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Political Prisoners on Hunger Strike in Chiapas

Today a hunger strike in Chiapas’ prisons has expanded. It started in the state’s Comitan prison on July 3. Four days ago, on July 14, the original group of 23 hunger strikers stopped taking honey and since then have been drinking only water. Today the strike has expanded to prisoners in Cerro Hueco prison.

Of the 23 original strikers, at least 4 are explicitly political prisoners. Eduardo Lopez Fernandez, Edmundo Fonseca Arguello, Catalino Lopez Vasquez, and Timoteo Calvo Espinosa were arrested and imprisoned without due process-- because they are Zapatista supporters. They are demanding unconditional release for all strikers.

The imprisonment of the four strikers is demonstrative of a larger pattern: imprisonment is another tactic in the state’s low intensity war against its indigenous people. North American activists are familiar with the use of the justice system to attack dissent. The strategy holds in Mexico as well.
The political prisoners in this case are charged with land theft. A wealthy landowner and supporter of the PRI (Mexico’s ruling party for 70 years, just defeated on July 2 in the federal elections but still ruling in Chiapas) named don Octavio, fled his community of Tierra y Libertad in 1994 after the Zapatista uprising. In 1996, his lands began being farmed by 2 Zapatista supporters. Octavio returned in 1998 and asked to resume his tenure on his land. The Zapatista supporters agreed, but Octavio accused them of theft. They were arrested. Another supporter from the community was arrested as the purported intellectual author of the crime. The fourth prisoner was apprehended after he publicly supported he prisoners’ organization, the Voice of Cerro Hueco. During the trial, the accused were not permitted to speak.
I interviewed the prisoners’ lawyer, Miguel Angel de los Santos, in San Cristobal. He described how this case is like many others: "The scheme is always the same: a militant from the PRI presents himself to the authorities to denounce some crime against him; the government acts with uncharacteristic speed and without proper investigation to produce a warrant; the state judiciary makes the arrest, with the ‘support’ of hundreds of Public Security forces, Federal Police, Military, and Immigration authorities.

"During the process, the accusers don’t generally show up to the trial, and if they do, it is often apparent that the charges were fabricated or coerced. The vast majority of Zapatistas are accused, detained, and processed under these circumstances. The judges are never impartial. So we have deficient investigations, illegal detentions, violations of individual rights, all of which make up a long process which culminates in the longest possible sentences being given. Neither the presumption of innocence nor the fact that the accused are indigenous are taken into account."

In this context, Zapatista supporters began organizing within the prisons as a matter of survival. Abelardo Mendez Arcos, external representative for the Voice of Cerro Hueco, told me about the organization: "The conditions in the prisons are these: You sleep on the floor. There’s no medicine. The water—for drinking and bathing—is dirty. If you have money, you can buy better treatment. But most prisoners don’t have money.

"Right now there are over 100 political prisoners in prisons all over Chiapas. They’re accused of crimes like theft, kidnapping, murder, and rape, but they are actually in because the government does not accept our politics."
"In 1996, we started organizing to fight for our human rights, to denounce the daily abuses of the prison system. We started in Cerro Hueco prison—that’s why we’re called the Voice of Cerro Hueco—and it was difficult. But we had learned how to organize from our experience in our communities. The government can no longer intimidate us or break our solidarity."

The government has tried. Most recently, they’ve separated 6 of the strikers from the rest and have been trying to convince each group that the other has started eating. The health of the strikers is precarious: they’re suffering from anemia, weight loss, diarrhea, and headaches. "In a week," Miguel Angel warned, "more serious symptoms will show—including blood loss through saliva and urine."

Morale, however, is high. "We are going to continue to struggle within the prisons," Abelardo said: "the prisoners say ‘we’re not sad or tired, but stronger than we’ve ever been. Being in jail has made us even more determined, not less.. We’ve been fighting for 500 years and we’re going to tell the truth.’ What is the truth about Mexico? Is it a land of democracy, freedom, and justice?"

The prisons would indicate otherwise. The Voice of Cerro Hueco is critical not only of the government’s imprisoning people for political dissent, but also of the entire prison system. "Our prisons are not places where criminals are reformed. Prisoners are psychologically tortured, threatened and harassed," said Abelardo.

The increasingly militant and expanding hunger strike has received no response from the government to date. The Justice Department is on vacation until July 31. The Voice of Cerro Hueco is not going to wait.

"We have won partial victories in the past," Abelardo told me, "not because of government goodwill but because of our pressure. They’re partial victories though. They release one and incarcerate 5 more."

This action comes a month before the state of Chiapas elects a new governor, on August 20. The PRI, having lost the federal elections, will be trying its hardest not to lose the state of Chiapas. This may mean electoral fraud, stepping up the low intensity war to deter PRI opponents from voting, and using bribes. It could also make the outgoing PRI governor more sensitive to political pressure to meet the strikers’ demands. The Voice of Cerro Hueco is asking for the support of the national and international community to get their story, the story of Chiapas’ political prisoners and all of Mexico’s prisoners, out.

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