Mitziton: A community in Chiapas resisting the government road

On Sunday 28 February, a major conflict took place in the Chiapan community of Mitziton, when around one hundred members of the evangelical ‘Army of God’, widely seen as a paramilitary group, attacked Other Campaign supporters in the community. Over 200 police attended, in ten police lorries, and the road between San Cristobal and Comitan was closed for many hours. Each side took three members of the other side hostage, and several people received bullet wounds from the guns of the Army of God or were beaten up. Huge fires were lit, and ambulances were prevented from getting in to treat the wounded.

A statement from the community assembly tells how Other Campaign adherents were tied to poles blindfolded and left like this for twelve hours, “they were brutally beaten and tortured while they poured gasoline over them, saying ‘we are going to burn you alive’ ”. Agents of the State Preventive Police “were already in place, but when they heard the shots did nothing. They only approached when the aggression was over”. Government officials who were present “did nothing, only gave statements to the press to confuse people”.

The incidents were grossly misrepresented in much of the press, despite the presence of human rights observers to monitor the situation. What had happened was presented solely as a conflict over timber, as it was precipitated by one of the evangelicals illegally cutting down five trees. He did this without gaining the permission of the community authorities, necessary because trees are protected in Mitziton.

What the press did not say was that this action was clearly one of deliberate provocation, intended to incite violence and division, and to weaken and discredit the community assembly which represents the majority of the population. Nor did they say that the paramilitary groups have the full support and protection of the state government to attack with impunity. Finally, they presented the events as a ‘mere inter-religious conflict’, rather than a symptom of the struggle by many indigenous groups to prevent the loss of their lands to the San Cristobal - Palenque highway, which in Mitziton would destroy 40 hectares of pine and oak forest, 10 hectares of community farmland, and two wells. Finally, they failed to indicate that this attack demonstrates once again the government’s intention to put an end to all the political and social struggles and movements connected in any way to the Zapatista movement and its sympathisers.

Background

 Mitziton is a Tzotzil community situated in a rural part of the municipality of San Cristobal, next to the headquarters of military zone XXXI Rancho Nuevo. The origin of the community lies in the expulsion of over 30,000 residents from San Juan Chamula in 1976, when the ‘traditional’ Catholics broke with the ‘progressive’ Catholic diocese of San Cristobal, which was then following the teachings of Liberation Theology under Bishop Samuel Ruiz. Evangelical protestant groups were also expelled.

 As in many communities in Chiapas, therefore, there are political and religious differences. Approximately 500 residents of Mitziton are Catholics and adherents of the Other Campaign, while 98 are members of an evangelical religious organisation called ‘Eagle Wings’ (Alas de Aguila). They oppose the Other Campaign, and are also members of the Army of God (Ejercito de Dios), a branch of their church. The majority in Mitziton call this group ‘the un-cooperative ones’ (non-cooperantes) because they do not take part in community work. “These ‘soldiers of Christ’ are nothing more than a paramilitary organisation”, they say.

The members of the Eagle Wings church are followers of Pastor Carmen Diaz Lopez, who was expelled from Mitziton in 2001, for the alleged trafficking of undocumented Central American migrants. He is said to have persuaded other evangelicals not to cooperate in community activities, and is alleged to be financing the Eagle Wings church.

The Army of God emerged from an armed group called ‘My Brother’s Keeper’. Its stated aim is to protect its evangelical members from expulsion, displacement or harassment, and to promote their development and advancement. It has a politico-military structure, and its Commander-in-chief is Esdras Alonso Gonzalez. In June 2006, he, along with the Eagle Wings and other local evangelical churches, presented 120 male and female members of the Army of God to a religious ceremony in San Cristobal.  They had had military and religious training, wore military-style uniforms, and marched in military cadence. Since then the organisation has continued to grow.

 

Resistance to the road

 

Construction of the San Cristobal to Palenque toll road was due to begin in 2009, as one of the first steps in the plan to develop the Palenque - Agua Azul area into a luxury paradise for ecotourism. In February, the Chiapas state government announced that it was to begin preparations for work on the 8-mile stretch of road between San Cristobal and the Rancho Nuevo military base, and engineers went to Mitziton, without asking permission, and told local people they were measuring for the super-highway, for which Mitziton was to be ‘kilometre zero’.         

The community met together in assembly in March, and decided to reject the highway which would cut their ejido in half, destroying their homes, lands, forests and water sources. They issued a formal statement of resistance in April. “The bad government has violated our rights as indigenous Tzotziles, since at no time have they told us they want to build the highway here, and they never asked permission to enter our territory and take measurements...We will organise and defend ourselves, we are not alone”. They explained that the highway would destroy 10 family homes and 10 hectares of land where they grow potatoes, beans, radishes and corn. The highway would also destroy 40 hectares of forest.... “The bad government clearly knows that our community produces tree seedlings of different species, so we will never allow the destruction of our land. We do not benefit at all from building the highway, only big businesses benefit. The bad government make promises and promises and all that happens is imprisonment, torture, abductions and other violations of human rights”.

The plans for the highway accentuated the differences between the two sections of the community; the evangelical group were in favour of the toll road passing through Mitziton lands, and were in support of, and supported by, the PRD state government. “Ever since we adhered to the EZLN’s Other Campaign, we saw that they began to publicly show off with their uniforms so we can see them,” a Mitzitón spokesperson told Proceso magazine.

 

 Killing in Mitziton

 

On 21st July 2009, 30 Other Campaign adherents, following an agreement by the Mitziton assembly, went to measure their communal lands. They were attacked by 60 members of the evangelical group with machetes, slingshots, clubs and stones. A truck carrying five people, two of them armed with shotguns, was driven at high speed towards the group, running them over, killing Aurelio Diaz Hernandez and injuring five other men who were taken to hospital. Witnesses had no doubt the killing was intentional. The victims say that the Army of God members are heavily armed, and that they use the truck involved in the killing for people trafficking, and for transporting illegally felled timber. They say that two pastors of the Eagle Wings church had seriously threatened the Other Campaign members during the two days prior to the incident, including shooting bullets into a truck.

 

The protests continue

Mitziton residents held a protest march soon after the killing, which was joined by people from many parts of the region. The protest, in the form of a mock funeral procession, demanded the cancellation of the highway from San Cristobal to Palenque, the self determination of communities, and justice for Aurelio Diaz Hernandez. For six hours, they marched on the Pan-American Highway, carrying a symbolic casket. Each hour, they permitted the line of backed-up cars to pass in both direc­tions and then blocked the highway for another hour. Details of the killing, the demonstrations, and the background, were published in La Jornada, Proceso, and by the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Centre (Frayba).

Following this, the commander-in chief of the Army of God, Esdras Alonso, sued Frayba, the community leaders in Mitziton, and Hermann Bellinghausen from La Jornada, for defamation of character and blocking the highway. The Army of God had become more visible on the streets of San Cristobal, marching in military formation and military uniform and commanded by military officers, a symbol of force and power.     

Soon after, Mitziton came together with two other affected indigenous communities, Jotolá and San Sebastián Bachajón, to campaign together against the planned new highway. A six-hour roadblock was held by over a thousand Other Campaign adherents, followed by a press conference. Representatives denounced the current situation, “we are faced with bad neoliberal projects that offer no benefit to indigenous people in any way, and the plundering of our land, which threatens our very presence on it”.  Other Campaign members from Mitzitón condemned the fact that after a month there had been no arrest made for the murder of Aurelio Diaz Hernandez. They also reported that “the paramilitaries continue to threaten us with their guns, firing them often into the air during the evening and night” and that public officials from the Ministry of Communication and Transportation had “made new attempts to trick us into signing an assembly certificate to give them permission to pass through our territory to build the highway to Palenque.” They continued “the non-cooperative ones from the Army of God, the ones who killed our comrade, continue to arrive with their truck full of migrant brothers. We want to prevent further smuggling in our territory, to make sure none of the people of our community will ever be run over or attacked again”.

In conclusion, the representatives of the three communities explained that they had met on this occasion to defend their land, their rights and their indigenous culture that “the bad government wants to destroy and continue destroying like they did with our ancestors.” The three communities demonstrated against the road together again later in the year in San Cristobal.

The Chiapas state government continued to deny that the route of the road had been decided, while engineers visited communities seeking approval for the super-highway to pass through their lands. On August 18, after the state government’s denials were published in the media, agents of the Secretary of Communications and Transportation went to Mitzitón asking them to sign a paper stating that the assembly had agreed to let the toll road pass through their territory. Ejido members refused. Threats continued, as when on August 24th, one month after the murder, several members of the Army of God entered a house in Mitzitón, brandishing machetes, and told a woman they were going to kill her husband.

A visitor to the community in September commented: Earth movers are at Mitziton's door, ready to carve up their land for the new toll road to Palenque. Meanwhile, the heavily armed Army of God members continue to threaten violence. They beat up a 17 year old boy and cut down the hand-painted signs proclaiming resistance to the toll road. The ejido commissioners have denounced them as criminals who traffic in ‘undocumented brothers.’ The commissioners allege that the state government has known about this human trafficking for 10 years and has just covered it up”.

However, in a surprise move in October, the Chiapas government finally announced the route of the new road, which had previously been surrounded in secrecy. Instead of adopting the original plan drawn up by the Ministry of Communications and Transportation, which would have cut Mitziton in half, the state chose an alternative route, which did not pass through the community.

The state government had become notorious for spreading lies and disinformation, so people did not know what to believe, even more so in December 2009, when, in an astonishing press release the Chiapas governor, Juan Sabines Guerrero, said he had “suspended work on the San Cristobal - Palenque highway in response to the high tension in the area”. He went on to say, with stunning duplicity, “in Chiapas, the people command and the government obeys. The people have the right to self-determination”. 

Despite this statement, work on building the road is continuing. 

Events of February 2010 prior to the attack

The first statement issued in February by the Mitziton authorities denounced the theft of the ejido’s official seal, which had been given by the thief to the Army of God, enabling them to issue false statements as if from the ejido. The second denounced the fact that the killer of Aurelio Dias Hernandez had been released from prison after four months ‘as the killing was unintentional’, and was now organising paramilitary activity.

The third statement, issued on 20th February 2010, denounced the fact that four heavily armed masked men wearing civilian clothes, assumed to be federal agents, had illegally attempted to kidnap one of the community leaders on the outskirts of their community. Fortunately, people were engaged in community work nearby and came to his assistance, leading to the armed men retreating at high speed.  They statement continues by saying that they are well aware that state and federal ministers are working in conjunction with the paramilitary group the Army of God ‘Eagle Wings’.

“We want to say to the bad government that they should respect our community and our agreements, because here the people command, and if anything happens, it will be the government’s responsibility. We know very well that all the repression we are suffering is because we have defended our territory, but we will not allow our land to be destroyed by the passage of the San Cristobal Palenque highway, because it is the only land we have”.

The letter is signed “from the organised people of Mitziton, adherents of the Other Campaign. The people united will never be defeated”.

 

 

IMPORTANT ISSUES ARISING

 

-       The spreading of disinformation and lies by the media, at the behest of all three tiers of government. “They represent us as savage Indians”.

-       The determination by the state authorities to push ahead with their planned tourism and infrastructure developments whatever the cost, and hence the use of any means necessary to destroy opposition to their plans.

-       The increasing use of paramilitary groups, often disguised as evangelical organisations, as instruments of counterinsurgency, to repress, intimidate, torture, threaten, injure and attack social movements, especially those connected in any way with the Zapatistas.

-       This is the second time this year when members of paramilitary groups appear to have deliberately shot members of their own side in an attempt to give the impression that Zapatistas or Other Campaign adherents are using guns. This would give the Mexican army a pretext to attack and destroy Zapatista communities – the undoubted aim.

-       Despite the horrific number of killings currently taking place on a daily basis in Mexico related to the ‘drug wars’, despite the carnage that is Ciudad Juarez and the explosion in organised crime, there are more federal troops in Chiapas now than in any other state in Mexico.

-       This is not the end of the story. We are asked to write letters of support, and remain vigilant.

 

 

NOTES 

For more information on the Army of God, see ‘the boots of God’ by Isain Mandujano, Proceso, August 2009. http://www.proceso.com.mx/rv/modHome/detalleExclusiva/71561

This article tells how in August 2009, Esdras Alonso, his Eagle Wings church, and its Army of God, formerly PRD supporters, joined the PRI-affiliated National Campesino Confederation (CNC).  The PRI are, and have been, notorious for financing and supporting anti-Zapatista paramilitary groups. The CNC is closely connected with OPDDIC, one of the currently most active groups.

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