The Rape of a U.S. Zapatista
In an incident that she describes as an example of low-intensity warfare in Chiapas, Mexico, the American director of the Texas-based National Commission for Democracy in Mexico (NCDM) was raped in Chiapas in October. "On Thursday, Oct. 26, in what was a simple excursion in broad daylight, I was raped and sodomized by three armed men in the state of Chiapas, Mexico," Cecilia Rodriguez, a Texas native and longtime labor activist told reporters at back-to-back press conferences in Mexico City and Los Angeles as she fought back tears. Her unidentified attackers are still at large. Rodriguez, who travels frequently to Chiapas, is the designated U.S. representative of the largely Mayan Indian Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and director of the El Paso-based National Commission for Democracy in Mexico (NCDM). The NCDM was founded by U.S. Zapatista supporters in 1994 to further international solidarity efforts for peace in Chiapas. On Oct. 4 Rodriguez delivered a letter to American media outlets on behalf of Zapatista spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos that called on the U.S. government to halt all arms transfers to the Mexican military. According to Kate Doyle of the Washington, D.C.-based National Security Archives, the United States has sold Mexico about a quarter of a billion dollars' worth of war machinery in the past four years, during which military occupation of the troubled region has intensified. According to the Mexico City-based daily La Jornada, there are now 40,000 Mexican troops in southeastern Chiapas, or one for every three civilian residents. Rodriguez went to San Cristobal de las Casas, a city in the highlands of Chiapas, in late October to scout for a site for the NCDM's future International Solidarity Center and attend a peace negotiation meeting between the EZLN and the Mexican government. She was taking a day off before she was scheduled to meet with Subcomandante Marcos when she was attacked. Rodriguez said she and a male companion had parked in a rural area and were walking toward a lake near Lagos de Montebello, a popular tourist town near the Guatemalan border, when they were approached by a group of three armed men wearing ski masks. She was separated from her companion and taken to an isolated area, where she was raped and sodomized. The men also stole Rodriguez's laptop computer and other belongings from their car. The day of the assault Rodriguez had issued a statement to U.S. supporters of EZLN decrying the imprisonment of Fernando Yanez, whom the Mexican government has accused of being an EZLN founder. The Oct. 21 arrest of Yanez by unidentified security forces in Mexico City nearly derailed the ongoing peace negotiations between the Zapatistas and the government of Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo. The arrest, believed to have been ordered by hard-liners in the Mexican military while Zedillo was abroad, may have violated the "law of reconciliation," passed by Congress in March, that mandated peace negotiations and suspended arrest orders against Yanez, Marcos, and other alleged Zapatista leaders. The arrest set off rumors of a reported military coup that caused the Mexican peso to crash and forced Yanez's release from jail at the end of October. While Rodriguez's ordeal has been widely publicized in the Mexican press, it has been universally ignored by the mainstream American media. "It is very humiliating for me to make this public statement," Rodriguez told a handful of alternative and Spanish-language media reporters in Los Angeles Nov. 3. "My pain and stigma will be material for public speculation and mockery.... The pain of my husband, my parents, my brothers and sisters, and my three children will be a part of the public domain. [But] if my public humiliation can serve no other purpose than to expose the horror being endured in Chiapas, then it will be worth it." By transforming her personal trauma into political action, Rodriguez joins other U.S. women who have challenged repressive regimes in Latin America despite the risks, notably Jennifer Harbury, the wife of slain Guatemalan guerrilla leader Efraim Bamaca, and Sister Diana Ortiz, a Catholic missionary who was raped and tortured by the Guatemalan military in 1989. Because of the political implications of her attack, Rodriguez went to a local human-rights group in San Cristobal, instead of to local authorities, after her attack. They advised her to leave the area immediately for her personal safety. Once back in Mexico City, she was examined and treated by a doctor and reported the incident to the American Embassy. Rodriguez filed a formal complaint asking the U.S. counsel to request that Chiapas authorities investigate the incident. A spokesperson at the U.S. State Department said Rodriguez's allegations had been communicated to the Chiapas attorney general. Thus far, no action has been taken. The Mexican government has yet to issue a formal response to Rodriguez's complaint. The press attache in the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles, Miguel Escobar, said that it was "a local Chiapas matter." The attack on Rodriguez is not the first attack on people who have traveled to Chiapas to support the Zapatistas. In July 1994 European and U.S. observers traveling through the zone with members of CONPAZ, the San Cristobal-based human rights group, were assaulted less than a mile from the Altamirano military checkpoint by armed men wearing Zapatista-style ski masks and what press accounts described as "shiny army boots." Rodriguez said her attackers also wore ski masks and boots. This March, following the takeover of the Zapatistas' Lacandon jungle base areas by the Mexican military, a caravan of people with Pastors for Peace, a Minneapolis-based religious nonprofit group, was robbed by armed men in ski masks near Ocosingo. A report by the group notes the caravan was repeatedly stopped by Mexican Army troops before the attack. "It is nearly impossible to imagine the terrorist attack could have been carried out without this information. This implies that elements of the military and the police cooperated with the terrorists," the report concludes. Similar attacks by copycat "Zapatistas" have been commonplace in Chiapas but are rarely reported unless they involve non-Mexicans. Suspicions that Rodriguez's attackers may have been members of the military -- although she herself says she does not have enough evidence to make such an allegation -- are heightened by the testimony of three Tzeltal Indian women who claim they were raped by Mexican troops at the Altamirano checkpoint in June 1994. The military has refused to allow civil authorities to investigate the charges and is still looking into the matter. In a more recent assault, Oct. 4 three members of a vaccination brigade were gang-raped by 25 unidentified subjects in San Andreas Larrainzar, where the rebel government peace talks are being held. Mujeres de San Cristobal, a local women's advocacy group, has recorded 50 rapes in the 18 months since the military has poured into the region. The group says that few of these rapes are investigated by local authorities. At her press conferences Rodriguez said that during the assault one of her attackers shouted at her: "You already know how things are in Chiapas, right? Shut up then, shut up, do you understand? Or you know what will happen to you." "I will not shut up," she said to the reporters. "I will not stop my travel to Chiapas or my work as a representative of the Zapatistas." "This has not traumatized me to the point of paralysis," Rodriguez added during the nearly press-less press conference in Los Angeles. "I will follow the example of thousands of Mexican men and women who continue to work for a true democracy in spite of the dangers to themselves and their loved ones."