San Sebastián Bachajón: Following the Assassination of Juan Vázquez Guzmán, the Struggle for the Defense of the Land Continues

“The government does not like the people to organize and defend what is theirs; they repress us with state forces and order assassination to silence our movement”, declared the ejidatarios (communal landholders) of San Sebastián Bachajón recently. Despite the assassination of their much-loved community leader Juan Vázquez Guzmán, they insist: “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, our grandfathers and grandmothers, who also fought and gave their lives for the mother earth.”

Their struggle against luxury tourism in their territory

The indigenous Tzeltal ejido of San Sebastián Bachajón is situated in the jungle region of   the state of Chiapas in South-East Mexico. It is located in an area of great natural beauty, rich in flora and fauna. The common lands of the ejido straddle the access road to the spectacular series of turquoise waterfalls of Agua Azul, and are not far from the great Maya archaeological site of Palenque. For over 20 years, the Mexican government has planned, as part of the “Maya World” concept, a high class tourist mega-project in Chiapas to rival Cancun; Agua Azul is to be the “jewel in the crown” of this development, with a luxury “eco-lodge retreat” complete with arrival at the waterfalls by helicopter or seaplane. Unfortunately for the people who have lived on and cared for this land for centuries, for whom territory is the basis of a dignified life, they are now the only obstacle to what could become, for rich tourists, “one of the most special experiences in the Western hemisphere”, and, for the resort owners, a lucrative source of income. The realization of this project would inevitably involve dispossessing or co-opting the indigenous population, and taking over their ancestral lands and territory.

As a result, the ejidatarios of Bachajón have become the recipients of daily threats, aggressions, arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances, imprisonment, extensive use of torture, and attacks from paramilitary groups. The strategy of the three levels of government has been to develop alliances with, and give support to, local political party members so they will back the government plans, and to criminalise those who resist these plans, with the aim of generating conflict among the communities in the area.

Since 2006, Juan Vázquez Guzmán had been at the center of the struggle in defense of the common lands of the ejido of San Sebastián Bachajón. On 24 April, 2013, he was shot dead with six bullets in the doorway of his home. He was aged only 32, and the father of two small children aged four and seven. His community members were left devastated, and his assassins escaped into the impunity which reigns in Mexico. There has been no evidence of an investigation into the murder, and the material and intellectual authors of the crime have not been identified.

Focus of conflict: the ticket booth

In 2007, the ejidatarios of San Sebastián Bachajón “organized to defend our mother earth and natural resources”, and decided to become ‘Adherents to the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle’, a Zapatista initiative which seeks to bring together the struggles of all those ‘from below and to the left’. As part of their struggle, they decided to take back control of the booth where tourists buy tickets to view the waterfalls.

In a communiqué released on July 2, 2013, they describe what this booth represented to them: “Our toll booth is a symbol of our struggle and resistance…. It represents the exercise of our right to autonomy and self-determination, not for personal gain but for the collective benefit of our people; using the income from the booth, work and projects are carried out for the common good and the defense of our territory; it is a space of struggle.”

Government-backed forces have violently evicted the Bachajón ejidatarios from the booth on repeated occasions. One of the most serious attacks was on February 2, 2011, when federal and state authorities took possession of an area of the common lands, as well as the ticket booth, through the use of state forces together with armed civilians. This provoked a clash which resulted in the arbitrary detention of 117 people, “as a means of dissolving the indigenous organization in resistance and of pressurizing them into handing over their lands into the control of the Mexican state”, according to San Sebastián Bachajón’s legal representative, Ricardo A. Lagunes Gasca.

Following the events of February 2, 2011, the ejidatarios of Bachajón put out an urgent call for solidarity, which was answered by Movement for Justice in El Barrio from New York, who coordinated an international campaign which continued until the last four of the prisoners were set free on July 23 , 2011. “Here in Chiapas law and justice do not exist, but rather the government imposes its mandate,” Juan Vázquez Guzmán explains in one of the videos released during the campaign. “We will never negotiate our lands. The only thing we are asking is that they respect our right to self-determination as indigenous people. We are demanding justice, control of our land and territory, and, above all, the right to care for ourselves and conserve the natural resources of the land.”

The Amparo

On March 2, 2011, one of the founders of the ejido of San Sebastián Bachajón filed a petition requesting amparo (an order for legal protection) against the arbitrary deprivation of their common lands, and protection of their territory and collective rights. The acts of February 2, 2011, the petition stated, constituted “a partial and definitive deprivation of the common use lands, without consultation, and without the full, prior and informed consent of the General Assembly.”

On January 30, 2013, the Seventh District Judge of Tuxtla Gutiérrez gave judgement on the amparo after almost two years, declaring the request inadmissible. A different court, on May 16, 2013, overturned this decision, and ordered the amparo to be reinstated, referring the claim to the General Assembly of the Ejidatarios. The matter remains unresolved; as the community’s lawyer has pointed out, this is just the beginning: the theft of the rest of their land is still to come.

At the end of May 2013, the ejidatarios sent a delegation to Mexico City to present a letter to the president of the Council of the Federal Judiciary, asking him to ensure impartiality and objectivity in the resolution of their amparo. They also visited the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to demand the return of their territory, and asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington to issue measures to protect the autonomous authorities of the ejido and the family of Juan Vázquez Guzmán.

The struggle continues

At the end of May, 2013, a worldwide alliance of grassroots community organizations announced a new initiative in support of the adherents to the Sixth from San Sebastián Bachajón. The Week of Worldwide Action: “Juan Vázquez Guzmán lives! The Bachajón struggle continues!” took place from Tuesday, June 25 (Juan’s birthday) to Tuesday, July 2, 2013.

Groups and individuals from all five continents took part, and acts of solidarity took place in countries including Mexico, the US, the UK, Germany, India, Austria, Peru, the Philippines, Argentina, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, France, Italy, Uruguay, Brazil and Colombia. Messages of support were received from many parts of the world, from organizations such as the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity and the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Centre, and from well-known writers and thinkers Hugo Blanco, Sylvia Marcos, Gustavo Esteva, and Raúl Zibechi.

In his pronouncement, Gustavo Esteva concluded: “The struggle of Juan and the people of San Sebastian Bachajón is clearly in the forefront of the battle in which our destiny will be defined…..  Juan’s struggle is directly linked with that of all of those who are defending their lands and their waters, their territories and their common properties, and also with all of those who have taken to the streets in other struggles against corruption and for justice.”

“Juan’s total commitment”, wrote Sylvia Marcos, “to the struggle for a dignified and autonomous life for his people and for the safeguarding, protection and defense of their territory was the reason for his vicious murder”.

On July 2, 2013, hundreds of men and women from San Sebastián Bachajón, adherents to the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, carried out one of their traditional acts of protest, an “informative roadblock” of the Ocosingo-Palenque highway, near the entrance to the Agua Azul waterfall. They released a communiqué the same day which they read aloud during the roadblock: “The men, women and children of San Sebastian Bachajón are willing to give their lives for our mother earth and for our struggle, just as compañero Juan Vázquez Guzmán did, and as the native peoples of Mexico and the world have done for hundreds of years against oil, mining, wind, gas, dams and tourism projects, all of them bringing dispossession and death to our people, intending to destroy our way of life, our language and our culture.”

As they said in an earlier communiqué, on May 6, 2013: “The bad government wants to fill our lands with death and fear, so we get tired and no longer continue to defend our life, the people, our mother earth….but we are here and we are not going to leave, because even though they kill us and want to destroy us as indigenous peoples, the heart of the people is alive and will continue struggling whatever the cost.”

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