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Canada silent on human rights in Chiapas

The Report: October 1998 vol.19 num.3

by MARYANN ABBS

In the walls of the forgotten, sleep the souls of the free.
- Graffiti on a building in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

There is a war in Chiapas, forgotten by most of the world, frequentlyignored by the press, and not found on the lists of the worlds conflict zones. Since1995, the government of Mexico has been waging a low-intensity war against the citizens ofthis state.

-I heard a loud noise in the middle of the night coming from themilitary base; after that I couldnt sleep •" said Pablo, from thecommunity of Patihuiz where I worked as a human rights observer. There are 80,000 soldiersstationed in Chiapas. Most of the soldiers are stationed close to communities likePatihuitz (which lies 500 metres from a base) in order to exert control over the civilianpopulation. This is part of the governments strategy to wear down the civilianpopulation through harassment and by restricting food supplies and medicine.

Almost every day, military trucks, hummers and tanks pass thecommunity, often with guns at the ready. Helicopters circle very low over houses in thevillage and planes fly practice bombing runs overhead. Every child can tell when amilitary vehicle is approaching by the sound of the motor. Most people in this area havestress-related illnesses, such as headaches and stomach problems. The government hopesthat wearing people down in this way will force them to abandon their social justiceconcerns.

The people of Chiapas have long been the poorest in Mexico. Despiteliving in the state with the most wealth in natural resources, over 70 per cent of thepopulation is malnourished and very few have access to heath care or education. In 1994,world attention was focused on Chiapas when the EZLN (the Zapatista National LiberationArmy) burst onto the world stage and demanded social and political rights for indigenouspeople. The Zapatistas chose January 1, 1994, this being the date that Mexico signedNAFTA. The trade agreement was seen as a death sentence for indigenous people in Mexico,since several parts of the Mexican constitution pertaining to indigenous people had to bechanged to comply with NAFTA.

Globalization means turning the world into a shopping mall.
- Subcomandante Marcos, military commander of the EZLN

The government of Mexico started the process of negotiating a peace agreement with theZapatistas in 1995. In 1996, the first agreement on indigenous rights and culture wassigned. Unfortunately, the government has refused to implement the accord, causing abreakdown of the peace process.

Since then, the human rights situation in Mexico has deteriorated. Inthe states of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Chiapas, torture, illegal detention and extrajudicialexecutions are common. These incidents are well documented by Amnesty International and,recently, by the human rights committee of the European Economic Union. During this time,there has also been a substantial increase in military assistance from countries such asthe United States. This year, for example, over one-third of the soldiers trained at theinfamous -School of the Americas" were sent to Chiapas.

The people of Chiapas are, like us, facing globalization and theeffects of neo-liberal economics. In Canada we can see the effects on our social safetynet and growing inequality between rich and poor. Our government ... eager to trade atany cost ... is silent about human rights abuses in countries such as Mexico. Thedemands of indigenous people in Chiapas are simple: end the militarization of communities,disarm the paramilitary forces, and comply with the accords on indigenous rights andculture.

HSA Education Officer Maryann Abbs recently spent three monthsworking in Chiapas as a human rights observer with the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Centrefor Human Rights.

Groups working on this issue:
Eyes on Mexico ... an urgent action network on issues in Chiapas (604 251 2598).
Chiapas Alert Network (604 215 9190).
Building Bridges ... a program to send human rights observers from Canada toChiapas (604 877 1223).

Internet links:
Mexico Solidarity Network- a Washington, DC-based repository of resources and information on Chiapas
EZLN Official Web Site
Fray Bartolomé de lasCasas Centre for Human Rights (mostly in Spanish)

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