SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico – After suffering hunger, cold and illness for nearly three months, some of the roughly 5,000 Indians forced to take refuge in makeshift mountain camps in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas are returning home despite safety concerns stemming from a violent land dispute.
The conflict pits the neighboring Tzotzil Indian municipalities of Chalchihuitan and Chenalho, which for around 40 years have contested the ownership of 363 hectares (nearly 900 acres) of fertile land.
The dispute has escalated recently, with 5,023 people fleeing into the mountains in October after a paramilitary group from Chenalho began firing on residents of Chalchihuitan.
Although a climate of insecurity persists, the Chalchihuitan municipal government on Tuesday issued a draft agreement for the safe return of its displaced residents. That accord follows a Dec. 13 decision by a federal court, which ruled in favor of Chenalho in the long-running land dispute.
Their return is not definitive, however, because the agreement is still being negotiated with the group of paramilitaries standing guard in the conflict zone, said Maciel Alfaro Lopez, the delegate in the area of the Mexican Human Rights Commission (CMDH), a non-governmental organization.
“It’s a return fraught with danger. The gunshots and aggressions continue,” the spokesman for the displaced, Nicodemo Sanchez, told EFE. He acknowledged that those who had fled to makeshift camps in the mountains had endured hunger and cold temperatures.
Sanchez moreover said it would be a partial return because many believe their communities remain unsafe and are refusing to go back.
Caritas, a Catholic relief organization, has been providing food to the displaced that have been living in nine crowded camps in the mountains of Chiapas’ Los Altos region.
Despite that organization’s efforts and the building of campfires to combat the chilly temperatures, at least 11 people – including four children – have died of hunger and cold.
Those struggling to survive in the mountains include nearly 200 pregnant women and 3,800 children, according to the CMDH.
For its part, the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), Mexico’s equivalent of an ombudsman’s office, has denounced the inaction of local, state and federal authorities amid the conflict and their failure to heed it calls for the provision of humanitarian assistance to the displaced.
The land dispute dates back to 1981, when Chalchihuitan obtained title to 252 hectares of farmland that belonged to Chenalho, an error that the court aimed to rectify with its December ruling.
The diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, said in early December that illegal armed groups acting with impunity had sown a “climate of terror” among the communities of Chalchihuitan.
It said that climate was similar to the one that preceded the 1997 massacre of 45 unarmed Indians – including 15 children – by a group of men toting assault rifles.
That massacre in the community of Acteal, part of the Chenalho municipality, occurred during the period when the Mexican government was fighting the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) guerrilla group.