Albion Monitor /Commentary

The Politics of Mexico's Massacre

by Alexander Cockburn

From the first days, the Mexican government has only been deterred from full-blown military attack in Chiapas because of strong Mexican and international public concern throughout the world, where the Zapatistas have been seen as a bright spark of hope in a dreary political landscape
The big question in Mexico City these days: Is the recent massacre of 45 Tsotzil Indians in Chiapas province a bestial but isolated episode? Or does it augur a transition by the Mexican government from a low-intensity, low-publicity war against the Zapatistas to a Guatemalan-style solution to the Indian rebellion?

The early signs are not good. The purposefully savage butchery on Dec. 22 of mostly women and children in the refugee camp of Acteal reeks of the same methodical way that the Guatemalan military and allied death squads, year after year, wiped Indian villages suspected of rebel sympathies off the face of the Earth.

Immediately after the killings, the Mexican government reacted to a huge popular outcry across Mexico by deploring the massacre and by arresting some of the actual participants (though none of what are called in Mexico the intellectual authors of the crime). But with the new year and a new secretary of the interior, Francisco Labastida Ochoa, Mexican federal troops have surrounded Zapatista strongholds and are threatening to disarm the rebels, who have not used their guns since the cease-fire on Jan. 12, 1994, less than two weeks after the rebellion began with the seizing of the town of San Cristobal on New Year's Day.

Labastida, the new man at interior, excuses these troop movements against the Zapatistas by saying the plan is to demilitarize the state of Chiapas. But the troops are not moving against the paramilitaries nor are they operating in the area where the massacre took place. Rather, they've headed eight hours march away from the Acteal area toward the Zapatistas' central redoubt in the Lacandon forest.

There's never been any doubt that the PRI government and its international advisers have from the very start yearned to rid themselves of the Zapatistas, an impudent affront to the Mexican state and the PRI's entire neoliberal economic program. (This same program spells doom to the Indian farming communities in southern Mexico, which is why the Zapatistas rebelled in the first place.)

From the first days, the government has only been deterred from full-blown military attack because of strong Mexican and international public concern throughout the world, where the Zapatistas have been seen as a bright spark of hope in a dreary political landscape. This was why the Mexican government opted for its low-intensity strategy of arming and training paramilitary groups who harried and occasionally killed Indian villagers seen as pro-Zapatista to such a degree that places like Acteal became de facto refugee camps.

In short, the Mexican government has always set its strategy according to its reading of the political temperature. And in the aftermath of the massacre, whoever its intellectual authors may have been, the government is studying the thermometer of public indignation even more closely.

The local elites in Chiapas who have seen their power threatened and their land taken are hoping that the massacre they probably helped organize will survive, not as a horrible memory but as an agreeable lesson in how rural rebellion should be dealt with. The Mexican government will set the enthusiastic support of these elites for a Guatemalan solution against the intensity of Mexican and world outrage.

And so we can help define the answer to that big question. Will we help force the Mexican government to ensure that the massacre at Acteal is an isolated incident, or will the response here in the United States and across the world be gauged by President Zedillo and his associates as feeble enough to permit a Chiapan final solution? Alternatively, could it even be possible that world indignation is robust enough to force Zedillo finally to accept the agreements of San Andres? These agreements, negotiated between the Zapatistas and appointed delegates from the federal government, granted politically autonomy to the Indian villages of Chiapas. They were signed in February 1996 and then vetoed by Zedillo himself.

It's not an exercise in hyperbole to invoke the specter of a Guatemalan-type program of annihilation of Indians. After all, the Mayans on the Mexican side of the border are not that different from the Mayans on the Guatemalan side. Zedillo vetoed the San Andres accords because he said they threatened the integrity of the Mexican state. Massacres can become the political currency of a country with dreadful speed, and people can become swiftly deadened to the unspeakable. The mass killings in Algeria no longer command headlines in France.

Here in the United States, people became all too easily habituated to bloodletting in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1970s and 1980s. Mexico tasted such horror on Dec. 22, 1997, and may be on the brink of more. Jan. 12, 1998 -- four years after the first cease-fire -- will be an international day of protest against the massacre. Zedillo and the Zapatistas will be watching.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor January 12, 1998 (

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