Mitziton: a community in Chiapas resisting the government road

On 20th February 2010, residents of the community of Mitziton issued a statement denouncing the fact that four heavily armed masked men wearing civilian clothes, who they assumed were federal agents, had illegally attempted to kidnap Other Campaign adherent Manuel Díaz Heredia, on the outskirts of their community. He was approached, threatened and surrounded by three vehicles. Fortunately, fifty people were engaged in community work nearby, which led to the armed men retreating at high speed.  ‘We know their vehicles well, as we have seen them at the military checkpoints at Rancho Nuevo, and in our neighbourhood, where they extort people’.

They continue by saying that they are well aware that state and federal ministers are working in conjunction with the paramilitary group the Army of God ‘Eagle Wings’. ‘The bad government has not done its job to punish the paramilitaries from the Army of God ‘Eagle Wings’, who are criminals and assassins, we have seen very well how they protect them’. They say the group have threatened the women of the community.

‘We want to say to the bad government that they should respect our community and our agreements, because here the people command, and if anything happens, it will be the government’s responsibility. We know very well that all the repression we are suffering is because we have defended our territory, but we will not allow our land to be destroyed by the passage of the San Cristobal Palenque highway, because it is the only land we have’.

The letter is signed ‘from the organised people of Mitziton, adherents of the Other Campaign. The people united will never be defeated’.

This is the story of how, for a short time at least, a committed and organised community defeated the plans of a government; but it is also a request for people to monitor the situation, remembering what happened to the committed and organised people of San Salvador Atenco.

Background

Mitziton is a Tzotzil community situated in a rural part of the municipality of San Cristobal, next to the headquarters of military zone XXXI Rancho Nuevo. The origin of the community lies in the expulsion of over 30,000 residents from San Juan Chamula in 1976, when the ‘traditional’ Catholics broke with the ‘progressive’ Catholic diocese of San Cristobal, which was then following the teachings of Liberation Theology under Bishop Samuel Ruiz. Evangelical protestant groups were also expelled.

As in many communities in Chiapas, therefore, there are political and religious differences. Approximately 500 residents of Mitziton are Catholics and adherents of the Other Campaign, while 98 are members of an evangelical religious organisation called ‘Eagle Wings’ (Alas de Aguila). They oppose the Other Campaign, and are also members of the Army of God (Ejercito de Dios), a branch of their church. The majority in Mitziton call this group ‘the un-cooperative ones’ (non-cooperantes) because they do not take part in community work. ‘These ‘soldiers of Christ’ are nothing more than a paramilitary organisation’, they say.

The members of the Eagle Wings church are followers of Pastor Carmen Diaz Lopez, who was expelled from Mitziton in 2001, for the alleged trafficking of undocumented Central American migrants. He is said to have persuaded other evangelicals not to cooperate in community activities, and is alleged to be financing the Eagle Wings church.

The Army of God emerged from an armed group called ‘My Brother’s Keeper’. Its stated aim is to protect its evangelical members from expulsion, displacement or harassment, and to promote their development and advancement. It has a politico-military structure, and its Commander-in-chief is Esdras Alonso Gonzalez. In June 2006, he, along with the Eagle Wings and other local evangelical churches, presented 120 male and female members of the Army of God to a religious ceremony in San Cristobal.  They had had military and religious training, wore military-style uniforms, and marched in military cadence. Since then the organisation has continued to grow.

Resistance to the road

Construction of the San Cristobal to Palenque toll road was due to begin in 2009, as one of the first steps in the plan to develop the Palenque – Agua Azul area into a luxury paradise for ecotourism. In February, the Chiapas state government announced that it was to begin preparations for work on the 8-mile stretch of road between San Cristobal and the Rancho Nuevo military base, and engineers went to Mitziton, without asking permission, and told local people they were measuring for the super-highway, for which Mitziton was to be ‘kilometre zero’.

The community met together in assembly in March, and decided to reject the highway which would cut their ejido in half, destroying their homes, lands, forests and water sources. They issued a formal statement of resistance in April. ‘The bad government has violated our rights as indigenous Tzotziles, since at no time have they told us they want to build the highway here, and they never asked permission to enter our territory and take measurements…We will organise and defend ourselves, we are not alone’. They explained that the highway would destroy 10 family homes and 10 hectares of land where they grow potatoes, beans, radishes and corn. The highway would also destroy 40 hectares of forest…. ‘The bad government clearly knows that our community produces tree seedlings of different species, so we will never allow the destruction of our land. We do not benefit at all from building the highway, only big businesses benefit. The bad government make promises and promises and all that happens is imprisonment, torture, abductions and other violations of human rights’.

The plans for the highway accentuated the differences between the two sections of the community; the evangelical group were in favour of the toll road passing through Mitziton lands, and were in support of, and supported by, the PRD state government. ‘Ever since we adhered to the EZLN’s Other Campaign, we saw that they began to publicly show off with their uniforms so we can see them,’ a Mitzitón spokesperson told Proceso magazine.

Killing in Mitziton

On 21st July 2009, 30 Other Campaign adherents, following an agreement by the Mitziton assembly, went to measure their communal lands. They were attacked by 60 members of the evangelical group with machetes, slingshots, clubs and stones. A truck carrying five people, two of them armed with shotguns, was driven at high speed towards the group, running them over, killing Aurelio Diaz Hernandez and injuring five other men who were taken to hospital. Witnesses had no doubt the killing was intentional, but the driver of the truck has not been arrested or charged. The victims say that the Army of God members are heavily armed, and that they use the truck involved in the killing for people trafficking. They say that two pastors of the Eagle Wings church had seriously threatened the Other Campaign members during the two days prior to the incident, including shooting bullets into a truck.

The protests continue

Mitziton residents held a protest march soon after the killing, which was joined by people from many parts of the region. The protest, in the form of a mock funeral procession, demanded the cancellation of the highway from San Cristobal to Palenque, the self determination of communities, and justice for Aurelio Diaz Hernandez. For six hours, they marched on the Pan-American Highway, carrying a symbolic casket. Each hour, they permitted the line of backed-up cars to pass in both direc­tions and then blocked the highway for another hour. Details of the killing, the demonstrations, and the background, were published in La Jornada, Proceso, and by the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Centre (Frayba).

Following this, the commander-in chief of the Army of God, Esdras Alonso, sued Frayba, the community leaders in Mitziton, and Hermann Bellinghausen from La Jornada, for defamation of character and blocking the highway. The Army of God had become more visible on the streets of San Cristobal, Marching in military formation and military uniform and commanded by military officers, a symbol of force and power.

Soon after, Mitziton came together with two other affected indigenous communities, Jotolá and San Sebastián Bachajón, to campaign together against the planned new highway. A six-hour roadblock was held by over a thousand Other Campaign adherents, followed by a press conference. Representatives denounced the current situation, ‘we are faced with bad neoliberal projects that offer no benefit to indigenous people in any way, and the plundering of our land, which threatens our very presence on it’.  Other Campaign members from Mitzitón condemned the fact that after a month there had been no arrest made for the murder of Aurelio Diaz Hernandez. They also reported that ‘the paramilitaries continue to threaten us with their guns, firing them often into the air during the evening and night’ and that public officials from the Ministry of Communication and Transportation had ‘made new attempts to trick us into signing an assembly certificate to give them permission to pass through our territory to build the highway to Palenque.’ They continued ‘the non-cooperative ones from the Army of God, the ones who killed our comrade, continue to arrive with their truck full of migrant brothers. We want to prevent further smuggling in our territory, to make sure none of the people of our community will ever be run over or attacked again’.

In conclusion, the representatives of the three communities explained that they had met on this occasion to defend their land, their rights and their indigenous culture that ‘the bad government wants to destroy and continue destroying like they did with our ancestors.’ The three communities demonstrated together again in October in San Cristobal.

The Chiapas state government continued to deny that the route of the road had been decided, while engineers visited communities seeking approval for the super-highway to pass through their lands. On August 18, after the state government’s denials were published in the media, agents of the Secretary of Communications and Transportation went to Mitzitón asking them to sign a paper stating that the assembly had agreed to let the toll road pass through their territory. Ejido members refused. Threats continued, as when on August 24th, one month after the murder, several members of the Army of God entered a house in Mitzitón, brandishing machetes, and told a woman they were going to kill her husband.

A visitor to the community in September commented: Earth movers are at Mitziton’s door, ready to carve up their land for the new toll road to Palenque. Meanwhile, the heavily armed Army of God members continue to threaten violence. They beat up a 17 year old boy and cut down the hand-painted signs proclaiming resistance to the toll road. The ejido commissioners have denounced them as criminals who traffic in ‘undocumented brothers.’ The commissioners allege that the state government has known about this human trafficking for 10 years and has just covered it up.

Sabines has a change of heart?

However, in a surprise move in October, the Chiapas government finally announced the route of the new road, which had previously been surrounded in secrecy. Instead of adopting the original plan drawn up by the Ministry of Communications and Transportation, which would have cut Mitziton in half, the state chose an alternative route, which did not pass through the community.

The state government has become notorious for spreading lies and disinformation, so people do not know what to believe. This was reinforced in December 2009, when, in an astonishing press release the Chiapas governor, Juan Sabines Guerrero, said he had ‘suspended work on the San Cristobal – Palenque highway in response to the high tension in the area. He went on to say, with stunning duplicity, ‘in Chiapas, the people command and the government obeys. The people have the right to self-determination.

It is safe only to say that the story of Mitziton is not over.

NOTES

For more information on the Army of God, see ‘the boots of God’ by Isain Mandujano, Proceso, August 2009. http://www.proceso.com.mx/rv/modHome/detalleExclusiva/71561

This article tells how in August 2009, Esdras Alonso, his Eagle Wings church, and its Army of God, formerly PRD supporters, joined the PRI-affiliated National Campesino Confederation (CNC).  The PRI are, and have been, notorious for financing and supporting anti-Zapatista paramilitary groups. The CNC is closely connected with OPDDIC, one of the currently most active groups.

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