SIPAZ Activities (April – June 2004)
Pablo Salazar Mendiguchía © Expediente 2010
ANALYSIS: Elections in Chiapas, who won?

IN FOCUS: In the Land of Oblivion – Displaced by the Conflict in Chiapas


This place
that you mention in your dreams,
continues on,
where it always has been.

But the rain still hasn’t arrived
to wash the ashes and the clotted blood
from what was the threshhold of your house.

Antonio M. Flórez
The Displaced of Paradise

The Invisible People in the Conflict in Chiapas

Two facts obligate us to return our gaze and thoughts to one of the gravest consequences of the armed conflict in Chiapas: displaced persons. The first fact is the end of humanitarian assistance from the International Red Cross Committee (CICR) for displaced persons from the municipality of Chenalho. The second fact is the proposal born in the Congress of the Federation to carry out a constitutional reform that would introduce the concept, and as such, recognize the figure of the internally displaced person (until now nonexistent in Mexico).

The Concept and Causes of Internally Displaced People



The United Nations considers ‘internally displaced people’ to be “people or groups of people who have seen themselves forced or obligated to escape or flee from their homes or from their places of habitual residence, in particular as a result, or to avoid the effects, of an armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, human rights violations or natural disasters or disasters provoked by humans, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized national border.”

Those who find themselves in this situation remain at a high level of vulnerability and without protection, given the familial, identity, and territorial uprooting that provokes the abandonment of their homes. These consequences worsen even further when the victims of displacement are indigenous peoples, campesinos or other groups that have a special connection with the earth, since, in addition to being their only means of survival, the earth represents the center of community cultural life. And it is precisely these groups who make up the majority of displaced peoples.

Large gaps exist within the judicial world, both at the national and international level in relation to human rights violations that occur against those in a situation of internal displacement. Because displaced persons have resulted from internal conflicts, there have been many obstacles at the international level to legislating on this issue, and the principles of nonintervention with respect to state sovereignty have prevailed. This has permitted impunity and a continued lack of protection for displaced populations given that, in many cases the sovereign State is in part, the origin, or the cause of the displacements.

Facing this lack of protection for displaced peoples, Francis Deng (Special Representative to the Secretary General of the United Nations for Internally Displaced People since 1992) created Governing Principals Applying to Internally Displaced Peoples: Guidelines for protection, humanitarian assistance and the return of internally displaced peoples to their homes or places of origin.

Forced Displacement in Chiapas

According to the report put together by Mr. Francis Deng, the first and principal cause of forced displacement in Mexico is the conflict in Chiapas. The causes of this conflict are given as:

  • The armed confrontation between the Mexican Army and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, begun in 1994.
  • The counter-guerrilla operations by the Mexican Army in 1995.
  • The massacre in Acteal perpetrated by paramilitaries in 1997.

For the Fray Bartolome de Las Casas Human Rights Center (CDHFBLC), forced displacement is a tool of repression used by the state, and can be seen as forming part of a counterinsurgency action strategy and a tactic for territorial control and forced evictions linked with political, economic, cultural, local, regional, and international interests.



The Municipality of Chenalho (Highlands Zone) and the Northern Zone of Chiapas are the regions that have suffered most from the counterinsurgency strategy, which has provoked thousands of displacements and obligated people to abandon their places of origin to save themselves from what appears to be uncontrollably rising violence. We plan to focus on these two zones, without any intention of minimizing the situation of displaced peoples from other regions of the conflict. In both zones, there were instances of displacement of PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) supporters, but in smaller numbers and for a much shorter period of time.

In Chenalho, the paramilitarization intended to counteract the growing number of Zapatista support bases in the communities consisted of the arming and military training of indigenous peoples from those same communities who held connections to the PRI, putting them in charge of harassing, threatening and killing their own neighbors.

The violence climaxed in the municipality with the massacre at Acteal (a community of Chenalho) where forty-five members of ‘Las Abejas’ (The Bees) were assassinated. This non-violent organization was threatened and harassed for refusing to collaborate with the counterinsurgency activities.

Following the tragedy, the displacement of Abejas and Zapatistas worsened in all of those communities in which members of these groups lived alongside PRI supporters due to the groups’ fears of further paramilitary attacks. The majority of the Abejas took refuge in X’oyep and Acteal, while the Zapatista support bases fled to Polho, an autonomous municipality.

According to the CDHFBLC, in 1998, the number of displaced persons in Chenalho reached the 10,000 mark, 80% of whom were EZLN supporters, and the remaining 20% of whom were Abejas.

According to the data collected and systematized by the Center for Economic and Political Research for Community Action (CIEPAC), a group in the Northern Zone was also formed that has been accused of being paramilitary in nature – ‘Development, Peace, and Justice’ – and that this group was subsequently placed in charge of carrying out violent actions against those who organized in defense of their rights and belonged to the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) or supported the EZLN. In the affected communities, the number of displaced persons in October 1998 reached 5,383 people.

These displaced persons lost their homes, their lands, their animals, and also suffered from a lack of basic services such as potable water, energy, health, and education, as well as situations of overcrowding. Their main problem was the lack of lands to cultivate and as such, the scarcity of basic foodstuffs such as corn and beans. To all of these material deficiencies we must add the psycho-social effects (traumas, depression, fear, sadness, physical maladies) that these living conditions provoke, as well as the continued suffering from ongoing threats, harassment and lack of safety.

Present Situation of the Displaced

Utilizing the latest census data from CDHFBLC (updated August 10, 2004), there are approximately 12,000 displaced people in the conflict zone, 3,618 of whom are in the Northern Zone, and 6,332 of whom are in the Highlands (Chenalho).

The invisibility to which displaced persons are condemned has provoked the delay and difficulty in repairing the damage and injustice that the displacement represents in their lives.

Towards the beginning of 2001, the first State Conference for Persons Displaced by War was held, at which representatives from the Northern, Jungle, Border, Highlands, and Central Zones agreed upon the following demands:

  • Fulfillment of the San Andres-ASA Accords (as a means of addressing the roots of the conflict, given that this continues to be one of the EZLN’s conditions for resuming dialogue)
  • The creation of conditions for the return or relocation of the displaced peoples to secure lands (a demand to the state and federal governments)
  • Payment of losses (indemnity and reparation of damages)
  • Punishment of paramilitaries, and actions by the governments to ensure that justice is carried out

Although the intention at this first meeting was to articulate the struggle of all peoples displaced by the conflict, the participants opted for different strategies.

The Zapatista support bases rejected participation in, and negotiation of, the demands for justice and reparations for damages by the government, maintaining instead their policy of resistance and autonomy, as well as treating the San Andres Accords as laws-in-fact.

On the other hand, the Abejas decided to carry on independently with government negotiations. In July 2001, they began returning to their communities of origin and receiving indemnity for the victims of the massacre; however, their demands for justice and security have yet to be resolved.

Two other processes were also established. One of these processes consisted of a dialogue between the government (through the Secretary of Indigenous Peoples, SEPI, and the Secretary of Governance), the displaced persons, and the CDHFBLC (accompanying the process at the request of the displaced participants). Two thousand four hundred and fifty-one displaced persons from different conflict zones participated as representatives in this dialogue; this included fourteen groups, ten of which are still forcibly displaced; with four others participating as displaced-returned peoples. In the three years since its initiation, the participants have encountered many difficulties in making advances towards their three demands of Land, Justice, and Damage Reparations. Presently, a government proposal has been achieved in which each displaced family represented in the dialogue receives $30,000 in order to purchase and regularize titles for land and $20,000 in cash for production-related projects. The CDHFBLC considers this offer a “partial response,” given that the government is not offering sufficient funds to obtain secure, good quality lands of adequate size in order to ensure a dignified life. The dialogue demands for justice and integral damage reparations remain unresolved; these include punishment of those responsible for forming, training and arming paramilitaries, as well of those paramilitary participants who are guilty of murder, disappearances and displacements; payment for material and moral damages; and recognition on the part of the state of the situation of forced displacement and the state’s responsibility to those displaced because of this situation.

In the Northern Zone, the “JoInixtie Dialogue” was established in the Municipality of Tila. The State Commission for Reconciliation of Divided Communities held direct negotiations with a sector of the displaced people of the region. The return or relocation of the displaced participants was agreed upon, but no results were reached in the areas of justice and damage reparations. Because of the unresolved demands, the CDHFBLC continues to count the displaced participants in the JoInixtie Dialogue within the numbers of its displaced persons in its census.

Humanitarian Aid to the Displaced in Chiapas

While it is necessary to attend to the root causes of the armed conflict in order to create an integral response to the demands of the displaced, situations of displacement require assistance and protection from the moment at which the situations arise. The greatest humanitarian crisis occurred following the Acteal massacre in the X’oyep and Polho camps.

According to the ‘Guiding Principles,’ the State is primarily responsible for aid in a displacement situation. However, given the fact that the government was a party to the conflict in Chiapas, it led the Zapatista resistance to the government to a position of rejection of any and all political, economic, or aid projects coming from said government, humanitarian aid from the International Red Cross (CICR), NGOs, and national and international civil society was indispensable.

Food aid from the CICR began to arrive in August 1998 and was administered in Polho until December 2003. The termination of this aid was first announced in 2001, and a periodic and gradual decrease in food aid received by each family was agreed upon in conjunction with the autonomous authorities of Polho.

The exit of the CICR from Polho has been much criticized for leaving the displaced population unprotected and at risk of famine.

Oscar Torres (of the San Cristobal CICR Office) points out that the decision to leave took into account knowing with certainty that the people of Polho had the potential to maintain themselves independently, and that the ’emergency situation’ that had initially permitted the development of their mission no longer exists. Additionally, he explains that community agriculture and production-related pro-jects were reinforced before the definitive exit of CICR from the community so that the population would have instruments of self-sustainability at its disposal.

It is important to keep in mind that the CICR operates under a mandate from the international community to protect the life and dignity of the victims of war and internal violence and to offer them assistance based on the Geneva Conventions and International Humanitarian Law.For the Head of the CICR Sub-delegation in San Cristobal, Adolfo Beteta, there are no longer any emergency situations in the state of Chiapas that were caused by armed conflict. Beteta recognizes that there is ‘an unfinished peace process’ and a ‘relative peace’ as such, but that the present problems in communities do not have as their sole origin the dispute between the EZLN and the Government. In this sense the CICR believes that a dangerous possibility exists of producing dependence on humanitarian assistance in the communities. The CICR will maintain a minimal structure that would allow it to resume its aid work should an emergency situation arise.

The vision of the CICR regarding the conflict is different from the analysis of other NGOs present in Chiapas, as well as those who continue living in the region of low-intensity warfare, also known as an integral war designed to wear down resistance.

The Polho Autonomous Council is requesting support from civil society for a food project for the displaced people and also asserts that the displaced continue to lack access to their lands and means of producing their own food.

The nature of the conflict in Chiapas breaks from the ‘conventional warfare’ scheme. It does not fit comfortably into the context of the regulated wars of the Geneva Accords, from which the parameters of action of the CICR were born. The CICR does not have sole responsibility for the situation of those displaced by the conflict, nor does it have the necessary mandate to function effectively within the present context.

Judicial Recognition: Necessary but Insufficient

There are no specific norms in Mexico relating to the subject of displaced persons, and for this reason a constitutional reform proposal was presented this year. This proposal introduces the concept of internal displacement; makes the state responsible for the protection, security and restitution of the rights of the displaced; and requires that laws be developed that delineate this responsibility. This would be the first step towards establishing budgeted funds that would permit the development and instigation of public policies that would be required in order to handle the situations of displacement.

This proposal responds in part to the 2002 recommendations developed by Francis Deng for the Federal Government after having visited the country and seeing firsthand the situation of the internally displaced persons:

  • Attack the root causes of the internal displacements: “the best remedy for the crisis of internal displacement would be the achievement of peace and national reconciliation that, at the same time, would depend on attacking the root causes of the conflict, which involve political, economic, and social grievances.”
  • Build Collaboration in order to bring about the return of peoples to their places of origin.
  • Ensure the establishment of public policies by the government (that are based on prior consultation with the displaced persons).
  • Collection of data
  • Cooperation with the international community

These recommendations submitted by Francis Deng have not been carried out by the Mexican government, nor have they been taken up for consideration.

The legislation, in the opinion of the CDHFBLC, should avoid the perpetuation or institutionalization of internally displaced peoples, and should be framed within a broader policy oriented towards the true resolution of the causes that generated the conflict.

While it is important to recognize the existence of people who have been internally displaced by the conflict in Chiapas, the lack of national legislation does not exempt the government from its responsibility to comply with the ‘Guiding Principles.” Although they are not obligatory in nature for states, the ‘Guiding Principles’ are based on international human rights norms that Mexico has ratified. From an international perspective, respect for the sovereignty of states should take place alongside the reinforcement of democracy, rather than alongside impunity and a lack of protection for those deprived of a secure and dignified place to live. The consultation with displaced persons, NGOs and social organizations would be necessary in order to establish political tools directed at resolving the structural causes of displacement in Chiapas, even more so since recognition of autonomy is one of the principal roots of the conflict. The political disposition to resolve the question of displacement will tell us a great deal about the will to establish a path towards peace.


  • ZEBADÙA GONZÀLEZ, Emilio (coord..), Desplazados internos en México, Grupo Parlamentario PRD-Congreso de Diputados, México, 2004.
  • HIDALGO, O y CASTRO, G., Población desplazada en Chiapas, CIEPAC-Consejería de Proyectos, México, 1999.
  • CDHFBLC, Acteal: entre el Duelo y la Lucha, CDHFBLC, México, 1998.
  • CDHFBLC, Caminando hacia el amanecer. Informe especial sobre desplazados de guerra en Chiapas, México, 2002.
  • CDHFBLC, Informe Ejecutivo sobre la situación de desplazados internos en Chiapas, 9 de agosto del 2004.

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