7-14 March 1998

Interview with Gonzalo Ituarte, O.P. (serving in Chiapas twenty years)
Comisión Nacional de Intermediación (CONAI)--the National Mediation Commission
Sunday, 8 March 1998, at Convento Santo Domingo

Chiapas' history is with Guatemala. It is the only state to federate with Mexico--three years after independence. The socio-political processes of Mexico did not take root in Chiapas. Dictatorship and feudal haciendas continued in Chiapas fifty years after the rest of Mexico, and religion was used to keep the people in dependence on landowners into the 1960s. Though the indigenous people of Chiapas were not called slaves, they have been treated as such.

Don Samuel Ruíz García came to Chiapas as bishop of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas in 1960. He was shocked and wrote his first letter against communism (one year after the Cuban revolution) and expressed concern about injustice to the Indians. He discovered that their predicament was not due to a lack of capacity by the Indians but to a systemic issue extending back to colonial times. He moved the social location of his reflection from the big houses of the haciendas to the Indian communities and to the mountains. The Indians felt something new, while the landowners and politicians discovered the danger of this new position of the Church.

The development approach of the 1960s, including the Alliance for Progress, did not understand the international relationship of economics and Indian dependence. Liberation theology came out of a reflection on this relationship. Don Samuel's emphasis is on liberation. Though he is not a theologian, he has reflected on scripture with the people--he is before liberation theology.

In the Mexican Catholic Church, Indians have been treated like catechumens. To be an Indian priest, an indigenous man would have had to forget his Indian relationship to nature, community, and sexuality. Indians, who had been left outside the doors of the Church, broke down the doors and erupted into the Church and become subjects of their life in the Church--taking over scripture, the sacraments, and the administration of their churches.

Likewise, the Vatican Council had been for Europe. When the bishops reflected locally at Medellín in 1968, they changed history for the Church in Latin America.

Married Indians with Indian theology need to be ordained. The priest now comes once every one or two years, itself an injustice, while the communities reflect weekly in groups on scripture. As a consequence of being their own subject in this way, the Indians awakened to a desire to be political subjects, as well. Economic cooperatives, transportation, education, health care--all are insufficient because of the resistance of the system, which makes them poor, marginalized, discriminated slaves. Fifty years ago, the Indians had to stay on the ranches and did not have opportunities to visit each other. Now they know that the Chiapas government does not implement laws without pressure, and they have learned to organize politically.

In 1974, the state government of Chiapas invited the Church to convene an Indian Congress on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Bartolomé de Las Casas. As this congress developed into a political congress, the government withdrew support (though the governor did attend). All the people asked of the government was to implement Article 27 (the land reform article) of the federal constitution. The political power was held by the landowners, who hired military trained "White Guards" to protect their holdings against invasions by the peasants. The landowners also moved their fences into Indian lands by night. The landowners applied great pressure and physical violence (torture, kidnapping, expulsion, rape) against the Indians.

A slow, clandestine process developed among the Indians to defend themselves in their communities. This process developed beyond the mentality of someone like Nicaraguan guerrilla Ernesto "Che" Guevara to become the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN). Even though Gonzalo does not believe in just war, he says the Zapatistas are fighting a war which meets the criteria of the just war theory.

On New Year's Day of 1994 there was a violent rebellion. Sub-comandante Marcos was a mestizo from central northern Mexico who had spent eleven years among the Indians. In this encounter, his Marxist philosophy and political ideology was transformed, making the Zapatista rebellion the first postmodern revolution--a revolution not for socialism.

The Zapatista war was known immediately throughout the world. The government still held a dismissive attitude toward these thousands of people with weak weaponry who took San Cristóbal, Ocosingo, and several other communities.

The war stopped after ten days, with great pressure internationally and from within Mexico. The government immediately asked Don Samuel to negotiate, knowing that he was the only person the Indians would trust. Don Samuel had been a Nobel Peace Prize candidate in 1993, having already defended fifty thousand Guatemalan refugees in Chiapas. Don Samuel agreed to conduct negotiations in the cathedral with representatives of the government and the EZLN and with Gonzalo and one other assistant. The Mexican Red Cross, the army, and civilians surrounded the building to assure an orderly negotiation. During the negotiations, government representatives stayed in the bishop's house, and EZLN representatives stayed in the priests' house. The negotiations were unique in the history of Central America. They produced proposals from the government which were taken to the communities in the jungle for consultation.

On 23 March 1994 in Tijuana popular PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio Murrieta was killed from within the PRI--the low-intensity-democracy state party whom Colosio had been challenging and criticizing. Ernesto Zedillo--an economist and a technocrat rather than a politician, who brags that he thinks in English, who does not understand Mexico--became the appointed PRI candidate, a disgrace which broke the Government-EZLN negotiations. Benefiting from the Colosio assassination and the lack of democratic process throughout the country, Zedillo was elected president on 21 August and is now serving one six-year term until 2000.

Once in office, Zedillo decided to take control of Chiapas. In October, after a Zapatista refusal to continue negotiations, Don Samuel launched a new peace initiative to recoup the dialogue between the EZLN and the federal army through the agency of CONAI--an eight-member National Mediation Commission. But on 9 February 1995 the federal army entered the territory of the Zapatistas. The Zapatistas retreated to the jungle without returning to armed struggle.

By law, the Mexican government had to negotiate with the EZLN. Negotiations began in the small town of San Andrés Larráinzar, between the government and the Zapatistas with guests and advisers and moderated by CONAI. In order to negotiate the integration of the Zapatista movement into civil life, four subjects were discussed--indigenous rights and culture, justice and democracy, economic development, and women in Chiapas. In February 1996, a beautiful document on Indian rights and culture was signed. The document wrote Indian rights (not just as individuals, but as peoples) into the federal constitution.

But the government did not intend to implement the San Andrés Accord it had signed. Rather, the government in Mexico City made a counter-proposal which there is every evidence the congress will soon pass into law, against the wishes of the Zapatistas. In September 1996, the Zapatistas therefore decided to officially suspend dialogue if the government did not agree to desist the violence and negotiate.

The government continues covertly to stimulate and allow paramilitary groups, whose leadership have studied in Guatemala and at the School of the Americas, Ft. Bragg, Georgia. The government is pursuing a strategy of transferring the war to civil society and dividing and pitting communities and groups against each other. At least a dozen paramilitary groups are protected by the government in a real war which at this moment has resulted in 15,000 displaced persons, more dead than in the 1994 war, many destroyed communities, a disrupted economy, and attacks on places of refuge such as Acteal. The government starts a fight and then sends in soldiers to help and then builds military camps, creating more displaced persons. Sixty-five thousand federal troops presently are in Chiapas, five thousand more than before Acteal. The people are being terrorized by military helicopters given by the United States for use in fighting a drug war. This is a violent government war by a government that denies it as at war.

The Church has been subject to persecution. Don Samuel's sister recently was attacked with hammer blows to the head in the bishop's residence. A number of priests have been accused of being criminals and expelled from Mexico--several from the United States and Canada and one each from Italy, Spain, and France (a pastor in Chiapas for 32 years). Don Samuel and Don Raúl Vera, O.P. (coadjutor bishop) are being protected at all times by five federal police each. Everyone knows that if something happens to Don Samuel, it will be very rough.

In effect, the Mexican Catholic Church has been sold out to the government by its apostolic delegate. The government has tried to get rid of Don Samuel for years, and several bishops and cardinals have supported efforts against the diocese. The diocese has challenged these attempts, and an apostolic visit has not been made to the diocese. In October 1995, Bishop Raúl Vera, O.P. (former novice master of the Mexican province in Mexico City) was sent as coadjutor bishop to strip Don Samuel of his episcopal powers in the diocese. The situation was very frightening. Don Raúl has been converted, through his experience of the people. He has become outspoken, if not impulsive, in his defense of the people and of the diocese. The Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas is an inculturated church with two bishops on the side of the people (in addition to ten thousand male catechists, five hundred pre-deacons, and two hundred married deacons among the people).

The government is waging a low intensity war, using mass media and economic and social programs and playing on religious divisions to divide communities and justify violence. In Acteal, a nonviolent people praying and fasting three days for peace were attacked in their weakened condition and forty-five persons were killed very violently--the worst massacre in Mexico in many, many years. The incident has led to the resignation of the (non-elected) governor of Chiapas and his replacement by an interim governor. The arrest of only sixty low ranking indigenous paramilitary suggests that the government, will not stand up to the challenges being presented to it by both the Indians and other political parties. The government has not been able to see the faces of the Indians in many years, and so there are ten million invisible faces in Mexico.

The issue in Mexico is democracy. Four opposition parties presently form a coalition majority in the Mexican congress for the first time in sixty-nine years. The United States and Canada are tied into NAFTA and therefore cannot speak out in critique of Mexico. Chiapas represents a turning point for Mexico--Mexico will never be the same. The Chiapas revolution is not an Indian revolution but a Mexican revolution. As a Zapatista slogan expresses it, "Everything for everyone, nothing for us."

Interview with Governor Amado Avendaño
Governor in Rebellion of Chiapas
Friday, 13 March 1998, at his home in San Cristóbal de las Casas

Mr. Avendaño is a seventy-two year journalist and lawyer who as a boy was sent by his compesino parents from the Pacific coast to San Cristóbal de las Casas to learn to read. During his studies to become a lawyer, he became involved through student government with the indigenous problem, in which the Dominicans are involved. As a lawyer taking on indigenous cases, he chose not to return to the coast as he been planned. The needs for his services were greater in San Cristóbal. As a student he also had began a newspaper, the New Times, later called the Times and he has stayed with the paper as a journalist ever since. [Tiempo on the web--]

The Indians have several problems in seeking justice from the courts. They have no Spanish and therefore no voice, and from a lawyer's point of view they can be too inclined to tell the truth. They cannot afford to pay fines or damages (though Don Samuel would help pay).

The Indians did not always place confidence in him as a journalist--they wanted to know what it would cost. As with Don Samuel, it took ten to fifteen years to gain the Indians' confidence.

On 1 January 1994, Mr. Amendaño sold two to three hundred newspapers--nothing ever happened in San Cristóbal. The night of New Year's Eve, people began calling him at one or two in the morning, saying there were people with guns and masks in the zócalo, breaking down the doors of the municipal palace with axes. He went to the zócalo early in the morning and was approached by a masked man who called Amado by name. They were photographed together, and Amado did not know who it was. It was Sub-comandante Marcos. Amado was taken into the municipal building to meet the commander Ramona (Zapatista commanders are indigenous). He was not wearing a mask, and Amado immediately recognized him as a former prep-school student of his.

Comandante Ramona, who had been involved in the Zapatista preparations for ten years, gave Amado the first Zapatista declaration to be released to the press. Amado also was invited to go with the Zapatistas the next day on January 2nd to seize the 31st Military Zone headquarters Rancho Nuevo. Amado said they were crazy and declined.

On January 3rd, Amado's wife interviewed the military commander of Rancho Nuevo who confided that the fort was missing 380 of its soldiers at the time of the January 2nd surprise attack. Many Zapatistas had registered as police and offered to supply the fort for soldiers on New Year's leave. Others in the military zone had signed up as soldiers and received military training and arms. Thus, 380 well-trained Trojan horses were in place at the fort. The Zapatistas were thus able to take over the camp and steal its arms. In the battle, military helicopters mistakenly killed many soldiers wearing civilian clothes. Many other civilians died. In the days following this attack, Amado's son took pictures of dogs "that had eaten well--war is hell."

The international press formed an information pool (with one telephone) in Amado's house, and Tiempo became known throughout the world. On the sixth or seventh day, a journalist brought an important envelope from Sub-comandante Marcos--the Zapatistas' First Communiqué. Amado made three hundred copies and distributed them at a 5 p.m. press conference. The governor identified Amado as the unofficial voice of the Zapatistas.

On January 1st, the biggest massacre had been in Ocosingo, and other massacres occurred in Oaxhuc, Chanal, and San Cristóbal. Following these massacres, the people were afraid of a retaliatory attack by President Salinas, and so there was great pressure to convoke a dialogue in the cathedral.

Some time later, on 11 May 1994, Amado's wife and children informed him he had been nominated as a candidate for governor of Chiapas by the Zapatistas and other members of the civil society. He spoke to the Zapatista commanders and subcommanders in the early morning and learned that they wanted him to serve as a transitional governor in order to stop the war. In order to assure no advantage to one or another political party, they wanted him to run, to win, and then to convoke a constitutional convention, to see Chiapas through to a new constitution, and to convoke clean elections.

The first big problem was that the law does not allow for independent candidates. Amado therefore affiliated with the least corrupt party, the PRDs, with the understanding that they would go their separate ways after the triumph. There was lots of hope.

In the Northern Zone, people were gathered in four places to hear Amado. People also gathered on the coast, from which there never before had been a candidate.

The governor invited all candidates to a meeting in the capital on 25 July. Amado naively agreed to participate in what actually was a trap. Along the road to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, his car was run off the road by a trailer. Three people in the car were killed and two seriously wounded. Amado suffered three broken ribs from the steering wheel and in the end required eight plastic surgeries on his face. The governor sent a helicopter to transfer him to a hospital and an airplane to transfer him to Mexico City, and President Salinas arranged for the best of doctors.

The incident was cause for huge alarm. Journalists demanded justice. The Zapatistas issued a communiqué: "The hope of democracy is in this person--save him and save yourselves."

Amado was unconscious for twelve days. Though he could no longer campaign, the incident proved counterproductive for the government. At the 21 August 1994 election, everyone voted for him, and he triumphed.

In Chiapas, the government qualifies elections in an electoral college. The college, however, gave the triumph to the PRI candidate, whom the Zapatistas refused to recognize. Civil society made Amado the Governor in Rebellion. The people gathered in Tuxtla Gutiérrez a block away from the inauguration and in a counter-ceremony gave Amado the baton--the cane of authority--which now hangs in his home on the wall of his office. Despite an agreement that soldiers would not be present at this counter-ceremony, soldiers surrounded the crowd. Eventually, however, the soldiers moved away, and the ceremony proceeded.

Thirty-eight ministers and delegates had committed themselves to live or die to create a new Chiapas government with Amado. However, the whole budget for agrarian reform was used to bribe them, and they all left the cause but one. The Zapatistas remain behind Amado. He was been their spokesperson at the San Andrés dialogue and following.

Amado is hopeful for Mexico and Chiapas. The central government is decomposing. There is only a show of state government--the military is governing. Amado and his supporters have drafted a new constitution for Chiapas which includes indigenous autonomy. They also have prepared federal constitutional reforms--to convoke a constitutional convention to draft a new social contract so that Mexicans can live. This new constitution will include four powers--legislative, judicial, executive, and electoral (the branch that elects the other three branches, a function presently held by the executive branch). The new constitution also will include autonomy for Mexico's indigenous people and make assurances that women can participate fully at all levels of government.

The current system is about to fall down. Zedillo has no real authority of command. After the assassination of the PRI Colosio, Zedillo was tapped in an emergency. Zedillo has no friends, no team. He is weak and isolated. Amado does not know who commands Mexico--the Dinosaurs (the old PRIstas), the military, or the international money people. The present government is a narco-government, ala Columbia. Within the army there are a lot of positions, including Zapatista sympathizers providing advance information to Sub-comandante Marcos. A coup d'état is possible.