“His only crime is struggling for his people, telling the truth, and fighting for true democracy, liberty and justice,” says the Good Government Junta (JBG)[i] of Oventic of their compañero Francisco Sántiz Lόpez, who has been unjustly imprisoned in the state penitentiary in San Cristόbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, since December 4, 2011. On September 29, 2012, a week before his 57th birthday, Francisco completed 300 days behind bars for a crime it has been proven he did not commit.
Though all the current news of attacks, threats, and sieges faced by the Zapatista communities in rebellion have tended to overshadow Francisco’s story, it is a story that deserves to be told and understood widely. It reflects the recent history of indigenous peoples, their struggle for democracy, liberty and justice, and the unceasing attempts during the last 520 years to wipe them, and all they represent, from the face of the earth. The dignified struggle of Francisco and all the Zapatistas echoes that story to the world.
“Although the bad governments and political parties never tire of saying that there is no injustice or violation of human rights,” comments the Junta, “we wonder what kind of freedom, justice, peace and respect they are talking about, when their prisons are full of innocent people, when our communities and towns are filled with threats, abuse, assaults, harassments, displacements and devastation wrought by paramilitaries and people from different political parties…”
Francisco Sántiz Lόpez
Francisco is an indigenous Tzeltal[ii] campesino from the ejido[iii] of Banavil, in the municipality of Tenejapa in the Highland region in the north of Chiapas. By all accounts he is well respected locally, and is someone community members turn to for advice and support. He has been a Zapatista support base (BAZ) for more than twenty years, since before the uprising of 1994. He is, says the Junta, “an honest person who always fulfills his responsibilities in his community and organisation”. He lives in Banavil with his wife and family, and makes his living by running a fruit and vegetable stall in the municipal capital of Tenejapa. His letters reveal him to be a deeply committed and spiritual person, deriving comfort and inspiration from his faith.
The Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Centre (Frayba) explains the background, “since 2009 there have been acts of harassment by the PRI[iv] group towards families sympathetic to the EZLN, due to their opposition to the arbitrary actions committed by PRI-affiliated caciques[v]. Examples of these actions are: the looting of lands, illegal logging, the imposition of arbitrary taxes and co-operative work, threats and abuse, physical assault, and denial of the right to education…all of which have been denounced by the victims before the appropriate authorities, who have failed to take any action. There has been no investigation….or punishment of those responsible and the authorities do not intervene to resolve the situation or guarantee legal or social security in the Banavil ejido”.
This situation of tension and intimidation is not unique to the Tenejapa area; indeed it must be set in the context of similar activities promoted, under the protection and with the encouragement of the three levels of government, by armed political party members, organised in paramilitary style groups, throughout the area of Zapatista influence.
The simmering situation in the ejido Banavil came to a head in the early morning of December 4, 2011, when 50 PRI supporters, with firearms, clubs and machetes, made a fierce and prolonged attack on four families “sympathetic to the EZLN”. They surrounded and broke into the house of Alonso Lόpez Luna, who was beaten and taken away. Only his arm has been found. Alonso’s son, Lorenzo Lόpez Girόn, was shot twice while trying to defend his father, and at least six other people were injured. During the confrontation, one of its two main instigators, Pedro Méndez Lόpez of the PRI, was killed.
As a direct result of this assault, the four aggrieved families were, and remain, displaced; they are, according to Frayba, in “a critical situation” with “inhuman housing conditions” and some of the PRI members who attacked them are occupying their lands.
Despite the fact that the true culprits have been widely identified, by the victims, the Junta and even by Frayba, no investigation has been carried out into the disappearance of Alonso Lόpez Luna, the shooting of his son, or the destruction of the homes and the displacement of the four families, even though the culprits have been widely identified. However, two people were arrested, charged and detained, on the very day of the attack, for the murder of the PRI leader, Pedro Méndez Lόpez: these were the seriously wounded Lorenzo Lόpez Girόn, and the Zapatista support base Francisco Sántiz Lόpez, who many witnesses affirm was elsewhere at the time of the incident.
On December 4, 2011, Francisco was, as usual, working at his market stall selling fruit and vegetables in the town of Tenejapa - a considerable distance from Banavil. The displaced family of the missing Alonso have said clearly, “At the time of the attack, compañero Francisco was at his fruit stall at the county headquarters. Some of us went there to ask for his help”. In addition, they add, “we were not the ones who attacked the party members, they came to our homes and attacked us”.
It was at his market stall that Francisco was arrested. He was accused of homicide, and of “leading a confrontation”. No reason was ever given for his being arrested. There was no weapon in his possession, and, as Frayba point out, there is no evidence of any kind putting him in possession of a firearm or other weapon at any time, despite the accusations against him.
The JBG of Oventic have made clear that there are twelve witnesses willing and able to testify that Francisco was not involved in the confrontation. Since this time, Francisco has been held in the penitentiary the State Centre for the Social Reinsertion of the Sentenced (CERSS) No 5, while “the caciques, who are organising attacks of every kind, are living freely in their homes”.
A new charge
On 22 March, 2012, Francisco and Lorenzo were told that they had been cleared of the charges and were to be released. Just as they were leaving the prison, Francisco was stopped and rearrested, this time on a federal charge: that of carrying a weapon reserved for the exclusive use of the Mexican army and armed forces. The JBG responded: “as we know well, those who carry firearms for the exclusive use of the army are not the Zapatistas, they are the paramilitaries from the different communities”.
This crime is equivalent to that of murder and aggravated assault in terms of sentencing, and conveniently enabled the state government to make a statement to La Jornada [vi] that Francisco’s imprisonment was now outside their control. The newspaper commented that Francisco was being kept as “a virtual political hostage, and possible currency for exchange”. “Independent lawyers, human rights organisations and autonomous Zapatista authorities have confirmed…Francisco’s innocence, and place responsibility on the government for keeping …him imprisoned for political reasons and to cover up for the presence of paramilitary groups…in Tenejapa”.
Lorenzo was able to return home. When he left prison, despite having been detained for over 3 months, the two bullets were still in his body. He had received no medical treatment apart from painkillers, had difficulty walking, and was in great pain.
The criminalisation of autonomy and the repression of justice
In August 2012, Frayba issued a bulletin[vii] of denouncement detailing the violations of due process against Francisco Sántiz Lόpez, and their fears that a judicial sentence will be issued against him. “During the arrest and prosecution of Francisco the following human rights have been violated: personal liberty, presumption of innocence, judicial guarantees, a fair trial, and the protection of the law…..this is evidence of his persecution for the political work he has been performing in the Highlands of Chiapas…”
In this document Frayba issue a stunning condemnation: “the Mexican state is using the system of law enforcement and justice administration to criminalise the support bases of the EZLN, because they are disturbed by their progress in the right to self-determination through Zapatista autonomy, founded in the San Andrés Accords and the international benchmarks: ILO 169 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”.
This continued imprisonment of an innocent man, they believe, amounts to political persecution and the suppression of justice. They continue to say that in the detention order the judge neither acknowledged the statements of the witnesses, nor of the local authorities, which confirmed “that the arrest took place in the county seat of Tenejapa, which means, therefore, that Francisco was not in Banavil at the time of the attacks”. There is, they add, absolutely no evidence that Francisco “was carrying the weapon referred to”.
The last Zapatista prisoner before Francisco was Patricio Domínguez Vázquez, from the community of ejido Monte Redondo, Comalapa, who was freed without charge on the 6th June 2011, following worldwide actions in his support. Before Patricio, Miguel Hernández Pérez, Diego Martínez Santis y Miguel Méndez Santis, from Pozo in the official municipality of C’ancuc, were imprisoned for over 3 months in 2010, before also being released without charge.
As the Movement for Justice in El Barrio (MJB) tellingly point out to us all: “We know that it is no coincidence that in Mexico, as well as here in the United States, the jails and prisons are filled almost exclusively with those from below – indigenous, migrants, black, poor, Latino, women and men, and all marginalized groups – since only the true criminals could benefit from this misery: the multinational corporations and their political lackeys. Those from above believe that people who struggle must be crushed and encaged.”
Support for Francisco and for all the Zapatistas
Francisco has become an emblematic figure, representing the struggle of all those who the system is attempting to crush. Are we prepared to look on while this occurs and do nothing? How many more times must this happen?
People around the world have been enraged at the case of Francisco, and at the concerted efforts by the three levels of the bad government in Mexico to demoralise, terrify and coerce the Zapatistas to abandon their struggle for autonomy. To co-ordinate these voices, the “Worldwide Echo in Support of the Zapatistas” campaign, convoked by the Movement for Justice in El Barrio, the Other Campaign New York, was launched at the end of July 2012 with an urgent call for action.[viii]
As well as the liberation of Francisco, the Echo Campaign also “aims to raise awareness about the dire situation faced by the besieged BAZ communities of Comandante Abel[ix], Unión Hidalgo, San Marcos Avilés, and Moisés Gandhi”. These communities are currently being attacked, or threatened with attack, by paramilitary-style groups who operate with complete impunity under the protection of the government security forces. The groups, which are made up of indigenous members of local political parties, operate at will, destroying the homes and possessions of the BAZ and stealing their land, crops and livestock. Their aim is to dispossess them of their land and territory and take it over for their own use, build their own houses, and indeed, destroy the entire Zapatista organisation, as part of the government’s 19 year campaign of counterinsurgency against the movement.
Of Francisco, the Echo campaign states: “our compañero Francisco Sántiz López has been imprisoned for crimes that he did not commit. His only offence, as has been stated over and over again, is that of being a Zapatista Support Base member. For this reason, he is being held as a hostage of the Mexican State.”
Asked about the progress of the campaign so far, Teresa Lopez, of Movement for Justice in El Barrio, responded:
"Since the launch of the Worldwide Echo in Support of the Zapatistas campaign, many Committees of the True Word have formed throughout the world. In fact, many people organising actions have never been active in the struggle before. This shows that support for Francisco and the Zapatistas, in general, is increasing. This growth of organized support will ensure that we achieve the freedom and justice for Francisco that we all seek."
Why does the Mexican state so badly want to destroy the Zapatistas?
“There is no doubt,” says the Junta, “that the manufacture of crimes against Francisco….was planned, organised and run from the three levels of bad government. They are trying at all costs to prevent the construction of the autonomy of the indigenous peoples in Zapatista territory….and to annihilate our organisation and the dignity of our people.”
To do this, they are intending to steal the Zapatistas’ lands, the basis of everything, and by continual day and night harassment to provoke a reaction from them.
The well- known Mexican activist and intellectual, Gustavo Esteva, explains the situation very well in his message to the Echo Campaign:
“We are in World War IV. It is not a war between countries. It is a war of those from above against those from below. Because we, those from below, are now walking in rebellion... because we are no longer willing to let them continue to destroy our Mother Earth, and to continue to kill and imprison us they have unleashed a continuous war against us, from outside and inside, making it more and more difficult for us to live. They want to turn the whole world into a prison.
“Both Francisco Sántiz López and San Marcos Avilés are frontlines in this great war that escalates daily in the Zapatista communities. It is urgent to show ourselves on the side of our compañeros…. The threat is immediate…..It is the time for resistance. And to resist is to struggle in common, together, in the embrace of solidarity.”
As for the Zapatistas themselves, they have no intention of giving up:
“We want to make clear to the three levels of bad government and the people they have paid, controlled and manipulated, that whatever it costs us, no matter what happens, we will continue, because reason and justice are on our side”.
“It is,” says Hugo Blanco, the renowned Peruvian political activist, in his message to the Echo Campaign, entitled: ‘to those who search for a free world’, “in the direct interests of humanity to defend the island of freedom that is the Zapatista area.”
For more information:
Video-message from the JBG of Oventic about Francisco: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXuVyJ5YdfA&feature=player_embedded
Information on Francisco:
The Echo Campaign:
For what you can do:
[i] Junta (JBG), Council of Zapatista rotating authorities who “govern by obeying”
[ii] Mayan language-speaking indigenous group
[iii] Ejido, communal landholding
[iv] Political party
[vi] Mexican daily newspaper http://sanmarcosavilesen.wordpress.com/press/