The week of Tuesday, July 23 - Monday, July 29, 1996.

A new This Just In news story is presented every
Tuesday by the Center for the Advancement of Journalism
and Zone Interactive.


Story by Greg Campbell

Mexico's Zapatista rebels dared to defy a NAFTA-brokered sellout of their lands -- and quickly found themselves in the crosshairs of U.S. firepower.

Like it is every New Year's Day, the New York Stock Exchange was closed Jan. 1, 1994. While traders nursed hangovers from New Year's Eve celebrations or watched college football games with their families at home, the normally chaotic floor of the exchange remained clean and silent, perhaps in unconscious preparation for the explosive upward trend the stock market was going to take in the beginning of that year starting with the high close of the Dow Jones Industrial Average Jan. 2.

Thousands of miles away from New York, in Chiapas, Mexico, the New Year also came in with a bang, but in a far more literal sense: a band of revolutionaries called the Zapatista National Liberation Army declared war on the Mexican army by storming and occupying four county seats in that southernmost state.

Though seemingly unrelated on the surface, the two events have one thing in common: Both were the result of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect one second after the ball dropped in New York's Times Square.

According to Zapatista spokesman Subcomandante Marcos, the revolution was purposely timed to coincide with the beginning of NAFTA, an agreement he called "a death certificate for the Indian peoples of Mexico." For CEOs of multinational corporations, the trade agreement meant a promising future of shaving numbers off production costs while simultaneously opening doors to new markets. For these lucky few, NAFTA was more than a fresh breath of economic air; it was like Christmas day all over again.

But for indigenous Indians of Chiapas, Mexico's adoption of NAFTA meant the possibility of losing the only thing of value in that extremely impoverished area: the land that had been constitutionally promised to them after the Mexican revolution of 1910. To help smooth the way for negotiations with the United States, Mexico's President Carlos Salinas de Gortari had nullified certain provisions of what was probably the only section of the Mexican constitution important to the indigenous people of Chiapas, Article 27. The provision, favorably amended in 1917, declared certain ejido, or community-held lands, in Chiapas to be free from the threat of future sale or exploitation, stating that the land would remain the property of the indigenous Indians who lived on it.

But, as wryly noted by one observer, the Mexican constitution may as well be written in pencil -- every president in recent Mexican history has changed the constitution for his own purposes, and Article 27 has seen no less than 15 changes to its amendments. For Salinas, yanking the community lands out from under the feet of the peasants while simultaneously de-monopolizing the state oil and gas companies meant being able to make more money from the concession of resource-rich land to the foreign investors that NAFTA promised.

Eventually, that money would be partly used to pay off some $51 billion in U.S. currency, loaned by the United States and various supranational banks to bail out the sinking peso. What that meant to Washington was that oil rights in Mexico were all but purchased by the United States for the price of the bailout package. So by threatening American corporations' access to resource-rich Chiapas in order to defend their land, Marcos and his small group of Zapatistas declared war not only on Mexico, but on the board rooms of multi-national oil giants and the Treasury Department of the United States.

And the U.S. responded as it always does to acts of war -- with military force. But this time, rather than sending in Marines to restore order, the Clinton administration opted to supply the Mexican government with arms, under the guise of the drug war, to help eradicate the Zapatista threat from its newly acquired oil fields.

History of conflict

The Zapatista uprising should have caught no one off guard. There had been reports of guerrilla training activity in the Lacandon jungle of southern Mexico for years. But rumors of guerrillas in oil-rich lands that will eventually be offered to the highest bidder traditionally aren't good for business, so it became the policy of Mexican officials, presumably with an eye toward NAFTA negotiations already underway, to deny any troubles.

The truth is that an insurgent uprising was all but inevitable in Chiapas. According to a 1994 report by Human Rights Watch/Americas, "Chiapas has the worst socio-economic conditions in Mexico, a long history of agrarian conflict, and a record for injustice and human rights violations unparalleled anywhere else in the country."

Even though the hydroelectric industry in Chiapas provides Mexico with 60 percent of its electricity and the state's economy is dominated by the exploitation of natural resources, especially oil, Chiapas is the poorest state in Mexico with a huge income gap between the rich mixed-race landowner minority and the indigenous Indian peasant-class majority. Class tensions have been a permanent threat to peace in Chiapas. In fact, many large, privately owned cattle ranches were created by violent and illegal invasions of ejido lands by private armies funded by wealthy landowners. HRW/Americas has recorded numerous incidents in the early 1990s where these powerful landowners' thugs, backed by the state police, swarmed into peasant villages before dawn, hustled everyone into trucks and literally drove them off the land. Anyone resisting would be beaten or arrested, and some detainees reported being tortured in custody.

No legal action against these breaches of Article 27 regarding ejido lands was ever taken by the government because the ranchers and other influence-holders generally threw their weight behind the PRI (Institutional Revolution Party, Mexico's ruling political party) during elections, delivering landslide results.

But when President Salinas formally nullified the community land provisions of Article 27 in order to remove any legal barriers to the foreign acquisition of ejido land in preparation for NAFTA, it represented the final straw dropped upon the backs of the peasants.

Faced with the privatization of their communal lands (as well as other unpleasant aspects of NAFTA, such as the government's elimination of corn crop subsidies in favor of purchasing cheaper American-grown corn), the peasants decided they would rather die fighting for their rights than have their government sell their land out from under them to foreign interests.

The 12-day war

Conventional military warfare between the Mexican Army and the Zapatistas that began on New Year's Day 1994 lasted only 12 days. Rebels briefly occupied the cities of San Cristobal de Las Casas, Ocosingo, Altamirano and Las Margaritas, county seats of Chiapas, as well as several other smaller towns. Though the rebels were ill-equipped at best, fighting with scrounged M-1 carbines, single-shot hunting rifles, machetes and pitchforks, the complete takeover of the towns and their police forces was briefly successful -- the Mexican Army based nearby was caught off guard by the rebellion.

But the under-equipped Zapatistas were no match for the military firepower and air support the United States had donated to Mexico for the purpose of drug interdiction. U.S. Bell helicopters, which, according to the Forecast International/DMS Market Intelligence Report for 1995, make up the majority of the Mexican military's helicopter fleet, swept into the conflict zone and extolled heavy casualties on the Zapatista forces.

The American choppers were originally donated to Mexico specifically for use in anti-drug campaigns, but the White House apparently wasn't displeased by the extracurricular use of its donated equipment: The Clinton administration declared on Jan. 26 that the choppers were not misused in spite of the fact that the revolution obviously had nothing to do with drugs.

According to officially released records, 145 rebels, soldiers, police officers and civilians died in the two weeks of combat, but the figure likely exceeds 200, according to HRW/Americas, due to unrecorded interment of dead civilians by government forces.

Mexican government reaction to the uprising was predictably brutal. In the two weeks of initial fighting, HRW/Americas reported human rights violations by the Mexican army that include "summary executions of wounded or captured combatants and of civilians in detention; widespread arbitrary arrest, prolonged incommunicado detention and torture; indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets and violations of medical neutrality."

Official Mexican government reaction to the revolution followed past patterns of denial. And the White House decided to quietly help its new trade partner deal with the uprising, ignoring reports of seemingly endemic incidences of torture and murder in the interests of the success of international trade.

Weapons sales

The U.S. defends its military sales and donations to Mexico by reminding protesters of its commitment to battle drug lords in Latin America. But it's becoming obvious that not all U.S. military aid is being used for drug interdiction.

American videographer Kerry Appel, for instance, recently traveled to Chiapas to document the revolution, and his tapes clearly show American General HMMWV armored cars (the military version of a Hummer) carrying Mexican soldiers through the Lacandon mud to suspected Zapatista strongholds.

And, according to the June 1995 Forecast International/DMS Market Intelligence Report, the "Chiapas crisis has spurred [air]lift procurement, with numbers of (American) UH-60 Blackhawk (combat helicopters) suddenly appearing in late 1994 and early 1995." The report also noted that due to the Chiapas uprising, the Mexican Air Force is seeking to beef up its fleet with additional transports, helicopters and light strike aircraft. "The U.S. is the likely source of these type of aircraft," the report states, "with the Mexicans known to be interested in further C-130 transport and Bell 212 helicopter procurements."

In 1994, the year of the revolution, U.S. foreign military sales orders from Mexico more than doubled over the year before from $6 million to $15 million. Perhaps more telling, however, are the commercial export licenses approved by the U.S. State Department to private U.S. arms manufacturers. In 1993, $9 million worth of military arms was approved for export to Mexico -- after the revolt in 1994, the figure sprang to $95 million. By shifting the source of the military aid from the federal government to the private sector, the Clinton administration was able to quietly increase its funding of the government's anti-Zapatista operations. The U.S. also set aside $500,000 in 1994 for "professional military education and technical training" of Mexican military officials.

Bubbling crude

The success of NAFTA to the Clinton administration is no small deal. What makes NAFTA so important are other changes to Article 27 that make it possible, for the first time since 1938, for foreign investors to claim a chunk of the lucrative oil and natural gas resources in Mexico. As a provision of Mexico's entrance into NAFTA, North American oil companies outside of Mexico had to be allowed access to Mexican contracts and concessions.

Oil is big in Chiapas. In fact, Cecilia Rodriguez, a U.S. spokeswoman for the Zapatistas based in El Paso, Texas, estimates that the oil potential of Chiapas and Guatemala combined could exceed that of Saudi Arabia. Oil experts agree that Mexico's proven oil reserves are the second largest in the Western Hemisphere behind Venezuela and the potential for untapped oil reserves is high. Indeed, a preliminary survey map of the oil field potential of Chiapas shows at least eight important unexplored oil sites -- all seated squarely on ejido land under Zapatista control.

The importance of settling the rebellion in Chiapas so that drilling could begin became more immediate after the November 1994 election. The new president, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, soon discovered that Salinas tinkered with more than the constitution; he apparently also tinkered with the economy. A mere month after being sworn in, Zedillo was faced with the worse financial crisis in his country's history. Suddenly, the untapped oil in Chiapas became the potential cure for Mexico's failing economy and the Zapatistas standing in the way suddenly became even more of a threat.

In February 1995, the White House deepened its commitment to the Mexican government by lashing together a $20 billion economic aid package to bail out the peso. The loan included cash from the U.S. Treasury Department; cash that is collateralized by the proceeds from Mexican crude oil, oil products and petrochemical product exports. In accepting the bailout package, Mexico agreed to further its efforts to "undertake privatization and (foreign) concession operations that are estimated to yield US $12-14 billion in the next three years," according to the terms of the International Monetary Fund, which coughed up $18 billion for the bailout.

The implied importance of quickly ending the Zapatista revolt was not lost on Mexico's newly elected president, who, within a week of accepting the bailout deal, launched a harsh offensive against the Indians which again had human rights groups clamoring in horror.

Several arbitrary arrests were conducted throughout Chiapas by state forces and those detained reported being tortured by, among other things, electric shock, semi-asphyxiation with plastic bags and submersion in water barrels. Amnesty International also received reports of several extra-judicial executions. A cease-fire was restored after a week of battle, but house-to-house raids deep in the jungle reportedly continued for several more weeks.

After more than two years of bloodshed, government violations of human rights and failed attempts at peace talks, the Zapatistas and the Mexican government have finally agreed on a negotiations schedule. Among the topics on the table for discussion are sweeping reforms to the electoral processes, extensive public sector spending reforms and, of course, the constitutional restoration of the sovereignty of oil-rich ejido lands. At this point in the talks the Mexican government has come out looking good by agreeing to the initial peace provisions dealing with indigenous rights. But many observers, including filmmaker Appel, think there is more bloodshed around the corner.

The next topic up for discussion -- the one that the two sides are in most disagreement upon -- is the constitutional reforms. And Mexico is preparing for the talks by clearing the entire region of observers and witnesses.

Joint exercise

Appel predicts that the future tactics of the Mexican government will be the same as in the past. However, this time he speculates that the government will attribute some act of terrorism to the Zapatistas so the army will be justified in launching an offensive against the Indians.

And so, it appears the U.S. will continue to ignore what Amnesty International terms "gross violations of human rights reported in Chiapas since the beginning of the January 1994 conflict." In fact, nothing seems to be impeding the growing relationship between the armies of Mexico and the U.S. As recently as this past April, Defense Secretary William Perry met with his Mexican counterpart to "explore ways in which our militaries could cooperate better." The two agreed that the U.S. would begin delivery of 50 Huey helicopters sometime this summer.

This time however, the governments seem to have learned from past mistakes -- no drug-campaign specific conditions on how they can be used are attached to the deliveries.

This article was presented by the Center for the Advancement of Journalism and
Zone Interactive.

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