Ricardo Lagunes and Jessica Davies
April 24th, 2015, marked the second anniversary of the vicious assassination of Juan Vázquez Guzmán, community leader, spokesperson and social activist from the ejido San Sebastián Bachajón, “in whose memory our struggle continues.” Despite the killing of two of their leaders and frequent attacks from local government-supporters and public security forces, the ejidatarios (common landholders), adherents to the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle, remain firm in their resistance to dispossession, and in their struggle in defense of their ancestral land, territory and Mother Earth. The situation has now become critical. A local court has rejected the legal case of the ejidatarios against appropriation of their common lands by the Mexican government. This openly violates the rights of the ejido to consultation, to free, prior and informed consent and offers impunity to political elites and transnational corporations who dispossess indigenous people from their lands in favor of neoliberal megaprojects.
The CNI analyses repression against the original peoples
The peoples, nations and tribes making up the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), gathered together recently to analyze “the repressive wave against the peoples” conducted by “the capitalist narco-governors who seek to take over our homeland.” They released a statement of their position, in which they stated: “the repression which the bad government has carried out against our peoples is in response to our decision to continue with our resistance, so that we can continue to exist, in spite of the bloody war of extermination…..which they conduct in order to consolidate their economic interests, which are based on exploitation, dispossession, repression, and contempt.”
The CNI goes on to list some of the different faces and reflections of this dispossession and continued resistance. Their second example is: “The Tseltal community of San Sebastián Bachajón, in the municipality of Chilón, Chiapas, has faced the repressive forces of the bad government, who have tried to dispossess them of [their lands near] the Agua Azul waterfalls, which they intend to hand over to capitalist interests. In fact, on March 21st of this year, more than six hundred members of government security forces burned down the regional headquarters of San Sebastián; our brothers and sisters, and the free press, which has stood in solidarity with their struggle, have been assaulted…..while the state police and Mexican army have escalated their occupation of their territory in support of the paramilitary groups.”
In this wave of repression the indigenous peoples face dispossession from their lands, territory, culture, history, traditions and life itself to make way for megaprojects which offer them nothing but death; these include mining projects, roads, airports, aqueducts, hydroelectric or wind power schemes, industrial developments, gas or water pipelines, and, in the case of San Sebastián Bachajón, luxury hotel developments for tourist businesses.
In 2006, the then governor of Chiapas revealed a plan to “build a new Canúún in northern Chiapas,” and many of the ejidatarios of San Sebastián Bachajón started organizing to defend their territory. In 2007, they became adherents to the Zapatista Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle. Also in 2007, plans were announced for the long-discussed Palenque Integrally Planned Centre (CIPP) or “the Gateway to the Maya World,” a luxury tourist megaproject involving a new airport and superhighway, the jewel in the crown being international hotel developments at the stunning waterfalls of Agua Azul, access to which involves passing through the territory of the ejido Bachajón. Dispossessing the ejidatarios of these lands thus became crucial to the plan, which involved multinational corporations in co-operation with the three levels of the Mexican government and the co-opted ejidal leaders.
It is clearly laid down in national and international treaties, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization, Article 2 of the Constitution of the United States of Mexico, and the San Andrés Accords, that as indigenous peoples, the Tseltales of San Sebastián Bachajón have the right to free, prior and informed consent in relation to their lands and natural resources, and the right to free determination of their affairs. This absolute right to consultation and consent has been violated and ignored time and again, and instead groups of government-supporting ejidatarios – known as officialists – from the PRI political party started organizing shock groups in the area, and an officialist ejidal commissioner was imposed illegally on the ejido. The scene was set.
Following repression, threats and harassment, the conflict culminated on the 2nd of February, 2011, when an armed eviction of the ejidatarios of the Sixth from the area around Agua Azul was carried out by officialists from San Sebastián and from neighboring communities, with the support of around 800 state and federal police. The following day, national and state public forces entered the territory and arrested 117 people, under the pretext that it was all an intra-community conflict.
Following this, in March 2011, Franciso Guzman Jiménez, former commissioner of the ejido San Sebastián Bachajón, one of the leaders of the attack, made an agreement which handed over an area of Bachajón’s land to the Chiapas state government and to the National Commission for Natural Protected Areas (CONANP.) He did this without the prior consent of the assembly of the ejidatarios, therefore the ownership of these lands, and of the toll-booth, giving access to the waterfalls, has been in dispute. The legal case of the ejidatarios is clear, and their lawyer has conducted an action for amparo (order for legal protection) through the courts; a favorable result was anticipated, taking into account all the evidence and the sending of the case to the Supreme Court in the Federal District through the initiative of the Third Collegiate Tribunal in Tuxtla Gutiérrez.
The amparo against dispossession
The ejido San Sebastián Bachajón has sustained a legal battle since 2011, because the Mexican government has, by means of acts of violence since February 2nd of 2011, claimed ownership of the ejidal land in common use where access is gained to the “Agua Azul Waterfalls” Ecological Centre. Following their violent entry, the officialist ejido leader signed an agreement with the government; through this they sought to give a cover of legality to the dispossession of the common use lands, which had not been authorized in the highest body representing the ejido, the ejidal assembly.
Faced with such arbitrary actions, the ejidatarios filed, in March 2011, for the amparo 274/2011 before the Seventh District Judge in the State of Chiapas. After three rulings for its dismissal by the Seventh District Judge, on September 29th of 2014, the Third Collegiate Tribunal in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, in order to resolve the amparo in review 224/2014, overturned the dismissal and asked the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation to consider the case due to its associated legal significance; since the case of Ejido San Sebastián Bachajón is a reflection of the conflicts that led to the armed uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in 1994, for this reason the Court noted that it was appropriate for the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation to decide the issue of the ejido, so that thereby the foundations could be laid for the resolution of dozens of cases of the same kind in the region on the matter of the rights of indigenous peoples.
On November 19th 2014 the rapporteur Minister Margarita Beatriz Luna Ramos (originally from San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas) proposed to the Second Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation not to exercise their right to decide Bachajón’s amparo and they returned it to the Third Collegiate Tribunal to be resolved.
On April 6th 2015 the Third Collegiate Tribunal contradicted its arguments and issued a judgement denying the amparo to the ejido, by giving value as evidence to the agreement made between the former Governor Juan Sabines Guerrero and the former officialist ejidal commissioner of San Sebastián Bachajón, Francisco Guzmán Jiménez; this decision openly violates the rights of the ejido to consultation and to free, prior and informed consent. All of this is in order to benefit the political elites and transnational tourism companies, which is the reason they have designed counterinsurgency strategies to give it the appearance of an inter- and intra-ejidal conflict.
Given these abuses, signature campaign and petition were launched to demand the enforcement of international treaties signed by the Mexican State; because up to now the Judicial Power of the Federation has favored and privileged the impunity with which the dispossession of the indigenous peoples of Mexico has been operated. The call is made to join with the appeals of the compañeros and compañeras adherents to the Sixth and to expose the judges of the Third Collegiate Tribunal in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas who obey, answer to and operate politically for the transnationals.
The ejidatarios of Bachajón have never given up their rights to their lands, territory and natural resources, and have continued tirelessly to carry out a dignified struggle in defense of these rights. So, on December 21st of 2014, more than 400 ejidatarios peacefully recuperated the lands surrounding the toll-booth, which they were robbed of in 2011, and set up a day and night guard over the area. At this time they were joined by a growing number of non-adherent ejidatarios.
In a communiqué on January the 18th, the ejidatarios explain what happened next: “On the ninth of January the bad government sent more than 900 police to evict the women and men guarding the reclaimed lands… On the eleventh of January we began to block the road from Ocosingo to Palenque at the Agua Azul crossroad, where we blocked the road for several days to demand that the public forces leave our land, but the government ordered its police to fire at us with high calibre firearms… In spite of this attack the compañeros and compañeras responded with courage and dignity and we maintained a total blockage of the road until a few days ago, when it became an intermittent and informative road block accompanied by national and international solidarity of women and men of good heart. We inform you that our compañeros and compañeras are going to remain in the place where we have been since January 11th until the police leave our lands.”
On January 29th, faced with a constant police presence and a situation of high tension, with the ejidal commissioner, Alejandro Moreno Gómez organizing shock-groups which “fire into the night with high-calibre weapons to frighten the population,” the ejidatarios issued a communiqué: “We continue to do the work of resistance defending our people and territory from dispossession by the bad government; for this reason we are building a San Sebastián regional headquarters to be a place of work, workshops and exchanges. The work at this headquarters starts today; we have built it a kilometer from the Agua Azul crossroad and from the border with the official municipality of Tumbalá.”
The tension increased. There remained a heavy presence of public forces in the area and the government continued to give support to the officialists, led by the ejidal commissioner Alejandro Moreno Gómez and the security adviser Samuel Díaz Guzmán, who were threatening to evict the regional headquarters and attempting to criminalize the organized people of Bachajón through the fabrication of crimes, both by accusing them of being authors of assaults on the road between Ocosingo and Palenque, and also by organizing roadblocks at the Agua Azul turning and blaming the ejidatarios for these. At the same time, the commercial press was stoking the fire by reporting: “An armed confrontation is expected at any moment between opposing groups who are disputing the area, which is one of the attractions of our state to national and international tourism.”
The burning of the San Sebastian regional headquarters
“We denounce that today, March 21st of 2015, at around 8 o’clock in the morning, more than 600 members of the public forces burned down our San Sebastián regional headquarters with the participation of the ejidal commissioner Alejandro Moreno Gómez and the security adviser Samuel Díaz Guzmán,” the ejidatarios wrote in a communiqué. “Once again the politics of death and the corruption of the bad government are demonstrated, and its contempt for the people and human rights because it seeks to achieve its ambition to get hold of our territory through the dispossession of the land, the water and everything that exists in our country, as if it were merchandise, in order to gain money….. After the violent eviction of 9th of January, 2015, we in our organization established the San Sebastián regional headquarters to continue caring for the land and to demand the withdrawal of bad government, this is where we will continue because we are the original peoples of these lands.”
Two days later the people of Bachajón further denounced the “support of the bad government for the paramilitary leaders Alejandro Moreno Gómez and Samuel Díaz Guzmán” following an attack on two members of the free media who were monitoring the human rights situation. “The bad government uses its cunning and gives them weapons so that at any time they can come to kill us….and so the bad government washes its hands saying the problem is between indigenous and they are killing each other, and for this reason it then sends its public forces to take away our lands.”
The fallen leaders
In their March 21st communiqué the indigenous organization stated; “We remember today with dignified rage that it is a year since the killing of our compañero Juan Carlos Gómez Silvano, coordinator of the organization in the community of Virgen de Dolores.” It is surely not a coincidence that this day was selected. March 21st is also the sixteenth anniversary of the Zapatista “consulta”, when citizens of Mexico were invited to vote on questions about the San Andres Accords on indigenous rights and culture, in an example of true consultation, something the indigenous peoples of Bachajón have been consistently denied.
The communiqué continues: “and next month will mark two years since the killing of our compañero Juan Vázquez Guzmán, secretary general of our organization, in whose memory the struggle in San Sebastián Bachajón continues.” There has been no justice, the authorities have yet to shed any light on his murder, or to arrest anyone in connection with it, but Juan still accompanies the struggle of his people, who remember his words and what he stood for. A recent short film, The Dignified Resistance of San Sebastián Bachajón continues, ends with a tribute: “In memory of our brother Juan Vázquez Guzmán. A light of dignity and struggle and the true word become man. Compa Juan Vázquez Guzmán we embrace your legacy. Juan Vázquez Guzmán lives! The struggle continues!”
As they prepare for Juan’s annual homage, his compañeros continue his struggle for the land and for the mother earth. “We demand the withdrawal of public forces and of the national commission for protected natural areas from our lands, dispossessed since February 2011. We demand freedom for our political prisoners Juan Antonio Gómez Silvano, Mario Aguilar Silvano and Roberto Gómez Hernández and of the unjustly imprisoned compañeros Santiago Moreno Perez, Emilio Jimenez Gómez and Esteban Gómez Jiménez.”
And the words of Juan find an echo: “We are original peoples of these lands and we have rights that they cannot just come and take away like this with their police and paramilitaries. Our word and struggle has more strength because it comes from dignity and the love of life, of the land; our struggle is not for ourselves, it is for our children, for our grandchildren to come, because we have the right to defend and care for the land, to be autonomous and to decide what is the best way to live as a people, we do not need political parties, neither do we need the bad government to come to tell us what to do.”