The land, which represented the foundation of the indigenous farmers of Zimatlán, converted into a risk area where they registered six murders, six missing people, harvesting stolen, and many houses burnt down. The IACHR has lied out some precautionary measures to address the agricultural conflict that since 2010 has seen the peasants of Zimatlán contraposing to their neighbors of San Sebastián Nopalera. Nonetheless, the Mexican State has been in breach of such measures so far.
Zimatlán de Lázaro Cárdenas, Putla Villa de Guerrero, Oaxaca. The needle of the velocimeter has suddenly shifted from 20 to 60 kilometers per hour while crossing a narrow highway characterized by sharp curves. ‘Here, we must go faster. It is risky. I was shot here’, says the driver of the white Tsuru which goes down the mountain range.
At that moment, the vehicle was passing through the village of San Sebastián Nopalera, the starting point form where the inhabitants of Zimatlán do not want to circulate because they are afraid. Their neighbors have already killed six of their peasants and kidnapped other six. They have lied them in ambush many times and set fire and shot their houses.
It is the border between San Sebastián Nopalera and Zimatlán de Lázaro Cárdenas, two communities who have been in an agricultural conflict for over nine years so far. It was in 2010 when the first attack to the population took place employing long guns — the terror.
Nowadays, leaving Zimatlán has no guarantee to come back. Working in the fields, close to the disputed area, means to try one’s luck.
Families have lost the ‘men of the house,’ their harvesting, their humble woody homes with metal sheeted ceilings, their source of employment, their resources, tranquility, and patience. What is never-ending is their anxiety, anger, and tears.
In this area, farmers do not work anymore in the banana plantations. They do not collect crops of citric, mangos, and, coffee, nor do they collect honey. Their product trading business has sharply decreased. Subsistence becomes increasingly harder day by day, despite some years ago peasants could have a better-quality life by selling their crops.
At the moment, they can bring out of the maze just the necessary to survive. Farmers live hand to mouth. Over 51 people cannot enter their vegetable patches; if they took the risk, they could experience what happened to Marcelino or Eleazar, the first two people to disappear.
Orphanhood and anger
The women, who gather in the townhall agency to deal with their sorrow, cannot walk along the dusted streets freely. It is heavy for them to carry the photo of their son, husband, or brother. Some of them speak up enstrengthened by their desire to demand for justice; some others, while remembering, break down in tears.
Some others are continually taking the floor so that no details of such a cruel story remain untold. They talk with the surprise and anger that the loss generates; they gesticulate, move as they were going out to run, again, as Elidia Cruz Hernández does. She is over 65 years old of age, and she narrates that her husband died during the attack that took place against the population on February 2, 2011.
A bullet surprised Hermelindo Jiménez Paz when he went out looking for his wife Elidia, who was feeding their young goats. That same day, they murdered Rafael José Cruz Sánchez and Juan Zacarías Hernández.
These women are remaining alone, at the head of their families without any source of employment, and in hunger – among others. This situation has converted into a kind of prison for the population itself. For some women, the search for justice is exhaustive. For others, searching for their family members is leaving them strengthless and hopeless.
Eleazar Asunción Sánchez Hernández, at that time a 19-year-old boy, was the first to disappear. He went out to collect some firewood for the kitchen of his home, and he did not come back. Atila, his mother, started to feel anxious a couple of hours later when she realized that, by that time, his son should have been already home. Atila Genoveva Hernández Jiménez followed in his footsteps, and she went to the house of her brother Marcelino to search for help.
Eleazar’s uncle, Marcelino Pedro Hernández Jiménez, immediately reacted. He left for the south of the village to search for his nephew. Neither did he come back. His wife, Celerina Ignacia Hernández Jiménez, said that they found Marcelino’s sandals and hat along the way. He was 39 years old at the time.
The woman cannot help but cry when she remembers that they also found a puddle of blood and prints, making it clear that he had been dragged onto the road, whereas no news of Eleazar was found. The whereabouts of both have been unknown since that afternoon on May 29, 2010.
They were the first two people to disappear since the beginning of this war between Zimatlán and La Nopalera, two communities who started to fight over these precious lands.
According to the recollection of the facts held by the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), on July 21, 2010, Mr. Jaime Jiménez Cruz, 40 years old of age, was severely wounded in the so-called area Los Mangales, where burning houses and robbers were registered as well. The following day, Mr. Rubén Hernández Cruz was shot at his shoulder, as settled in the investigation 224/P.G/2010.
There was an escalation in the facts so that on July 24 of the same year a humanitarian caravan safely brought 31 children, 12 women and a wounded man to the city of Tlaxiaco, around 3 hours of distance from this community. ‘Once arrived in Tlaxiaco, the 44 Mixtec indigenous people organized a protest march to denounce the condition of extreme vulnerability and death danger with which they have been living since March 8, 2010.’
The list has been getting longer: around a dozen murders and kidnappings, eight wounded people, and approximately 20 people affected by a robber or whose houses have been burnt. On violent acts, just in September 2018, Erick Hernández Sánchez (37 years old), the municipal agent appointed by the community of Zimatlán de Lázaro Cárdenas, and José Israel Barrios Jiménez (27 years old), the alternate municipal agent, were kidnapped. ‘They only went to work in the fields,’ says one of their familiars, whose name is omitted to safeguard her life.
It was around 3 pm on September 28, 2018, when both were in that location called El Camalote, in this community and ‘they were kidnapped by an armed group coming from San Sebastián de Nopalera, Santa Lucia Monteverde.’ This charge has been included in the investigation file 3126/PG/2018 of the Agency of the Public Ministry of Putla de Guerrero.
The most recent attacks ended with the life of Bernardino García Hernández (who was part of the representation of Zimatlán de Lázaro Cárdenas in the dialogues to seek for peace), who was attacked by an armed group in the area of El Camalote, on the past January 21.
During his grounding in the pantheon of the community, ‘an armed group coming from San Sebastián Nopalera attacked the people attending the ceremony with firearms. In such a circumstance, no one got injured’, reports the file presented before the IACHR.
At about midnight, the town treasurer Virgilio Pablo García Hernández (38 years old) was assaulted and severely injured in the location of El Huapinol. He was brought to the hospital in Putla de Guerrero, but due to ‘the severity of his wounds,’ he died on January 24, 2019, relates the international body of human rights.
The beginning of the terror
The conflict arose for the possession of 5-thousand-hectare land located at the border between the two villages. Albertano Cesario Bautista Bruno, municipal ex-agent, says that most of the inhabitants of this area had not moved away because its lands provided them with work. Just a few, for extraordinary circumstances, migrated to the United States seeking sustenance. Now the situation has changed: some were obliged to move in other regions to survive.
He claims that it is very much deplorable that such a conflict exists as many inhabitants of one area have affective relationships with those living in the other: neighbors, acquaintances, friends, and even close relatives live on the other side. ‘We cannot denigrate the community of San Sebastián Nopalera because we are part of the same municipality and the mentioned ejido [in dispute] as well,’ he adds.
Bautista Bruno was the municipal agent in 2008. Two years before his appointment, the agricultural conflict between the two villages and a third one, the town of San Pedro Osotatu, had already resolved. In 2006, the conflict area was assigned to him, he says, and apparently, they started working without any problem.
‘As an authority, I have never intended to conflict with them, and we always helped each other. We used to discuss any issue that might arise. We agreed, among administrative authorities, on how to manage the ejidos assigned to one specific community and the common areas. We had never thought to reach such a deplorable situation.
“We started sowing the area of Casa Blanca, and we reached an agreement providing that San Sebástian Nopalera was going to be cultivated by one community and the area of Zimatlán de Lázaro Cárdenas by both.’
‘We are not aware of the issues arisen among them. They started to fumigate the sown lands employing weed-killer, to destroy the vegetation as well as banana plantations. Things were not working out. I do not know what they started thinking…’, he relates.
Problems got even more severe on March 8, 2010. That day a shooting affected those people who were preparing the field for new sowing in the west, where the sun gets down. The following day another shooting concerning the whole area occurred: ‘Armed people almost surrounded us. People were vigilant because rumors were reporting that they would kill us all. Deadly shootings directed to people and houses took place. Here is where everything started’.
Mr. José Juan is one of those farmers who has been affected by the conflict that is about to reach a decade. He is dedicated to planting corn, coffee, and grass to feed animals. However, a part of the lands that he employed to carry out these activities is now in the conflict area. ‘For that reason, we cannot collect the agricultural products that our land offers and everything has been stolen. That is why we live in such misery right now’, he says.
The man who, like the women, reached the municipal agency to talk about his sorrow, claims that there were better times when they were free to work anytime in the day. ‘The neighbor of the community did not have a specific time when to work. They could already go to work as soon as the sun was rising. Whoever wished to come back home late was free to do that, there was no problem’.
In this area, where the lands produce coffee, pineapple, and avocado, ‘we used to have outstanding harvests, whereas now people cannot even access their properties,’ affirms Mr. José Juan, whose complete name has been concealed for safety issues.
The farmer has been consumed from uncertainty for nine years: ‘We want the government to solve this issue so that we can have our lands back or, was this impossible, they could pay us back or see what they have to do. Nonetheless, we want to live in tranquility, as we used to. We don’t have freedom anymore, and this is very worrisome. There is no hope because, in nine years, they have not determined yet how they will face this issue.’
An example of this lack of freedom, he adds, is that when they moved to the municipality of Putla, they have been surprised, ambushed. Also, every time they left for Oaxaca to turn to the mediation committee that intends to help them in the resolution, «fortunately nothing serious has happened to us, but the truth is that it has been tough to get out of here,» he comments in an anguished tone.
The IACHR grants interim measures
Here, the guarantee of a life free from violence and state protection is in doubt. Inhabitants live themselves the violence that permeates the whole country.
Although the IACHR has granted interim measures under the document MC-102-10, they have never been implemented.
The international body, since the attack on March 29, 2010, recommended as follows:
‘Adopt the necessary measures to ensure a safe life and physical integrity to the Mixtec community of Zimatlán de Lázaro Cárdenas’;
‘Adopt the adequate measures to eliminate those risk factors linked to the delimitation of lands between the two communities to avoid future conflicts’:
‘Set a continuous monitoring and permanent communications mechanism with the beneficiaries so that the measures are implemented as a result of a joint agreement between the recipients and their representatives; and
‘Present updated information regarding all the proceeding undertaken to find Marcelino Pedro Hernández Jiménez and Eleazar Asunción Sánchez Hernández.’
The promotion of such precautionary measures has served to diminish the tension that exists slightly. In this area, the state police squad and the militaries patrol the streets to avoid a direct attack. However, the last disappearances occurred despite their patrolling.
War in the Mixtec region
Lawyer Maurilio Santiago Reyes, director of the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Advice for Indigenous Peoples (Cedhapi) believes that the Mexican State did not collaborate in the solution of this conflict as they did not follow the advice provided by the IACHR.
During an interview, the promoter of the interim measures before the international body considers that there is a lack of official will. For this reason, civil society has created a mediation commission which is made up of Miguel Álvarez Gándara, the president and founder of Services and Consulting for Peace (Servicios y Asesoría para la Paz), painter Francisco Toledo, religious Francisco Wilfrido Mayrén Peláez, known as father Uvi, Marcos Leyva Madrid, the founder of Educa in Oaxaca and bishop Arturo Lona Reyes.
The director of Cedhapi claims that rather than a legal resolution for this agricultural conflict, there must be first an ‘agreement of wills.’ That is the reason why the process of mediation was created: to achieve a common view to bring peace to the area.
He also says that this commission has consulted the inhabitants of both areas and is currently considering some of their proposals. However, he emphasizes that ‘the IACHR’s main concern is to remove those risk factors linked to land ownership to solve the underlying problem. We have been conducting several meetings in Washington to deal with the issue’.
Moreover, he also comments that the IACHR compromised to start the mediation process. ‘We are taking care of the monitoring because the Mexican government ignored the provisions which established that they had to start the mediation process. Hence, we the parties started it’, he emphasizes.
Despite the dialogues that are taking place in Oaxaca, warns Santiago Reyes, the uneasiness has not been minimized by the presence of the Army and police because ‘in principle, the agreement foresaw that the security bodies would have been in both villages. Nonetheless, in the end, they only established in Zimatlán as they did not find sufficient conditions to stay in Nopalera. The Army was looking for a suitable place to settle, and Nopalera never offered it’.
The promoter of the precautionary measures before the IACHR says that it is worth-noticing that San Sebastián Nopalera is demanding financial compensation, a situation in which the Mexican government is undoubtedly involved.
‘The situation could degenerate at any time, and we could go back to a situation of war. There have been constant aggressions’, Santiago Reyes warns.
—During a war, both sides attack. Is this the case?
—I could say yes because Nopalera tried to enter Zimatlán and its population defended themselves. However, most of the attacks have come from Nopalera. People from both communities have been killed. The deplorable situation characterizing this area could cause the current chasm to become even deeper, and the incidence of confrontations could increase as well. The clashes have led to the release of arrest warrants, although only one person from the town of Zimatlán has been detained.
Efraín Solano Alinares, a member of the advisory committee of the Mixtec community of San Sebastián Nopalera, declares during the interview that this situation is not the result of an agricultural conflict, but rather the desire of a 20% of the inhabitants of Nopalera who have been seeking for the autonomy of the ejido for 60 years. Notwithstanding, ‘the courts have not foreseen this possibility, so leading the two communities to collide.’
The community adviser regrets that between both communities there have been «unfortunately about 29 casualties between the two villages: between dead and missing. In addition to widows, orphans, and wounded, some people have lost an arm or a leg in this bloody confrontation. In Nopalera, they registered 12 dead, and three disappeared, and an endless number of wounded and orphans. That is the situation there. «
Solano Alinares affirms that they have sought for institutional attention for a long time, but they have never been assisted. As a consequence of the disregard shown by state governments, who ‘have never set a systematic attention program to address these conflicts that are very frequent in Oaxaca, there have been casualties.’
‘The State failed to deal with this issue. I cannot provide further data, but the two communities are about to agree in ending this conflict. They have already understood that it is a conflict that only inflicted distress and caused endless bloodshed between brothers of the same identity and blood. They are talking and reaching an agreement on how to solve this matter to achieve a lasting and definitive peace’, he comments.
Both communities are in one of the poorest and most marginal areas in Oaxaca. Seven hours are needed to reach this region. Sometimes, their roads are destroyed by heavy rains, and they remain completely isolated. It is an impoverished area; there is no Internet coverage; there are only two pay phones to serve a community of over 5 thousand inhabitants.’
The actors of the conflict, taking place in the Mixtec area of Oaxaca, are two populations who live in extreme poverty. Both have lost more of what they have gained in these nine years of bitter dispute. The sources of employment and essential services have been undermined.
Data from the Town Inventory (Catálogo de Localidades), published by the at the time Secretary of Social Development (now Secretariat of Welfare), show that the inhabitants of Zimatlán are affected by a high rate of marginalization and their main activity is rural. The same data which describe the poverty rates of the area refer to San Sebastián Nopalera as well.
 An area of communal land.
Érika Ramírez, correspondent