‘We are fearful’: Indigenous Mexicans dread new military buildup on ancestral land

As the Tzeltal people resist huge infrastructure projects across Chiapas state, the new national guard barracks springing up are alarming many

Micaela* always stops to kiss a cross at the base of three hills, a lush swath of land in the indigenous ejido of San Sebastián Bachajón, Chiapas. Her ejido, meaning communal land, is shared among more than 5,000 Tzeltal inhabitants. But soon, they will also have to share it with Mexico’s national guard.

The national guard has built 165 barracks in Mexico since it was created only two years ago by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to replace the federal police, which he said was corrupt. Micaela’s community is leading the first lawsuit against one of 500 or so barracks planned across the country.

“In August 2020 we heard rumours that a plot of land was sold, and that the municipal president donated the land to the national guard,” Micaela says. “They worked night and day to finish the barracks. It went up very quickly.”

According to the land’s shareholders, neither the local government nor the national guard consulted the community.

Mexico is legally bound to the International Labour Organization’s convention 169, which recognises the right of indigenous peoples to prior consultation regarding any activity affecting their lives or lands.

With no federal mechanism to regulate this process, indigenous consultations are designed by state authorities, an ambiguous exercise that often undervalues indigenous land rights. In San Sebastián Bachajón, community leaders say a consultation was held only for a select group of shareholders.

“The community never agreed to the barracks,” says Micaela. “We don’t want the national guard here because this is our territory.”

The walls around one of some 500 national guard barracks planned around Mexico.
One of 165 national guard barracks built in Mexico. Locals in San Sebastián Bachajón say they were not consulted, even though it is on indigenous land. Photograph: Caitlin Cooper

Constitutionally recognised as a civilian force under civilian leadership when it was created in 2019, the guard has been criticised since then for its similarity to the country’s armed forces. A recent proposal by López Obrador to make the guard a permanent part of the army has only fuelled these concerns. The widespread construction of barracks is part of an important debate about whether the deployment of the national guard confirms what critics see as the de facto militarisation of Mexico.

Ivette Galván, a lawyer with the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center (Centro Prodh), says: “This is the first [injunction] presented by an indigenous community against these barracks on the infringement of their collective rights.” The injunction to suspend construction of the barracks, represented by Centro Prodh, was presented last December in the capital of Chiapas state, Tuxtla Gutiérrez.

According to lawyers acting for the community, the judiciary rejected the move to halt construction, arguing that the barracks were ordered by the defence ministry (Sedena). “The legal basis for its denial effectively argues that the barracks respond to the needs of national security,” says Galván, “affirming the scale of the guard’s coordination with the military.”

In 2021, the national guard deployed about 100,000 troops, of whom 60,000 were previously under the defence ministry. Responsible for public security, the guard also oversees immigration and combating organised crime but also reforesting the country, a far-reaching deployment seen by some as confusing.

Cata Hernández, representative in Chiapas for the National Coordinating Committee of Indigenous Women (Conami), says they are still unsure about what the implications will be of the national guard’s presence in their community, but adds: “What we know is that in the past, the deployment of the military has had a negative impact, particularly for women and girls.”

After resisting the presence of military forces for decades, Chiapas is littered with the remains of former police and military bases. After the Zapatista uprising in 1994, the San Andrés Accords demanded self-determination, access to justice and autonomy for Chiapas’s indigenous groups, requests that remain unfulfilled. The rape of three Tzeltal women at a military checkpoint in 1994 has gone unpunished.

“When they [soldiers] were here years ago, they impregnated women, abandoned children, entered our meeting space without permission, and cut down our trees. We are fearful,” Micaela says.

San Sebastián Bachajón was moved to take legal action against the barracks in October 2020 when, during a peaceful protest, three civilians were arbitrarily detained and at least 13 were wounded by state and municipal police.

Victórico Galvéz, of the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center, said the national guard’s failure to intervene was negligent. Galvéz said the police charging two indigenous protesters with rioting was “a way of telling the communities not to act, threatening that the same will happen to them”.

Juan Jiménez García, a community spokesman, says there is no need for the national guard to be in his community. “The landowners go to their cornfields, their coffee fields, why do they want to keep watch on us?” he asks.

A sign in Chiapas protesting against militarisation of the region, the national guard barracks, and the planned highway.
A sign in Chiapas protesting against militarisation of the region, the national guard barracks, and the planned highway. It also says: ‘Preserve life, water, health and land. Zapata lives. The struggle continues’. Photograph: Caitlin Cooper

For the Tzeltal inhabitants of Chiapas, the barracks also raise concerns about their sovereignty in the face of development. At stake in the region are at least 40 infrastructure projects, including the Mayan Train, a controversial plan for a 1,000-mile (1,600km) railway connecting Palenque in Chiapas with other tourist sites in the Yucatán peninsula, and a 400-mile highway connecting Pijijiapan with Palenque. The community in San Sebastián Bachajón is opposed to the highway project.

“One of the greatest threats of militarisation is the repression of social movements and protest, especially for a region with a long history of organisation,” says Gustavo Castro, founder of the local organisation Otros Mundos Chiapas. The human rights defender also pointed to the experiences of activists in Nicaragua and Honduras, where the security forces, as well as criminal gangs and paramilitaries, have violently silenced environmentalists to protect foreign investment.

“We already know, with any small problem the government sends thousands of guards, and we can’t do anything because there are more soldiers than shareholders,” says Micaela. “Whatever happens, we won’t be able to defend our land.”

Mexico’s lower chamber of congress recently approved a new federal bill on consulting indigenous and African-Mexican peoples. The bill, however, withholds the right to consultation on matters of national security. “Bringing these concepts closer to the Tzeltal worldview is a pending obligation,” says Galván.

* Her name has been changed to protect her identity

Caitlin Cooper

The GuardianTramp

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