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In Rural Mexico, a Land War

May 08, 1988|Jack Epstein | Jack Epstein of Berkeley writes on Third World issues.

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO — One evening 15 months ago Areseli Burgete decided to take her young son for a walk in this high mountain city of 40,000 inhabitants. It almost cost the 33-year-old sociologist her life.

"I was no more than three feet from the door when I noticed a man on a bicycle with a ski mask pulled over his face," she recalled. "He took out a gun and started firing." A bullet lodged in her back, she fell to the ground. Her son escaped serious injury.

Burgete is only one of the many casualties of violence that has become common in the southern agricultural state of Chiapas bordering Guatemala. Within its picturesque pine-studded mountain highlands and beautiful lakes and waterfalls, a war is being waged over one of Mexico's thorniest political issues--land.

"Here in Chiapas land has been a chronic problem for the past 70 years--the nation's economic crisis is aggravating the social question associated with peasants not owning any land," said Raul Orlando Lomeli Radillo, a San Cristobal priest. "It's causing more conflicts and more killings."

Most Chiapas land disputes involve individuals who challenge large landowners by invading sections of their holdings or by organizing peasants agains them. Burgete and her husband, Margarito Ruiz, for example, are active members of the Independent Union of Agricultural Workers (CIOAC), a national group that focuses on the independent unionization of farm workers.

Ruiz has been shot at three times and has survived a poisoning attempt. Although the couple has since fled Chiapas for the safety of Mexico City, they have been more fortunate than their colleagues. CIOAC claims that between 1979-87 its Chiapas members have suffered 33 assassinations, 154 injuries, 243 arrests and 80 kidnapings and disappearances.

Chiapas is just one of many Mexican states suffering an outbreak of land-motivated killings. According to a report submitted to the nation's Congress last November by the Mexican Socialist Party, 705 political murders have occurred in the nation's countryside between 1982-87; more than a third of the victims were members of independent peasant organizations like CIOAC.

In many areas of the country, rural violence erupts when frustrated peasants invade the property of a finquero, or large landowner, after losing patience with the legal process. Violence also occurs when finqueros with political clout take over communal peasant lands with the tacit approval of state politicians, or pit government-controlled peasant groups against independent peasant organizations.

In some areas, the finquero is also a cacique , or political boss, who wields tight control over local stores and transportation and makes loans to peasants at usurious interest rates. At election time, he turns out the vote for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

To protect their fiefdoms against peasant invasions, finqueros cajole or bribe peasant activists to cooperate. When that fails, they hire local muscle, known locally as pistoleros or "white guards." These hired guns are paid to terrorize those who speak out or organize peasants; pistoleros burn down homes, beat recalcitrants and, when necessary, murder selected leaders.

The hunger for land among campesinos is nothing new. In fact, it was the principal cause of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1917. At the beginning of the insurrection against dictator Porfirio Diaz, 96% of the population was landless while 1% owned 97% of the land.

The revolution ended in 1917, the same year that President Venustiano Carranza signed Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution stressing the rights of peasants to hold land. This was the first Latin American land reform of the 20th Century and holdings were limited by law to ensure a more equitable distribution of wealth. The ejido , tracts of land held in common by peasant communities that could be farmed either cooperatively or individually, became the cornerstone of the new land system.

Carranza, however, was no social reformer. His recognition of agrarian reform was aimed in part at eroding popular support for rival guerrilla leader Emiliano Zapata, whose army of 20,000 farmers had made "land and justice" a battle cry of the revolution. In 1919, Carranza ordered the assassination of the charismatic Zapata and afterward quickly pacified the countryside.

With Zapata's death, agrarian reform ceased to be a government priority until the presidency of Lazaro Cardenas (1934-40), who doled out 44 million acres to 810,000 peasants. Since then, agrarian reform has become a symbol of the revolutionary heritage of each successive PRI president. Today there are more than a million small holdings, most of them individually worked and smaller than 13 acres.

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