Human Rights Observing in Chiapas, Southern Mexico

Four years on from the uprising of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), much of Chiapas now resembles a war zone. In response to the radical demands of the Zapatistas (land reform, indigenous and women's rights, autonomy, an end to corrupt government and neoliberal policies) and their armed and direct actions, 70,000 soldiers have been placed in military camps and checkpoints throughout Zapatista areas and villages sympathetic to the uprising. Since 1995, these communities have appealed for human rights observers to monitor the militarisation process and its effects on the indigenous population.

As a member of a group of eight British activists who have recently spent three weeks in Chiapas, it seems clear that the situation is becoming more complex, dangerous, and uncertain. Peace negotiations between the EZLN and the government have broken down since the government refused to fully implement the 1996 San Andres Peace Accords, which promised greater rights and autonomy for Mexico's indigenous population. This breakdown in dialogue has resulted in further violence in the region, complicated by a growing number of pro-government paramilitary groups, divisions within communities, political prisoners, and refugees displaced by conflict.

photo of soldiers

In the midst of this low intensity war, Zapatista villagers continue to create alternatives to address their needs as marginalised small-farming communities. In the Lacandon jungle village where I stayed, despite constant rumours that the military is going to invade the community, low flying planes and helicopters, and threats and violence from government supporters in the village, the Zapatista supporters have been building a training centre for local teachers in autonomous schools in the surrounding area. The government health centre has been occupied, an agro-ecology project is under way, and the women have organised themselves into an active co-operative.

While the conflict continues, these villagers made it clear to us that they feel safer with foreign observers living at the entrance to the village. However, the Mexican government is currently putting severe restrictions on the presence of foreigners in "the conflict zone", and has already deported over 60 observers this year. Other delegations from Britain are being planned.

Demonstrations outside Mexican Embassy, 42 Hertford Street, London (nr Green Park tube) 1st Friday every month at 12.30

Chiapas Link, Box 19, 82 Colston St, Bristol BS1 5BB

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