Thousands Displaced In Land Dispute In Chiapas, Mexico

Since late October 2017, a territorial conflict over lands in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas has escalated rapidly, resulting in the forced displacement of more than 5,000 inhabitants of Chalchihuitan, according to Human Rights Watch. The conflict centres around a territorial dispute between the neighbouring Tzotzil communities of Chalchihuitan and Chenalho, where both claim the right to 350 hectares, which was mistakenly given to both communities in 1975 by the Land Reform Ministry. Chenalho’s paramilitary group has attacked Chalchihuitan villages and forced people to flee their homes, killing one man and setting more than 12 houses ablaze, making it extremely dangerous for civilians to return home safely, according to Human Rights Watch.

The recent surge of violence has kept Chalchihuitan residents scattered in the mountains, sleeping under tarps in freezing temperatures at night. It is important for this dispute to be resolved as soon as possible, for it is becoming more and more difficult for the displaced Chalchihuitan community to survive the harsh conditions of their environment. Those displaced lack the necessary food, water and medical attention for survival, making it ever so crucial that they receive assistance, especially considering that most of the displaced population are women, the elderly, children and infants. At least 10 people have died from the cold and lack of medical care, four of which were children that died of hunger and freezing temperatures as they patiently waited for a safe return home, according to Al Jazeera. The other six died of illnesses or other causes related to the displacement such as pneumonia and hypothermia, according to Human Rights Watch.

The sound of gunfire almost every night has many residents fearful to return back home. According to Al Jazeera, Domingo Diaz Perez, a resident of Chalchihuitan, recently expressed his fears at a press conference, saying that “[t]he current situation, in truth is serious. It is extremely worrying because the paramilitary groups from Chenalho are very well armed – with high calibre weapons. They don’t want us to be together in large groups because they are afraid of an attack, a massacre by the paramilitaries.” The armed men attacking Chalchihuitan villages are part of a paramilitary force in the neighbouring municipality of Chenalho who are trying to drive out inhabitats of Chalchihuitan, both of which are Tzotzil communities. According to FRAYBA, a human rights centre based in San Cristobal, not only has Chenalho’s paramilitary group attacked villages and forced people to flee their homes, they have also blocked the only highway into Chalchihuitan, cutting them off from the rest of the country as a way to control the population. The blockade has turned a 90-minute commute from San Cristobal to Chalchihuitan into a seven-hour drive through flooded back roads, according to Al Jazeera. This has had severe consequences on the inhabitants in Chalchihuitan, for it will become increasingly difficult for them to obtain food and supplies for survival. Also, there have been numerous accounts to date of livestock killed or stolen and crops dying, since people are too afraid to return home for the harvest, according to Al Jazeera.

The beginning of the conflict dates back to 1973, when the Mexican government decided to delineate an official boundary between Chenalho and Chalchihuitan. This created confusion and hostility amongst the inhabitants in the region, since they had been using the river as a natural border to divide the lands for generations. Today, residents of Chenalho argue that people from Chalchihuitan are using their territory for raising livestock, growing coffee and other crops for survival and economic purposes. From the other perspective, leaders from Chalchihuitan contend that they have a rightful claim to their land from the 1973 reform, and have been paying taxes ever since. It is a territorial dispute that has lasted over a decade. The Acteal massacre of 1997 was the most violent result of the territorial dispute, where more than 45 unarmed Tzotzil indigenous community members were shot by masked men during a prayer. One Tzotzil Catholic priest, Father Marcelo Perez Perez, said the similarities between the Acteal massacre and the current situation are hauntingly close, according to Al Jazeera. For example, leading up to the Acteal massacre, gunmen were driving people out of their villages, burning houses, shooting and stealing livestock and opening fire. This is exactly what has been seen recently in Chalchihuitan and, so far, there has been more indigenous peoples displaced than back in 1997. Even if history does not repeat itself in the same way as Acteal, the current situation is likely to have long lasting consequences on members of the Chalchihuitan community.

Local human rights groups have openly criticized the government for its response to the crisis and the failure to actively disarm the gunmen. FRAYBA has accused the government of turning a blind eye to Chenalho’s paramilitary violent actions, ones that have been permitted by the authorities in Chiapas and by the federal government. In fact, FRAYBA collected evidence from Chalchihuitan in the form of bullet casings from AK-47 and AR-15 assault rifles, weapons that are exclusively for military use. According to Al Jazeera, Perez said that “[a]lthough the government says its done a lot, in reality, there is so much corruption, and they haven’t resolved the problem of extreme poverty that exists here. They just make the indigenous communities fight among themselves, and that’s a big problem and immense sorrow for us.” To complicate matters even further, the municipal government of Chenalho, with the support of the Chiapas state government, announced that the territory in question belonged to Chenalho. The new mayor of Chenalho, Rosa Perez Perez, has since been supporting the armed groups in their actions of displacement, according to TeleSUR.

In order to resolve the displacement crisis and achieve long lasting peace, the federal government needs to address the underlying causes for the conflict. An open dialogue, moderated by an unbiased third party such as human rights organizations and members of the federal government, must be opened in order to instate long lasting peace. Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch, said that “[t]he Mexican government urgently needs to attend to the displacement crisis in Chiapas so that people can safely return to their communities as soon as possible. The authorities should investigate and punish those responsible for any abuses, and ensure that the people who were forced to flee their homes receive the assistance they need.” For the authorities are as much responsible for failing to disarm paramilitary groups causing the displacement, as they are for providing much needed assistance to those in need.