On the first evening of spring, 50 Triangle residents gathered in Durham's Immaculata School gym for a potluck dinner to welcome a humanitarian-aid caravan organized by a group called Pastors for Peace. The caravan, which set out from Boston several days earlier, was passing through town before heading to Mexico's southernmost state of Chiapas.
With its entrenched poverty and agriculture-dependent economy, Chiapas has been called the "Mississippi of Mexico." It also shares with that U.S. state a history of slavery. But in Chiapas, the enslaved were not imported Africans but indigenous Mayans. The first Spanish conquerors established the encomienda system, forcing Indians to work for white settlers. Encomiendas were outlawed in the 1600s, but over the next three centuries Mayans were forced from their land by the government and--much like blacks in Mississippi following Reconstruction--forced into indebted servitude by the state's landholding elite. As late as the 1960s, sale prices in Chiapas of big farming estates called fincas commonly included the Indians who worked them.
The Mayans have occasionally rebelled against their oppression. The most recent uprising occurred on Jan. 1, 1994, when a force of 3,000 Mayan peasants called the Zapatista Army of National Liberation took over hundreds of fincas in the rural eastern part of the state. The uprising's date was no coincidence: It marked the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which the Zapatistas called a "death sentence" for indigenous people. Following a 12-day war, the Mexican government declared a cease-fire, but five municipalities (equivalent to U.S. counties) remain under rebel control. There, residents have struggled to build an autonomous society based on village councils and a communal economic system.
It hasn't been easy: The Zapatistas currently live under a state of military siege. Forty percent of Mexico's army is now located in Chiapas, and paramilitaries with government ties are active in the area. One paramilitary group was responsible for the 1997 massacre in the Chiapan village of Acteal, in which 45 people--mostly women and children associated with a nonviolent organization sympathetic to the Zapatistas--were gunned down. Human-rights abuses have become commonplace. The international advocacy group Human Rights Watch has documented violations including arbitrary detentions, illegal arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings. In some villages, residents are too terrified to venture to their cornfields, worsening the malnutrition that, according to recent government statistics, already plagues 67 percent of Chiapans.
That's where Pastors for Peace comes in. A project of the New York-based Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization, the group organizes caravans that travel throughout the United States collecting food, medicine, school supplies and money. Volunteers then drive the aid to Chiapas, where Mexican civil organizations help distribute it. The Durham potluck--organized by activists Gail Phares of Raleigh and Joe Straley of Chapel Hill--raised more than $1,000 for the group.
After the dinner, everyone pulled their folding chairs into a circle to hear from caravanista Marilyn McKenna. She has worked with the Chicago office of Pastors for Peace for two years, but she's the first to acknowledge the limitations of caravan charity.
"If we take 18 semis of stuff to Chiapas, it won't solve the problem," McKenna said. "We have to change our government's policy toward Mexico."
Until 1994, the Mexican army was a relatively sleepy force. Since then, the United States has become increasingly active in training Mexican soldiers and other law-enforcement agents. However, according to human-rights advocates, some of those trainees--including graduates of the Pentagon's notorious School of the Americas in Georgia--have been involved in rights violations in Chiapas such as arbitrary detentions and torture.
Congress is currently considering a bill to close the School of the Americas. Rep. David Price of Chapel Hill is already a co-sponsor of the House version. Citing the suffering of the Mayans, Phares urged the gathered to write letters to Rep. Bob Etheridge of Lillington and Sen. John Edwards of Raleigh asking them also to become sponsors.
"If they hear from everyone here," Phares said, "imagine the difference that could make for Chiapas."
If you'd like to make a difference for Chiapas, write to Rep. Bob Etheridge at 1641 Longwood HOB, Washington, D.C. 20515, and Sen. John Edwards at the U.S. Senate, Washington, D.C. 20510. For more information about Pastors for Peace, visit their Web site at www.ifconews.org.