The indigenous: between harassment and dispossession

Luis Hernandez Navarro,
La Jornada, 08/02/2011 (originally published in Spanish)

Seventeen years after the armed uprising in Chiapas and eleven after the signing of the San Andrés accords on indigenous rights and culture, the situation of indigenous peoples throughout the country is worse than ever. There is literally a war of dispossession against their lands and territories.

Throughout Mexico they live under siege. The large mining companies, many of them Canadian, occupy their sacred sites, pollute their water and erode their lands. The government strives to build great dams that will turn their fields into memories and drown their people and their dead. The loggers loot the timber from their forests.

The current economic uncertainty has forced them to migrate more than ever. In the large horticultural fields of the northeast they work as slaves and are poisoned by agrochemicals. In the beaches and the tourist areas, major hotel companies try to evict them from their lands.

Their leaders are harassed, imprisoned and killed. More than 8,000 indigenous people are in prisons throughout the country, mostly through ignorance of the law; they do not have a translator or a lawyer and they have no money for bail. In the whole state of Mexico, the most populous state, there are only 10 interpreters of indigenous languages.

Under the pretext of combating drug trafficking or of campaigns against guns or guerrillas, many indigenous territories are militarized. There is frequent abuse of the civilian population by the troops.

Their appointed municipal authorities are not respected, and their languages are ignored. They experience discrimination everywhere. Their law is not known or understood and their rights are trampled on. They are sentenced using clearly racist criteria.

In 2007, the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington released a report stating that indigenous people subject to criminal proceedings are usually helpless in the midst of a process they do not understand, because they do not speak Spanish and they have no interpreter. Arbitrary arrest is common, as are excessive periods of detention and lengthy trials. Abuse and torture to obtain a confession are also common practice.

According to the National Human Rights Commission, the most common complaints from indigenous people subject to criminal proceedings concern abuse while in detention, arbitrary arrests without warrants, the entering of their homes without a search warrant, fabrication of evidence, poor and inadequate legal defence, lack of an interpreter and delays.

As if this were not enough, in recent years the double pressure on them has intensified. On the one hand, there are the drug traffickers, who want to use their lands to produce opium and marijuana, or as a transit route. On the other, there is the criminalization of their protests by the state. In many cases the state has criminalised their complaints, their resistance, and the exercise of their freedom of expression and movement, ordering long periods in prison for those allegedly responsible, without evidence. Usually they are accused of attacks on roads, illegal deprivation of freedom (kidnapping) and environmental crimes. The repression is concentrated in Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero.

Among many other factors, two are especially notable, the level of government arbitrariness and the highly political bias of the government repression.

On 2nd February, in the ejido of San Sebastian Bachajon, in the Agua Azul zone, in the state of Chiapas, 117 indigenous people from the Other Campaign were arrested . Nine of them are being held as political prisoners. As recently as March 4, one of the prisoners was released due to the withdrawal of evidence. The conflict was triggered by Noe Castanon, secretary general of the government. The authorities broke up a process of dialogue and community agreement which had been under way since 2010.

On September 27, 2010, in a rigged trial, the mixed ‘court of first instance’, based in Ometepec, Guerrero, sentenced three indigenous people, Matías Silverio, Genaro Cruz and David Valtierra, to three years and two months imprisonment . They falsely accused them of the crime of the deprivation of the liberty of Narciso Garcia, who invaded and sold the common lands of their ejido. The victims are the founders of the autonomous municipality of Suljaa ‘. Its members run Radio Ñomndaa – The Word of Water, under government harassment.

The indigenous live in a situation of structural poverty that is worsening daily. According to the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (Coneval), 75.7 percent of Mexico’s indigenous population live in ‘multidimensional poverty’. Thirty-nine percent of that whole population live in ‘extreme multidimensional poverty’.

According to Coneval (some people criticize their measurements for being very conservative), people in ‘multidimensional poverty’ are those who suffer at least one form of social deprivation and lack enough income to meet their needs. Those categorised as in extreme poverty are people who cannot afford to eat.

The figures are dramatic. Nearly half of indigenous people lack basic education, 52.2 percent have no access to health services, 85.5 percent have no social security, 50.3 percent do not have a home with enough space or of adequate quality, 42.1 percent are hungry.

Neither the federal nor the state government are interested in improving this situation. State officials use resources designated for the indigenous as petty cash. In spite of this, the indigenous peoples struggle and resist. They are the ones who will have the last word on their status.

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