Washington The impending arrival here of a new, relatively minor consular official rarely attracts much attention. There is, however, one thing that sets Mexico's Julio Cesar Ruiz Ferro apart from other diplomats: they haven't been implicated in a massacre of 45 people.
The second governor of Chiapas since the 1994 Zapatista uprising, Ruiz Ferro was forced to resign in early 1998 amid charges of at least tacit complicity in the slaughter of Mayan Indian villagers by a right-wing paramilitary group. (Ruiz Ferro denied state authorities played any role in the atrocity, attributing it to religious and intra-ethnic feuding.) Despite what international human rights groups believe has been an attempt at obfuscation by the Mexican government, some of Ruiz Ferro's former top aides have been arrested, and hopes have persisted that Ruiz Ferro himself might be called before a magistrate. Last week, however, word quietly began to circulate in Mexico City and Washington that Ferro, 50 whom Harvard professor and Chiapas specialist John Womack Jr. characterizes as "hardly a noted agronomist" was being strategically exiled to Washington as "agricultural attaché."
Word of Ruiz Ferro's appointment has set off a frenetic effort by Amnesty International to get the State Department to reconsider granting him diplomatic credentials. While some at State and on Capitol Hill were taken aback by reports of the former governor's imminent consular incarnation, a spokeswoman at the Mexican Embassy declined to comment on the rationale behind his posting; she did, however, confirm it, adding that Ruiz Ferro "will be an asset" to both the U.S. and Mexico because of his "experience in dealing with agriculture issues."
Reactions of staffers at Mexican political watchdog groups, human rights organizations, and agriculture and trade policy think tanks ranged from cynical laughter to horror. "If the experience Ruiz Ferro brings to the table is ensuring a lucrative cash flow for American agribusiness and the Mexican status quo through a policy of low-intensity warfare against Indian subsistence farmers, he's a good choice," says Peter Rosset of the Institute for Food and Development Policy. "In some ways, Ruiz Ferro's kind of a metaphor for NAFTA and what's happened in Chiapas."
While numerous left-wing revolutionary groups have been operating in Chiapas for years, it was the Zapatistas who made anti-NAFTA sentiment the centerpiece of their 1994 uprising, choosing the treaty's January 1 starting date as their D day.
"The effect NAFTA had on agriculture policy was key," says Rosset. "In preparing for NAFTA, the government repealed Article 27 of the Mexican constitution, which guaranteed peasants land. In neoliberal logic, small subsistence farmers are inefficient producers who, if they can't compete, should get out. No one addressed the problem of where they should go or what they should do."
NAFTA also significantly lowered barriers for importation of U.S. corn and beans the two crops Indian farmers in Chiapas depend on most for their livelihood. "The irony of being in Chiapas, where Indians have lived for thousands of years growing their own corn, and seeing burlap sacks of corn with 'USA' on them, while fields around them have been razed or dying, is intense," says Ashley Maynard, a cultural psychologist at UCLA, who has studied the impacts of the Zapatista revolution and NAFTA on the Indians of Chiapas. "It's now cheaper for them to buy American than grow their own. But the government doesn't appear to want to help them. There aren't enough jobs, wages are still low, yet NAFTA has made them more concerned about money. Yet what they really want and need they're not getting: education, cultural recognition, running water. For asking for the things they deserve, the government has answered with violence and abuse."
After realizing that it couldn't defeat the Zapatistas through direct military action, the government switched to a strategy of drawn-out but ultimately insincere negotiations, coupled with low-intensity counterinsurgency warfare. While the repression in Chiapas hasn't been as severe as was the case in El Salvador or Guatemala in the '80s, visitors say similarities are striking. In addition to "checkpoints," random detentions, and wanton destruction of property, the past few years have seen the rise of paramilitary groups associated with local landowners, government forces, or both. "The death squads [in Chiapas] have not operated on the scale of impunity that they did in Salvador, but that's kind of like saying a mass lynching isn't as bad as what happened at Dachau," says Womack. "In the course of '95'96, you see the military, state police, and paramilitaries really get into league, and then see it explode in 1997."
In the mid '90s, indigenous Chiapans began campaigns of civil disobedience that involved creating "autonomous communities" in defiance of state forces. In May 1997, 19 months into Ruiz Ferro's tenure as governor, paramilitaries backed by PRI-istas supporters of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) attacked one peasant community. Inspired by Paz y Justicia (Peace and Justice), the ill-named leading paramilitary force in the region, other PRI-backed groups formed and violence increased, displacing thousands. Despite pleas by local Catholic officials and human rights groups, Ruiz Ferro refused to acknowledge the plight of the displaced, or the proliferating paramilitaries. On November 4, a death squad attempted to assassinate Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia of Chiapas, who had mediated between the PRI and Zapatista forces. By December, at least 35 were dead as a result of death squad activity. Early that month, PRI-aligned "Red Mask" cadre destroyed the homes and coffee harvest of Indian villagers, who subsequently took refuge in Acteal. On December 22, masked men armed with automatic weapons entered Acteal and, over four hours in broad daylight, killed 45 people, mostly women and children.
Despite repeated pleas for help from surrounding villagers and fleeing witnesses some made directly to Ruiz Ferro's office no government forces intervened. A police garrison within earshot of the massacre did nothing. Army forces nearby stood down. While a "white paper" issued by the Mexican federal attorney general's office chose to attribute the massacre to local tribal tensions, it nonetheless held Ruiz Ferro's administration responsible for allowing the massacre to occur. While a handful of punishments have been meted out, and the Clinton administration has publicly supported the Mexican govern-ment's actions, privately some State Department officials express consternation at the handling of the Acteal investigation, as well as the general situation in Chiapas.
"Maybe," says Womack, on the appropriateness of Ruiz Ferro's new agricultural billet, "blood is good fertilizer."
Research: Ginger Otis
Chiapas Conference "Demystifying Chiapas,' a day-long multidisciplinary conference, will be held on Thursday, April 8, at NYU Law School and the New School for Social Research. Participants will include John Womack Jr., author of Rebellion in Chiapas: An Historical Reader, and Nettie Wild, director of the documentary film A Place Called Chiapas.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.