A Brief Background on International Civilian Peace Involvement in the Chiapas Conflict

The Uprising and the First Call

The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) rose up on January 1, 1994, a date chosen specifically to coincide with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Since then, the political life of the country and in particular the indigenous and peasant communities of Chiapas has experienced a series of significant changes. In the First Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle, read from the balcony of an occupied municipal palace in San Cristóbal de Las Casas that January 1, the EZLN requested the presence of international peace observers in communities affected by the war. During the first days of the conflict severe human rights violations--such as arbitrary detentions, torture and extra judicial executions--led local human rights groups, with the support of afflicted communities, to call for support from outside Chiapas in monitoring and documenting human rights abuses. Diverse Mexican and international organizations answered this call, forming civil brigades which visited different regions of the state, documenting human rights violations.

The Second Call

In February 1995 the Mexican Army launched a massive assault on indigenous communities throughout the municipalities of Ocosingo, Las Margaritas and Altamirano, forcing a significant proportion of the population to flee their homes and take refuge in the mountains. Several communities asked the Fray Bartolome de Las Casas Human Rights Center in San Cristóbal to help create a security corridor that would protect the civilian population and document human rights abuses. In response to this request and fearing that without an international presence in the conflict zone a greater number of human rights violations would occur, Bishop Samuel Ruiz, the founder of the Fray Bartolome Human Rights Center, issued a call to international civil society to help establish a permanent international peace presence in threatened indigenous communities. This would not only allow the return of the displaced to their homes, but also help protect the communities from further abuses.

The Fray Bartolome Human Rights Center then began organizing civilian Peace Camps throughout Chiapas, and national and international civil society responded with strong solidarity, sending hundreds of observers and humanitarian workers into the conflict zones. When it was possible to cross the military lines, they found communities that had been deserted and destroyed. When the inhabitants returned, the observers collected hundreds of testimonies in the affected communities.

Functions of the Peace Camps

The Peace Camp volunteers have two key functions. First, by their mere presence they discourage the aggressions of military, police and paramilitary forces against the lives and property of the indigenous communities. They are literally the physical personification of international preoccupation about the rights of the indigenous peoples, unarmed civilians using their status as foreigners to support and protect the position of the indigenous people vis-ˆ-vis local paramilitary groups and the Mexican armed forces. By showing this international support and solidarity, and linking the communities to the outside world, the observers help counteract the low-intensity counterinsurgency warfare perpetrated by the Mexican government against the EZLN, its bases of support or Zapatista sympathizers. Second, they act as witnesses to human rights violations, documenting and then reporting them to concerned local and international groups. By publicizing these abuses abroad, the observers bring the threat of international diplomatic and economic pressure to bear against the Mexican government.

Impacts of the Peace Camps

Many members of indigenous communities and local NGOs have testified that the foreign observer presence has significantly diminished the effectiveness of the government's counterinsurgency tactics. In fact, communities without a foreign presence have experienced greater levels of military and/or paramilitary harassment, leading various human rights organizations to conclude that if there had been a permanent observation presence in Acteal, the massacre of December 22, 1997 would not have happened. Communities have also testified that violence tends to escalate after international observers leave.

The Government Response: Counterinsurgency and Xenophobia

Under the PRI, the Mexican government was hostile to the role carried out by foreigners in the conflict, making it very clear that their presence will be interpreted as political interference and illegal under the Mexican Constitution. This hostility came not so much as a reaction to the political content of their activities but rather from a fear of the repercussions Mexico would suffer if the international community learned of the human rights violations recorded by the observers. For example, after the December 22, 1997 massacre at Acteal in which 45 indigenous men, women and children were brutally murdered by government-funded paramilitary forces, civil society rapidly diffused news of the complicity of both the Chiapas State Police and the Governor in the massacre around the world, shaming and implicating then-President Zedillo. Zedillo was forced to make major rearrangements in his government, to the extent that his Secretary of Government (much like the U.S. Secretary of State) was forced to resign. In response to this humiliation, the Mexican government began an intense xenophobic campaign in the beginning of 1998. Hundreds of foreign volunteers were deported, stringent new requirements for human rights observation visas were instated and the Mexican media tried to delegitimate the work of international observers by sparking a controversial national debate on Mexican sovereignty. All of these efforts were attempts to restrict the flow of information about Chiapas to the rest of the world and undermine international support of the EZLN as part of the counterinsurgency war. The new visa requirements were the most restrictive policies for human rights observation in the western hemisphere. These actions violated not only the rights of the foreigners involved but also the rights of the indigenous communities to free association and access to information, further isolating and endangering them in keeping with counterinsurgency tactics. This xenophobic campaign against international peace observers also directly contradicted Mexico's much-touted "democratic opening." In spite of the government's permission for foreign scrutiny in electoral monitoring and economic development, as for example in the welcome given to the UN and the World Bank, national sovereignty has been invoked as a concern more frequently with human rights observers.

It should be noted that international accompaniment in situations of conflict is not unique to Chiapas. There is a long tradition of human rights monitoring in many countries around the world. Guatemala, El Salvador, Sri Lanka, Colombia and Haiti are all countries where a foreign presence has brought effective protection to popular democratic movements faced with state violence and campaigns of terror. Furthermore, international observation is supported and legitimated by international conventions and declarations signed by the Mexican government, such as the American Convention on Human Rights and the International Convention on Political and Civil Rights, which states that the international community has the right to verify whether or not human rights are being respected.

Ongoing International Solidarity

In spite of the xenophobic campaign waged by the Mexican government, international civil society has continued to demonstrate a strong solidarity with the people of Chiapas. International volunteers have maintained a presence in Peace Camps in the conflict zone, accompanying indigenous communities in their struggle for a peace with justice. International observers have also participated in various emergency delegations, such as the one sent to the community of Amador Hernandez in August of 1999. This delegation was sent in response to a request from the community, which was protesting the construction of an unsolicited highway through the area. In this case 500 federal Army troops parachuted into Amador Hernandez to protect the private contractors building the road, but were met with strong resistance from local communities. After weeks of tense struggle, the project was abandoned.

While the high point of the xenophobic campaign against foreign peace observers was 1998, hostilities against international volunteers persisted into 1999 and 2000. For example, in January of 2000 the government brought deportation proceedings against 43 foreigners who joined New Year's celebrations in Zapatista-sympathizing communities. With the retirement of Bishop Samuel Ruiz in November of 1999 and the unexpected transfer of his successor Bishop Raul Vera to Saltillo in January of 2000, the indigenous found themselves with a Church much less interested in defending indigenous rights.

In January of 2001 President Vicente Fox removed illegal military and migration checkpoints in the conflict zone, alleviating much of the pressure against international peace observers--though intimidation and harassment of local people has continued. In February and March of 2001, hundreds on international observers accompanied the Zapatista March for Dignity to Mexico City to press for the passage of an Indigenous Rights and Culture Bill based on negotiations between the EZLN and the Mexican Government in 1996 in Congress. In April 2001, refugees from the community of Guadalupe Tepeyac returned to their homes accompanied by international observers. In September and October of 2001, international observers accompanied hundreds of displaced members of Las Abejas, a pacifist indigenous civil society group, back to their communities of origin in the municipality of Chenalhó.

The Continuing Conflict

Despite the campaign promises of Vicente Fox, the conflict in Chiapas is far from being resolved. Though Fox did close the seven symbolic military bases in January 2001 in order to fulfill one of the three Zapatista demands for the renewal of dialogue with the federal government, the total number of military personnel in the state has not diminished. The Army merely relocated troops in many cases, and reinstalled 12 "Mixed Operations Bases" (BOMs) over the last several months, intensifying its pressure on indigenous communities near Zapatista positions. Aggressions suffered by Zapatista communities include harassment, permanent and temporary check points, daily patrols and over-flights, military repositions, military training in indigenous communities, interrogation and threatening of individuals, disappearances and extra judicial executions. There are still more than 15,000 internal refugees in the state of Chiapas displaced by paramilitary violence. Despite the ousting of the PRI after last year's elections of Vicente Fox and Pablo Salazar Mendiguchia as Chiapas state governor, no legal actions have been taken against these paramilitary groups. The creeping mobilization of the Mexican military coupled with the continuing impunity of paramilitary forces illustrate how little Fox's attitude towards the role of military and paramilitary forces in the Chiapas conflict differs from that of former president Ernesto Zedillo.

On the political front, in April 2001 the Fox administration simulated interest in resolving the conflict with the passage of its version of an indigenous rights law, but this version has been unilaterally rejected by the EZLN, the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) and other indigenous and human rights groups as an illegitimate adulteration of the San Andres Accords which do not contribute to establishing a true set of democratic rights. The law's approval marks a low point in the standoff between the government and the EZLN since Fox became president last December. In light of these recent events, international observers are still very much needed and we welcome all applications.