Correction and Update on the Viejo Velasco Massacre in Chiapas
The Good News: Some of those Reported Dead are Alive. The Bad News: Others Were Massacred, and the Conflict Continues
By Al Giordano
The Other Journalism with the Other Campaign in Chiapas
November 16, 2006
This newspaper believes that when we commit a major error to press, the correction should not be relegated to a hidden corner (what commercial newspapers do), but, rather, ought to receive the same placement – in this case, in a page one headline and story – that the initial error received. To that end, we lament Monday’s error of reporting the deaths of various civilians in Chiapas, and yet we are also relieved to report that they survived the Black Monday massacre. They are: Marta Pérez Pérez, María Pérez Hernández, Eliver Benítez Pérez, Dominga Pérez López, Felicitas Pérez Parcero, eight-year-old Noilé Benítez and the “recently born infant yet to be baptized” listed in our first report.
Those names were on a handwritten document supplied to (and published as a .jpg document by) Narco News by family members who believed and grieved that their loved ones were dead. In fact, they had fled their village of Viejo Velasco Suárez into the forest from an estimated 240 attackers. The following facts are based on testimony collected by human rights organizations that sent investigators to the scene: The Committee in Defense of Indigenous Freedom Xi’nich, the Center for Indigenous Rights (CEDIAC), the Center for the Rights of Women in Chiapas, Hardwoods for the People, the House for Support of Women Ixin Anzetic, the Fray Pedro de la Nada Human Rights Center, Health and Community Development association, and the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Center (“Frayba”). A .pdf document of their report can be found on the Frayba website.
The first wave, of 40 attackers, came dressed as civilians armed with machete swords and sticks, shouting insults at the families of Viejo Velasco. The paramilitary nature of the attackers is underscored by the fact that they were followed by a larger second wave of two hundred attackers: many dressed in official police uniforms, others in black uniforms, they carried firearms exclusively allowed the Armed Forces and police agencies (semi-automatic M-16 and R-15 weapons, .22 caliber rifles plus shotguns). The attackers came from the nearby community of Nueva Palestina, at around 6 a.m. on Monday. Immediately after the initial attack, an unidentified helicopter flew overhead, circling the community. It was not until 10 a.m. that other helicopters, one from the Attorney General’s office and three from the state police, landed in the community.
María Nuñez González, 32, reported dead on Monday, was not so fortunate as the survivors. Her corpse was recovered. According to the human rights report, the attackers raped her and then killed her. Filemón Benitez Pérez, 20, and Antonio Mayor Benitez Pérez, 30, are also confirmed dead.
Villagers also report having witnessed the death of Juan Peñate Montejo. The human rights organizations also list the following individuals as disappeared: Mariano Pérez Guzmán (“60 or 65”) and Miguel Moreno Montejo, 50.
Two more are missing: a handicapped woman, Petrona Nuñez González and her father, Pedro Nuñez Pérez. Family members fear they have been kidnapped and brought to Nueva Palestina, which has been sealed off to prevent press and human rights observers from entering to investigate. Sources from neighboring communities told the human rights investigators that the attackers have said that, “if any of the wounded from Nueva Palestina die, the hostages will be lynched.”
Everything that the victim families had was destroyed in the attack: their homes leveled, their goods, livestock and tools stolen or destroyed. The human rights organizations report that 23 men, eight women and eight children have been left homeless by the attacks.
A strong state police presence in the region has not clarified the location of the missing. As usual, the arrival of law enforcement only made a bad situation worse. Police behaved true to form as on other occasions when officers have been more dedicated to fabricating false evidence than solving the crime. A nearby farmer, C. Diego Arcos Meneses, was detained by state police, forced to carry the corpse of a dead woman onto their helicopter, then beaten when he refused to sign a statement, pleading that he could not read in Spanish and thus didn’t know what it said. He was then arrested and imprisoned.
In the altercation, two of the attackers from Nueva Palestine were wounded:
Vicente Pérez Díaz (who died in the Palenque hospital on Tuesday) and Felipe Díaz López, in the same hospital. The state attorney general (and former national drug czar of dubious renown from the presidential term of Ernesto Zedillo in the 1990s) Mario Herrán Salvatti, has told reporters that Díaz López has been placed under arrest as alleged participant in the attack.
Not an Ethnic Conflict
Many of the press reports on the massacre have stated in error that the clash on Monday was an “ethnic” conflict between Lacandon indigenous and other indigenous groups. This is false. The majority of attackers and victims were of the Tzeltal indigenous group (Nueva Palestina, the attacking community, is majority Tzeltal, and also includes some Choles and Lacandones). The victims were also Tzeltales and Choles. The divisions are not along ethnic lines, but, rather, between those that enjoy special protections and privileges granted by the government and those that do not.
The confusion perhaps stems from the fact that the attacking community enjoys special government protection as part of “the Lacandon agreement” signed in 1972 granting Lacandones, some Tzeltales and some Choles, exclusive rights to live in the Montes Azules nature reserve in exchange for ceding control of hardwoods and other natural resources to the government. The confusion also stems from racist preconceptions about indigenous in Chiapas. Some reports have blamed this on “centuries-old” conflicts between indigenous groups. That is also false. The government, by granting special privileges to some communities while excluding others, provoked this conflict over lands (the history is provided in our report of Monday). Beginning in 1984, there were also governmental attempts to resolve the conflicts, granting to the citizens of Viejo Velasco and other afflicted communities the right to live on and work their lands. However, inconsistency by government agencies, incompetence, disrespect for indigenous uses and customs, and the government’s own role in looting hardwoods and other natural resources from the region, have combined to aggravate and keep these conflicts alive. The state continues to behave in a manner that strongly suggests it, too, wants these particular indigenous communities out of the way in a region rich in resources.
The media has also played its role: Its reliance on government sources for information (never accurate, always interested) and its tendency to always blame both sides of any conflict, as well as to mindlessly repeat the false canard of “ethnic conflicts” to explain away injustices rooted in bad policies, only serve to fuel misunderstanding and racism. The implication of such “reports” is that indigenous peoples are incapable of self-governance (something proved wrong daily in more than a thousand Zapatista communities in Chiapas) and therefore outsiders must govern them. Perhaps we are in a weaker position to make that observation today, while issuing a correction to Monday’s story, but nearly every other media outlet that has reported on Monday’s events has made errors just as serious – not only in the death count – and somehow we doubt that the corrections, if they come at all, will receive the same placement as the original misstatements.
One sector that has, again, shown its commitment to honest investigation this week is that of the aforementioned human rights organizations of Chiapas, who quickly self-corrected initial imprecise data in their own reports, some of which was based on the same documents we received here. They responded much faster than the media in collecting testimony and bringing forward the true facts, which demonstrate that the gravity of Monday’s massacre is much worse than the governments and the Commercial Media have so far admitted.
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