Autonomous Indian Movement Wins Oaxaca, Mexico, Election


MEXICO CITY-On one side of the main square in Mazatlan Villa de Flores, a town in the state of Oaxaca, stands a dilapidated one-story building.

It once housed the county administration in the days when Mazatlan was ruled by the Mexican government’s political machine, the so-called Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Its walls are full of cracks that presage the eventual collapse of the structure.

Today, the building houses the police sent in by the Oaxaca state government. Guards with automatic weapons are posted at the entrance, protected by a wall of sand bags.

On the other side of the square rises the new county building, constructed by the voluntary labor of more than a thousand members of the community inspired by the indigenous town council. The arches of the balconies on the second floor and the wooden frames of the windows display the good artistic taste with which it was designed.

The new building is still unfinished. And, in places, the walls and roof still show signs left by the bonfires that the PRI paramilitaries built after they seized the building by force on Aug. 5, 1998. They were attempting to oust the indigenous town council headed by Apolonio García Palacios.

The movement for autonomy in Mazatlan, grouped around the Community Council, managed to defeat the PRI putsch through a mobilization that included a hunger strike conducted in front of the Mexican Senate offices in the national capital.

The latest episode in this political battle was the Dec. 13 elections for county chairperson.

The vote was conducted in 40 community assemblies. The Community Assembly candidate, Raymundo Rusas Carrizosa, got more than 60 percent of the 4150 votes cast, against 23 percent and 16 percent respectively for two PRI slates.

However, as in other parts of Mexico, the fighters for autonomy have had to pay a high price at every step in the process. Since 1991, when an Assembly candidate won the county chairmanship for the first time, the PRI paramilitaries have perpetrated a long series of outrages-29 murders, violent occupations of the county seat, kidnapping and beating of a number of women, and a rape of an underage girl.

The case of Mazatlan is illustrative of both the advances of the indigenous movement and the attacks on it. However, the epicenter of the indigenous rebellion is still in Chiapas, where the government is continuing a brutal campaign against the communities that have openly sympathized with the Zapatista uprising that occurred at the beginning of 1994.

A long history of repression

It is necessary to offer a brief survey of some of the repressive actions that have occurred in Chiapas in 1998 so that our readers can judge for themselves the depth of the mobilization of the indigenous peoples to defend their cultures and build their own forms of administration and government.

On April 11, 1998, an operation by the police, army, and immigration agents wrecked the seat of the Ricardo Flores Magon autonomous county government in Taniperlas, in the eastern region of Chiapas. Seven Indians and two professors were arrested and remain in prison, charged with political crimes. Twelve foreigners who were in Taniperlas at the time were deported and banned from returning to Mexico.

An army camp and police barrier were set up in the center of Taniperlas. The men of the community fled into the mountains, and more than a hundred women with their children remained in the town in very precarious conditions.

Under the protection of federal and state forces, the PRI paramilitary group, the Movimiento Indigena Revolucionaria Anti-Zapatista (Anti-Zapatista Revolutionary Indigenous Movement) has built up its organization.

On May 1, another operation involving more than a thousand men wrecked the seat of the Land and Freedom autonomous county government in Ampara Aguatinta.

More than 63 persons were arrested. Three persons were wounded. Three women were raped. and 140 were driven from their homes. The membership of the autonomous county council was jailed.

On June 3, at 6:00 in the morning, more than 2000 police and soldiers surrounded the town of Nicolas Ruiz in the county of the same name. This county is known for its opposition to the PRI and its sympathy with the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN).

Men, women, and children formed a human wall around the town in order to keep out the invaders. But the government forces fired teargas and charged into the center of the town.

Dozens of people, including children were wounded and gassed. The houses were raided without any warrant, and all money and valuable personal effects in them were stolen.

On June 10, another operation took place, this time to destroy the autonomous county government of San Juan de Libertad. Thousands of soldiers broke into the communities of Chavejeval and Union Progreso. They opened fire on the peasants, killing several of them. Two policemen lost their lives.

More than a thousand people were driven from their homes. The repressive forces plundered homes, churches, and chapels. Cattle were killed or stolen. Crops were destroyed. All the voting cards in the peasants’ homes disappeared.

On June 13, the bodies of eight people killed in this operation were produced. The local people are raising an outcry that some of these persons were alive when they were taken away in state police vans.

They are accusing the army of murdering them in cold blood. The bodies produced were in a state of decomposition and had been mutilated.

According to expectations of the Mexican government, the movement for indigenous autonomy should long ago have been beaten to its knees.

President Zedillo keeps wondering how the indigenous people can still be defying them when he has sent tens of thousands of troops to surround them, after the paramilitary forces have sown terror by murders and massacres, and thousands of indigenous people have been driven from their lands and homes.

In spite of all the terror to which the government has subjected them, the autonomous county governments continue to exist. The autonomous councils have shifted their county seats, and the communities have elected new authorities to replace those arrested.

In some cases, the county governments have not been attacked. For example, in San Andres Sacamch’en de los Pobres in the Chiapas Highlands, the autonomous council continues to occupy the official county building.

This is also true of the autonomous county governments in the area controlled by the EZLN, which government troops cannot enter according to the dialogue law passed in 1995.

A change in Mexican law

The Zapatista autonomous county governments arose in response to the government’s refusal to carry out the first agreements produced by the “dialogue,” which were signed in San Andres on Feb. 16, 1996.

These agreements established a new type of relationship with the indigenous peoples, based on pluralism, involvement, and self-determination by the peoples.

The government, however, decided not to respect the accords.

Regardless of any immediate factors that may have influenced Zedillo’s decision, the accords represent a profound change in Mexican laws, to an extent that could, from the rulers’ point of view, prove dangerously favorable to broad sections of the population.

The present laws are based on traditional U.S. and European concepts. They deny, or greatly limit, the room for a diversity of cultures, languages, and judicial forms.

Let us take an example from real life to demonstrate why it is so important in Mexico to get a multilayered (“heterogeneous”) legal system-to use the expression coined by philologist and researcher Luis Villa-that offers room for judicial and cultural diversity.

A little over a year ago, in the Mixteco-Tepaneca area of Guerrero, the traditional indigenous authorities tried a peasant who had grown marijuana and later sold the crop to high-school students in the area.

When he had to chose between being tried in the community or being handed over to the state police, he did not hesitate to take the first option.

First of all, the trial would be held in his own language, and he would be judged by persons with the same cultural values.

Secondly, if he had been handed over to the mestizo (white) authorities, he would have had to serve his sentence in a prison far from his village. His family, moreover, would have suffered all the well-known abuses of the Mexican judicial system.

As it was, the accused was sentenced to community labor to make up for the damage done to the community.

The system of laws currently in force in Mexico does not permit the coexistence of community norms with state and federal laws.

In passing, we might say that the case we just described also shows the error of those who claim that indigenous autonomy allows practices contrary to human rights, or women’s rights.

When persons think that the community’s customs violate their rights, they can chose to submit themselves to the alternative legal procedures, either in federal or state courts.

For all these reasons, county autonomy is the major means that the indigenous peoples in Mexico have chosen to advance their self-determination, the practice of their culture, and the use of their own languages.

In accordance with the San Andres agreements, indigenous communities and peoples can associate and form counties with a majority indigenous population. And these counties in turn can form associations in order to coordinate their activities.

In this way, they can develop special forms of social, cultural, political, and economic organization, win recognition of their internal normative systems (as long as they respect the constitutional guarantees and human rights), as well as the freedom to elect their representatives in conformity with the institutions and traditions belonging to the various peoples.

In the wake of the government’s refusal to give constitutional status to the agreements, the Zapatista communities decided, as a form of resistance and to and repudiation of the government’s attitude, to form 32 autonomous county governments.

A form of direct democracy

Nine million people in Mexico live in communities where indigenous languages and traditions predominate to one degree or another.

The indigenous movement for autonomy is at the present time the major people’s movement in this country. It has been marked by certain outstanding features, regardless of the various states or regions in which it has arisen.

The first such feature is the emphasis on the community as the basic entity for debating and solving problems. From this strong community character have derived various degrees of direct democracy and voluntary labor.

Today, there are 38 autonomous Zapatista county governments, both inside the area controlled militarily by the EZLN, as well as outside of it.

These governments are run by autonomous county councils, composed of representatives elected in according with the customs of the communities that make up the county.

Within the Zapatista area, these councils are not necessary composed of the EZLN commanders. Many council members are civilians, such as those who make up the councils of elders.

In the case of Mazatlan, in Oaxaca, the form of organization is based on community assemblies. These assemblies elect their own traditional authorities, and then together the community assemblies elect the county chair.

This form of electing the councils makes the indigenous movement a natural ally of the workers in the cities. After all, the indigenous movement has the same enemies:

1) the despotic government dominated by an all-powerful president that fears any expression of the popular will that may get out of its control;

2) the capitalists, who are seeking to displace the indigenous communities in order to get control of their natural resources and to destroy their communal modes of living and working together in order to introduce market mechanisms based on individual enrichment.

Another feature that should be stressed is the sense of solidarity embodied in the indigenous struggle. In conclusion, let us quote a communiqué signed by Marino, Isidro, and Miguel from the Ernesto Che Guevara Autonomous County in the Chiapas Highlands:

“After years of struggle and resistance against the neglect of the official government, the indigenous communities have decided to raise our voices. The appeal we have launched is not only for ourselves or for our peoples, but for all the abandoned peoples of the world.”

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