Indigenous Zapatista Supporters “Held Hostage” in Chiapas for Opposing Ecotourism Project

This past February 3, approximately 300 state police raided a meeting of indigenous Zapatista supporters in San Sebastian Bachajón, Chiapas, and arrested 117 people. The arrests sparked protests across Mexico and around the world, leading the Chiapas government to release the majority of the prisoners. However, five Tzeltal indigenous men, who are now known as the “Bachajón 5,” remain behind bars.
This past February 3, approximately 300 state police raided a meeting of indigenous Zapatista supporters in San Sebastian Bachajón, Chiapas, and arrested 117 people. The arrests sparked protests across Mexico and in front of Mexican consulates around the world, leading the Chiapas government to release the majority of the prisoners. However, five Tzeltal indigenous men, who are now known as the “Bachajón 5,” remain behind bars. One is accused of murder, another is accused of attempted murder, and all five are accused of crimes against the peace.
The Bachajón Zapatista supporters are adherents to the Other Campaign, which was initiated by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in order to form national and global alliances amongst leftist organizations and movements.
The arrests stem from a confrontation between rival indigenous groups that occurred the previous day in San Sebastian Bachajón, which is an ejido, or communally held lands. Marcos García Moreno, an ejido member who belonged to the faction that allied itself with the government, was shot and killed during the confrontation with ejido members who are Other Campaign adherents. The government accuses the Other Campaign adherents of murdering García Moreno and attempting to murder a second man who was shot during the confrontation. The Other Campaign adherents deny the charges. They say they were unarmed, and that the government-allied ejido members were shooting guns into the air during the confrontation.
The government has attempted to paint the conflict as a dispute between rival indigenous factions over control of a tollbooth that charges a fee to enter the Agua Azul waterfalls, one of Chiapas’ most popular tourist attractions. However, the Bachajón adherents and their lawyers at the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center (“Frayba”) say that they have proof that the tollbooth confrontation was designed to provoke government intervention and police occupation of the region. The Bachajón adherents argue that the government orchestrated the confrontation at the tollbooth “as a pretext to take over the Agua Azul Waterfalls Ecotourism Center for its transnational interests and projects.”
According to leaked government documents provided by Frayba, the government plans to have multinational corporations build a multi-million dollar ecotourism hotel on indigenous land. The leaked “Palenque-Agua Azul Waterfalls Development Strategy” Powerpoint, which was prepared by a United States consulting firm, argues:
“The state and local government need to ensure that tourists that visit Chiapas and Palenque feel safe and protected. The Zapatista movement is still strongly associated with Chiapas… Many of those unfamiliar with the region still consider Chiapas to be unsafe… The state needs to protect the developers and hotel operators against the perception of political instability… Before attracting investments, the state must resolve land acquisition and access problems. The acquisition of lands adjacent to the waterfalls is vital…”
Bolom Ajaw, a small community founded by Zapatistas after the 1994 uprising, is located directly across the river from the proposed hotel. The San Sebastian Bachajón ejido, home to a few hundred Other Campaign adherents and Zapatista supporters, is located just outside of Agua Azul. The highway that leads to the Agua Azul waterfalls cuts through the Bachajón ejido. A proposed freeway included in the Palenque-Agua Azul Waterfalls Development Strategy would cut through Bachajón and Bolom Ajaw.
History of the Agua Azul Conflict
Prior to 1994, the lands around the Agua Azul waterfalls were ranches owned by rich men and worked by underpaid and poorly treated indigenous peasants. When the Zapatistas rose up in arms in 1994, 96 of those indigenous peasants ran off the rich ranchers and took over the land they had worked for generations. As a result, Zapatistas and their supporters control much of the land in and around what is now the Agua Azul nature reserve.
In 2001, the Mexican government demonstrated that it would not honor its commitments under the San Andres Accords, which, if implemented, would have granted autonomy to Mexico’s indigenous peoples. In response, the EZLN began to unilaterally implement the San Andres Accords. It began to redistribute unoccupied recuperated lands to landless Zapatistas from other areas, such as the families who founded Bolom Ajaw—located next to the Agua Azul waterfalls.
In 2000, the Chiapas governor offered individual land titles to any peasant who occupied recuperated lands. The Zapatistas interpreted the offer as an attempt to divide the collectivized lands and bring recuperated territory back into the government’s sphere of control, and they rejected the land titles. However, many indigenous peasants who benefited from the uprising but were not Zapatistas did title their lands, causing divisions within the communities.
Around this time, non-Zapatista indigenous peasants, such as those who now belong to the Organization for the Defense of Indigenous and Peasant Rights (OPDDIC), took advantage of the diminished government repression of land takeovers, and they began to occupy lands close to the Agua Azul waterfalls. OPDDIC is a Chiapan paramilitary organization that the government officially granted non-profit status. “Little by little [OPDDIC] amplified [its territory] in a disproportionate manner until they began to border the Zapatistas’ parcels, and [then] they began to invade,” Frayba explains. “First [OPDDIC invaded] seven hectares of cultivated land, and later the Bolom Ajaw waterfalls reserve, with the intention of being beneficiaries of the tourism projects that are planned for that territory.”
Divisions in the indigenous communities worsened as the government began to offer “development” projects to peasants who allied themselves with the government, as is the case with the Agua Azul Tzeltal Indigenous Ecotourism Cooperative (Ecoturismo Indígena Tzeltal de Cascadas de Agua Azul S.C. de R.L.), which is affiliated with OPDDIC and operates the Agua Azul waterfalls tourist area with the help of generous government subsidies. OPDDIC, members of the Agua Azul Ecotourism Cooperative, and local indigenous peasants affiliated with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI, one of the most powerful political parties in Mexico) have carried out armed attacks on the Bolom Ajaw Zapatistas in attempts to drive them off their land. The most recent attack occurred in February 2010, when OPDDIC ambushed Zapatistas who were attempting to retake Bolom Ajaw farmland that OPDDIC occupied the month before. The confrontation resulted in one dead OPDDIC member, whom Zapatistas say was hit by friendly fire as the OPDDIC surrounded Bolom Ajaw and opened fire from various points in the community.
Divisions amongst residents of the Agua Azul area have led to disagreements over how tourism proceeds are spent. As a result, Other Campaign adherents and pro-government ejido members are engaged in a constant battle over the right to charge admission into the Agua Azul tourist area. The tollbooth has changed hands several times, and often, tourists must pay separate entrance fees to different peasant organizations in order to enter Agua Azul. In 2009, Chiapas state police raided the Other Campaign-controlled tollbooth and gave pro-government peasants the right to charge admission. Later that year, the Other Campaign re-took the tollbooth. This past February, in the events leading up to the February 3 mass arrest of Other Campaign adherents, local PRI members attempted to once again take control of the tollbooth.
Showdown in Agua Azul
On February 1, 2011, Bolom Ajaw residents noticed two helicopters flying low over their community. The helicopters were white with red and green stripes, although witnesses could not discern who the helicopters belonged to. The witnesses’ description matches the Air Force helicopter that President Felipe Calderón used that same day to visit Chiapan tourist destinations that are under development by the federal Secretary of Tourism (FONATUR). Calderón visited Palenque, where FONATUR wants to build an integrated tourist center (which includes the proposed hotel in Agua Azul) and a freeway that would cut straight through San Sebastián Bachajón and Bolom Ajaw.
On February 2—one day after the helicopter flyby in Bolom Ajaw—sixty local PRI members take over the Bachajón tollbooth in a surprise early morning raid. The PRI group was led by Carmen Aguilar Gómez, former leader of the Regional Organization Ocosingo Café Growers (ORCAO), one of the peasant organizations that broke its agreement with the EZLN and legalized recuperated lands.
Following the attack, the Bachajón adherents regroup, and at 2:30pm, 150 of them attempt to retake the tollbooth. “We were armed with sticks and machetes,” one of them told Frayba. “No one carried firearms.” According to Bachajón adherents who participated in the action, the PRI members began to fire their guns into the air. The adherents pushed forward, and when they arrived at the tollbooth, the PRI members fled. An hour and a half later, state police arrived on the scene, accompanied by Carmen Aguilar and several other leaders of the PRI group. The police told the adherents that a PRI member had been murdered and they took over the tollbooth. The zone is now heavily occupied by state police.
On February 3, state police interrupted a meeting of Bachajón adherents to the Other Campaign. A commander asked if they agreed to a three-way dialogue with the government and the PRI ejido members. When the adherents responded that they would not participate in the dialogue, the police arrested 117 people who were in attendance at the meeting.
On February 5, the government released 107 prisoners and filed charges against the remaining ten.
Manufactured Conflict
The Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center, whose lawyers are defending the Bachajón 5, insists that the confrontation at the Agua Azul tollbooth is part of the government’s strategy to strip indigenous Chiapans of their territorial rights. “Territory as an essential element of a dignified life and the clear exercise of indigenous peoples’ collective rights run contrary to the business interests that the federal and state government have promised to private investors. Projects that benefit Mexican and foreign investors and cause poverty and death for residents,” argues Frayba. In Agua Azul, “the State did not intervene to prevent confrontations. Instead, it planned a strategy for territorial control in the zone.”
In addition to the previously mentioned leaked Powerpoint presentation in which a private consulting firm identifies the Zapatistas as problematic for Chiapas’ tourism industry and argues that the “acquisition” of their land next to the Agua Azul waterfalls is “vital,” Frayba says that an informant has told them about secret meetings between the government and PRI ejido members. According to Frayba, “Since March 2010, officials from the Chiapas General Government Secretariat—including Secretary Noé Castañón León—public officials, political operators, police officials, and pro-government ejido members have held a series of meetings in which they designed a plan for territorial control of Agua Azul.” Carmen Aguilar Gómez, who led the February 2 attack on the tollbooth, was present at the meetings.
According to Frayba’s informant, who was present during the meetings, participants agreed on a plan that would result in the government purchasing $20 million pesos ($1.7 million dollars) of land from the pro-government ejido members in order to build the Agua Azul hotel. The informant says that the government told the ejido members present “to look for people in the region who have land titles.”
The Bachajón Other Campaign adherents were specifically mentioned in the meetings. The government “mentioned that from this moment on they [the pro-government ejido members] would be safe,” reports the informant. “Because the Other Campaign adherents were being pursued for being criminals that the Fray Bartolomé [Human Rights Center] was protecting.” In a later meeting, the informant says, they agreed that “together they would find a way to take down the Other Campaign.”
The conspirators decided to use the contested tollbooth to set their plan in motion. “The plan was that the organizations would clash so that the government would intervene and take over the tollbooth.” The ejido members investigated how many people they had to carry out a raid on the tollbooth, and how many people the Other Campaign could possibly mobilize to defend it. Then the government and the ejido members agreed on a date when the pro-government ejido members would take over the tollbooth. According to the informant, “Noé Castañón asked [the ejido members] if the majority of their group was in agreement to take over the tollbooth, and they said yes, even if they had to give their lives.”
The government’s behavior following the February 2 incident at the tollbooth appears to corroborate the informant’s testimony. On February 6, the state government held an “Agua Azul Ecotourism Center Dialogue and Coordination,” which was billed as a negotiation to resolve the conflict. Representatives from the Agua Azul and San Sebastian Bachajón attended the Dialogue, creating the appearance of an actual dialogue between conflicting parties. However, the representatives were all pro-government ejido members because the Other Campaign adherents refused to participate. Amongst the “agreements” that came out of the Dialogue are the following: 
  • “At the communities’ request, the police will have a permanent presence.”
  • “Frayba will not be permitted to participate [in negotiations], because it only exhorts violence and divides the communities.”
 The second point of “agreement” is particularly troubling because the Dialogue purports to address territorial control over indigenous lands, but it explicitly excludes the Bachajón adherents’ lawyers.
According to the Bachajón 5, they are being held “hostage by the state government, as a way of forcing us to accept their ecotourism project and end the Other Campaign organization on the ejido.” They say they have received several visits from government officials who have pressured them to sign on to the Agua Azul Ecotourism Center Dialogue and Coordination “agreement.” Domingo Pérez Álvaro, accused of attempted murder, says that during the confrontation at the tollbooth, he was in a meeting with José Manuel Morales, a government official from Ocosingo, Chiapas, with whom he was attempting to negotiate an agreement over the tollbooth. Morales visited Pérez Álvaro in prison and reportedly told him, “If you sign the agreement, I will say that you were with me, and the charges will go away.”
Global Solidarity
Mobilizations have occurred around the globe in support of the Bachajón prisoners. Movement for Justice in El Barrio (MJB, a New York tenants rights organization and fellow Other Campaign adherent) declared this past March 7 to be a Worldwide Day of Action for the Liberation of the Political Prisoners of San Sebastian Bachajón. That day, protests occurred around Mexico and in ten other countries in support of Bachajón.
In an attempt to prevent the protests, the government freed five of the prisoners just before the Worldwide Day of Action. The government-funded Chiapas State Human Rights Commission (CEDH) says that it personally informed the Bachajón adherents that the men had been released in the hopes that it would prevent a highway blockade outside of Agua Azul. Because five of their comrades were still in jail, the Bachajón adherents went forward with the March 7 blockade. In response, the CEDH issued a statement criticizing the Bachajón adherents: “The incident that occurred today, in which the highway in front of the Agua Azul Waterfalls tourist center was blocked, worries this Council because these acts could provoke conflict amongst the region’s inhabitants and cause damage to third parties who are uninvolved in the conflict.”
The CEDH says that the five men now known as the “Bachajón 5” remain in prison because they tested positive on a gunpowder residue test. Its press release does not mention the fact that the men were detained the day after the confrontation at the tollbooth, and that the gunpowder residue test was performed two days later, on February 4. Furthermore, the men’s lawyers argue that they were not provided with adequate interpreters during their detention and interrogation. Instead of providing a qualified Tzeltal-Spanish interpreter, Palenque police officers interpreted during the interrogation.
MJB is keeping up the pressure to release the remaining five prisoners. The group has called for “5 Days of Worldwide Action for the Bachajón 5” on April 1-5 to demand the release of the remaining prisoners. MJB proposes that during the 5 Days of Worldwide Action for the Bachajón 5, “we unite our forces and organize actions–from our particular locations and respective forms of struggle–such as demonstrations, marches, informative street actions, flyering, public forums, theatre, teach-ins, and any other activity.”