A human rights observers’ account from Chiapas

  • January 3, 2014

Land & Liberation

A human rights observer reflects on his experiences in the Zapatista communities, where ordinary people try to build autonomy in a context of conflict.

By John Singer.

Before you start reading, I want to clarify one thing: do not expect a precise analysis of the Zapatista movement, neither a clear-cut theoretical writing which considers the pros and cons of human rights watch. I can not write that. I have been to Chiapas for the first time this year and have lived there for nearly five months. This report will be more like a collection of thoughts, rather than a straight thesis.

Most of my time in Chiapas I spent working as a volunteer with the Human Rights Center “Fray Bartolomé de las Casas” (FrayBa). FrayBa started its work with the Civil Observation Brigades for Peace and Human Rights (BriCO) back in 1995 when both the EZLN and its civilian supporters were massively attacked by the state and its army forces. Directly after the Zapatista uprising in 1994 the Mexican government started to react with the military troops which were at that time available (about 17.000 soldiers) and culminated its efforts in the beginning of 1995 with a huge invasion in the Zapatista territory, including the Lacandon Jungle.

Since then, their tactics have changed but the troops are still there undertaking patrols and making their presence clear. But nowadays they are part of the wider tactic of so called “low intensity warfare”, which includes not only military forces but also the effort to split the civilian supporters by offering them money or houses, provided that these former EZLN supporters drop their fight for a better life. In the face of a very rough living situation, the ongoing deaths of kids in regions which are far away from medical attendance, and the overall difficult conditions, the government’s offers fall on good ground because people simply need to survive — if not them, at least their kids.

Although the Zapatista movement is building its own medical system, which is in many places already better than the state system, it remains a tempting choice to leave the EZLN because that way one can receive social welfare services from the state while still enjoying the Zapatista health system — as the compas do not exclude anybody from their autonomous health care. The context of the conflict has changed a lot and is now more focused on conflicts among the indigenous people themselves, while the Mexican state seems to be out of it. The good old “divide and rule” strategy. Yet this paints a false picture. The Mexican state — and any state for that matter — will never be genuinely interested in the well-being of its people, but will always be interested in claiming and expanding its power over them. So today it is providing support to some families, but tomorrow it will take it away again if they do not act as those in power want them to.

Today, human rights observers are still going into indigenous communities all over Chiapas and there are people coming from all over the world to show their support and solidarity this way. I have been one of them for some months and I visited five communities, spending one or two weeks there and documenting the ongoing conflicts. The normal procedure with FrayBa is that everyone who is interested in doing human rights observation can come to San Cristóbal and have a chat with them. Once doing the observation you will go to a village that has asked FrayBa for support and where FrayBa has decided to send observers. The observer then lives in the community for several days and tries to grasp an understanding of the situation so that FrayBa knows what is going on and can react appropriately. For the Zapatistas, this collaboration is useful and important because they do not want to work together with the government directly. This way, FrayBa can initiate judicial procedures against state aggressors, given that the Zapatistas’ own legal system is rarely accepted by non-Zapatistas.

One of the main difficulties in the communities is the unclear situation. This means that for us, as people from outside these villages, it is very difficult to distinguish who is an inhabitant and who is an aggressor. You do not have open aggressions on a daily basis, and even the threats are rarely spoken in direct confrontations but spread around the community as a rumor. It seems that most of the times, when direct confrontations do happen, it is almost always too late because the aggressors are attacking with machetes, stones or other similar weapons. But what for the observers is just a difficulty, constitutes a constant threat to the communities themselves, where even neighbors can be enemies and in some cases entire families have been divided by the conflict.

Living in such a tense and conflictual situation can be really dangerous — and not only for one’s mental health. There is a history of conflicts in Chiapas during which people fled from their homes, were attacked, and lost family members and friends. The case of Acteal is one of the saddest examples of this. After the Acteal Massacre in December 1997, in which 45 Zapatista sympathizers — including a large majority of women and children — were slaughtered by paramilitaries while attending a prayer, some of the perpetrators were convicted and sent to prison. After all these years, these people return to their communities and live their lives as if nothing ever happened. Or even worse: they persist in threatening their neighbors. Many people in the region of Acteal have lost someone in the massacre and they know the people who took part in the killing. Now they have to live side by side with these very people, which gives the threat a very real dimension. To withstand these threats, several communities try to work together with human rights organizations like FrayBa.

Beside this, our presence in the communities also has a number of unconscious effects. For example, I was asked in every community how much I paid to come to Chiapas or sometimes also how much money I earn in the place where I live. The saddest point was when a family with whom I had lived for a week apologized for the “poor standards” they had offered us. At least from this point on, I started asking myself what kind of picture we present to the communities as “white” people and also if and how it is possible to work as a human rights observer on a horizontal level. This requires a great sensibility and awareness not only from the organization but also from the people who decide to go to the communities — it starts with the things you bring with you, but also includes your behavior, your manners.

Most of the Zapatistas have to work every day in their fields to cultivate their food, which means they really depend on the weather to have a good harvest and they really need to be there when it is time for it. They still live in sometimes poor wooden houses and although there are “health promoters”, clinics and hospitals, there are still people dying of curable disease. Things are getting better day by day and people are really working hard on their living conditions, but the indigenous peoples of Chiapas still remain marginalized. Even if we admire them for their fight and their attempt to build autonomy, we should not forget that we (or at least I as a white, middle-class, Western European male) are still incredibly rich in this world. And I have noticed that my reasons for fighting capitalism are idealistic ones, meaning I want a better world and I can imagine that it is possible. The reason most of the Zapatistas are still fighting after twenty years is that they simply have to if they want to live a better life. For them, the struggle for autonomy is brutal necessity.

Nevertheless, the communities need help and support because they are still under threat by the state, by paramilitaries and by the so-called priistas, or supporters of the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). There are still people who can not come back to their houses and fields because they were attacked by their neighbors. It is important to remember that we can lose our autonomy and self-determination not only in direct and violent confrontation with the state, but also through every aspect of our daily lives — organized by the state or any other actor — over which we have no real influence. Even if it seems that somebody wants to help us organize our lives, if this does not happen on a horizontal plane and on the basis of equality, they will end up taking decisions in our name.

I personally do not want to be part of an organization that functions in this way, trying to help marginalized people by taking decisions for them, in their name, and taking care of their organization on their behalf (I am glad FrayBa was not such an organization). In the long run, people have to decide how they want to live. This is the essence of self-determination. Especially those claiming to help should respect this basic rule. Of course that does not mean cutting off all social aid, but rather of thinking of ways in which we all depend on hierarchically organized funds which could, hypothetically, be cut off every day. To build autonomy, we must develop not only our own social networks but also our own economic safety nets. If we seriously want to build a new world from the grassroots up, we should consider where our most basic needs — like food and a roof above our head — will come from.

ROAR Collective

The ROAR Collective published ROAR Magazine (2011-’22), an online journal of the radical imagination that provided grassroots perspectives from the front-lines of the global struggle for real democracy.

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Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/human-rights-observer-chiapas/

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