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Mexican Military enters
Roberto Barrios in the North of Chiapas

by J.F. Ri
San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico


The community of Roberto Barrios, 32 kilometers from Palenque in the north of Chiapas, is home to one of the five Aguascalientes community centers, and has, over the last few years, been a very strong center of Zapatista support. I was there in January and February of 1997, working on the installation of a potable water system, and again in March, and in the space of these few months, a noticeable increase in tension and decrease in the security of the community has been evident.

Roberto Barrios lies along the banks of a river, and across this river, some few hundred meters from the entrance to the community, is an encampment of the Mexican federal army. In order to enter or leave the community, one must pass through the military base. The community is divided between Zapatista supporters and Priistas; according to what members of the community told me, among the Priistas there are members of the paramilitary group "los chinchulines", who are receiving military training in the federal army encampment. According to the compañeros, many Priistas regularly pass over to the army base for military training, and receive as well, gifts of rice and beans in exchange for their support.

During the time of my stay in January and February, two members of the Zapatista organization in Roberto Barrios received written death threats, notes apparently written in good grammar and good handwriting, causing community leaders to believe that authorities in the military base had something to do with it. Around the same time, confrontations were occurring in nearby communities of El Bosque, Aguas Blancas and Sabanilla, and refugees from some of these communities made their way to Roberto Barrios. At the same time there were internal conflicts in the community regarding the fact that the government arrived to install a water system one week after our team had arrived to install a similar system. In other words, there were two systems being installed at once, forcing members of the community to decide to which one they would lend support. This is typical of government intervention in the communities -- arriving to increase tension rather than support peaceful resolutions.

In the month of March, just after the lynching and arrest of two Jesuit priests in nearby Palenque, and PRI protests outside of the parish there in which the angry government supporters shouted "Murdering priests out of Palenque!", I arrived in Roberto Barrios for a few days. Immediately upon my arrival I noticed that tension had increased dramatically. I was told that the government water project was nearly completed, and though it was not going to bring water to the houses of the Zapatistas, but only to the Priistas, a number of Zapatistas were working on the project, they told me, because "they didn't want trouble".

This was cause for some tension. But, besides this, the people in charge in the community told me that, for about a week, the army had been crossing the river, fully armed and entering the community every day. During the first occurrence of this, a group of women washing clothes in the river formed a human chain before the river bank, and the soldiers turned back. But they continued coming, day after day, crossing the river and crossing back, as if simply to scare the community. I was also told that the soldiers had been firing their rifles into the river. And that the community felt helpless to do anything. Presumably these events continue to this day, and, for fear of reprisal, the community remains quiet, suffering these acts of terror in silence as the war of low intensity slowly evolves into a war of high intensity.

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Published in In Motion Magazine, April 21, 1997

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