SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico – Some 5,000 people have been displaced and forced to live in precarious conditions in the mountains of the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas due to an agrarian conflict involving two indigenous communities.
“The danger of more violence is imminent. The climate is similar to what it was before the Acteal massacre,” said the bishop emeritus of San Cristobal de las Casas, Felipe Arizmendi.
He was referring to a Dec. 22, 1997, massacre in which a group of men toting assault rifles killed 45 unarmed Tzotzil Indians, including 15 children, as they were praying inside a church in Acteal, Chiapas.
The slaughter occurred during the period when the Mexican government was fighting the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) guerrilla group.
The current conflict between the neighboring municipalities of Chalchihuitan and Chanalho dates back around 40 years, when an agrarian reform established a straight-line territorial boundary instead of taking account the natural flow of the river that separates them.
That border led to a forced land exchange between the municipalities and triggered disputes among families that in recent weeks have escalated into armed attacks.
As a result some 5,000 residents of Chalchihuitan took refuge in a mountainous area, setting up makeshift camps that offer little shelter from inclement weather.
A much smaller number of people have fled Chenalho, Arizmendi said.
Many of the displaced have lost all their belongings after being forced to flee attacks carried out by inhabitants of the rival municipality.
Although the humanitarian organization Caritas is providing food to the displaced, some victims say they are suffering from hunger.
The bishop emeritus urged the Chiapas state government to “seek out ways to address the violence since there are numerous armed people and the people of Chalchihuitan are defenseless in the mountains.”
In recent statements to Milenio Television, Chiapas’ civil protection secretary, Luis Manuel Garcia, said the state government had begun to compile a list of displaced persons and would use it to house these individuals in public shelters.