Chiapas, Democratization and the Military in Mexico {1}

Dr. David R. Dávila Villers

Universidad de las Américas-Puebla

Prepared for delivery at the 1995 meeting of the Latin American Studies Association, The Sheraton Washington, September 28-30, 1995.

SUMMARY: An exploration of the many overlapping causes of conflict in the state of Chiapas, the role of the military in the Mexican polity, and the democratization process. The Chiapas conflict is not only happening in the poorest state in Mexico; it is happening in the poorest region of the poorest state in Mexico.

Let us begin presenting some (government) figures for the state of Chiapas, then we will proceed to the region within Chiapas where the conflict is happening. {2}

Chiapas has a territory of 75,634.4 sq km (the size of Portugal and Holland together or, if you prefer, a bit smaller than the state of South Carolina), and 3.5 million inhabitants. Chiapas has 14,613 km of roads (22% are really paved). There are two main airports (Tuxtla Gutiérrez, and Tapachula) plus 166 land strips. There are also 484 km of railroads (dating back to Don Porfirio). There is only one- 10 meter deep- sea port "Puerto Madero". Forty radio stations cover virtually the whole territory.

Agriculture alone generates 32% of the state's GNP. But it is NOT only subsistence agriculture. Indeed, Chiapas agricultural products such as bananas, coffee, cocoa, soy, papaya, mangoes, watermelons and melons provided a 150 million dollars income for the country (roughly 90% of the federal tax revenue) before 1994.

In spite of 116,000 millions cubic meters of hydroelectric potential, which comprises 30% of the national potential this yields little some benefit for the state. Only 3.6% of the 1. 336, 793 hectares of arable land is irrigated. And even though a system of dams has been built over the Grijalva river (Malpaso in 1965, La Angostura in 1977, Chicoasen in 1981 and Peñitas) the hydroelectric system has virtually no impact on the local economy, short of the flooding of 100,000 hectares of land. Yet, 55% of the Mexican hydroelectricity is generated in Chiapas.

Another of the enclave mega-industries is of course oil. With 85 oil wells, Chiapas yields 20 million barrels per year. The Cactus petrochemical complex produces 700 tons of sulfur, 800 cubic feet a day of residual gases, 186,000 barrels a day of ethanol-plus, 55,000 barrels a day of liquid gas, and 26,000 crude barrels a day.

All this wealth is created in the state, but the Chiapanecos remain poor. . .

The economically active population amounts to 854,000 people. More than half the population (57%) works in the agricultural sector. More than 80% of the Chiapanecos make less than 2 national minimum salaries. {3} 62% of the population has not completed the primary school. Educational services (6 000 schools) serve only 40% of the population (800 000/2.7 million). Unsurprisingly, the illiteracy rate is 30% compared to a national average of 8%.

74.02% of the total population lives in overcrowded dwellings. 66.56% lives in towns of less than 5 thousand inhabitants. 42.68% lives in "houses" (with the bare soil as carpet) without sewage and latrines, 35% of these "houses" do not have electricity and 42.09% lacks running water. . .

But these figures are mere averages: the poorest region within poor Chiapas is the home of the current zapatista conflict. Municipalities like Sitalá, Chamula, Zinacantán, Pantelhó, San Juan Cancuc, Amatenango del Valle, Chenalhó, Mitontic, Larrainzar, Tenejapa, Tumbalá and other indian populated areas are dramatically poor.

The 1990 census indicates that 885 605 chiapanecos speak at least one indian language. Out of a total of 57 languages, seven are the most spoken: Tzeltal (317 618), Tzotzil (281 677), Chol (139 646), Tojolabal (44 618), Zoque (43 350), Kanjobal (13 433), and Mame (12 320).

Not all the indian groups are from the state of Chiapas. There are a number of groups from Guatemala and other neighboring states. The most numerous among those from Guatemala are: Kanjobales (10 343), Jacaltecos (950), Chinantecos (488), Cakchiqueles (272), and Quichés (117). And from neighboring states: Zapotecos (2 721), Náhuatls (329), Chontales (175), Mixtecos (124), Huaves (52), and Mixes (31).

Most of these indian groups are found in five of the nine regions of Chiapas: Altos, Selva, Norte, Fronteriza, and Sierra. In other terms, the remaining four regions (Centro, Frailesca, Soconusco, and Costa) are more mestizo than indian.

As could be expected, "ladino" {4} peasants are more successful in the latter four regions than in the indian regions, granted that ejidatarios lead a hard life in general. Farmers (rancheros), large owners (finqueros) and other categories of private proprietors are naturally against all attempts at expropriation.

A frontier state and rich in land and water, Chiapas was used to distribute land among ladino peasants. This colonization exerted a strong pressure over the indian communities, taking the best agricultural resources away from them, and pushing them to subsistence regions and to shanty towns in the cities. But the cities also have had a strong demographic growth in recent years. And this have pushed the indians away from shanty towns back to their communities. In other terms, at the origin of the zapatista uprising is a phenomenon of re-campesinization: a rejoining of urbanized peasants with rural peasants. {5} This is a point which is important to retain for a later discussion of the zapatista movement.


The military uprisings in the 1920s (De la Huerta, and Serrano) were highly productive for Mexican stability, inasmuch as most of the remaining important generals of the Mexican revolution were killed by obregonist forces. In 1928 it was the turn of Obregón himself at the hands of a radical catholic.

The elimination of militaristic charismatic leadership paved the way for civilian control of the Mexican institutions. By the end of the Second World War the military stopped having a relevant role in Mexican politics. Moreover, it can be argued that the last two generals in power, Cárdenas and Avila Camacho were rather civilians in military uniforms.

The subordination of the military to civilian rule is an aspect of Mexican politics to be duly acknowledged if we want to understand the Mexican government's response to the guerrilla outbreak.

There is of course the great political sophistication of the Mexican regimes, whose corporatist control of the main political institutions give them a wide range of options to choose from between conciliation and repression. . .

But there is an aspect of Mexican foreign policy that begs to be included. All Mexican presidents since the 1960s have sworn to defend the seven traditional principles of Mexican foreign policy when they take office.

1 National self determination
2 Non-intervention in states' domestic affairs
3 Peaceful solution to controversies
4 Prohibition of the use of force
5 States' legal equality
6 International cooperation for development
7 To strive for peace and international security

Peaceful solution to controversies, as well as principles 4 (non-use of force) and 7 (peace and international security) stand out among the rest, since the Mexican government is morally obligated to apply them to the case of Chiapas: Charity begins at home! After all, it was the violations of the indians'human rights by the Mexican government and army which introduced the conflict to the international fora.

This leads us back to the Mexican army. The fact of being subordinated to the civilian power is no guarantee of permanent holidays. Quite the contrary, self-assured civilians would not refrain from using military might when necessary.

Several times in contemporary Mexican history, the government has made use of the army to counter opposition movements. Just to mention a few examples, it happened in 1959 against striking railroaders, in 1968 against students, in 1970s against guerrilla movements and university workers and teachers unions, in 1976 against electricians, and now against insurgent indians in Chiapas.

The army is also used against drug-dealers, in natural disasters (earthquakes, floddings, hurricanes, etc), vaccination campaigns, and of course, official parades. . .

But the Mexican army, brutal as it might well be, is NOT/ repeat/ NOT like others in Latin America. One of the reasons for this is lack of US training. After all, only very few Mexican military officers have attended US training centers, and Mexicans are pleased with that.

Your opinion is, of course, most respectable, but mine is that Mexico does not need anticommunist specialists, neither Mexico need specialists in the art of destabilizing governments, psychological warfare, coup d'états, curfews, etc, etc. If Mexico ever happens to need any of these, you might all be assured that it can count on the help of US pros. . .

Mexico historically spends less than one percent of its GDP on the military, which is comparatively low by Latin American standards. However, I must emphasize that the Mexican federal army is overwhelmingly powerful compared to the Zapatistas. The Zapatistas' best chance to succeed is communicational warfare, not guerrilla warfare.


Mexico's economic profile had changed a lot in a few years, quickly becoming a neoliberal success story. The country was accepted as the third NAFTA partner amid strong opposition in the US Congress. Ex-president Bush "graduated" the whole country by saying that Mexico was already part of the First World (being a member of "great leagues" organizations such as GATT, IMF, NAFTA, and soon after, OECD).

But the day NAFTA entered into force; that is, on 1st January 1994, there was the guerrilla outbreak in Chiapas. The army was sent in and the interior minister made redundant. After short but bloody combats, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) won the media war. Subcommander Marcos, an excellent communicator suddenly became the most popular figure in Mexican politics.

When President Salinas asked his Chiapas-born Interior Minister González Garrido about the existence of guerrillas in Chiapas, the latter replied "everybody knows there are guerrillas in Chiapas." Salinas fired him immediately.

González Garrido, I am persuaded, was trying to point out that guns had been smoking for a long time, but he was given no chance. {6} The sacking of the Interior Minister was one of the many symptoms of the Mexican political crisis.

The Salinas government regained some prestige by negotiating a cease-fire and appointing Manuel Camacho Solís (ex-Maire of Mexico City and the main rival of Luis Donaldo Colosio for the PRI presidential candidacy) as the chief negotiator with the Zapatista. At the same time, Jorge Carpizo McGregor, Mexico's ombudsman was appointed as Minister of the Interior.

And all this was hapening during an election year! Mr Colosio's presidential campaign could only suffer from all these developments. His program, though, showed a fairly good grasp of Mexico's urgent needs. But, long before he could put words into deeds, he was shot dead by Mario Aburto, in Tijuana, on 23rd March 1994.

Ernesto Zedillo took over as the PRI candidate to the presidency of Mexico. Rather unconvincingly presidential Zedillo tried hard to catch up. He invited Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas, and Diego Fernández de Cevallos, the two other main contenders, to a TV debate. The show went badly for Zedillo. It is worth saying that it was followed with greatest interest by a very large audience. At the end of the day, Diego Fernández had won the debate and emerged as the most popular of the three candidates. And Cárdenas, the worst-off according to media polls.

The Mexican political crisis was fueled by the guerrilla outbreak, but at the same time had a strong impact in local politics. In a relatively short time, Chiapas had changed governor many times.

Patrocinio González Garrido, elected for the 1988-1994 period was promoted to the Ministry of the Interior; Elmar Harald Setzer Marseille completed the term (1993-1994).

Javier López Moreno won the 1994 contested elections. He could not finish (largely due to the unresolved guerrilla conflict) and left Eduardo Robledo Rincón in charge. Now we have Julio César Ruiz Ferro as an interim who has called for elections once more. . .

The coming elections in Chiapas promise to be quite interesting. In the last ones, Tapachula, the most important economic center and second largest city in the state {7} voted PRD. Mr Amado Avendaño, the PRD ex-candidate decided to proclaim himself "governor in revolt" alleging fraud.

But when it comes to elections, PRI is by all means the most effective. Tonalá, my own city, on the Pacific coast, voted PRI (with a high rate of abstentionism, as always); 20 miles away Arriaga voted PAN. {8} My town has now more paved roads, more housing, more electricity, even unnecessary traffic lights: reward the faithful! Panistas in Arriaga did not have enough budget to build a roof for the municipal palace and the public services are now in a mess: punish the infidel! A campaign slogan in the streets goes: "Arriaga should be entitled to progress: vote PRI!"

It may be asserted, however, that parties and the zapatistas are not the only relevant political actors in Chiapas. Actually, the zapatistas are probably the end result of many other related and unresolved problems, besides the indian question: agrarian movements, primary school teachers, Central American refugees, etc.

It is worth mentioning that the regional sections of PRI and PRD have their own dynamics and agendas. Organizations like the conservative "Auténticos Coletos" {9} have links with but not necessarily obey the PRI leaders. Priístas themselves often divide on regional bases within the state, and often have presented a unified front against chiapanecos that have made their careers in Mexico City. {10} As for the local PRD, it is well known that Eraclio Zepeda accepted a post in the López Moreno administration, which PRD did not recognize as legitimate. But legitimate or not, it is true that neither the zapatistas do not recognize the State Government as interlocutor: the EZLN talks are with the Federal Government.

An inventory of the political forces at work would be incomplete without including at least two other movements: The COCES (Coalición Obrero Campesino Estudiantil del Soconusco) and the Separatista movement.

The COCES, very militant and of Maoist persuasion, made itself known this year when it coordinated the seizure of 17 municipios (from which it was evicted soon after). Mr. Avendaño, the local leader of PRD, was immediately accused; but, to use his own words, he did not have the command of such a powerful movement.

The Separatistas correctly assume that Soconusco is the most important economic zone whose effort sustain the rest of Chiapas, and want to create a new state out of their district, whose capital will be Tapachula. This is constitutionally possible, but not advisable under the present circumstances. {11}


I will finish my presentation with a reflection on the meaning of the zapatista struggle and a forecast.

Many things have been said about the EZLN. The composition of its leadership still intrigues political analysts. Allegedly, it contains radicalized primary school teachers, campesino leaders, Guatemalan guerrilleros, Mexican veterans of the Central American wars, liberation theologians, and of course, indian leaders. Some would go as far as to include Bishop Samuel Ruíz. {12} But the nature and scope of EZLN demands indicates that we are dealing with. . . an indian movement with an opinion!

Unlike Samuel Ruíz, Manuel Camacho Solís did not last as mediator, Mr. Esteban Moctezuma took the relay, the talks have been protracted and the solution is not in sight. It is obvious for many observers that, unlike the zapatista delegates, the Government negotiators do not have plenipotenciary power. Unsurprinsigly, the July 1994 peace talks in San Andrés Larrainzar yielded no fruit; short of the continuity of peace and a certain distension.

The Mexican army is still searching and harrassing indian communities. The army should leave the zone at once, if peace is going to be established on a permanent basis. The Chiapas indians should be entitled to land {13} and an autonomous territory.

Democracy is, by all means, a precondition for solution; but how can we have democracy in Chiapas only, if democracy is not established in the rest of the country. How can we, if the Federal Government insists in having just a local solution to the problems of a nation. But the indian is only one of the problems awaiting solution in Chiapas. If the zapatistas were to accept the agenda imagined by the Mexican government, the other problems would immediately come to the fore.



1 The author is indebted to Dr Roberto Villers Aispuro for advice comments and breakfast in Tuxtla Gutiérrez. Equally relevant were all those interviewed in the state of Chiapas. My relatives in different cities of the state shared with me their personal views and made my stay very enjoyable. I am grateful to Drs Randall S Hanson and Marco A Almazán for advice and comments on this paper and remains solely responsible for its final contents.

2 The data in this book were taken mainly from several statistical yearbooks by INEGI (Instituto Nacional de Geografía e Informática), specially the IX Census published of 1990. The Mexican government figures tend to underestimate the extent of social problems.

3 The minimum salary is set by the federal government. At current prices, the urban minimum salary would be US$ 800 per year. The income in the agricultural sector was US$ 596 per year, in average, in 1992 (before the 1994 crisis and devaluation).

4 Originally used to refer to monolingual Spanish-speaking mestizos, the term is now widely used to refer to non- indians. An "ejido" is a communal form of property This ancestral form of land exploitation was protected by the 1917 Mexican Constitution. Until president Salinas' constitutional amendment, the ejido could not be legally sold.

5 De-campesinization refers, here, to an incomplete process of proletarization; re-campesinization to the reinstatement.

€6 The state of Chiapas along with Guerrero and Veracruz have the highest violent mortality rates.

7 The largest cities in Chiapas are: Tuxtla Gutiérrez 295 608 Tapachula 222 405 Ocosingo 121 012 San Cristobal de las Casas 89 335

8 Arriaga has 36 224 inhabitants, Tonalá has 67 491. These are the first two cities you encounter on the Pacific coast, coming from Oaxaca.

9 Coleto is the nickname for Sancristobalenses. The term also means conservative catholic.

10 These are called "Pichichis" in the local political jargon.

11 Although separatismo is a deep rooted feeling for many tapachultecos, the movement is in decline for the moment. Its main leader survived a car "accident" but was shot dead in hospital.

12 Monsignor Samuel Ruíz is currently the president of CONAI (Comisión Nacional de Intermediación) is considered a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, and has been the object of a nasty campaign (which interestingly enough unifies the high hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the Mexican government) to discredit his work with the indians in Chiapas. After Camacho Solís, the Mexican government mediator was Mr Esteban Moctezuma (when he was Ministry of the Interior), now Mr Jorge del Valle acts as the "Delegado del Gobierno Federal para los Diálogos de Paz con el EZLN." Mr Emilio Chuayfett (ex-governor of the State of Mexico) is currently the Mexican Minister of the Interior. There is also COCOPA (comisión de Concordia y Pacificación) which is multi-party commission from the Chamber of Deputies.

13 The Federal Government has spent 221 millions of new pesos for the "agrarian reform" in Chiapas. Fifty million out of the total went to pay rents to the ocupied land- owners. The remaining 171 million were used in the administration or simply "vanished."

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