Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Mexico has one of the largest and most diverse indigenous populations in Latin America. Although the country had recognized the existence of and contributions made by indigenous peoples in the construction of the country, it was only with the 1992 Constitution that the nation was deemed pluri-cultural. CONADI, the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, estimates that Mexico has 68 indigenous communities. In July 2017 the Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas reported that – based on 2015 figures – there were 25.7 million Mexicans who self-identified as indigenous, equivalent to 21.5 per cent of the national population at the time, with another 1.6 per cent identifying as part-indigenous.
Official statistics had traditionally defined the indigenous population using criteria based on language, which many have argued largely underestimated this increasingly urbanised population: for example, an estimated 1.2 million indigenous people live in the capital Mexico City.
Indigenous peoples’ organizations were successful in pressuring the government to include a question based on self-identification in the 2000 Census. In that year, only half of those who identified as indigenous actually spoke an indigenous language and of those who did, 84 per cent also spoke Spanish. Data from 2005 also showed that only a small fraction of indigenous peoples remained monolingual.
The majority of the indigenous population is concentrated in the southern and south-central region of Mexico. Over two fifths (42.6 per cent) of those who speak an indigenous language live in three of Mexico’s 31 states: Oaxaca, Yucatán and Chiapas. The most predominant language spoken by indigenous people is Náhuatl, followed by Maya, Tzeltal, Mixteco, Tzotzil, Zapoteco and Otomí. More recent data, from 2015, found that of the 25.7 million self-identifying as indigenous, only a minority (around 7.4 million) spoke indigenous languages. The most common indigenous language was Náhuatl (23.4 per cent of indigenous language speakers), followed by Maya 11.7 per cent), Tzeltal (7.5 per cent), Mixteco (6.9 per cent), Tzotzil (6.6 per cent), Zapoteco (6.3 per cent), Otomi (4.2 per cent), Totonaca (3.6 per cent), Chol (3.4 per cent) and Mazateco (3.2 per cent).
Mexico’s indigenous communities, like indigenous populations elsewhere in the Americas, still contend with the violent legacy of colonialism and their decimation by disease, conflict and exploitation after the territory of present-day Mexico, then largely dominated by the Aztec Empire, was brought under Spanish rule in the early 16th century. In the ensuing years, continuing long after Mexico’s independence in 1810, discrimination and abuse of the country’s indigenous peoples by the dominant white elite persisted. While their situation has improved, with greater formal recognition of their rights, many underlying inequalities remain in place to this day.
Nevertheless, indigenous culture is considered to be at the heart of Mexican society. Mexico is proud of its ancient Maya and Aztec monuments, and its indigenous dances, crafts and markets, which contribute significantly to the country’s appeal to tourists. Since the revolution of 1910–20, successive governments have professed a desire to integrate indigenous peoples into Mexican society. The Independent Department of Native Affairs, set up in 1946 under the Ministry of Education, began a programme of teaching Spanish to indigenous children. However, the negative result of such programmes has been a promotion of an assimilatory model for indigenous peoples, which has devalued indigenous languages, cultures and autonomy.
Despite legislative reforms and the signing of treaties and accords, indigenous peoples in Mexico experienced a double form of discrimination – both because of their low economic standing and poor levels of formal education, and also on grounds of language, dress and other cultural manifestations. What little land they owned was generally insufficient to support them, so many sought waged work from mestizo employers, who generally treated them disrespectfully.
Generally, indigenous peoples retained local forms of organization to defend their culture and livelihoods. Others witnessed the collapse of their traditions under the burden of poverty and believed that they must reject their ethnic identity and integrate into mestizo society if they were to improve their living conditions.
By 1990, the majority of the indigenous population were still living in small peasant communities where they made up most of the population, typically located in the poorest, least developed parts of the country. Although conditions varied considerably, many communities lacked electricity and running water. Housing was often substandard and overcrowded.
The situation of Mexico’s indigenous communities gained worldwide attention in January 1994 when indigenous peasants representing a number of different ethnic groups, taking the name of Emiliano Zapata, a popular leader murdered by the military in 1919, launched an armed uprising on the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect. Occupying four towns in Chiapas – where the situation of indigenous people has long been worse than in other states – the National Zapatista Liberation Army (EZLN) stated its opposition to indignities faced by indigenous peoples and others in Mexico. They called for better conditions for indigenous peoples, protection of communal lands and an end to government corruption and human rights abuses. After the initial fighting, the government declared a ceasefire, promised to address rebel concerns and released prisoners. Negotiations were started between a government-appointed mediator and the rebels but broke down when the government proved unwilling to accept most of the rebel demands.
The EZLN and indigenous organizations represented by the National Plural Indigenous Assembly for Autonomy had been demanding constitutional reforms to allow for the creation of pluri-ethnic autonomous regions in areas of significant indigenous population. In effect, this would have established a fourth level of government at a regional level, which would coexist with the existing municipal, state and federal government authorities. Regional autonomy would also have allowed indigenous peoples greater control over their land and resources in accordance with ILO Convention No. 169. In 1996 the EZLN and Mexican government officials negotiated and signed the San Andres Accords, which guarantee land rights, regional autonomy and cultural rights for indigenous peoples. The Mexican government later refused to implement these agreements.
At the height of the uprising government forces shot, execution-style, eight suspected members of the EZLN, and, according to human rights observers, dozens of critics of the regime were killed or ‘disappeared’, reportedly at the hands of death squads organized by government forces working in collusion with private interests. The brutal torture and rape of indigenous women in Chiapas is also documented; perpetrators are rarely brought to trial.
In the elections of August 1994 the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate, Eduardo Robledo Rincón, officially won the governor’s race in Chiapas, but the EZLN and opposition leaders insisted that progressive candidate Amado Avendado was the rightful winner. They created a parallel government, seized government offices, took over radio stations, mounted roadblocks and the EZLN eventually took over 38 towns in the state. The parallel authority permitted peasants to expropriate large estates, liquidated existing state structures and instituted new laws favouring indigenous people and the poor. Large demonstrations were held in cities across Mexico in support of the rebels.
The Mexican government was forced to devalue the peso by 50 per cent in the last two weeks of December 1994, precipitating a loss of business confidence in the new administration of President Ernesto Zedillo. In an attempt to regain investors’ support, Zedillo implemented harsh austerity measures designed to control government spending and inflation. In February 1995 he also ordered a military offensive against the EZLN bases, forcing the rebels to retreat into the mountains.
After the 2000 election, the dismantling the 71-year reign of the PRI presented a political opportunity in which EZLN leaders demanded that the new Fox administration implement the San Andres Accords and withdraw troops from Chiapas. On 11 March 2000, over 250,000 people gathered in Mexico City in what was the largest ever march of indigenous people in Mexico, to pressure the Fox administration to comply with the San Andres Accords. Although Fox did dismantle a number of military encampments in Chiapas, the government’s 2001 constitutional reforms fell short of what the EZLN and other indigenous groups wanted. The demands for autonomy, the right to territory, access to natural resources and the election of municipal authorities were all ignored, leading the EZLN and other important indigenous groups to refuse to recognize the new constitution.
Although the EZLN by no means represents Mexico’s diverse indigenous population, this pan-indigenous movement has been considered the voice of indigenous peoples since the uprisings of 1994. The tenth anniversary of the Zapatista uprising highlighted some of the gains of the movement, including the effective governing of a number of autonomous indigenous communities. Throughout the late 1990s the EZLN mobilized large numbers of indigenous people and sympathizers in a series of marches and other actions that were met by hostility and sometimes violent repression by Mexican authorities. In an attack in Chiapas by the Peace and Justice paramilitary group, 45 people were killed. Although the Zedillo administration denied the existence of such paramilitary groups, these massacres led to an increase in the number of foreign human rights observers in Chiapas. Many of these observers were later expelled by the Zedillo government.
Many of the issues that had driven the uprising remained unresolved. Indigenous farmers continued to be harassed or attacked by paramilitary groups as they work their land. Police brutality and mistreatment by the justice system were commonly reported. Some indigenous communities were prevented from electing their customary representatives. Attempts by communities to defend their lands against illegal loggers or to campaign for their rights met with violence on the part of armed groups who appeared to operate with impunity. Leaders who spoke out for political change were singled out for persecution by powerful landowners who wielded inordinate influence over the local police, political and judicial systems. The repression ranged from incarceration and expulsion from communities to torture and murder. ‘Disappearances’ and massacres of unarmed peasants were reported.
Indigenous people were also over-represented in the country’s prison system, languishing in jail as proceedings stagnate and often spending more time behind bars than a sentence would require were they actually convicted and sentenced. In many cases, they were not provided with interpreters, even though a considerable percentage of indigenous people do not speak Spanish and despite guarantees of such basic protection under the law. Courts often accepted confessions extracted under duress as the main evidence for sentencing.
Indigenous women were particularly marginalized in many communities. This pattern could be seen across a broad range of socio-economic indicators, including education, employment, earnings and income. In addition to persistent poverty and lack of access to health services, which more markedly affected indigenous women, they also suffered domestic violence. Alcoholism, child abuse and incest were also reported as significant problems affecting indigenous families. Women were also more vulnerable to exploitation by their employers, government officials and the judicial system. According to the 2005 National Household Survey, indigenous women had about half as much education and were less likely to speak Spanish than indigenous men.
Conditions were exacerbated by a structural economic crisis that has left indigenous people, who had traditionally sustained themselves mainly in the agricultural sector, subject to increasing privation. The government moved to erode the rights of indigenous peoples to communal lands, further exacerbated by the implementation of NAFTA. This, together with failing agriculture and the impact of climate change, also contributed to increased migration by indigenous peoples to Mexico’s urban centres. This often resulted in new forms of deprivation as indigenous residents of cities found themselves pushed to the social margins, often in very poor living conditions: a 2010 study by UN-Habitat found that in Mexico City, while 16.4 per cent of all houses had only one room, 34.3 per cent of indigenous households fell into this category. Although indigenous women were increasingly migrating themselves, males who migrated to cities in search of work sometimes left women abandoned and with increased economic hardship.
In light of these challenges, there were signs that indigenous peoples were reorganizing themselves. Possible fraud in the 2006 presidential election led to something of a resurgence of the Zapatistas as well as other indigenous and rural movements in Mexico. Despite immense support by the indigenous population, leftist candidate Andrés López Obrador lost to conservative candidate Felipe Calderón by less than 1 per cent of the vote. The day after the election, Sub-Commandant Marcos, leader of the EZLN, gave an interview on a community-based radio station denouncing the election results as fraudulent; however, the interview was censured by the Mexican government. Following the election, the Popular Assembly of Oaxacan Communities invited Obrador and Sub-Commandant Marcos to join an alternative government symbolized by the creation of the Popular Assembly of Mexican Communities (APPOM). After the election of Calderón, the EZLN issued public statements asserting that the government was on the offensive and that paramilitary groups were encroaching on Zapatista territory.
However, many indigenous organizations, ranging from small community-based groups to national bodies, also formed to fight for better living conditions for this population. They have campaigned for access to education, health services, potable water, credits, fair wages, political representation, consultation, the protection of local environments, and official recognition of their languages and traditional skills as healers. Some of these groups worked in collaboration with other local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights bodies and others have partnered with local governments.
Many community activists were vulnerable to intimidation and targeted killings. In July 2013, the body of Heron Luciano Sixto López, an indigenous rights activist, was found after he was abducted from his office. In May 2013, eight members of the indigenous rights group Unidad Popular were kidnapped: three of them were tortured and executed, while the rest escaped and went into hiding. Both crimes highlighted the real challenges that indigenous peoples face in advocating for their rights.
In addition to inadequate implementation of laws protecting victims of crime, indigenous rights and human rights defenders, indigenous peoples remained hampered in their search for access to justice by language barriers and limited translation services. They faced ongoing violations of their land and consultation rights by large-scale development or resource exploitation projects in their territories. This included continued resistance to the aborted (in 2012) La Parota hydroelectric dam project in Guerrero State which would have, if implemented, resulted in land expropriation and the displacement of indigenous communities. Other indigenous protests included the opposition of Nahua and Totonaca indigenous groups in Zautla, Puebla to a mining project and the movement of Yaqui against the construction of an aqueduct in Sonora without prior consultation that could threaten their water access.
Indigenous peoples’ right to land continues to be a major issue. In May 2018 the Mexican Commission on Defence and Promotion of Human Rights reported 25 incidents of forcible displacement of communities in 2017, affecting over 20,000 people. Sixty per cent of the displaced were from indigenous peoples: in some cases – such as that of the Mixe community of San Juan Juquila Mixes, Oaxaca state and the Tzotzil communities of Chalchihuitán and Chenalhó, Chiapas state – they were forced from their homes in the context of unresolved territorial or political disputes aggravated by the presence of armed groups. In all, members of at least six indigenous groups – Nahua, Tzotzil, Mixe, Rarámuri (Tarahumaras), Purépechas and Tepehuanes (Ódami) – were forcibly displaced in 2017.
In the case in Chalchihuitán, Chiapas, around 5,000 members of the Tzotzil ethnic group were forcibly displaced in October 2017 after one of their community members was killed; the violence was linked to an ongoing territorial dispute over land and forest resources with a neighbouring community, Chenalhó. In April 2018 an armed attack against some of the displaced Tzotzil resulted in several deaths, and a number of additional Tzotzil families were forcibly displaced from their ancestral lands in Aldama, Chiapas.
A number of land and environmental rights activists have been targeted and killed in recent years. Indigenous rights activists Isidro Baldenegro López and Juan Ontiveros Ramos, environmentalists and leaders amongst northern Chihuahua state’s Sierra Madre Rarámuri (Tarahumara) indigenous people, were killed in separate incidents in early 2017. The group’s mountainous lands had long been targeted by illegal loggers.
Other indigenous activists targeted and killed in recent years included Huichol (Wixárika) brothers Miguel and Agostín Vázquez Torres, killed in Jalisco state in May 2017 after fighting encroachment on their community’s lands by cattle ranchers. In Nayarit state, a number of legal decisions in favour of Huichol rights to land exacerbated conflict with local ranchers: the authorities reportedly denied Huichol requests that they reimburse ranchers with federal funds to help prevent land conflicts.
In the context of his 2017 visit to Mexico, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Michel Forst drew particular attention to the situation of indigenous land and environmental activists in the context of extractive, energy and infrastructure megaprojects, calling them ‘one of the most criminalized groups of defenders, facing most court proceedings and arbitrary detentions in Mexico’ and expressing dismay at ‘the number of on-going conflicts that are the direct consequences of the lack or misuse of consultations processes with indigenous communities’. In one example in Cuetzalán, Puebla state, members of the local Maseual people carried out peaceful protests from November 2016 to October 2017 against the failure of authorities to obtain their free, prior and informed consent to the planned construction of electric infrastructure. Criminal investigations were subsequently opened against eight indigenous environmental activists following a public smear campaign; one of the group, Manuel Gaspar Rodríguez, was killed in May 2018.
Indigenous Tlahuica activist Ildefonso Zamora Baldomero was arrested in November 2015 in San Juan Atzingo on charges of participating in a burglary over a decade earlier. Amnesty International declared him to be a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned solely for peaceful exercise of his fundamental freedoms in the context of his campaigning against illegal logging. A federal judge dismissed the charges against him and he was released in August 2016. Mixtec and other indigenous migrant workers in Chiapas and Oaxaca are at risk of trafficking and forced labour – for instance in tomato, cucumber and chilli pepper farms and maize and potato harvesting – according to the National Human Rights Commission.
In May 2017, the National Indigenous Congress nominated María de Jesús Patricio as an independent candidate for the presidency, but she did not manage to gather the number of signatures necessary to register officially. Despite the fact that some indigenous communities of Michoacán, Chiapas and Guerrero states, advocating for self-rule, did not take part in the 2018 polls, the election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador as President in July 2018 was seen as a potentially positive development for indigenous peoples’ rights. In his youth he worked for the National Indigenous Institute in his home state of Tabasco, and he campaigned on promises including the establishment of bilingual schools in regions with an indigenous majority.