May 15 to 22 marks “the Week of Global Struggle for the Liberation of Alberto Patishtán Gómez and Francisco Sántiz López: bringing down the prison walls”, which was called by the Movement for Justice in el Barrio from the Other Campaign in New York.
Intense activity is currently taking place on a global scale to demand the release of two indigenous men who have been jailed for their political beliefs and activism, and who have become emblematic figures for the struggle against injustice in prisons and against political repression. Although the prisoners are based in Chiapas, Mexico, activities are taking place in countries including South Africa, Brazil, France, England, Scotland, Spain, the United States, Switzerland, New Zealand and Argentina.
Alberto Patishtán Gómez, a Tzotzil from the municipality of El Bosque in the highlands of Chiapas, is often called ‘Professor Patishtán’ because he was an elementary teacher at the local public school.
The municipality of El Bosque is well known in Chiapas, because, in early 1995, supporters of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) declared it an “autonomous” municipality and renamed it San Juan de la Libertad. In the early morning hours of June 10, 1998, more than 1,000 federal troops and state police forces entered San Juan de la Libertad in an operation to dismantle the autonomous municipality. Eight civilians and two police were killed, many injured and dozens arrested.
Alberto Patishtán was arrested on June 19, 2000, along with an EZLN support base, and accused of the ambush and murder of seven police officers which had taken place earlier that month. The people who carried out the ambush were well-trained, highly organised and heavily armed, and must have had inside information, but the elections were due on July 1, and there was heavy pressure for a quick arrest.
Patishtán’s co-accused was acquitted at the trial because the only witness, the son of the mayor, was “openly lying”. This witness provided the only evidence against the Professor, who was nevertheless sentenced to sixty years in prison. Patishtán’s conviction is thought to be related to his active participation in the political life of his community at the time of his arrest. He had recently signed a letter written to the governor denouncing the then municipal government for arbitrary actions, corruption, and abuses, and requesting the dismissal of the mayor and the election of a new municipal council.
In jail, Patishtán continued his activism, working for the freedom of political prisoners and denouncing human rights violations. The Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Centre (Frayba) has emphasized that “for more than 11 years of his undeserved sentence,” the professor “has been a model of social struggle in support of the most forgotten, the poor and the indigenous”. In 2005, he founded the prisoners’ organization, ‘the Voice of El Amate’, and in 2010 he received the “jTatic Samuel jCanan Lum” award in recognition of his work. Two years ago, Juan Sabines Guerrero, governor of Chiapas, publicly declared Patishtán’s innocence and committed to releasing him, after visiting him in a prison hospital, but neglected to do so.
In October 2011, while participating in a hunger strike for the freedom of prisoners and acting as their spokesperson, Patishtán was transferred to a state prison in Guasave, Sinaloa, more than 2000 km from his family. The move was clearly designed as a punishment for his human rights work and to separate him from the other hunger strikers. Although the Chiapas government has denied requesting this transfer, it says in the injunction file that the General Secretary of Government for the State of Chiapas, Noé Castañón León, requested a transfer “to another penitentiary outside the state of Chiapas”.
At the end of February, the district judge in Tuxtla Gutiérrez decided to order Patishtán’s return to Chiapas. However, the Mexican president intervened: “Nevertheless, Felipe Calderón, through the federal Secretary of Public Security, filed an appeal on April 3 to delay or annul his return,” denounced Frayba, who have been instrumental in the movement for his liberation.
Alberto Patishtán has suffered from glaucoma for two years. His eyesight is deteriorating because he is not receiving the appropriate medical treatment. He is only allowed out of his cell for an hour each week, and can only receive one phone call every fifteen days. Members of Colectivo Ik’, who have visited him, report: “the federal centres are prisons where the most perverse methods of torture are implemented….under the custody of public officials, the guards and the technical team systematically carry out methods directed at humiliating, punishing and obliterating the personality of the prisoners”.
Because of his political activity before his arrest and his work in defence of human rights within prison, Professor Alberto Patishtán Gómez is regarded as a political prisoner.
On 17 March 2012, more than a thousand people came together in El Bosque to demand Patishtán’s return to Chiapas and his unconditional release. They remembered the acts that occurred 12 years ago on the day of the alleged ambush and stressed that Alberto was not at the scene of the incident. “I spoke with him that day, at the very hour; he could not have been where the violence occurred.” But their testimony was never taken into account: “We went to San Cristóbal and Tuxtla to declare the same thing we say now, but no one listened”.
On December 4, 2011, a group of fifty armed members of the PRI made a fierce and prolonged attack on four families in the Banavil ejido, municipality of Tenejapa, and threw them out of their homes and community. Such attacks with firearms by members of political parties and/or paramilitary groups have become commonplace in communities of Zapatista supporters or Other Campaign adherents. The aims are twofold: to seize the reclaimed land and to weaken and destroy the autonomous communities and the dream they represent. In this case the families concerned had no political affiliation, but were said to be ‘sympathetic to the Zapatistas’.
The aggressions that occurred on December 4 resulted in the death of Pedro Méndez López (PRI member); the displacement of four families ‘accused’ of being Zapatista sympathizers; the disappearance of Alonso López Luna (presumed dead); the detention of Alonso’s son Lorenzo López Girón, shot twice and seriously injured while trying to defend his father, and detained, accused of causing bodily injury; injuries to six more people; and the arbitrary detention of Francisco Santiz Lopez, civilian Zapatista support base, who was not even at the scene of the crime when it occurred.
Francisco Sántiz López is a Tzeltal trader from Banavil, who operates a fruit and vegetable stall in the market in the municipal headquarters of Tenejapa, and has been a support base of the EZLN for over 20 years. He was arrested in December 2011, and initially accused of “leading a confrontation”, a charge relating to the events described above. He was charged with murder, and imprisoned, even though twelve witnesses confirmed that he was not present at the time of the attack. According to the Good Government Junta in the Caracol of Oventic, he was later offered the opportunity to “buy” his freedom.
On March 22, 2012, Santiz was told he had been cleared of murder charges and would be released. However, as he was leaving the prison he was informed of a new charge, “carrying firearms for the exclusive use of the army”, and was re-arrested and again imprisoned. He was unarmed when first arrested and has never been found in the possession of firearms. Lorenzo López Girón was released at this time, still carrying two bullets in his body.
The displaced family of Alonso López Luna, of whom only an arm has been found, have stated, “we demand the freedom of Francisco Sántiz López, since he was not at the scene of the attacks; it was not us who attacked the party members, it was they who came to our homes to attack us. At the time of the attack compañero Francisco was at his fruit stall in the county headquarters, some of us went there to ask for his help”.
The harassment of EZLN sympathizers in Banavil dates from 2009, and results from their opposition to arbitrary acts by the PRI caciques (political bosses): land grabs, illegal cutting of trees, collecting unfounded taxes and contributions, break-ins, physical attacks and denial of the right to education, among others. The victims have denounced these acts before government agencies, who, they say, “ignore them”. Meanwhile, as Frayba points out, “there exists no effective investigation or punishment of those responsible, and the authorities don’t intervene to resolve the situation or to guarantee legal and social security in Banavil.”
The unjust imprisonment of Francisco Sántiz López and the fabrication of crimes against him can be seen as part of the government’s strategy of low-intensity warfare designed to destroy the resistance of the Zapatista communities. “His only crime” says the Junta, “is struggling for his pueblo, telling the truth, struggling for true democracy, liberty and justice”. For this reason he is also regarded as a political prisoner.
In the words of the campaign, “the unjust incarceration of Francisco is not an isolated case, but one that forms part of the continuous war by the Mexican State against the Zapatista communities, a war that through harassment, attacks and arbitrary detentions seeks to undermine and annihilate the resistance and process of autonomy that the Zapatista support bases are bringing to a head in Chiapas”.
The campaign to free the political prisoners in Chiapas is thus set in a context of the criminalisation of social protest, where Zapatista supporters and Human Rights defenders endure continuous harassment and threats.
In both cases, independent lawyers, human rights organisations and autonomous Zapatista authorities have affirmed the men’s innocence. They place responsibility on the President of Mexico, Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, and the governor of Chiapas, Juan Sabines Guerrero, for keeping the prisoners detained for political reasons and in order to cover up the presence of paramilitary groups in the communities of the two men.
The growing international campaign on behalf of these political prisoners has involved a very diverse range of activities. Audios, videos and films have been produced, and messages on Twitter and Facebook directed at the president have been generated and multiplied. A forum has been held in San Cristobal, and Patishtán’s community are to host a march and rally. Letter-writing and petitions have been organised, and letters written to Alberto in prison on his birthday. The cases were highlighted during the gathering for International Political Prisoners’ Day in Paris.
The Week of Global Action convoked by the Movement for Justice in el Barrio from the Other Campaign in New York is the next stage in the campaign. Groups expressing solidarity include the Shack Dwellers’ Movement from South Africa, and the Brazilian Landless Peoples’ Movement (MST).
The campaign emphasizes that the federal and state governments “have made public opinion believe that they respect the right of indigenous peoples, and in particular their self- determination and autonomy, but in reality they maintain a violent assault against the Zapatista communities, utilizing groups of a paramilitary appearance or organizations affiliated with the political parties.”
The federal government, it adds, “has wanted to deny the existence of the political prisoners in the country and is quiet about their presence in Chiapas.” Government publicity campaigns present the state “as a paradise of peace, tranquillity and order, respectful of human rights and diversity,” in reality this hides “the sale of the natural wealth of Chiapas to mining companies, lumber companies, pharmaceutical companies, bio-diesel exploiters, tourism companies, hotel chains, energy companies and other industries.”
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