SECRET ROADS AND VIOLENT DESTRUCTION: THE SAN CRISTÓBAL-PALENQUE HIGHWAY

 > Juan Romero(*) - 18-october-2009 - num.578
 > San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas
 >
 > Introduction
 >
 > On February 9, 2009 in Chiapas, Mexico the Ministry of Communications
 > and Transportation (SCT) declared that they had officially begun
 > construction on the San Cristóbal-Palenque superhighway (Bellinghausen
 > 15/2/2009). As a part of the tourist megaproject, the Planned Integrated
 > Center of Palenque-Cascadas de Agua Azul (CIPP), this road represents
 > one of the largest projects in the Calderón sexenio, and has been
 > designed, in part, to connect the two largest tourism locations in the
 > state, San Cristóbal and Palenque. It has been lauded by the state and
 > federal governments as key to the advancement of ecotourism development
 > in the state. They suggest that the two-lane (twenty-six meter-wide)
 > road will cut the travel time between the two cities from 4½ hours to 2½
 > hours, will provide a safer and more pleasant travel experience for
 > tourists, will increase movement and commerce between the two cities,
 > and will allow tourists from Palenque to travel more easily within their
 > own state rather than leaving Chiapas for tourism destinations in
 > Tabasco. The overall economic benefits attached to the road are
 > numerous. Importantly, the government has suggested that the road will
 > also improve access to resources for indigenous communities, and will
 > aid in their integration into the developing ecotourism industry, thus
 > improving their standard of living.
 >
 > Despite these proclaimed benefits, information concerning the road and
 > its construction has been kept a secret. On one hand, the government has
 > refused to provide information to communities who will be affected by
 > the highway or to nongovernmental organizations working with these
 > communities. In fact, in interviews with the Ministry of Tourism
 > (SECTUR) in the state capital, Tuxtla Gutierrez, some have admitted that
 > the road is mysterious and that the SCT will not make maps or any other
 > information about their plans for the road available. On the other hand,
 > the government has engaged what appears to be a strategy to discursively
 > erase the physical existence of current construction on the road. Since
 > the proclamation made by the SCT in February the state government has
 > all but ceased public discussion of the project. In fact, newspaper
 > reports relegate discussion of the construction from San Cristóbal to
 > Rancho Nuevo - the section heralded as the beginning construction of the
 > superhighway - to the confines of statewide projects to modernize
 > preexisting highways (Romero 21/7/2009). These articles make no mention
 > of the San Cristóbal-Palenque highway and limit discussion of the
 > construction to these modernization projects. Furthermore, engineers
 > working within the SCT in Tuxtla have all but denied the road’s
 > existence in recent interviews, saying that it is still in the planning
 > stages and that construction has not begun.
 >
 > Juxtaposed with the proclaimed benefits of the road, the government’s
 > secrecy does not make sense. It raises questions about why a project
 > forecasted to bring economic benefits to the economically poor state
 > would be cloaked in such secrecy. Moreover, this disconnect between the
 > proposed benefits of the highway and the secrecy of the government calls
 > into question the logic determining the path of this secretive road that
 > is being built through one of the most politically contentious states in
 > the country.
 >
 > The Path of the San Cristóbal-Palenque Superhighway
 >
 > Given the secrecy of the San Cristóbal-Palenque superhighway, questions
 > concerning why the road is being constructed, and the logic governing
 > the path of the highway become particularly important. An exploration of
 > these questions is an exploration of the discourse, narratives, and
 > events surrounding government efforts to map the road, and comprises the
 > focus of this piece. It quickly becomes clear in this investigation that
 > no clear answer exists for these questions, and that it is precisely the
 > vagueness stemming from the elusive lucidity of the road’s significance
 > that makes possible the existence of such a puzzling project. This
 > section, then, is concerned with who is building the road, and how and
 > why they are building it.
 >
 > The role of the SCT with regard to the project of constructing the
 > superhighway is to carry out the technical aspects of planning and
 > constructing the road. They are in charge of contracting the
 > construction company who will build the road (in this case, Urbanización
 > y Diseña from Tuxtla Gutierrez). It is also this ministry that has the
 > final say in determining the path of the road. However, the SCT does not
 > act alone in creating the final plan of the highway. Once it has devised
 > a plan for how to construct the superhighway - the anteproyecto - the
 > SCT has to submit it to the Ministry of Natural Resources and the
 > Environment (SEMARNAT), the Ministry of National Defense (SEDENA), the
 > National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), and the Ministry
 > of Public Security (SSP) for approval. Each ministry uses its
 > institutional expertise to ensure that the road is environmentally,
 > militarily, and socially viable. An exploration of these ministries
 > provides a useful starting point for understanding the logic determining
 > the path of the superhighway. For the purposes of this piece it will
 > only be necessary to look at the role of the first two ministries,
 > SEMARNAT and SEDENA, with regard to the mapping of the San
 > Cristóbal-Palenque highway. Given the importance of the project for
 > tourism development in the state, this section will also take into
 > consideration the work of the Ministry of Tourism (SECTUR). As will
 > become clear, in a variety of complementary and sometimes contradictory
 > ways, the projects and goals of SEMARNAT, SEDENA, and SECTUR constitute
 > the mapping of the San Cristóbal-Palenque superhighway.
 >
 > The primary concerns of SEMARNAT with regard to the superhighway are
 > related to its environmental viability. In other words, they are
 > concerned with how the construction of the highway will impact the
 > natural environment. Given the designation of SEMARNAT as one of the
 > ministries in charge of approving the plans made by the SCT, their job
 > is to determine the environmental impacts of the road and to propose
 > less impactful alternatives. Thus far, through consultation with the
 > National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP), a branch of
 > SEMARNAT, they have been able to alter the path of the road away from
 > Agua Azul and the Palenque National Park, the two federally protected
 > areas in the state. Some working within the Commission have suggested
 > that they do not support the road because it is too environmentally
 > destructive, but that their institutional power is limited to simply
 > identifying the least destructive path of the road and not influencing
 > its existence.
 >
 > SEDENA, a second ministry in charge of approving the plans of the SCT,
 > is primarily concerned with issues related to national security. Taking
 > into account the political tensions in the state and the resolute
 > opposition of the Zapatistas to the Mexican government and the Mexican
 > military, it is a significant fact that SEDENA is in charge of the
 > military and is also intimately involved with determining the path of
 > the road. Indeed, engineers working within the Ministry of
 > Communications and Transportation in Tuxtla have admitted in interviews
 > that SEDENA’s role in the planning of the superhighway is to ensure that
 > the road contributes to national defense goals. Taking into
 > consideration the controversial context of Chiapas and the fact that the
 > territory between San Cristóbal and Palenque is heavily populated by
 > autonomous Zapatista communities, the military objectives alluded to by
 > these engineers clearly point toward counterinsurgency - toward
 > combating the Zapatista opposition. The same engineers also suggested
 > that the road would facilitate military access to previously
 > inaccessible regions of the state, thus increasing the effectiveness of
 > their initiatives. Given the utility of the road for SEDENA and the
 > location of its construction through Zapatista territory, the role of
 > SEDENA in mapping the route of the superhighway is not insignificant.
 >
 > The road is not just an environmental hazard or a military tool, but is
 > also critical for the advancement of Mexico’s controversial and
 > destructive neoliberal project to enhance ecotourism in the state.
 > Existing within the logic of sustainable development, ecotourism has
 > been presented as the solution to the environmental, economic, and
 > social shortcomings of the existing tourism industry (SEMARNAT 2006).
 > Some officials working within the Ministry of Tourism in Tuxtla and
 > Palenque have highlighted in interviews their plans to develop tourism
 > sites along the proposed path of the road, especially in the regions of
 > Ocosingo, Yajalón and Palenque. Despite well-founded criticism
 > surrounding the development of ecotourism in the state, SECTUR argues
 > that the road will help the people located in these areas become more
 > economically developed as a result of their integration into the
 > burgeoning tourism industry. Although SECTUR has not been charged with
 > the job of officially approving the plans of the SCT, its goals and
 > ambitions certainly determine, in part, where the road should go.(1)
 >
 > Ultimately, the building of the San Cristóbal-Palenque highway features
 > efforts by the Mexican government to produce a certain type of space.
 > This space is forged out of the overlapping goals and projects of
 > multiple governmental institutions whose interests, although specific to
 > their particular agendas, form a spatial mosaic that is comprised of
 > construction, environmental, military, and tourism concerns. It is clear
 > that the goals of the Mexican government are multiple, sometimes
 > contradictory, and always unclear. It is not possible to speak of a
 > clear significance of the road and a single logic determining its path.
 > Nor is it possible to talk about the construction of a space influenced
 > by a single institutional agenda. However, it is these contradictory and
 > confusing goals of the Mexican government that allow the project to
 > exist. In a state like Chiapas the government cannot simply justify road
 > construction with counterinsurgency motives. It has to be for something
 > else like tourism development for its construction to be possible. If
 > the motivations of the government were clearly stated and easy to
 > analyze, then opposition could be easily formed and the project could be
 > strongly contested. Instead, its function as ecotourism development,
 > military strategy, and conservation makes difficult a lucid
 > understanding of the significance of the superhighway, and limits the
 > formulation of a clear critique.
 >
 > Effects of the San Cristóbal-Palenque Highway
 >
 > It is clear that the planning of the San Cristóbal-Palenque superhighway
 > is fundamentally a project undertaken by the Mexican government, and
 > that this planning involves the mapping of the road. The many purposes
 > of the road are determined by the Mexican government, as is its path.
 > Given, the governmental knowledges determining the significance of the
 > road, it seems necessary to question how the road is affecting and will
 > continue to affect indigenous communities located in its path. In order
 > to adequately address this issue, it is important to recognize that
 > mapping (in this case, the mapping of the San Cristóbal-Palenque
 > superhighway) is a process that is power laden (Pickles 2004). Mapping
 > is a productive process: it gives whoever is doing the mapping a say in
 > how a certain place is to be understood, imagined and treated. In the
 > case of the superhighway, the mapping process has been unilateral and
 > forceful, and has been carried out by the Mexican government. This fact,
 > along with the secrecy of the road has caused a surge of opposition to
 > the project, and has created a tense climate surrounding its
 > construction. The effects of the construction of the superhighway must
 > be understood in this conflictual context in which the government is
 > attempting to unilaterally and forcefully create a particular space
 > through the mapping of the road, and in which opposition to the project
 > is strong.
 >
 > Thus far the effects of the road have been particularly violent, and it
 > appears as though this will continue to be the case throughout the
 > projected eight-year duration of the construction project. The violence
 > experienced thus far by communities located within the proposed path of
 > the road includes paramilitary intimidation and attacks, threats of the
 > loss of community resources, and social and political divisions fomented
 > by governmental negotiators and migration, among others. The community
 > of Mitzitón in the municipality of San Cristóbal de las Casas is the
 > first community to be affected by the road, and it appears as though the
 > events occurring there in relation to the superhighway are a microcosm
 > for how other communities will be affected by the highway as its
 > construction progresses. It is in this community where the inequalities
 > inherent in the mapping project of the Mexican government have become
 > manifest in the construction of the road. It is also here where
 > resistance to the project originated.
 >
 > In Mitzitón the construction of the 26m-wide superhighway (with an
 > additional ten meters of federal property extending out from each side)
 > is projected to result in the destruction of the community’s important
 > resources. According to information obtained in discussions with
 > community members, thus far ten homes of community members located on
 > the proposed path of the road have been marked by engineers working with
 > the SCT for demolition. Additionally, the road will pass through the
 > community’s milpa fields, resulting in the destruction of food sources
 > including fruit trees that are used both for consumption within the
 > community and for sale in markets outside the community. Since these
 > resources are used both for consumption and sale, the losses experienced
 > will have twice the destructive effect. Importantly the road is also
 > supposed to pass through the community’s forests which have been
 > protected by the ejido for nearly thirty years. The effects of the
 > destruction of the forests will be seen in the diminished access to
 > kindling. Moreover, community members have expressed fears that the
 > highway will open the forests up to future exploitation by people
 > interested in the valuable wood. In fact, some in the community feel as
 > though the potential for resource exploitation is one of the reasons the
 > road has been designed to pass through this community. Finally, the
 > construction of the road will result in the loss of the community’s main
 > water sources, polluting and damaging them, and clearly impacting the
 > community in seriously negative ways. Initially the government offered
 > no compensation for these potential losses and attempted to build on the
 > land without the permission of the community. However, once the
 > community voiced its opposition to the project, the SCT eventually
 > decided that it would pay the community a small compensation for the
 > loss of the resources, and would make funding available from the Piso
 > Firme program which promises to provide materials for cement floors in
 > homes. There is, however, much skepticism within Mitzitón about the
 > truth of the government’s claims to compensate the community. This
 > skepticism is fueled by past cases in which the government has failed to
 > fulfill its promises. Moreover, the Piso Firme program is a government
 > program with a history that precedes the San Cristóbal-Palenque highway
 > project and has been promised to the community in the past. However,
 > even if these compensatory measures arrived, they would not adequately
 > account for the loss of important resources.
 >
 > Taking into account these potential losses the community has voted to
 > not let the road pass through their community, and vowed to protect the
 > interests of the ejido. However, this resistance has not gone unnoticed
 > and has been met with paramilitary violence from the group Ejército de
 > Dios, which originated from the religious organization Alas de Aguila
 > located in the municipality of Teopisca (Bellinghausen 27/7/2009). For
 > weeks a few members of the paramilitary group who were exiled from
 > Mitzitón in 1997 would go to the community and claim land - the land
 > containing the previously mentioned resources - which they would then
 > offer to the government in order to receive the promised compensation
 > money. However, on July 19 the violence perpetrated by the Ejército de
 > Dios in Mitzitón grew to a much more serious level. On this day, as
 > several community members were walking to investigate the contested
 > land, they were attacked by nearly 60 people from the paramilitary
 > group. One community member, Aurelio Díaz was killed - the first murder
 > associated with the construction of the road -, and five others were
 > injured.
 >
 > The Ejército de Dios does not operate on its own but has important
 > connections to the Mexican government. The paramilitary group provides
 > electoral support for whichever political party provides more support,
 > which is demonstrated by the fact that although they previously had
 > strong connections to the PRD they have now promised support to the PRI
 > (Bellinghausen 5/8/2009). These connections are strategic and have
 > multiple motivations from both groups. For the poor indigenous members
 > of paramilitary groups, the receipt of money and other benefits provides
 > them with much needed resources, thus securing their political support.
 > In this way the government is able to turn indigenous groups against one
 > another (Aubry and Inda 1997). For the government, the use of
 > paramilitary groups allows for the distanced intimidation of the
 > opposition to their mapping project of the San Cristóbal-Palenque
 > superhighway. This relationship benefits both the Ejército de Dios and
 > the Mexican government, but the effects of this relationship are
 > particularly violent for communities such as Mitzitón who are in
 > opposition to the road. Thus far, the Mexican government has
 > purposefully downplayed the paramilitary violence by discussing it in
 > terms of inter-community religious violence. In doing so, they have been
 > able to distance themselves from the violence, thus obscuring their
 > connections with the paramilitaries.
 >
 > Sadly, the case of Mitzitón appears as though it will be a microcosm of
 > the violence experienced by many communities located in the proposed
 > path of the road. Resource destruction is a commonly articulated concern
 > by many people in communities and those working with communities.
 > Moreover, the possibility of paramilitary violence associated with the
 > road, especially with regard to groups such as the Organization for the
 > Defense of the Rights of Indigenous People and Farmers (OPDDIC) who are
 > active in the municipality of Chilón is a very real and terrifying
 > concern (Denuncia Pública 19/8/2009). Clearly the unilateral imposition
 > of the government’s project to map and construct the superhighway is
 > violently problematic and has illustrated the severe power inequalities
 > between the government and indigenous communities as well as between and
 > within communities.
 >
 > In addition to the paramilitary violence and the loss of important
 > resources, the destruction of the social fabric of communities is yet
 > another important and possible outcome of the construction of the road.
 > This has happened in primarily in two ways: the cooptation of community
 > leaders by government officials through private land negotiations and
 > migration. The first is the result of a strategy of land acquisition
 > enacted by the Mexican government. The common practice thus far has been
 > to go to community leaders and offer them benefits such as work on the
 > road or money in an effort to persuade them to secretly sell the
 > community’s land to the government so that the road can be built. In
 > Mitzitón, for example, the SCT sent engineers to the community on August
 > 6 to try to privately negotiate the construction of the highway with the
 > ejido leaders. The community has refused to engage these talks, arguing
 > that the decision needs to be made by the entire community rather than
 > just the leaders. However, this cohesiveness is not replicated in all
 > communities, and has resulted in divisions between the community leaders
 > who have the power to broker deals with the government and the rest of
 > the community.
 >
 > The second factor leading to the destruction of the social fabric of
 > communities is migration. Due to changes in agricultural policy from the
 > mid-1970s and following the inception of the North American Free Trade
 > Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, many Chiapanecan farmers have been migrating
 > to the state capital, Tuxtla Gutierrez, Mexico City, and even the United
 > States. For communities such as Guaquitepec in the municipality of
 > Chilón who have little land to fall back on in response to severe
 > resource losses, the fear of being displaced by the construction of the
 > highway and facing a similar fate is very real. Without alternative
 > resources to soften the blow of the project, the only option will be to
 > leave and find work elsewhere. In a state where land scarcity is
 > ubiquitous, the only option for these displaced communities is to
 > abandon the social networks and practices that give their lives meaning
 > and to migrate. Migration from displacement is fatal to the social
 > fabric of the communities, especially because the majority of migrants
 > are young people. This increased migration clearly illustrates the
 > effects of the inequalities inherent in the project of the San
 > Cristóbal-Palenque superhighway.
 >
 > Finally, returning to the role of SEDENA in planning the construction of
 > the road, it is important to recognize the repercussions of increased
 > military mobility in the state. Indeed, these ramifications are of most
 > concern for the Zapatista communities located in its path. Zapatista
 > communities in the municipality of Chilón, for example, have expressed
 > concern over increased military mobility in the region, citing it as
 > potentially the most destructive effect of the highway on their
 > communities. According to the anteproyecto of the highway, the road will
 > traverse a region with many Zapatista communities and relatively fewer
 > military bases than in the Los Altos region to the northwest. This
 > suggests that an important effect of the road could be the construction
 > of more military bases in a part of the state where many Zapatista
 > communities are located. Moreover, connections between the Mexican
 > military and paramilitary organizations have been well-documented,
 > especially in the case of the paramilitary attacks on the community of
 > Acteal in December, 1997, thus highlighting a second serious problem
 > with the involvement of SEDENA in the planning of the road (Brooks
 > 8/20/2009). It raises serious questions about the role of the use of
 > paramilitary groups by the Mexican government to advance their own
 > agendas, especially those concerning the construction of the road. It
 > also raises concerns that the attacks carried out by the paramilitary
 > group El Ejército de Dios in Mitzitón will be replicated by other
 > paramilitary groups such as OPDDIC in Chilón as the construction on the
 > road is met with resistance from communities in that part of the state,
 > and as these groups gain greater access to resources from an
 > increasingly mobile Mexican military. It is apparent that the road is
 > not just for development purposes, but that it serves as an important
 > source of social control via counterinsurgency that poses a large threat
 > for oppositional communities located in its path. It is also clear that
 > this project of the government is quite violent compared to the glossy
 > suite of economic benefits presented by the Mexican government when
 > construction began last February.
 >
 > Conclusion
 >
 > Given the inequalities and violence inherent the construction of the San
 > Cristóbal-Palenque superhighway, it is clear why indigenous communities,
 > especially those who adhere to the Otra Campaña, would be opposed to its
 > construction. Opposition to the road thus far has taken the form of road
 > blockades and communiqués denouncing the destructive violence of the
 > unilaterally-imposed project. On the 30th of July the community of
 > Mitzitón, along with others, blocked the San Cristóbal-Comitán highway
 > (Bellinghausen 30/7/2009). The peaceful demonstration was organized in
 > order to protest the paramilitary attacks carried out by the Ejército de
 > Dios and OPDDIC, to ask the Mexican government to respond to the
 > paramilitary violence, and to demonstrate their opposition to the
 > superhighway. More recently other communities in the municipality of
 > Chilón, namely San Sebastián Bachajón and Jotolá have joined with
 > Mitzitón in opposition to the superhighway (See: Denuncia Pública
 > 19/8/2009).
 >
 > It should be clear, now, why the Mexican government might wish to keep
 > secret the details of the project. If the path of the road is known,
 > then opposition to its construction can be built. It is a strategic
 > effort by the government to pretend that it is not actually constructing
 > the road, just as it is strategic to distance itself from the
 > paramilitary violence it supports and depends on by downplaying it as
 > the result of inter-community religious conflict. The effects of these
 > strategic maneuvers are to insulate the government from the controversy
 > surrounding the project, and to present it as a purely benevolent actor.
 > Despite the controversy, construction on the road continues as do the
 > threats and violence perpetrated by the Ejército de Dios and OPDDIC.
 > Fears of losing vitally important resources and community cohesiveness
 > resulting from the building of the superhighway continue to plague
 > Mitzitón and other communities located in the path of the highway. In
 > the end, many indigenous communities feel threatened by the road that
 > has been presented as a gift from a generous government, and are
 > beginning to demonstrate their opposition to it. In this light the
 > motivations behind the government’s secrecy are revealed, and the
 > beneficent narratives of the Mexican government are greatly discredited.
 >
 > Map of the San Cristóbal-Palenque Highway:
 > http://www.ciepac.org/mapas/economicos/autopista-sclc-palenque-2009.jpg
 >
 > Author Identification:
 > (*) Juan Romero is an independent researcher and collaborator with
 > CIEPAC whose work focuses on the negative impacts of the neoliberal
 > project of the Mexican government on indigenous communities in Chiapas.
 >
 > Works Cited
 >
 > Aubry, Andrés y Angélica Inda (1997) ‘¿Quiénes son los
 > "paramilitares"’?, La Jornada, December 23.
 >
 > Bellinghausen, Hermann (2009) ‘Confirman el inicio de las obras
 > carreteras que unirán a San Cristóbal con Palenque’, La Jornada,
 > February 15.
 >
 > ------ (2009) ‘En el ejido Mitzitón, religión y política fomentan los
 > conflictos’, La Jornada, July 27.
 >
 > ------ (2009) ‘Ejidatarios de Mitzitón exigen detener plan de autopista
 > y esclarecer asesinato’, La Jornada, July 30.
 >
 > ------ (2009) ‘Reingresan al PRI los evangélicos de Mitzitón’, La
 > Jornada, August 5.
 >
 > Brooks (2009) ‘CSG y Zedillo autorizaron apoyo a paramilitares en
 > Chiapas, dice EU’, La Jornada, August 20.
 >
 > Denuncia Pública de Mitzitón, San Sebastián Bachajón, and Jotolá (2009)
 > ‘Persiste injusticia e impunidad contra pueblos indígenas de Chiapas,’
 > August 19. In Center of Human Rights Fray Bartolomé de las Casas
 > website, www.frayba.org.mx.
 >
 > Pickles, John (2004) ‘A History of Spaces Cartographic reason, mapping
 > and the geo-coded world’, Routledge: New York, NY.
 >
 > Romero, Gaspar (2009) ‘Avances en las carreteras del estado en 2009, son
 > Buenos,’ Cuarto Poder, July 21.
 >
 > SEMARNAT. 2006. Introducción al ecoturismo comunitario. SEMARNAT,
 > México, D.F.
 >
 > Notes
 >
 > 1. For more information on the effects of tourism and economic
 > development on indigenous communities in the state please see in the
 > CIEPAC website:
 > * The New Phase of the Plan Puebla Panama in Chiapas (2/3):
 > Japhy Wilson - 27-may-2008 - bulletin 561
 > http://www.ciepac.org/boletines/chiapas_en.php?id=561
 > * Los falsarios del "ecoturismo" Grandes proyectos privados
 > en México y Centroamérica: Anne Vigna - 14-octubre-2006 - boletín 521
 > (only in spanish, german and french)
 > http://www.ciepac.org/boletines/chiapasaldia.php?id=521
 >
 >
 > --
 >
 > Note: If you use this information, cite the source: www.ciepac.org
 >
 > The Center for Economic and Political Investigations of Community Action
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 > ________________________
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