“Although the rulers do not like it, we will continue defending our territory because this is where we come from, and we are not leaving despite their repression and corruption" say the ejidatarios of San Sebastián Bachajón, who denounce the murder with impunity of their leader Juan Vázquez Guzmán, and request the intervention of the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation to protect their rights and the integrity of their territory.
“Here we continue in struggle, resisting with hope to defend our lands from dispossession by this accursed government which only wants to sow terror and destruction in our communities”, the indigenous Tzeltal ejidatarios (communal landholders) from San Sebastián Bachajón, in the northern region of the state of Chiapas, Mexico, stated in June 2013. “The bad governments kill and imprison those who struggle for better living conditions for their people, For this reason, two months ago they ordered the assassination of our compañero, Juan Vázquez Guzmán, by their hired assassins while he was resting quietly at home, the treacherous government wickedly ordered his murder to put an end to our struggle, but they were wrong, because we are here, we are staying here and we are not going to leave our land which is the birthplace of our mothers and fathers, of our grandfathers and grandmothers who also fought and gave their lives for the mother earth.”
With this clear message, the adherents to the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle re-confirmed that their struggle continues, despite the brutal murder of their traditional leader, the social activist and human rights defender Juan Vázquez Guzmán, on 24th April, 2013, and the fact that neither the instigators nor the perpetrators of the killing have been identified or punished.
They explain their struggle: “We fight to defend our territory from dispossession by the government to impose an ecotourist megaproject”. They warn that “the bad government” uses public forces, such as the state preventive police, the army, and the federal police, to terrorize communities and so imposes terror to achieve its goals. “We can see that the hand of the government has great aspirations for the natural resources of the ejido and wants to finish off the organization politically, because it does not want to have resistance, so that the people will easily hand over their land for the building of large luxury hotels, golf courses and aeroplane runways for wealthy tourists”, they stated on 9th September.
“Our compañero Juan Vázquez Guzmán is an example of struggle and of love for his people, he gave his life for his people, he struggled for his people to be free from the oppression and the abuse of power of the bad government, he struggled to recover the territory which had been seized”, the Tzetzals confirmed. It has not been easy for the ejidatarios after the devastating murder. They have suffered relentless violence and repression from the 3 levels of government, and from paramilitaries supporting the PRI political party, since 2007.
After Juan’s assassination, they received an avalanche of support, with pronouncements, letters and declarations issued from groups, collectives, human rights organisations and other representatives of national and international civil society. To coincide with Juan’s birthday on 25th June, the “Week of Worldwide Action: Juan Vázquez Guzmán Lives, The Struggle of Bachajón Continues” was organised, an international campaign co-ordinated and publicised by a worldwide network of solidarity groups.
Honouring and keeping the memory of Juan is a powerful impetus to the people of San Sebastián Bachajón to continue in resistance, defending their territory in the ways he taught them; they have done this using several means: through one of their main tools of struggle - the roadblock, through symbolic actions asserting their right to live in their territory, through continuing to campaign for the release of their prisoners, through legal means by promoting their amparo, and through joining their resistance with that of other indigenous people throughout Mexico. “Our resistance”, they say, “is for dignity and autonomy, because we want to continue being who we are”.
The roadblock and the gravel bank
The two main traditional acts of protest of the Bachajón ejidatarios have been the taking over of the ticket booth and the roadblock. On 2nd July 2013, they held a massive “informative roadblock” of the main road from Palenque to Ocosingo, near the turning for the Agua Azul waterfalls. Big banners across the highway proclaimed “The bad government is responsible for the death of compa Juan Vázquez Guzmán.” “No to the plunder of our lands!” “Freedom now for our prisoners Antonio Estrada Estrada and Miguel Demeza Jiménez!” “Freedom now for Alberto Patishtán and the other Chiapas political prisoners!” “Long live the peoples in resistance and the Zapatista Caracoles!”
The Tzeltals handed out flyers in Spanish and English, for many tourists travel on this busy road. Through a megaphone they read their communiqué calling for justice not impunity, for respect for their territory, and declaring that they are “ready to give our lives for our mother earth and our struggle, just as our compañero Juan, heart of our struggle and our people, did”. The ejidatarios stated that Juan Vázquez Guzmán denounced the networks of corruption and complicities of the government “which aim to displace the people of San Sebastián Bachajón from their land and to dismantle our organization in resistance”.
Along with the ticket booth, another long-term focus of conflict between the ejidatarios adherents to the Sixth and the government supporters has been the gravel bank, source of material for construction, “destroyed by the ejidal commissioner through uncontrolled exploitation”. It was thus symbolic of another step forward in their struggle, when the “women and men of Bachajón” announced in their communiqué of 26th September, 2013, that their organization had made an agreement to begin working a new gravel bank “to meet the needs of the ejidatarios and for the collective benefit of the people… We hold the governments responsible for any aggression, threats and repression which they try to do to impede our work as an organization and as ejidatarios on the Chawuk Nah gravel bank.”
As the well-known case of Alberto Patishtán has demonstrated, Mexican prisons contain many indigenous prisoners detained unjustly on fabricated charges made in a language they do not understand, with their basic rights violated, and their due process not complied with. In April 2013, there were 3 Tzeltal prisoners from Bachajón, all of whom had been tortured to make them confess to crimes they did not commit, and all of whom, according to the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Centre, were imprisoned “to undermine the actions for the defence of territory that the ejido has been undertaking for several years”. There was great celebration, therefore, when one of them, Miguel Vázquez Deara, was released on June 26th, 2013, due to “violations of his rights to an adequate defence”.
On 13th August, 2013, the prisoner Miguel Demeza Jiménez was granted an amparo (legal protection) in relation to the detention order against him, because, in the words of his lawyer, Ricardo Lagunes Gasca, “the detention order violates Article 16 of the Constitution, as the El Amate judge did not duly point out the foundation and the legal and logical reasons proving probable criminal responsibility”. “This decision”, the lawyer continued, “establishes that he has been wrongfully imprisoned for nearly three years”. The remaining prisoner, Antonio Estrada Estrada, filed a petition for amparo on 30th September 2013 against his sentence of seven years in prison, for the offences of assault and organised crime, on the grounds of violation of his human rights. During his detention Antonio was not granted the assistance of a lawyer and a translator who knew his language and culture, and he was tortured, to force him to sign an incriminating statement, by the same police officers who had arrested him, alleging that he had assaulted them.
Miguel Demeza Jiménez and Antonio Estrada Estrada currently remain imprisoned, the first in El Amate and the second in Playas de Catazajá, and the campaign for their freedom continues.
Seeking the Amparo
On February 2nd, 2011, local authorities evicted the ejidatarios of Bachajón from the toll booth at the entrance to the Agua Azul Waterfalls, the area where the government plans to develop, with multinational corporations, a luxury tourist complex to rival Cancun. At this time, 117 people were arbitrarily detained, and the authorities took possession of 2,590 square metres of the collectively owned lands of the ejido. This dispossession, their lawyer warned “is only the beginning of the plunder that is to come”.
In order to legally prove their rights to this land, a representative of the ejidatarios presented a petition for amparo, against the arbitrary deprivation of their common use lands, before the courts in March 2011. After nearly two years, the petition was dismissed in January 2013, but the ejidatarios and their lawyer persisted, and the decision was overturned in May 2013. On July 22nd, the case of amparo 274/2011 came up before the same judge, José del Carmen Constantino Avendaño, who had dismissed it in January, and he again ruled against Bachajón. The ejidatarios denounced the judge as a corrupt crook “who sells his dignity and honour”, and continued to defend their amparo.
On 1st August they filed an appeal for review against the decision, which is currently being processed. They also asked the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation “to consider our amparo and protect our territory”. They cited as precedent the “protective decision” to grant amparo 631/2012 to the Yaqui tribe of Sonora, concerning the theft of the water from the Yaqui River by the state government through the Independence Aqueduct.
The National Indigenous Congress (CNI)
On 17th and 18th August, 2013, the Tata Juan Chávez Alonso Seminar, convoked by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and the CNI itself, a national meeting to relaunch the Congress, was held in San Cristóbal de las Casas. At this crucial gathering, members of over 32 indigenous peoples, nations and tribes from 19 states met to “recognize, support and encourage the struggle for autonomy and self-determination of all the peoples who make up the CNI”, because “the bad governments and transnational corporations” rely on “paramilitary groups to impose extractive megaprojects”. Among the 29 demands they issued was “the release of our imprisoned compañeros from the Tzeltal community of Bachajón, Chiapas, Miguel Demeza Jiménez and Antonio Estrada Estrada”.
Following this seminar, as the ejidatarios of San Sebastián Bachajón explained in a communiqué on September 9th, “we know that we are not alone because there are many peoples who are fighting with us for our lives and dignity; we talked and we met together at the Tata Juan Chávez Alonso seminar of the National Indigenous Congress, we hear our struggles and we see that we have a common enemy who wants to destroy our cultures and seize our territories, so we also see that we must continue to strengthen our organizations, our cultures and our autonomy which will enable the transformation of this world which is held hostage by the capitalist mentality.”
In their contribution to the gathering, the adherents to the Sixth Declaration stressed to all the indigenous peoples present that “we embrace your struggles and make them our own”, because “Those from above give orders to destroy us, our peoples, and order the destruction of all that gives us life, building dams, ecotourism projects, wind parks, stealing the rivers through pipes, stealing and polluting our seeds, opening mines, and to achieve this they order the killing of our brothers, dignified men and women who fight to defend the Mother Earth, they imprison us, torture us and make us disappear, but they forget that we are one, that we are not alone and that as children of the earth our roots are still alive in spite of all the death that they offer us.”
The assassination with complete impunity of indigenous leaders in resistance to the territorial plunder and displacement arising from neoliberal megaprojects is one of the established tactics of governments looking to destroy opposition. In Mexico, the community defender and environmental activist Noé Vázquez Ortiz was stoned to death on August 2nd, 2013, as he was preparing the ceremony to begin the 10th anniversary meeting of the of the Mexican Movement of those Affected by Dams and in Defence of Rivers (MAPDER), in the municipality of Amatlán de los Reyes, Veracruz. Héctor Regalado Jiménez, opponent of the wind-energy projects and sympathizer of the Popular Assembly of the Juchiteco People (APPJ), died on 1st August 2013 in the city of Juchitán de Zaragoza from the injuries from the six gunshot wounds he received on 21st July.
Two Zapotec community leaders opposed to the Canadian silver and gold mining project at San José del Progreso in the south of Oaxaca were murdered in 2012; Bernardo Vásquez and Bernardo Méndez were both shot dead. In Chiapas, the indigenous leader from the municipality of Chicomuselo, Mariano Abarca Robledo, organiser of the communities demanding the closure of the barite mine operated by the Canadian mining company Blackfire, was shot dead in 2009. The list is endless.
Impunity and struggle
For the people of Bachajon, the memory of their assassinated compañero remains both an inspiration and a responsibility, to continue in resistance, in defence of their ancestral commonly owned land and territory. “The memory of compañero Juan Vázquez Guzmán is our strength as an organization to keep fighting and defending our territory from plunder by the bad government”, they affirmed in a communiqué. “The bad government and the lords of money ordered the killing of our brother Juan on the 24th of April this year by some hitmen who remain free, surely enjoying the money that the government paid them to do their job”. They regret that “so far this crime of the bad government remains unpunished.”
In their 9th September communique, the ejidatarios hold responsible “for the dispossession of our land, for the cowardly murder of our compañero Juan Vázquez Guzmán who fell in the struggle for the defence of his people, and for our political prisoners Antonio Estrada Estrada and Miguel Demeza Jiménez, the president of the republic Enrique Peña Nieto, the Chiapas state governor Manuel Velasco Coello, the former Secretary General of government Noe Castañón Leon, the mayor of Chilón Leonardo Guirao Aguilar and the political agents of the three levels of government, as well as the former ejidal commissioner and the current officialist ejidal commissioner”. They continue: “We are not going to allow the government to do as it pleases with our people and our territory. Our compañero Juan Vázquez Guzmán gave his life for the people and the land, which is why his blood must not be shed in vain, because we will defend it whatever the cost, it is our right and the government must respect it, enough of so much injustice and abuse from the bad government.”
“The struggle of our people of San Sebastian Bachajón”, they told the National Indigenous Congress, “is to conserve our indigenous territory which we inherited from our ancestors, it is where we live, it gives us life and identity. We are defending our land with our lives if necessary, against the ambition of the government and of the lords of money who want to build luxury hotels, golf courses and runways for rich tourists, at the cost of the exploitation, marginalization and discrimination of our people; faced with the defence we have mounted against these projects the government has had only one answer: repression, imprisonment and death”.
They finish: “although the rulers do not like it, we will continue defending our territory because this is where we come from, and we are not leaving despite their repression and corruption, we will defend it as our grandfathers and grandmothers did until we achieve victory, as our beloved compañero Juan Vázquez Guzmán, cowardly assassinated by the bad government, has taught us.”
This article was originally published in Spanish by Desinformémonos on 21st October, 2013