment [of the agreements] if communities are divided because some took the armed option and others did not, because some accepted government support and others did not, because some joined the ruling party and others did not. That division will hinder the peace process if the indigenous do not come together and collaborate in the implementation of the agreements.”
–Bishop Samuel Ruiz [La Jornada, February 19, 1996]

It is important to emphasize the role that CONAI and COCOPA have played in this process especially during moments of high tension between the parties to the dialogue. Of particular value are their efforts within the Commission for Reconciliation of Texts and outside the dialogue when actions (particularly by military or police) strain the atmosphere and obstruct the advance of the process.

At this point there are themes of fundamental importance — such as the land question, recognition for traditional indigenous forms of administration of justice, women’s participation, and regional autonomy– that remain to be dealt with at subsequent stages.

A more immediate challenge is the effective implementation of the agreements reached thus far. For this to happen, it is essential that the Commission for Verification and Followup be established.

Nevertheless, beyond the concrete gains and the points where no agreement was reached, the majority concur that the dialogue is positive when it is seen from the perspective of a long and difficult process. Another positive is the simple fact that the Mexican government has agreed to sit down and negotiate with an armed indigenous organization that has succeeded in placing major national themes on the negotiation table.

” A large door has opened for indigenous people’s struggles. Although at the same time [the government] has wanted to close many small doors, these will be the object of subsequent struggles.”
–Adelfino Regino, Mixe Indigenous from Oaxaca, EZLN advisor.

Fundamentally these first agreements propose a new relationship between the state, the indigenous peoples, and society as a whole. They imply recognition of the right to indigenous self- determination in a multi-cultural and multi-racial country. In this sense, the destiny of the indigenous people not only in Chiapas but in all Mexico is being played out in the San Andres dialogue. San Andres has become an obligatory reference point for the larger ongoing National Dialogue. This is demonstrated by the presence of the most prominent intellectuals, policy experts, sociologists, anthropologists, social leaders, etc., of the country who have come as advisors and guests (principally of the EZLN) to participate in the talks.

” San Andres is a crucible where all differences, all protests and demands converge. Here there is space for different actors, initiatives and forms of organization.”
–Raymundo Sanchez, CONAI

The peace process continues to slowly advance and at times hangs by a thread. The government proceeds with a double-sided posture: participating in the dialogue on one hand and repressing the indigenous on the other. At the same time, it tells other governments (as it recently announced to the European Parliament) that it has already signed the first agreements and is moving forward. This is done with the clear purpose of promoting foreign investment to relieve the deteriorating Mexican economy. For its part, the EZLN continues resisting and displays a firm will to negotiate, moderated by the anger provoked by the official repression.

The poor and simple people are ultimately those who suffer most from the consequences of this situation. The testimonies from indigenous who survived the killings and imprisonment resulting from the recent land evictions are heartbreaking. They came up to the dialogue site so the Zapatistas could denounce the incidents. One of them explained:

” We are poor. We do nothing more than work to give our children something to eat. We are not violent, nor do we harm anyone. Why do they kill us? Those who died are not animals. They were Christians like all of us. Now they have to be buried. But the rest of us, we are going to continue struggling and continue uniting. Because although we are people of no value to the government, we have dignity.”
–La Jornada, March 23, 1996.

We view all these developments with concern and conclude that today, more than ever, access to first-hand information is extremely important since it plays a key part in the international solidarity so essential in these times.

Between war and peace: Challenges

Virtually all those interviewed by SIPAZ concur that the greatest challenge facing the peace process is the strengthening of the political dynamic over against the logic of war. While there have been advances in this regard, the threat of war is far from being eliminated.

An immediate challenge is the absence of the Commission on Verification and Followup. This weakens the credibility of the peace process in that there is no organ of civil society that is established to confirm the fulfillment of the commitments that have been made. To continue signing agreements in this situation may create distrust among the indigenous communities wth regard to whether the desired changes will be realized in the end .

Finally, regarding international public opinion, it is essential to maintain a focus on Chiapas and Mexico and solidarity with the needs of this people.