The nearly 5,000 displaced residents of the Chalchihuitan municipality in southern Mexico have agreed to return to their homes after a Dec. 21 accord was reached between the government and local Chalchihuitan authorities.
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The government in Chiapas, where Chalchihuitan is located, said that officials and "social justice and security organizations will guarantee the safety conditions” of those returning. The statement said that authorities will also help subsistence farmers to prepare their lands to cultivate after they were destroyed by paramilitary forces in an Oct. 18 raid on the community.
At least 10 people have died from exposure to the cold temperatures and lack of medical care, including two babies, two toddlers and five elderly people.
Leaders of the Chalchihuitan municipal council said state authorities "will have to ensure the “physical safety of inhabitants in light of the prevalence of gun shots fired at the municipality’s border with (neighboring) Chenalho.”
The National Secretary of Civil Protection Manuel Velasco Coello, charged with coordinating the return, said that the most “important thing is to establish order and coordination between authorities and civil society and members of the Civil Protection.” He assured the public that the “Civil Protection will be present 24 hours each day in the municipality to help the residents whenever they need.” The agency invited human rights observers to be on hand for the process.
A Civil Protection representative said that Coello is “giving out humanitarian aid such as food and water in all communities and we are attentive to the healthcare needs of the people.” The Civil Protection added they are giving out medical kits to residents “in case they are necessary.”
Luis Manuel Moreno Garcia, secretary of the Chiapas Civil Protection, said that the state-level agency will be implementing economic and social development programs this year specifically for the families of Chalchihuitan.
“In 2018 we’ll work on development projects for the families of this municipality because the main problem in the region is extreme poverty.” He added that there are many national and state-level government social programs that can collaborate with the Chalchihuitan people.
On Oct. 18, suspected armed paramilitary forces raided the villages of Chalchihuitan located an hour’s drive north of the Chiapas state capital, San Cristobal, killing Tzotzil Indigenous leader Samuel Luna Giron. On Nov. 19, armed forces returned to open fire on residents.
Pedro Faro, director of Fray Bartolome de las Casas, Frayba, a human rights organization based in San Cristobal, said that the bullet casings found from both shootings were from AK-47 and AR-15 automatic assault weapons, which "are exclusively for military use," he added.
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For over two months, the villagers, fearing for their lives, have fled to the high-altitude and increasingly cold forested area surrounding their homes, living under tarps and eating from the land around them. The displaced are warned nearly every night to not return to their homes by the sound of automatic rifles being shot into the air close by.
The Chalchihuitan authorities said the state needs to “punish and disarm” the “people who have created such irreparable damage” in their town.
Frayba and other human rights organizations in Mexico have criticized the Enrique Peña Nieto government for its lack of action regarding the humanitarian crisis in Chiapas and the impunity displayed toward the perpetrators.
The paramilitary forces are suspected to be well-armed forces from the neighboring Chenalho municipality, which borders Chalchihuitan.
The two jurisdictions have feuded over land rights since 1973, when the central government arbitrarily split the two districts. Chenalho residents said that after the government-orchestrated agreement, Chalchihuitan residents were wrongfully using some of their land.
The October raid came exactly 20 years after what’s now known as the Acteal massacre when, in 1997, several masked Chanalho residents opened fire on a church meeting in Chalchihuitan, killing 45 unarmed Tzotzil Indigenous people.