Standoff in Chiapas (3/98)

Esperanza Aguilar Jimenez is a skinny seven-year-old, all legs and arms in a well-worn, carefully patched, poofy-skirt dress. She sits next to me on a dusty rock at the side of the road leading into Morelia, her village in the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas. It’s mid-morning, and Esperanza ought to be in school. But all her teachers are gone. Fearing the imminent advance of the Mexican military, they packed themselves tightly into a little pickup and drove as quickly as they could down the deeply rutted road out of town. I know this because I watched them go.

Along with about 20 other women and children from this community, plus a handful of outside human rights observers, Esperanza and I have been keeping a vigil here since soldiers were first spotted in the area yesterday afternoon. The warning was given during a mass in honor of three men taken from Morelia and allegedly killed by the military in 1994. The women quickly doused their memorial candles, shed their lace mantillas, and ran, picking up sticks as they went. Smaller children were shuttled into houses with older women; shutters were pulled tight, doors closed and bolted.

Except for the lay minister who’d been giving the mass in tzeltal, no men were in sight when we ran for the road. They’d been hiding in the mountains since early this year, when President Ernesto Zedillo began sending federal troops into the rural indigenous communities known to support the EZLN, a guerrilla army fighting for the autonomy of the indigenous people of Chiapas- and all Mexicans.

Zedillo claims that he wants to protect people from the sort of violence that led to the massacre of 45 civilians at the hands of a paramilitary group in Acteal, Chiapas, last December. Thus, it’s imperative to disarm all militant factions, he says. But to those who live here, the government sending in troops is the same one that armed the killers in Acteal. Their coming means nothing but grief and despair.

In 1994, three local men were murdered. In 1995, when the soldiers came, the entire community fled into the mountains, enduring cold, hunger, and sickness for over a month before returning to their village and ruined crops.

Early this year, however, the women of Morelia decided they were tired of watching their children suffer. Agreeing to send the men into hiding, they organized to defend the community themselves.

"They kill the men, and then what?" demands Esperanza’s mother, Rolinda Jimenez Sanchez. One of the elected information officers of the women’s committee, she explains their decision while we wait. "Without their father, my children don’t eat. The men here work hard in the fields to bring food to their children. We don’t want the army to kill them, so we stay here and protect them."

But remaining in the community hasn’t been easy. Although the women have already turned the soldiers away once, the constant vigil means that work at home remains undone. This morning there are no tortillas. No one has had time to grind the corn, make the dough, pat out the tortillas, or cut the wood for a fire to cook them.

"But it’s better than suffering in the mountains," Rolinda maintains. "We’re small, but many, and we’re organized. If the soldiers come, we block the road and we don’t let them through."

The sun is shining strong, and the low buzzing of the jungle is muffled by the heat. I try to bribe Esperanza to let me take her picture, but she’s too shy. The warmth and the quiet make me drowsy until another observer jumps suddenly to his feet, his instamatic camera swinging wildly from his wrist.

"Oh, my god," he says, "there they are." We’re all on our feet then, gaping up the hill about 500 meters to where a seemingly endless convoy of heavy-duty army trucks is rounding a bend in the road. The children scramble for rocks, the observers scramble for their cameras. Meanwhile, the women pick up their sticks and strain forward, watching.

Rolinda is at my side. "Can you observers stand with us across the road?" she asks. We stretch out in a line so the soldiers can see us. The trucks stop. The air feels heavy and thick.

Back in the village, the church bell is ringing, alerting the rest of the community. The women stand beside us, and I feel safe in their tiny shadows. I hear the low rumbling of their voices. Then one of them, unable to contain her fury, shouts; "Out! We don’t want you here!"

The sound carries on the still air, and then is lost in a chorus of other angry cries. Esperanza has a rock in one hand and the hem of her mother’s skirt in the other. Her eyes are bright, but I can’t tell if it’s from fear or excitement. Perhaps both.

When the rest of the women come running from the community over the rise of the hill where we are standing, their momentum seems to envelop those in front. They all start running, furiously waving sticks and shouting at the soldiers to go home. They move up the road toward the convoy en masse- women carrying babies, children carrying sticks, old women barely able to walk .

As I run with them, fear closes my throat. But when I look up again, the trucks are hastily, clumsily turning around. They’re attempting a retreat, but moving too slowly. The women catch up to the last truck, which carries about 20 soldiers armed with automatic rifles. Women beat at the truck with their sticks, while children hurl a rain of rocks that thunk against the soldiers’ helmets. The convoy moves slowly on as soldiers cover their heads with their arms and turn their backs to the women.

At one point, the convoy comes to a halt and the commanding officer climbs down from a vehicle near the front. He approaches the women, trying to shout over them that he’s here to bring aid, to see if they are OK, to see if they need anything.

"Like in Nueva Esperanza?" Rolinda cried. The population of this nearby community chose to flee when soldiers entered their village earlier this year. When they returned, some of their homes were destroyed, their crops were burned, and their livestock was gone.

Eventually, the officer tires of trying to shout them down. After ducking a low flying rock, he climbs back into his vehicle and the convoy moves on. Running and shouting, the women chase the trucks for nearly two miles- to make sure the soldiers know they’re watching and continue their retreat.

Today, the women of Morelia have won a victory. They smile and laugh as they watch the trucks disappear into the distance, enveloped by large clouds of dust. But this is only today.

Tomorrow will be another day of waiting to see what the army does. It will also be another day of knowing that women who have chosen the same strategy in other communities haven’t always been as successful. Many have suffered at the hands of soldiers. In addition, they know it isn’t only the military that plagues the population in the conflict zone, but also divisions in the civilian community itself.

President Zedillo appears to have convinced himself, and a good portion of the Mexican public, that the best thing he can do for the indigenous people is rid them of the EZLN, reestablishing "law and order" in Chiapas before more Mexicans are killed. But the women here say their last and only hope for peace lies with the power of the EZLN to bring the government to the negotiating table and defend their right to autonomy.

"We can take care of ourselves, if only the army would leave us alone," Rolinda explains as we make the long walk back to town. Esperanza skips happily ahead with her friends. "Right now, that’s all we’re asking," says Rolinda, "to be left alone to do our work and tend to our homes."

In the meantime, the solution for the women of Morelia is the same as it’s always been- organizing and sticking together. Working collectively, they struggle every day for food, shelter, healthy children, and the right to live as they choose in freedom and dignity. Some days, this means nothing more than patting out the tortillas, but sometimes it means pushing back the military. Most days, they just do whatever they must in order to survive.

Robin Flinchum is a freelance journalist helping to chronicle the struggles of women in resistance in Chiapas.