After Chenalho: No More Business as Usual

by Jorge G. Castañeda

There is more than enough blame to go around in Mexico - and few enough individuals or institutions willing to share it - for the Chenalho massacre affair that took place in Chiapas just before Christmas. The death of 45 villagers, including women and children, at the hands of a large, well-organized and well-armed group of masked para-military men has justifiably shocked Mexico. It has also highlighted the consequences of reckless behavior on many people's part, from the authorities to the Zapatista rebels themselves. The culpability for the tragedy lies mainly with the country's establishment, but also partly with the opposition.

If on the one hand it is unfair and inaccurate to attribute the direct, immediate responsibility for the massacre to the PRI as a whole, or to the administration of Ernesto Zedillo as such, it is equally true that by omission and as a result of mistaken estimates of the situation in Chiapas, the government of Mexico must shoulder much of the blame for the horror that occurred in the village of Acteal. Zedillo and his cabinet decided, cynically but rightly, that the military struggle in Chiapas between the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) and the Mexican armed forces was virtually over before it started. The Zapatistas had no weapons, no ammunition, and no real desire to sacrifice myriad lives and communities in unequal combat. From this premise the authorities concluded that the negotiations with the Zapatistas could be allowed to drag on endlessly, since Subcomandante Marcos' troops lacked the firepower to force the government to accept the San Andrés Larrainzar agreements, reached in 1996, that among other points foresaw the creation of autonomous, indigenous areas in Chiapas which Zedillo rejected. It was true that nothing really would happen, in terms of an armed conflagration with the EZLN, if a formal peace was not signed and ratified; it was also sadly a fact that international public opinion and civil society in Mexico could deter an open aggression against Marcos and his supporters, yet this did not translate into active, solid backing for the Zapatista cause or demands. But where Zedillo committed a serious mistake was in believing that this deadlock insured that there would be no outbreaks of non-military violence in Chiapas. His administration assimilated the tensions between Priistas and Zapatistas, between land-owners and peasants fighting for land, between different ethnic groups within the indigenous population, between Catholics and evangelicals, to the purely political-military conflict with the EZLN. One conflict could be allowed to rot indefinitely, without major consequences; the others had to be addressed, or they would easily get out of hand. They did in Chenalho on December 22.

A second dose of responsibility must be borne by the federal authorities for tolerating - at best - or abetting - at worst - an atmosphere of revanchisme, harassment and open hostility on the part of the broader Chiapas community against the Zapatistas and their sympathizers. The government of Ernesto Zedillo seriously underestimated or - deliberately ignored - the risks that the climate of hatred and intimidation that was being bred in Chiapas could be magnified by local factors and transformed into vicious, murderous violence. Zedillo undoubtedly told no one to go and shoot the villagers; his Minister of the Interior, Emilio Chuayfet, despite his outrageous insistence of conserving his job at all costs, did not order the massacre; even the inept governor of Chiapas, already accused of negligence by Zedillo-appointed Human Rights Commisioner Mirella Rocatti, surely did not instruct anyone to go out and massacre women and children in Acteal. But underlings in Mexico have always been known to interpret their masters' wishes in a peculiar fashion: if ordered to dissuade a group, they will frighten it; if instructed to scare it, they will commit a minor act of aggression; if given the impression they should go farther, they will go very far indeed.

The responsibility for the tragedy lies not only with the government, however. Over the years, Marcos and the other Zapatista founders and organizers quite reasonably imbued the indigenous communities in the highlands of Chiapas with a sentiment of mistrust of and resistance to the PRI-dominated, cacique-subservient, white, corrupt and authoritarian system that has exploited them for decades. The evil, abusive, racist nature attributed by Marcos and others to the system was accurate enough. But in the same way that the Guatemalan guerrillas in the early 1980s, and the Salvadorean ones in the late 1970s, disregarded their own tenets and dispatched thousands of peasants, workers and students to rise up against the bloody dictatorships in their Central American nations, and then were surprised that the dictatorships fought back, the Zapatistas are now discovering that the "bad guys" are actually very bad. In Guatemala and El Salvador, the UNRG and the FMLN rebels were unable to respectively defend their sympathizers against the death squads and local armies' ruthless offensives in the Quiché highlands in Guatemala in 1981, and in San Salvador somewhat earlier. Some dissidents and analysts believe that the Central American revolutionary leaderships involved actually sent off the "masses" to the slaughterhouse, hoping to capitalize on the international and local reaction; others, less suspicious of the guerrillas' intentions, simply impute them with recklessness and incomptence.

What is hard to disguise in Chiapas, however, is that Marcos and the Zapatista high command tragically lacked the wherewithal to defend their sympathizers, either in their own communities, or, once expelled from them, in the new settlements they founded. The coffee growers, cattle ranchers and other oligarchs in Chiapas reacted to the Zapatista uprising and their demands for land, decent wages, an end to discrmination and autonomy for the communities, the way everyone expected them to: by hiring white guards to defend their interests, by fighting back, by resorting to violence, hatred, divisions and racism, and by discouraging the federal government from taking sides with the peasants. When they did, it turned out that the brave and secularly downtrodden peasants had no one to defend them, and no arms to defend themselves with. Before embarking upon the insurrection of December 31, 1993, this is an outcome the rebels should have pondered; it is also one that their supporters in the Mexican left should also have contemplated.

The rule of law, internal security for people and property, as well as mechanisms for the peaceful resolution of conflicts are all breaking down in Mexico. This is true in many parts of the country, not just in Chiapas. It is partly the Zedillo government's fault, partly the result of the collapse of the political system that has ruled Mexico for seventy years. This is the most serious danger facing the country, and the most tragic, as the events in Chenalho proved. Rebuilding a new political system, and reestablishing law enforcement, property rights and basic security for all Mexicans is a task that will require time, effort and bold initiatives. In the meantime, in the case of highly vulnerable and threatened communities such as the displaced indigenous Zapatista groups in Chiapas, it might be worth considering extreme, temporary options such as involving the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees protect them. While UNHCR has a mandate essentially for intervening only in trans-border migrations or displacements, there have been occasions recently in Africa where it has stepped in to protect groups from internal strife or violence. What the massacre in Acteal shows is that events in Mexico are moving out of control, and that the magnitude of the ensuing consequences is growing. Business as usual and irresponsible bluff will no longer do.


Copyright 1998 by Jorge G. Castañeda. Readers may redistribute this article to other individuals for noncommercial use, provided that the text, all html codes, and this notice remain intact and unaltered in any way. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Permission to photocopy and distribute this article in unbound form for classroom use is hereby granted. If you have any questions about permissions, please contact The Electronic Policy Network at

Preferred Citation: Jorge G. Castañeda, "After Chenalho: No More Business as Usual"; []).

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