In February, 1995, the author was part of an international delegation of peace activists in Chiapas, Mexico, to assess the needs of indigenous peoples affected by the presence of the Mexican military forces in their areas. The EZLN is the Zapatista Army of National Liberation seeking a peaceful solution for the usurpation and blockade of their community land. Tom Hansen is the director of Pastors for Peace (PfP) and coalition leader of the U.S. and other participants from outside Mexico.
Most of Monday was taken up with a standoff at a military checkpoint not far beyond Ocosingo, one of the communities that had been briefly taken by the EZLN on January 1, 1994. As a dialogue ensued between our leaders and the military, the rest of us stood on the side of the road, walked up and down, or found places in the shade to sit in full view of the military. The shadiest spot was next to a mesh tent in which the shadowy figures of armed soldiers, accompanied by forbidding looking artillery, were visible. Also discomforting were single soldiers wandering about taking snapshots of members of our peace group. It was a hot, tedious interval that failed to gain us passage ahead despite even the protests of two Mexican Congress members that they were being denied access to their constituents.
As we were about to head back to San Cristóbal, the van I was riding in was given a special assignment to locate people belonging to two peasant unions. It sounded like intrigue to me, and I was not disappointed. Our inquiries led us to the home of a member of the opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in Ocosingo, a city near military headquarters for this part of Chiapas. On the building across the street from the member’s home was a sign for the PRD headquarters. Inquiry at the front door revealed that the man we were seeking was still at his job in the administration of a school. We were invited in to wait. At two o’clock, fifteen minutes after our arrival, his wife had a chicken and rice meal ready. As we ate she told us of the terror under which they lived.
While her husband worked in the school, she managed two small businesses selling eggs, rice and other groceries across town. They had had so many threats that she had to hire a driver to run errands for the store. She could not go with him as that would endanger his life. Their two sons had been beaten, and when their daughter in another community had given a press interview, she found her four tires slashed. Neighbors no longer spoke to them, and even some family members would have nothing to do with them–all because they were in opposition to the PRI, (Institutional Revolutionary Party) dominant political party that has ruled Mexico since the Revolution.
The woman went on to explain that her husband wanted her to keep all the windows closed and locked, but she couldn’t live that way. She had to have the windows open. I looked around the large comfortable dining room with breezy windows and imagined what it would be like if I had to live with such apprehension that I couldn’t open the windows and feel the fresh air blowing.
The leaders in our car conferred briefly when the husband returned as we were anxious to get back through the checkpoints before dark. I left that beleaguered family with a heavy heart fearing for the occupants’ safety. When our lone vehicle reached the first check point out of town and it was determined that we were part of the peace delegation, we were told to go to the local military headquarters as there was a telephone message there for us. My first thought was, did the government know we had been interviewing the local opposition party leader? Were we in danger?
There was nothing we could do but drive there as told, not knowing whether the message might be a ruse. A few anxious moments after reaching headquarters our fears were allayed. The phone message came from the commander who was offering to allow us to go beyond the check point where we had been refused earlier that day, but tomorrow accompanied by a military escort.
Once back in San Cristóbal we found the rest of the delegation discussing what kind of non-violent tactics we might try the next day to gain us entrance into the communities that had been blockaded. Our report about the phone message interrupted their planning and brought on contention between those who wanted to accept and those who didn’t. The “Nay” voters felt it would be useless to go with the military looking on. People would be afraid to talk to us, or at least to tell the truth. Others felt this was our only chance to see anything. My admiration for Tom went up a few more notches when he suggested a compromise: Call the military back, accept their offer to go to the communities the next day, but not mention accepting their escort. When we arrived at the camp, we would insist on our right to go into these areas without an escort. All agreed.
If this account of actions and decision making seems a bit vague, it’s because the situation we were in was unclear. We were composed of a loose coalition of groups, mostly strangers and dealing with a tense situation between the military and the civilian population. Offices had been raided and locations for meetings or our accommodations could change at any time. Tom Hansen was as much of a leader as we had, but he readily acknowledged that he worked closely with two Mexican non-governmental leaders.
Tom’s suggestion did work. When we arrived the following morning, two trucks filled with soldiers were standing by. Tom and the other leaders went into the headquarters office and were gone for at least a half hour. When they came out, our PfP leader raised his hand with the “V” for victory sign. Orders from beyond the present military command permitted us to go anywhere in Chiapas that we wanted “at our own risk.” We were exultant and I was reminded of the reaction when U.S. customs conceded that the handicapped bus might proceed into Mexico.
Military assurance that we might go “anywhere–at your own risk” did not prevent further harassment by officials at later checkpoints. At one-fifteen in the afternoon the caravan stopped and split in two. Five vehicles turned left at a fork in the road while two vehicles that were partof the group I was with continued on toward Patihuitz, our final destination. A bridge beyond the community had been damaged by the EZLN to stop Mexican military vehicles from going farther. Before reaching Patihuitz we stopped in a small community where we were told how the military had, in addition to inducing a climate of fear, cut off their water supply and then washed their clothes in the village’s only stored water. Every time our vehicle stopped, I was busy taking copious notes.