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Chiapas Article


John Ross
MexBarb #1177
Big Trouble In Indian Country 

   MEXICO CITY (Sept. 17th): While much of Mexico was fixated on the one
year anniversary of the 9/11 terror attack on the U.S., and the prospect
of fresh conflagration in Iraq, this nation's Supreme Court took
advantage of diverted attentions to ambush the country's 10 to 20
million Indian people by upholding a controversial rights law railroaded
through congress last year.
   In a surprise Friday afternoon announcement September 6th, the court
declared that it had no competency to decide the constitutionality of
the law which is opposed by the indigenous peoples it is supposed to
protect.  Lawyers for the 330 Indian communities that had appealed the
congressional measure, were not notified of the justices' decision and
only a handful of reporters were present at the session to take note of
the news.  Then, having slammed shut the door on the aspirations of
Mexico's Indians for justice, the lily-white jurists went home for the
   The first and last Indian to sit on the nation's highest tribunal was
Benito Juarez 150 years ago.  There are no Indian members of Mexico's
federal judiciary.
   The decision of the court stunned Indian activists who had been
cautiously optimistic of a favorable outcome - the high court has been
increasingly independent of the executive branch of government, if not
the legislative.
   330 majority indigenous municipalities and Indian organizations from
the 11 states with the highest native populations in the Mexican union,
had invested the past year in appealing the constitutionality of the law
which passed congress in May 2001 with the overwhelming backing of the
once-ruling (71 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and
President Vicente Fox's right-wing National Action or PAN party.  The
new law gutted a landmark agreement - the San Andres Accords - reached
between the rebel Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and the
federal government six years ago.
   The law passed by congress restricts rights of autonomy and
territoriality guaranteed by the Organization of International Labor's
Resolution 169, the benchmark document for defining what constitutes an
Indian nation - the resolution was ratified by the Mexican congress 12
years ago.  The Indians had also appealed the congressional law on the
grounds that they were not consulted on the legislation as Resolution
169 instructs, and that ratification by 16 state legislatures of the
constitutional amendments that are at the core of the new law, was not
accomplished by a mandated two thirds majority.
   Indeed, rather than deciding the Indians' appeals on substantive
issues, the Supreme Court hid behind procedure, claiming that it had no
jurisdiction to evaluate the constitutionality of a constitutional
reform - a seeming reversal of a 1997 decision to allow a candidate
barred by constitutional reform from the ballot, to compete for Mexico
City mayor.  According to what justice Mariano Azuela later told
reporters, dodging the issue on jurisdictional grounds was a more
commodious solution than denying the Indians' appeals on their merits.
   The Indians' appeals were described by court officials as the most
costly and complicated in the tribunal's history - over a million Xerox
copies were generated by the proceedings.  "They have cut down a forest
for this travesty" muttered a bitter Juan Anzaldo, a director of the
National Indigenous Congress (CNI) which coordinated the appeals.
   Making the San Andres Accords the law of the land has been at the heart
of the Zapatista struggle since the documents were signed in 1996 in the
Tzotzil Indian highlands of Chiapas by 21 comandantes and
representatives of then-president Ernesto Zedillo.  The EZLN has
sponsored national referendums that turned out millions of voters in a
foiled effort to impress upon the government the wide support for the
agreement, and have three times journeyed up to Mexico City to demand
that the San Andres Accords be legislated by congress. The EZLN has made
the enactment of San Andres a condition of any future peace talks with
the federal government.
   In March 2001, the rebels drew hundreds of thousands of supporters to
the roadsides and plazas of southern and central Mexico as they wended
their way up to the capitol to defend the Accords before congress.  .
   Nonetheless, once the EZLN had left town, PRI and PAN legislators
mutilated the proposed law by eliminating meaningful autonomy (now
relegated to state congresses), the concept of territoriality that
defines an Indian people, association of majority Indian municipalities
into autonomous regions with legal and political standing, and the
collective ownership of the land and natural resources.  With the Indian
rights law now stripped of its visionary properties, the EZLN took
umbrage and the comandantes lapsed into a 17 month-long silence that has
considerably dimmed the Zapatistas' visibility.
   But the agonizing twists and turns of the battle for a valid Indian
Rights law has made the EZLN's struggle an all-Indian one, and the
appeals were taken up by many of the nation's 57 distinct indigenous
peoples.  For the past year, representatives of far-flung Indian
communities have traveled from the remotest sierras to plead their case
before the high court, often accompanied by village elders to boost
arguments for conserving the old traditions of the supremacy of the
communal assembly. But the court, tipping its hand that it would decides
on the narrowest of grounds (see Mexico Barbaro #1164), refused to hear
the elders' testimony.  Undaunted, the Indians returned time and again
with their dancers and their brass bands, copal incense, eagle feathers,
and sacred ritual, all ultimately to no avail.
   "This court has made fun of us.  It has slammed the door in our face"
lamented Silvestre Campos, the representative of four Nahua communities
in Mexico state which had been on the appeals roster, at a small, angry
rally outside the Supreme Court's monumental marble and brass edifice on
one corner of the capitol's great Zocalo plaza. As  Campos spoke,
activists laid out representations of 57 skulls symbolizing each of
Mexico's Indian peoples, along with a cardboard coffin and funeral
candles, to dramatize the deathblow to Indian rights.  Then a young
Mazahua woman in a blouse embroidered with vivid indigo threads, set
fire to a Judas, a traditional paper mache figure, this one
unaccountably a likeness of Uncle Sam.
   In Indian Mexico, anger runs in subterranean streams breaking out in
startling waves of violence when the earth can no longer contain it.
Four days after the Supreme Court decision not to decide, ski-masked
Zapatistas stomped through San Cristobal de las Casas in the Mayan
highlands of Chiapas, smashing up vehicles parked outside a hated
government intelligence agency.  35 Indian organizations meeting in
Guerrero a week after the non-decision signaled October 12th, now the
Day of Indian Resistance in Mexico, to launch new demands for the
legislation of the San Andres Accords. The marches and rallies will mark
the ten year anniversary of the continent-wide mobilizations celebrating
500 years of Indian resistance in the Americas, which sparked a revival
of indigenous militancy throughout the hemisphere.
   The Supreme Court action greenlights the PRI-PAN majority in congress
to implement 40 secondary laws that will lock their flawed Indian Rights
legislation in place.  Meanwhile, Catholic bishops, the non-government
organization community, and civil society clamor for a "reform of the
reform", and the  left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD)
pledges to re-introduce the original text of the San Andres Accords as
drawn up by the legislative commission that oversaw Zapatista-
government negotiations.  But the PRD only occupies 68 seats in the two
houses of the 628 seat legislature.
   Shut out by the three branches of the Mexican government, Indian
activists will appeal for justice to such international instances as the
Organization of American States' Inter-American Human Rights Commission,
the Organization of International Labor whose Resolution 169 the Mexican
congress's law violates, and the United Nations.  But such processes are
lengthy and frustrating and often produce only hollow moral victories.
   The Supreme Court dodge has stimulated renewed international concerns,
with luminaries like Nobelist Jose Saramago, the venerable Argentinean
human rights battler Ernesto Sabato, former French first lady Danielle
Mitterand, and even the ebullient world-beat anti-globalization star
Manu Chau, all decrying the outrage - "In Mexico, the Indian is still
considered the enemy" Saramago wrote. Marches on Mexican embassies and
consulates are being plotted in Europe and the U.S.
   Here at home, the tiny gathering of activists on the Supreme Court
steps is an ominous sign.  The glacial pace of the judicial process and
the frosty silence of the Zapatista comandantes has cooled off the
drawing power of the rebels' cause.  Nonetheless, fresh insurrection
cannot be discounted.  Although the EZLN's guns have been muzzled for
years, other armed bands in Guerrero and Oaxaca states which have
committed to defending the San Andres Accords, could be preparing to
   But perhaps the most likely scenario is that Indian activists will
abandon the legal battle to embed the principles of San Andres in the
Mexican constitution, and simply declare the extra-legal autonomy of the
various indigenous nations - a resolution passed by the National
Indigenous Congress at a mammoth Michoacan conclave last year called for
self-declarations of autonomy should the principles of the Accords be
thwarted by congress.
   In addition to 38 Zapatista autonomous municipalities in Chiapas, a
handful of self-declared 'autonomias' continue to function in southern
and central Mexico - the newest being San Salvador Atenco where
machete-wielding Nahua farmers recently successfully fought off
government expropriation of communal lands for a new Mexico City
airport.  Widespread declarations of autonomy are apt to stimulate a
broad band of social strife, city hall takeovers, and land
"recuperations" in Indian Mexico that are bound to cause grief for
President Vicente Fox during his four remaining years in office.
John Ross, author of "The War Against Oblivion", a seven year chronicle
of the Zapatista struggle, has been arguing for the past year that the
Supreme Court would ultimately uphold the Mexican legislature's
mutilation of the San Andres Accords.

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