IT WAS IN THE SOUTH MEXICAN town of Comitán, Chiapas that I first caught wind of the shootout. I had been taking a taxi to the edge of town when the driver, hearing I was a journalist, first offhandedly mentioned it to me. Three days before, he said, two rival gangs broke into a bloody territorial dispute in a local market, and the firefight that followed was dispersed only when a local faction of the army arrived. Twenty had been shot in the melee, many of them innocent bystanders. Five more people had died.
“Were you scared?” I asked the taxi driver.
He smiled. “It’s normal around here,” he said, shrugging. The lightheartedness of his response seemed to suggest that he thought the whole scene to be little more than an absurd cosmic joke.
Behind the chain-link fence off State Road 312, hardly a stones-throw away from the Matanzas River, three caterpillar bulldozers amble in the sun.
Construction is underway for the Antigua Development, a sprawling housing complex set to overlook to Intercoastal Waterway—a fate which, within the next year, could befall the pristine Fish Island property across the road to the south.
It’s a prospect that’s put many environmentally minded St. Augustinians on edge.
One of the survivors lost his sister. Another, his entire family. A third one explains, her voice barely audible against the hush of the rain, how she was shot seven times, and watched helplessly as the paramilitaries slit open the stomachs of the pregnant women around her with bayonets.
“When I saw all the people around me dead,” she says, “I began pleading for God to help save my life.”
Seated in a spartan and empty church in the remote village of Acteal, high in the scalloping blue-green mountains of Chiapas, Mexico, three survivors of the Acteal massacre recall the gruesome details of the fateful day, nearly 21 years ago, when 49 people were murdered by a state-allied paramilitary less than 20 yards from where we now sit.
When the Zapatistas first exploded into the public eye in an armed rebellion nearly 25 years ago, Gustavo Esteva found himself at a crossroads.
It had been decades since he’d renounced violence as a means of pursuing social justice. The Mexican philosopher, economist and educator—who’d spent nearly forty years working to improve the lives of Mexico’s campesinos—had come a long way towards developing a philosophy that could help his country’s peasants escape the wrenching poverty in which they’re trapped. Now, as the army of indigenous Mayans broke into an unexpected war with the national government, Esteva saw that philosophy crumbling apart.
“In the first week of 1994, I was in a very serious conflict with myself,” Gustavo tells me of that era, when he joined thousands of protesters in the streets demanding the Mexican Army cease attacking the Zapatistas. “I was telling myself, ‘Gustavo, why are you so enthusiastic (about the Zapatistas) if for thirty years you have been against the use of violence?’”
You would be hard-pressed to imagine anything of importance ever taking place here.
On any other day, approaching it on the cracked roads leading through the rolling ocean of pine, it would’ve seemed little different from the thousands of similar communities which scatter this rugged, mist-cloaked cordillera. The village of Morelia—a soaking-wet redoubt of clapboard wood shacks, high in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state—doesn’t at first glance look like a viable locale for a political meeting in which hundreds of international visitors would be drawn to spend three days in the country’s remote southlands.
Just past 9:30 a.m. last Sunday, September 9th, protesters gathered in the sweltering late summer heat before the Hamilton Correctional Institute Annex—a remote prison complex in the pine woods near Jasper, Florida, seven-and-a-half miles south of the Georgia border.
Armed with signs and megaphones, roughly 15 activists gathered in the tangled grass roadside facing the jails north entrance that morning to express solidarity with inmates inside, who were then on the final lap of a 20-day, nationally coordinated strike. The strike—organized to protest deteriorating jail conditions and calling for an end to “prison slavery”—was one of the longest, largest acts of civil disobedience by prisoners in US history, and involved inmates incarcerated in 19 states.
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.