by Miguel Pickard

The development of large infrastructure projects by Mexico’s federal government and the Chiapas state government continues to advance — rapidly where no organized opposition exists and stealthily where it does. These projects are part of the Meso-America Project (formerly known as the PPP or Plan Puebla Panama).[1] Currently the two most important mega-projects in Chiapas are (1) the Sustainable Rural Cities Project[2] (SRC) and (2) the large infrastructure projects designed to turn Chiapas into a “second Cancún” for tourism and, at the same time, an important participant in the lucrative carbon-credit trading market.

The second Sustainable Rural City in Chiapas will soon be launched in Santiago el Pinar[3] before a gala audience including President Calderón, Governor Sabines, and their respective entourages. The multi-million-dollar Sustainable Rural Cities Program could be described as a genocidal “cold war” led by Governor Sabines against the thousand-year-old rural and indigenous cultures, given its intent to clear the countryside of rural peoples, many of them indigenous, and destroy their way of life and means of production rooted in the land that many have held for centuries.

Claiming to have found “the reason behind poverty” in the “dispersion” of rural peoples in small and relatively isolated villages, the Chiapas state government has pressured rural and indigenous people to sell or turn over their land in order to relocate and concentrate them in newly built Rural Cities,. This social-engineering project was conceived mainly to benefit large corporations, which will profit from the “freed up” land. Rural families will find themselves living on tiny plots on street after street of identical houses, in a scene reminiscent of suburban sprawl in the United States. In this setting, they will be uprooted from their traditional lifestyles based on forms of production that are ecologically sound, and thrust into a capitalist economy, where they will have to meet all of their needs, including the acquisition of basic foods, through purchase in the market. They will be hostage to the meager salaries that some — a few — will receive in exchange for their labor in agricultural projects or in maquiladoras that are being built on land near the Rural Cities. The indigenous peoples’ loss of autonomy will have begun and, over time, it will be total. (Listen to the Special Report by Radio Zapatista.)

Another key project in Chiapas is the construction of a new 173 km [109 mile] toll road that will link the tourist sites of San Cristóbal de Las Casas and Palenque, current magnets for domestic and international visitors. The toll road is the backbone of a comprehensive tourism project (disguised as ecological tourism) that, in the words of Governor Sabines, will make Chiapas “the second Cancún.”

Upon signing the National Tourism Agreement on February 28, 2011with entrepreneurs from the tourism industry, Calderón committed Mexico to becoming the world’s fifth largest tourism destination by 2018. According to Calderón, the agreement will “increase [Mexico’s] connectivity” by land, sea and air to facilitate tourists’ “arrival, travel and departure” along the main sightseeing routes. This implies “speeding up…construction of…ports and highways.” Fittingly, 2011 was declared the “Year of Tourism.”[4]

In 2009, the construction of the toll road between San Cristóbal and Palenque was stopped by mobilized groups of indigenous peoples resisting the plunder and destruction of their lands that would inevitably result from the project. Resistance by the traditional landholders and members of the Zapatista-inspired “The Other Campaign” has been centered in the communities of Mitzitón, some 15 km [10 miles] from San Cristóbal, and in San Sebastián Bachajón, municipality of Chilón, some 70 km [43.5 miles] from Palenque.

Sites of special importance to the construction of the toll road are Mitzitón, which has been designated “Kilometer Zero,” or the starting point for the toll road, and San Sebastián Bachajón, which abuts the tourism sites of Agua Azul and Bolom Ajaw.[5] In 2009, the federal government disseminated plans showing that the route of the toll road would run through traditional landholdings in Bachajón and Zapatista landholdings in Bolom Ajaw.

Given the mobilizations by organized opposition groups to the toll road, the federal and state governments, starting in 2009, decided to push forward on other fronts. Federal authorities have moved rapidly to improve the access highway to the toll road – that is, the 15 km stretch of land between San Cristóbal and Mitzitón – by adding and widening lanes and building bridges designed to handle continually increasing volumes of traffic. This work is also particularly valuable to important neighbors of the road, since the wide stretch of asphalt and sturdy overpasses will improve mobility for troops and tanks from the nearby Rancho Nuevo military base.

While the federal government levels the roadway, the state government has taken on the task of “leveling” the organized groups opposing the incursion of the road. The harassment of opposition groups in Mitzitón and Bachajón has been constant for the last several years, but conflicts have intensified in the last few weeks. In Mitzitón, this was the result of the presence of armed young evangelicals, the so-called Army of God (Ejército de Dios), the shock troops of the Eagle’s Wings (Alas de Aguila) evangelical church, which reputedly has close ties to the state government. These paramilitaries have frequently attacked the majority Catholic group in Mitzitón, mostly members of The Other Campaign, who have opposed the construction of toll road on their lands, with the consequent destruction of forests, aquifers and farm land.

In Bachajón, the state government has reverted to the old tactic of wearing down the community through the arbitrary mass arrests of residents, forcing it to divert time, energy and resources into mobilizing for their release. On February 3, 2011, 117 Bachajón landholders, participants in The Other Campaign, were arrested and arraigned on charges of killing a PRI party member in a skirmish the previous day, even though only the PRI forces carried firearms. Most of the 117 were released shortly thereafter, but 10 people remain in Playas de Catazajá prison.[6] The confrontation occurred after a PRI group violently took possession of a toll booth at the entrance to the Agua Azul recreation area that was in the hands of members of The Other Campaign, because the latter had committed an intolerable act: they had begun building an ecotourism center to be run not by the government but by the local inhabitants. In the skirmish, PRI partisans destroyed the toll booth and stole building materials, including wheelbarrows, several tons of cement and assorted tools.

As one Bachajón landholder said (hear the complete interview):

What the government is doing now is jailing those who lead the movement. As an organization we are the government’s worst enemy […] because it doesn’t want us to defend what is rightfully ours […] we know the government wants [to use] violent means to seize our ecotourism center.

People in other parts of Chiapas who have demonstrated their solidarity with the groups in Bachajón and Mitzitón have suffered similar fates of repression and detention. This was the case on February 17, when people were arrested for taking part in an act of civil disobedience by intermittently blocking the Pacific Coast highway near the town of Pijijiapan. After the blockade was lifted, the state police detained 19 people of the Coast Regional Autonomous Council (also part of The Other Campaign). Sixteen were freed after a few hours, but lawyers from the Digna Ochoa Human Rights Center were arraigned on charges of “rioting” and inciting violence. The lawyers say that they came to the blockade merely as observers to record possible human rights violations by authorities.

In trying to discern the “logic” of state violence, analysts have noted that acts of civil disobedience seem to be a tipping point for repression. For the government, protest actions by common citizens who break laws in order to defend collective, civil and human rights are intolerable. While this remains the case, it is now evident that the state government will also resort to repression against organized groups when their protests slow down the advance of public or public/private infrastructure projects. Whether it uses a carrot or a stick, the objective is the same: to wear down and defeat opposition groups. When dialogue or negotiations fail, the government can always use the militarized police or paramilitary groups such as “God’s Army” to repress opposition through incarcerations, harassment, or intimidation.

This is the “logic” or strategy behind the marked increase in recent weeks in repression against members of The Other Campaign in Chiapas. This repression is calculated to wear out groups resisting the Meso-American Project’s mega-infrastructure works, not only because they oppose the neoliberal privatization and commodification of everything, but also because they propose alternative, non-capitalist forms of government, education, health, and employment. This is especially the case in the Zapatista and other communities, such as Mitzitón or Bachajón, linked to The Other Campaign, which are actually working to make these alternatives reality.

Calderón and Sabines have less than two years left in their terms to achieve significant advances in the mega-projects slated for Chiapas. The increase in repression signals the start of a campaign, in this “Year of Tourism,” to clear away any opposition to making Chiapas a “green Cancún” – that is, a paradise for investors and the site of a massive resettlement experiment designed to disposses rural peoples of their land. Behind plans such as the Meso-America Project lie billions of dollars, powerful interests, and major agreements, such as the one signed recently between Chiapas and California to establish extensive “green zones” in Chiapas for the carbon credits market.[7] The people of Chiapas know little or nothing about these plans.

Translation from Spanish by the author, who gratefully thanks Carol Pryor for her editorial assistance.


[1] For more information on the Meso-America Project, see

[2] For more informaton on the Rural Citites Program, see

[3] The SRC of Santiago el Pinar was launched in late March 2011 after this article was originally drafted in Spanish. The first SRC is Nuevo Juan de Grijalva [translator’s note].



[6] [Five people remain in prison as of this translation into English in late May 2011. (Translator’s note)]

[7] For more information on the carbon credits market in Chiapas, see

REDD: Nombres para el despojo (La Jornada, 21 May 2011)