NAFTA and Oil Threaten Chiapas Indians

Like it is every New Year's Day, the New York Stock Exchange was closed Jan. 1, 1994. While traders nursed hangovers from New Year's Eve celebrations or watched college football games with their families at home, the normally chaotic floor of the exchange remained clean and silent, perhaps in unconscious preparation for the explosive upward trend the stock market was going to take in the beginning of that year starting with the high close of the Dow Jones Industrial Average Jan. 2.Thousands of miles away from New York, in Chiapas, Mexico, the New Year also came in with a bang, but in a far more literal sense: a band of revolutionaries called the Zapatista National Liberation Army (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional, in Spanish, or EZLN) declared war on the Mexican army and the administration of Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari by storming and occupying four county seats in that southernmost state. Though seemingly unrelated on the surface, the two events have one thing in common: Both were the result of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect one second after the ball dropped in New York's Times Square.According to Zapatista spokesman Subcomandante Marcos, the revolution was purposely timed to coincide with the beginning of NAFTA, an agreement he called "a death certificate for the Indian peoples of Mexico." For CEOs of multinational corporations, the trade agreement meant a promising future of shaving numbers off production costs while simultaneously opening doors to new markets. For these lucky few, NAFTA was more than a fresh breath of economic air; it was like Christmas day all over again.But for indigenous Indians of Chiapas, Mexico's adoption of NAFTA meant the possibility of losing the only thing of value in that extremely impoverished area: the land that had been constitutionally promised to them after the Mexican revolution of 1910. To help smooth the way for negotiations with the United States, President Salinas had nullified certain provisions of what was probably the only section of the Mexican constitution important to the indigenous people of Chiapas, Article 27. The provision, favorably amended in 1917, declared certain ejido, or community-held, lands in Chiapas to be free from the threat of future sale or exploitation, stating that the land would remain the property of the indigenous Indians who lived on it.But, as wryly noted by one observer, the Mexican constitution may as well be written in pencil as often as it's changed; every president in recent Mexican history has changed the constitution for his own purposes, and Article 27 has seen no less than 15 changes to its amendments. For Salinas, yanking the community lands out from under the feet of the peasants while simultaneously de-monopolizing the state oil and gas companies meant being able to make more money from the concession of resource-rich land to the foreign investors that NAFTA promised.Eventually, that money would be partly used to pay off some $51 billion in U.S. currency, loaned by the United States and various supranational banks, to bail out the sinking peso. What that meant to Washington was that oil rights in Mexico were all but purchased by the United States for the price of the bailout package.So by threatening American corporations' access to resource-rich Chiapas in order to defend their land, Marcos and his small group of Zapatistas declared war not only on Mexico, but on the board rooms of multi-national oil giants and the Treasury Department of the United States.And the U.S. responded as it always does to acts of war Ñ with military force. But this time, rather than sending in Marines to restore order, the Clinton administration opted to supply the Mexican government with arms, under the guise of the drug war, to help eradicate the Zapatista threat from its newly acquired oil fields.ARTICLE 27The Zapatista uprising should have caught no one off-guard. There had been reports of guerrilla training activity in the Lacandon jungle of southern Mexico for years, and Mexican soldiers had routinely gone into the rain forest hunting for rebels, sometimes even engaging in random shoot-outs with Zapatistas in the years before the revolution.But rumors of guerrillas in oil-rich lands that will eventually be offered to the highest bidder traditionally aren't good for business, so it became the policy of Mexican officials, presumably with an eye toward NAFTA negotiations already underway, to deny any troubles.In fact, prior to the revolution, Mexico's minister of government, who was the governor of Chiapas until January 1993, was quoted in the Miami Herald as saying, "There are land invasions and clashes (that leave) injured and even dead, but that's a far cry from a guerrilla problem. ... These are internal conflicts, not an insurgency."The truth is that an insurgent uprising was all but inevitable in Chiapas. According to a 1994 report by Human Rights Watch/Americas, "Chiapas has the worst socio-economic conditions in Mexico, a long history of agrarian conflict, and a record for injustice and human rights violations unparalleled anywhere else in the country."Even though the hydroelectric industry in Chiapas provides Mexico with 60 percent of its electricity and the state's economy is dominated by the exploitation of natural resources, especially oil, Chiapas is the poorest state in Mexico with a huge income gap between the rich mixed-race landowner minority and the indigenous Indian peasant-class majority. According to the HRW/Americas report, class tensions have been a permanent threat to peace in Chiapas.After the Mexican revolution of 1910, the revolting peasants, led by insurgents Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata (from whom today's rebels assumed their moniker and claim descent), won the addition of land reform provisions to the Mexican constitution. Article 27, amended in 1917, promised that the ejido lands peopled by the Indians would be redistributed to the indigenous people and remain Indian property forever. No sale or exploitation of the land by outside forces, especially foreigners, would be permitted, in the words of the amendment. But in reality the land reforms were never fully put into practice, and land use and ownership remained predominantly in the hands of a few wealthy landowners. In fact, many large, privately owned cattle ranches were created by violent and illegal invasions of ejido lands by private armies funded by wealthy landowners. HRW/Americas has recorded numerous incidents in the early 1990s where these powerful landowners' thugs, backed by the state police, swarmed into peasant villages before dawn, hustled everyone into trucks and literally drove them off the land. Anyone resisting would be beaten or arrested, and some detainees reported being tortured in custody.According to HRW/Americas, "these conflicts have aligned a wide array of independent peasant associations and unions on one side against landowners, PRI (Institutional Revolution Party, Mexico's ruling political party) local authorities (alleged in many cases to have been elected fraudulently), as well as state government officials on the other." No legal action against these breaches of Article 27 regarding ejido lands were ever taken by the government because the ranchers and other influence-holders generally threw their weight behind the ruling party during elections, delivering landslide results to the PRI. During the 1988 presidential elections, for example, 85 to 90 percent of the vote in Chiapas was in favor of the PRI, despite the severe unrest in the area. In return for the landowners' loyalty, the PRI has never pursued violations of Article 27.But when President Salinas formally nullified the community land provisions of Article 27 in order to remove any legal barriers to the foreign acquisition of ejido land in preparation for NAFTA, it represented the final straw dropped upon the backs of the peasants.Faced with the privatization of their communal lands (as well as other unpleasant aspects of NAFTA, such as the government's elimination of corn crop subsidies in favor of purchasing cheaper American-grown corn), the peasants decided they would rather die fighting for their rights than have their government sell their land out from under them to foreign interests.THE 12 DAY WARConventional military warfare between the Mexican Army and the Zapatistas that began on New Year's Day 1994 lasted only 12 days. Rebels briefly occupied the cities of San Cristobal de Las Casas, Ocosingo, Altamirano and Las Margaritas, county seats of Chiapas, as well as several other smaller towns. In San Cristobal, a popular tourist destination, the Zapatistas ransacked public records, torched the attorney general's office and took over the city hall. The first day of the revolution, they cut down trees for roadblocks, severed phone and power lines, distributed leaflets declaring war on Mexico's government and called on the International Committee of the Red Cross to monitor the conflict. Though the rebels were ill-equipped at best, fighting with scrounged M-1 carbines, single-shot hunting rifles, machetes and pitchforks, the complete takeover of the towns and their police forces was briefly successful Ñ- the Mexican Army based nearby was caught off-guard by the rebellion. But the under-equipped Zapatistas were no match for the military firepower and air support the United States had donated to Mexico for the purpose of drug interdiction. U.S. Bell helicopters, which, according to the Forecast International/DMS Market Intelligence Report for 1995, make up the majority of the Mexican military's helicopter fleet, swept into the conflict zone and extolled heavy casualties on the Zapatista forces. The American choppers were originally donated to Mexico specifically for use in anti-drug campaigns, but the White House apparently wasn't displeased by the extracurricular use of its donated equipment: The Clinton administration declared on Jan. 26 that the choppers were not misused in spite of the fact that the revolution obviously had nothing to do with drugs.According to officially released records, 145 rebels, soldiers, police officers and civilians died in the two weeks of combat, but the figure likely exceeds 200, according to HRW/Americas, due to unrecorded interment of dead civilians by government forces. The number could go even higher than that as there is no official record of the true number of Zapatista fatalities. Fatalities as high as 400 total in the two weeks have been reported by San Francisco's Global Exchange.Mexican government reaction to the uprising was predictably brutal. In the two weeks of initial fighting, HRW/Americas reported human rights violations by the Mexican army that include "summary executions of wounded or captured combatants and of civilians in detention; widespread arbitrary arrest, prolonged incommunicado detention and torture; indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets and violations of medical neutrality."Documented examples of abuse include the Mexican Army's refusal to offer medical aid to women who couldn't produce their husbands for questioning. One woman did as she was told and returned with her husband only to have him grabbed by the army and flown off to what he believed to be a military base. There, he was allegedly beaten and tortured with electric shock. He was eventually released four days later; apparently the Mexicans found no reason to believe he was one of the revolutionaries.Similarly, New York Times reporter Tim Golden wrote in the Jan. 6 edition, "At least a dozen rebels had been killed in and around the Ocosingo market. Six were found lying face down, shot at close range in the back of the head, their hands behind them and short lengths of nylon rope lying beside them. One still had his hands tied ..."But the majority of the human rights violations were reported to have taken place during the six days between Jan. 6 and Jan. 12 when the army sealed the combat zone to journalists, human rights investigators and anyone else who could serve as a witness to the crimes.Official Mexican government reaction to the revolution followed past patterns of denial. The minister of the interior stated that the combat was not the result of "an indigenous or peasant movement but the actions of a radical group directed by professionals who are deceiving and indeed forcing or tricking Indians into participating."The Mexican government had valid reasons for both denying the nature of the rebellion and attempting to squash it as quickly as possible. It is, after all, politically embarrassing to sign an international agreement promising lucrative trade with a powerful and wealthy neighbor only to have a despised population of peasants attempt to stop the machinery of international commerce. For the same reasons, the U.S. had motive to overlook numerous reports of human rights violations and the likelihood that its own military hardware was used in indiscriminate air attacks on civilians and peasant rebels, as reported by HRW/Americas. After months of trying to convince NAFTA's detractors that Mexico was a valuable financial ally, it would hardly do to condemn the country's leadership as a gang of ruthless criminal thugs less than two weeks into the agreement.The White House decided to quietly help its new trade partner deal with the uprising, ignoring reports of seemingly endemic incidence of torture and murder in the interests of the success of international trade.WEAPONS SALESThere is little doubt that the United States has provided Mexico with military aid in the past or that it continues to do so today. Recently, the U.S. has come under fire for continuing to provide arms to an army accused of numerous and ongoing human rights violations. The U.S. defends its military sales and donations to Mexico by reminding protesters of its commitment to battle drug lords in Latin America. But it's becoming obvious that not all U.S. military aid is being used for drug interdiction.Denver videographer Kerry Appel, for instance, recently traveled to Chiapas to document the revolution, and his tapes clearly show American General HMMWV armored cars (the military version of a Hummer) carrying Mexican soldiers through the Lacandon mud to suspected Zapatista strongholds.Nevertheless, when Appel questioned Colorado Representative David Skaggs about the continued U.S. assistance in light of charges of human rights violations, Skaggs wrote back quoting Wendy Sherman, then the assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs: "We do not provide military assistance in the form of equipment, training or advisors for Mexican military operations in Chiapas."But, according to the June 1995 Forecast International/DMS Market Intelligence Report, the "Chiapas crisis has spurred [air]lift procurement, with numbers of (American) UH-60 Blackhawk (combat helicopters) suddenly appearing in late 1994 and early 1995." The report also noted that due to the Chiapas uprising, the Mexican Air Force is seeking to beef up its fleet with additional transports, helicopters and light strike aircraft. "The U.S. is the likely source of these type of aircraft," the report states, "with the Mexicans known to be interested in further C-130 transport and Bell 212 helicopter procurements."The intelligence report includes other items sold by the U.S. to the Mexican Army: American-manufactured Heckler & Koch submachine guns and pistols, a score of HMMWV light trucks and armored cars, 40-mm automatic grenade launchers, old M-79 single-shot grenade launchers, assorted used Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas military aircraft and a number of ex-Coast Guard cutters and Navy frigates. The U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency reported that the U.S. was Mexico's main source of military equipment between 1991 and 1993, selling about $90 million worth of arms in that period. The next closest salesmen during that time were the combined nations of Western Europe at $30 million.In 1994, the year of the revolution, U.S. foreign military sales orders from Mexico more than doubled over the year before from $6 million to $15 million. Perhaps more telling, however, are the commercial export licenses approved by the U.S. State Department to private U.S. arms manufacturers. In 1993, $9 million worth of military arms was approved for export to Mexico Ñ- after the revolt in 1994, the figure sprang to $95 million. By shifting the source of the military aid from the federal government to the private sector, the Clinton administration was able to quietly increase its funding of the government's anti-Zapatista operations.Despite the claims of Wendy Sherman, the U.S. also set aside $500,000 in 1994 for "professional military education and technical training" of Mexican military officials. Global Exchange also reports that 94 Mexican officers graduated from the U.S. Army's School of the Americas in 1992 and '93. The report concludes that the objectives of the U.S. aid program are a "secure, stable, friendly and democratic Mexico."BUBBLING CRUDEThe success of NAFTA to the Clinton administration is no small deal. In fact, during a televised debate with NAFTA foe Ross Perot, Vice President Al Gore equated its importance to that of the Louisiana Purchase . What makes NAFTA so important are other changes to Article 27 that make it possible, for the first time since 1938, for foreign investors to claim a chunk of the lucrative oil and natural gas resources in Mexico. As a provision of Mexico's entrance into NAFTA, North American oil companies outside of Mexico had to be allowed access to Mexican contracts and concessions. Before NAFTA, the state-run oil and gas companies, Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex, the world's fifth largest oil company) and the Comision Federal de Electricidad, respectively, enjoyed protected legal monopolies under the constitution. But Salinas tinkered with the definition of "monopoly" as it was written in the constitution, and when he was done Pemex and the CFE were legally allowed to subcontract to foreign energy investors. Since this fine-tuning of Mexico's constitution was negotiated by NAFTA participants, it's not hard to understand how a rebellion in oil-rich Chiapas could be seen in Washington as a matter of national security.Oil is big in Chiapas. In fact, Cecilia Rodriguez, a U.S. spokeswoman for the Zapatistas based in El Paso, Texas, estimates that the oil potential of Chiapas and Guatemala combined could exceed that of Saudi Arabia. Oil experts agree that Mexico's proven oil reserves are the second largest in the Western Hemisphere behind Venezuela and the potential for untapped oil reserves is high. Indeed, a preliminary survey map of the oil field potential of Chiapas shows at least eight important unexplored oil sites -Ñ all seated squarely on ejido land under Zapatista control. Anyone with questions as to the potential for success of these oil fields has only to stand on a high ridge in Chiapas, according to Rodriguez, and look south and east to where the oil rigs of the world's energy giants "sit like vultures" on the Guatemalan border, churning crude out of the ground around the clock.The importance of settling the rebellion in Chiapas so that drilling could begin became more immediate after the November 1994 election. The new president, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, soon discovered that Salinas tinkered with more than the constitution; he apparently also tinkered with the economy. According to a joint report by the Institute for Policy Studies, the Development Gap and Mexico's Equipo PUEBLO, " ... for at least three years, the entire Salinas economic policy was steered toward ensuring the passage and early 'success' of (NAFTA)." That policy included "the maintenance of an overvalued peso, in essence subsidizing U.S. exporters and helping bolster the image of a huge Mexican market for U.S. goods ... ensuring extremely high interest rates to attract large amounts of short-term foreign capitol ... [and] the highly corrupt and inefficient (but very rapid) privatization program, which has been a major factor in the insolvency of the financial sector." A mere month after being sworn in, Zedillo was faced with the worse financial crisis in his country's history. Suddenly, the untapped oil in Chiapas became the potential cure for Mexico's failing economy and the Zapatistas standing in the way suddenly became even more of a threat.In February 1995, the White House deepened its commitment to the Mexican government by lashing together a $20 billion economic aid package to bail out the peso. The loan included cash from the U.S. Treasury Department; cash that is collateralized by the proceeds from Mexican crude oil, oil products and petrochemical product exports.And it's a loan that some observers think Mexico will be hard pressed to repay. According to the Development Gap, an international economic watchdog group based in New England, "It is unlikely that Mexico will be able to meet all its 1995 international financial obligations, even if a good portion of them are rolled over by creditors."In accepting the bailout package, Mexico agreed to further its efforts to "undertake privatization and (foreign) concession operations that are estimated to yield US $12-14 billion in the next three years," according to the terms of the International Monetary Fund, which coughed up $18 billion for the bailout.The implied importance of quickly ending the Zapatista revolt was not lost on Mexico's newly elected president, who, within a week of accepting the bailout deal, launched a harsh offensive against the Indians which again had human rights groups clamoring in horror at renewed violations of everything from the Geneva Conventions of 1949 to the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Several arbitrary arrests were conducted throughout Chiapas by state forces and those detained reported being tortured by, among other things, electric shock, semi-asphyxiation with plastic bags and submersion in water barrels. Amnesty International also received reports of several extra judicial executions. A cease-fire was restored after a week of battle, but house-to-house raids deep in the jungle reportedly continued for several more weeks.After more than two years of bloodshed, government violations of human rights, and failed attempts at peace talks, the Zapatistas and the Mexican government have finally agreed on a negotiations schedule. Among the topics on the table for discussion are sweeping reforms to the electoral processes, extensive public sector spending reforms and, of course, the constitutional restoration of the sovereignty of oil-rich ejido lands. At this point in the talks the Mexican government has come out looking good by agreeing to the initial peace provisions dealing with indigenous rights. But many observers, including filmmaker Appel, think there is more bloodshed around the corner.The next topic up for discussion -Ñ the one that the two sides are in most disagreement upon -Ñ is the constitutional reforms. And Mexico is preparing for the talks by clearing the entire region of observers and witnesses. Appel predicts that once the observers are gone, the Mexican government will attribute some act of terrorism to the rebels so the army will be justified in using their U.S. provided firepower to exterminate the Indians.

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