MEXICO CITY — Caritas and priests in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas warn of a humanitarian crisis and escalating violence as more than 5,000 indigenous Tzotzil have been forced to flee their homes due to a decades-old land dispute.
The conflict over territory in two municipalities dates to 1973, but a pair of priests in the impacted area told Catholic News Service that armed paramilitaries have blocked roads and driven poor indigenous populations from their land in at least nine settlements.
“It’s very serious,” said Father Sebastian Lopez, parish priest in Chalchihuitan, the municipality indigenous were forced to flee. “They’ve cut off roads, people have been displaced, they’re sleeping in the mountains, there is a lot of suffering.”
Caritas and the Diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas have issued an urgent call for donations of food, medicine and clothing.
Videos provided by Father Marcelo Perez Perez, priest from the nearby municipality of Simojovel, showed displaced individuals speaking of being forcibly removed from their land, where they grew corn and coffee. The displaced included the elderly, pregnant women and children; some spoke of their crops being burned.
“It’s grave. Their main need is food and medicine because many of them are ill. Children are very ill,” Perez said.
Both priests said the conflict stems from a 1973 decision by Mexico’s Agrarian Reform Secretariat, which set the limits between the municipalities of Chalchihuitan and Chenalho.
An armed group in Chenalho disputed the decision with violence flaring from time to time, but escalating in November 2017. No action has been taken against the group, the priests said.
“It surprises us, the impunity with which these armed groups act, to the point that the police and the army have not been able to arrive and stop the violence or disarm those that have taken control of the territory and population through fear,” read a statement from the pastoral council of the Diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas.
The eviction of indigenous communities drew uncomfortable comparisons to a Dec. 22, 1997, massacre in the village of Acteal — located in the municipality of Chenalho — where 45 members of a pacifist Catholic organization known as Las Abejas were murdered by paramilitaries during a prayer meeting.
Impunity has prevailed since the massacre. Perez said some of the perpetrators are involved in the current eviction of families from Chalchihuitan.
“Some of them are the same people that killed in Acteal and others have joined,” Perez said. “The government has not applied the law and tolerated this situation, which is why (the group) is acting this way. … After what happened in Acteal, those that killed never gave up their weapons.”