This article is from the October 1995 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Notes From the Lancondon Jungle in Bateaton, Chiapas

by Eva Schulte, Global Exchange Volunteer

Editor's Note: The inclusion of this article does not imply that The Mexico File takes a political stand with referrence to current social troubles in Mexico. However, it is likely of interest to our readers since information of this sort is not usually available through mainstream sources. Please send us your comments about this article.

Another day of rain and my boots sink even deeper into the mud as I do the daily patrol around the community of Bateaton, a small hanilet of 31 families nestled against the mountains in the Lancondon Jungle of Chiapas. The rain brings mixed blessings to the people of Bateaton; the mud is inescapable and the corn crop is too wet to harvest, but at least the knee-deep mud on the paths leading to this isolated community deters the soldiers of the Mexican army from disturbing the community. There have been no repeats of incidents like the one that occurred last May, when armed soldiers arrived to a nearby hilltop and shot hundreds of rounds of gunfire into the air.

For the past three weeks I have been an international observer living in the village as part of a Civilian Peace Camp that was established here after the May incident. It was set up by the diocesan human rights office in San Cristobal to provide a permanent outside presence in the community to deter human rights abuses. This is just one of 25 communities that have requested accompaniment after fear of harassment by federal soldiers had disturbed their daily lives. Mexican and international observers have been maintaining vigilance in these communities, teaching school to the children, doing patrols, and basically learning a new way of life, otherwise foreign to the observers.

The patrol is quiet this morning: no helicopters and few airplanes are flying overhead. My Swiss companion and I keep an eye out for the approach of soldiers. Fortunately, all is quiet. The federal soldiers have only returned once since the May incident and remained at a distance from the community, but we continue to do patrols of the area to ease the fears of the community, who feel our presence discourages the soldiers from returning. I can understand their concerns. They are literally surrounded by three army camps, all within a 20 km radius of the community. Movement of the Mexican military within the Lancondon region has brought tens of thousands of soldiers into the area, a ratio of one soldier for every three inhabitants.

Although Bateaton has enjoyed relative peace, other neighborhood communities have not been so fortunate and have been the targets of consistent harassment and intimidation. One campesino ran terrified from his milpa after thirty armed soldiers showed up looking for a knife they had lost in the area. (How many Mexican soldiers does it take to find a knife in a corn field?) Similarly, in Ibarra, on August 30, 1995, 150 soldiers arrived to supposedly take declarations from community members who suffered losses when they fled into the mountains and returned to find their houses ransacked. The soldiers arrived armed and members of Ibarra were duly frightened and sought help from the international peace camp members to request that the soldiers leave.

Men from other communities have been frightened to go to work in their small subsistence fields because the army is nearby, watching them, and the fall harvest will suffer. It is already projected to be a poor harvest this year, due to disruptions in the planting cycle. Many of the communities fled in fear into the mountains during the Mexican army's February offensive, some for as long as two months, and missed the crucial time for planting corn. Some returned to find that the Mexican army had destroyed their homes, their tools, had scattered their seed supply, and had contaminated their water sources. Food may be scarce now, but when the stores from last year's harvest are gone, there will be little to replace them.

These kinds of abuses, which seem to be deliberate attempts to destroy the self-sufficiency of the indigenous communities, along with frequent reconnaissance flights, buzzes of low-flying helicopters, and attempts to divide communities by offering food and other goods in exchange for support to the PRI government, have been part of the government's tactic of low intensity warfare to slowly destroy who they feel are the support base for the Zapatista army. Although the Mexican government showed a good face at the latest round of negotiations, little has changed for the people of Chiapas who continue to suffer harassment, hunger and sickness.

The hours of the patrol have ended and my companion and I return to the community to gather water, bathe in the river, and light the fire to cook our evening meal. The young girls giggle at me shyly, as they wash the corn that will be ground and made into tortillas. I pass by the one-room school, which doubles as our dormitory. Fernando, a five-year-old with a toothless grin, is looking at pictures in one of the few books that the school has. He looks up at me and points to a picture from a Mexican history book, showing a battle between the Aztecs and the Spanish conquistadors. ~Soldiers," he whispers, with a wide-eyed stare. '~Let's hope they stay away," I whisper to myself.

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