The shooting started as Antonio Mejia and his wife, Maria Gutiérrez Sánchez, an indigenous couple living in the jungle community of K'an Akil, Chiapas, were working their corn field near their home on August 25. Armed members of Los Aguilares paramilitary group opened fire with AK-47 rifles and shotguns, killing Antonio. Maria managed to hide among the maize plants. Antonio's body could not be recovered until several days later when a caravan of international non-governmental human rights observers arrived to offer some protection with their presence as the family and community retrieved his cadaver. According to eyewitnesses, the paramilitaries had been waiting near the cornfield but disappeared into the jungle when the caravan arrived.
Mejia was the fourth member of Zapatista support communities killed by paramilitaries in August. Days earlier, José Lopez Santiz, Lorenzo Martinez Espinoza, and Jacinto Hernandez Gutierrez were executed by Los Aguilares and by a PRI-sponsored paramilitary organization.
"It is obvious that the Government knows who are the leaders of the paramilitaries and the assassins, but they are never punished," Eliseo, a Zapatista supporter told the international observers. "This is proof that the governments wants to destroy the EZLN's support municipalities."
This violence against isolated jungle communities has increased dangerously during recent months. It is part of President Vicente Fox's continuation of the low-intensity war unleashed by former President Ernesto Zedillo against communities that support the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and the demands of 10 million indigenous people.
It is also Fox's desperate attempt to crush all opposition to his and President George W. Bush's campaign to impose their Puebla-Panama Plan (PPP), a massive development project that will open up Chiapas' oil reserves, millions of acres of valuable timber and rich biodiversity areas to U.S. corporations. The USD Inter-American Development Bank has offered Fox $10 billion in loans to "help" implement the PPP.
One of those corporations is Temple-Inland, which exploits more than 240,000 hectares (almost 600,000 acres) of timber through its subsidiary Inland Paperboard and Packaging and its partner Planfosur, a Mexican timber company. Temple-Inland also owns Lumbermen's Investment Corporation that's trying to build the PGA Village over the Edwards Aquifer and risk contaminating the drinking water used by thousands of families.
According to the Indigenous National Congress (INC), their best protection against the PPP and its growing violence would be government recognition of their autonomy to manage their traditional lands and forests. That's why more than 300 communities challenged the legality of the so-called "Indian Rights Law" passed by Mexico's Congress in July 2001. The INC described that law as "an attempt by Fox and Congress to renege on the San Andres Peace Accords signed in 1996 by the EZLN and the Zedillo administration in San Andres Larrainzar."
The EZLN, INC, and other groups had hoped that Mexico's Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation would rule that the law violates the San Andres Accords and an International Labor Organization's agreement that Mexico's government had signed a decade before. That labor organization's agreement grants indigenous peoples the recognition of self-government and autonomous land-management rights. The legal challenges also argued that several states used faulty procedures in ratifying the law by not obtaining the two-thirds approval of state legislators, required by the federal constitution.
Despite the massive opposition and the questionable constitutional legality of the Indian Rights Law, the Mexican Supreme Court decided on September 6 to throw out the complaints, claiming that it does not have jurisdiction to rule on such issues.
The Court's decision leaves few alternatives in the indigenous people's struggle for justice. "The last peaceful alternative to peace in Chiapas has been destroyed. Therefore, the government will not have the moral right to criticize whatever means the indigenous people decide to use in their quest for justice and dignity," warned Father Edgar Cortes, director of the Center for Human Rights Miguel Agustin pro Juarez.
Observers claim that the Fox Administration anticipated the Mexican Supreme Court's elimination of this last hope for a peaceful solution and therefore it encouraged the increased violence by paramilitaries against opponents of the law and the PPP.
The day Antonio Mejia's worm-riddled body was carried to his small, part cement-block, part corrugated-laminate home, there was no weeping among his neighbors. Only deep anger and bitter determination could be seen on the faces of the men, women, and children who did not cover their faces with black ski masks. It is this determination to protect their land and traditions that Fox and Bush will confront as they continue recklessly with their plans to hand Chiapas over to U.S. corporations.