Reportage made possible by financing from the Pulitzer Center in Washington, D.C.
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In the smooth-stone square before the Cathedral of San Cristobal, beneath snarls of pigeons drifting like grey clouds of smoke and a roof of tarps luffing softly in the wind, the people of Nicolas Ruiz–a remote farming village in Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico–have gathered to demand land, reparations, and justice for crimes committed against them.
As Tzotzil speaking indigenous Mayans, they are but one of many groups of Chiapas’ “dezplazados” (displaced) who’ve been forced over the years to leave their home following threats and invasions by armed intruders.
“Shivering with fear”–that’s how Luz Magdalena felt when she, her family and her community were forced from their native land by a display of violence which continues to haunt those who witnessed it.
“They (the armed men) arrived and told us to leave because it was theirs. Many of them had guns. We tried to lock ourselves in the houses, but someone told us they’d begun to burn the fields around the town,” she said of that day.
For these makeshift inhabitants of San Cristobal de las Casas’ Barrio Guadalupe, the tragedy struck on April 10.
A group of roughly 800 heavily armed men with close ties to local ranchers came to their village on that dark day, firing automatic weapons into the sky and setting the surrounding fields ablaze with gasoline, eventually catching several houses on fire. With the blitzkrieg fast closing in, the dozens of extended families who’d peacefully inhabited the 617-acre village since 1958 were forced to flee their homes in a sudden and confused terror.
“Little by little we gathered after leaving the village,” Magdalena told me. “We had to decide where to go. It really was terrifying.”
Between April 10 and July 23, the former inhabitants of Nicolas Ruiz scattered across the Chiapaneco countryside, staying temporarily in friends’ houses near San Juan Chamula or scrapping by on the streets, unable to find jobs or procure a sustainable income. Amidst the purgatory of homelessness, many had been forced to emigrate north to the Yucatan to hunt for jobs. The continued presence of subtle but trenchant racism towards indigenous peopledid little to help the displaced campesinos find work, either.
“Where are we supposed to go?” said Agustin Munoz Gomez, one of the few Spanish speakers of the group, as well as its de facto spokesman. “We don’t have any jobs, we have no way to get them, nor houses. We’re stuck.”
Now, beneath their sprawling tent shelter in the heart of San Cristobal, the last remaining families are demanding that the government help them find new land.
To them, their demands are simple. They’re demanding that the government- which failed to protect them from the armed aggressors- provide reparations in the form of a new tract of land, where they can continue with their agricultural practices, free from the threat of violence they’ve come to know intimately. Moreover, they want a roof to stay under and a school to send their kids to while that land is being procured in the meantime.
“So now we’re demanding,” Munoz Gomez continued, “that the government helps us get houses, helps us get health. And we’re demanding that the government help us get land back.”
Violence as a means of seizing land–especially paramilitary violence–has a deeply entrenched, disturbing history in Chiapas. Its bloody nadir came on December 22, 1997, when 49 people were massacredby a state-allied paramilitary group in the village of Acteal.
In Mexico’s southernmost state, forced displacements and armed confrontations have remained commonplace occurrences in the years since Acteal. In late 2017, more than 5,000 people forced to were forced to leave their homesin the municipalities of Chalchihuitan and Chenalho following by attacks from armed aggressors. And in June, the community of Aldama was repeatedly attacked, generating “an environment of terror in the population, which has forced many people in the mountains to take shelter from the gunshots,” in the words of the Fray Bartolome Center for Human Rights, based in San Cristobal.
One of the survivors of the slaughter in Acteal weighed in on the calamity of Nicolas Ruiz, which to them in many ways bears unsettling resemblances to their traumatic experiences. For people like him, little was different about the latest case of displacement beyond the fact that, in Acteal, many weren’t able to escape the gunmen.
“It’s very difficult to see what’s happening to the people of Nicolas Ruiz,” said Juan Vazquez, a 35-year-old survivor of Acteal. “It’s a violation of their human rights, the robbing of their land.”
Vazquez- alongside fellow survivors Juan Gomez and Catarina Mendez Paciencia- described to me how, in a scene eerily redolent of the averted-tragedy played out in Nicolas Ruiz, the paramilitaries in Acteal slowly advanced into the village as they set fire to a house, shooting their machine guns into the sky with wild, freewheeling abandon.
“It’s very difficult for me to watch,” Vazquez continued. “The mal gobiernohas always and will always want to strip us of our land.”
(“Bad government” is a derogatory epithet frequently wielded by indigenous Chiapaneco campesinos to refer to the national government, perceived by nearly all the campesinos in the state as facilitating the exploitation of rural people for economic gain).
In the case of Nicolas Ruiz, however, the people don’t believe the government was implicated in sponsoring the dispossession of their land.
Nor was their fight in any way ideologically motivated, in the way Acteal was: they emphatically denied being a part of neither the Zapatistas nor “Las Abejas,” the more peaceful ally to the guerrillas of the EZLN (the Spanish acronym for the Zapatista National Liberation Army).
“In political questions, we were very independent,” Magdalena said of their relations to the Zapatistas, emphasizing that they only focused on farming.
“They have their own visions,” Munoz-Gomez said of the Zapatistas. “What they’re fighting for, it’s for them. We didn’t want to get involved.”
But the fact that their story is concerned at the core with land can lead many to perceive the conflict of Nicolas Ruiz as quintessentially Chiapanecan in nature.
Social theorists dating back as far back as Jose Carlos Mariategui, who famously wrote that “the problem of the Indian is rooted in the land,”have exalted the primacy of land ownership in understanding rural indigenous politics in Latin America, especially Chiapas.
It was land that sparked the Zapatista uprising in 1994: the government’s decision to scrap Article 27 of the Mexican constitutionto make way for NAFTA was reportedly the final straw that tipped the indigenous councils of the EZLN towards voting for war. Article 27, written as a compromise during the Mexican revolution to placate the radical followers of Emiliano Zapata, allows campesinos the inalienable right to land through the communal “ejido” system. The government of Salinas de Gortari, which was pushing the country through a sweeping program of neoliberal restructuring in the early 1990s, sought to strip that right so ejido land could be more easily auctioned to foreign transnationals.
In the early 2000s, “Plan Puebla Panama,” an economic development plan spearheaded by then-President Vicente Fox, and which grew to become the Latin America-wide “Plan Mesoamerica,” was criticized by civil society organizations in Chiapas, such as the Zapatistas. They perceived it as little more an underhanded way for the government to privatize natural resourcessuch as land, thus stripping it from its indigenous owners.
Today, in a similar vein, the Mexican government in June 2018 opened the doors to privatize Chiapas’ water supply, forcing indigenous residents to “grant concessions to private companies.”
To many campesinos, the sugar-coated language of all these actions obscures what they perceive to be their true nature: corporate thievery of land and resources, promoted and facilitated by the mal gobierno.
Land, and all the resources within it–whether sought out by transnational corporations or contested on the intercommunal level–thus lies at the center of nearly all of Chiapas’ continuing conflicts.
The people of Nicolas Ruiz say that the armed men who invaded their homes claimed to have had titles to it dating back to the 1940s. But they failed to provide papers at any point proving ownership, and their supposed titles were exalted irrespective of the fact that the current families of Nicolas Ruiz had lived on the land for sixty years in the first place.
The signs of potential land conflicts had existed in the area surrounding Nicolas Ruiz as early as the 1980s. But according to the residents, they were only subterranean tremors, nothing indicative of any coming earthquakes.
“Yeah, there had been problems in other communities,” Magdalena says. “There had been other land invasions. But it didn’t matter too much to us because it wasn’t our land. Of course, we had heard that there had been other conflicts over land. But before it happened to us, it was all peaceful in our community.”
Violent occupations had been undertaken by rancher associations within their municipality before them, starting with the community of San Juanito around 2008, followed by Gran Poder, Cerro de la Lanza, and Kakab in 2014 and 2015.
Gestures towards made towards the government by the residents of Nicolas Ruiz, seeking help in reclaiming new land, have nonetheless been met with a silent wall of bureaucratic indifference.
“It’s a bit of an iffy question,” said Luis Perez-Gomez, a teenaged member of the group staged before the Cathedral, of the state inaction towards the case of Nicolas Ruiz. “There still hasn’t been a response. And we’re waiting out here every day. And we’re not getting the support we need yet.”
According to Munoz Gomez, the state government has fallen short of its standards for resolving land conflicts that it set in the early 1980s, when another group in the region “said they wanted to recover their lands,” and was able to arrive at a just conclusion.
“In that time,” he tells me, “the state authorities maybe had a vision of resolving the problems of the land. But now it’s very different. They now let armed invaders take over other people’s land.”
The residents of Nicolas Ruiz told me how they went to the sub-Secretary of Land in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas, where the attempted presentation of their case had run into bureaucratic dead ends. Before the invasion, the armed interlopers had claimed to have gone to the same sub-Secretary, but failed to produce any official documents from their meeting, nor the original papers which supposedly made Nicolas Ruiz theirs.
Nicolas Ruiz’ residents have no desire to return to their original home, however. They have received continued death threats even after having been displaced, and merely want to find new land in which they can continue their life as they had before.
“We receive a lot of threats still,” Cerapia Perez-Gomez tells me. “So we’re still very afraid to return. It gives us a lot of fear, the idea of going back.”
Every night I am in San Cristobal, I see them huddled in folding metal chairs in the square before the church, a ring of cowboy hats and quilted dresses around the incandescent embers of a small, perpetually burning fire. Despite the difficulty of their situation, they seem on the whole to be a rather joyous people- like many of the indigenous campesinos I’ve met here in Chiapas- bearing their fate with a stoic equanimity. But they are still inflamed with indignation over unrequited crimes. The thirst for justice, for them, will not be quenched unless they can get new land back.
“I don’t feel content here,” Perez Gomez said. “I don’t feel content in my heart knowing they stole our land.”
“It’s the only way we can survive,” Luis Perez Gomez tells me of the importance of regaining their agricultural lives. His voice drifts off for a moment: a silence falls over the group, and for a moment all you can hear in the dark night square is the soft distant clicking of the footsteps over the stones.
“Every day, we’re out there working. Out under the sun. It is our life. So it’s deeply important for us to get it back.”
Postscript: As of August 5, the state government had yet to make any overture in response to the pleas made by the people of Nicolas Ruiz. As for the encampment before the cathedral, conditions seemed to be deteriorating, with numerous children and elderly having fallen sick due to their numerous weeks of constant exposure to the rain and cold under their open-air tarp shelter. “We’re going to get through this,” Munoz Gomez said, with the smile of a terminal cancer patient convinced he’ll be saved by an unlikely miracle. “We’re waiting, but we know we’ll get through.”