POLITICAL PRISONERS ON HUNGER STRIKE IN CHIAPAS.
It is better to die struggling than to die little by little. For all that they have done to us our heart and our voice have strengthened behind the bars, we became one heart to demand our freedom
Cristina Riba and Caoimhe Butterly report from Mexico
On the third of July, the day following the Mexican presidential elections, four prisoners in the penitentiary center Cerezo number 10 in the municipality of Comitan, Chiapas commenced on an indefinite hunger strike. The four are sympathisers of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) and as political prisoners have included among their demands the immediate release of 80 other political prisoners incarcerated in the Chiapan jails who were imprisoned specifically for their connections or allegiances to the EZLN.
Since war was officially declared on the Mexican government through the EZLN uprising of 1994, there has been a steady increase of Zapatista supporters imprisoned. The accusations on which the supporters are jailed - often through grossly unfair trials - range from land theft to kidnappings, and murder. §
As a result of the increase of political prisoners, the inhuman conditions inside the prisons, and the need to communicate with the outside world in order to have their demands heard, La Voz de Cerro Hueco (The Voice of Cerro Hueco) was formed in 1996. Abelardo Méndez Arcos, himself once a political prisoner, was nominated as its external representative upon his release from Cerro Hueco, the penitentiary in Tuxtla Gutiérrez. According to Abelardo, The Voice of Cerro Hueco has a presence in the penitentiary centers of different parts of Chiapas: Tuxtla, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Yahalón, Ocosingo, Comitán, Tapachula and also in Tacotalpa (Tabasco). ``In 1996, we started organising 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 are called the Voice of Cerro Hueco- and it was difficult. But we learnt how to organise from our experience in our communities. The government can no longer intimidate us or break our solidarity''.
At the moment, there are more than 30 political prisoners sentenced from 8 to 40 years on a variety of accusations. According to Abelardo these charges are often the result of fabrications bythe Mexican Armyand others. As the prisoners' lawyer, Miguel Angel de los Santos explains of the trials:
``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''.
As a result of this and the conditions within the prisons `` you sleep on the floor, if you have money you're fine but if you don't you live like an animal and this is how they treat us. The prisons are overcrowded, there are many conflicts and problems'', according to Abelardo, and that is why prisoners have been driven to action. Families -though often a source of strong support for those inside- in many cases are as few can afford to make the journey to and from the prisons -journeys. Many indigenous Chiapans do not posses relevant identification documents and cannot pass military checkpoints or prison security to see their loved ones.
The hunger strike initiated in Comitán is demonstrative both of the desperation but also the strength, resolution and organisation of the prisoners. In a recent press release the four prisoners, Timoteo Calvo Espinosa, Catalino López Vázquez, Edmundo Fonseca Arguello and Eduardo López Fernández declared that ``it is better to die struggling than to die little by little,..., for all that they have done to us our heart and our voice have strengthened behind the bars, we became one heart to demand our freedom''.. The unconditional freedom of all political prisoners is one of the five conditions that the EZLN cites as essential in order to resume dialogue with the government. As stated upon the initiation of the hunger strike they also urge the government ``to recognise the agreements signed in San Andrés Sakamch'en de los Pobres''.
In shows of solidarity with the action 19 other general prisoners in Cerezo number 10 have joined on - raising the number of hunger strikers to 23. In a press release dated July 18th the prisoners who are members of the Voice of Cerro Hueco in Tuxtla also stated their intention to support the hunger strike:
``We are preparing to join the hunger strike with our compañeros in Comitán because we see that there is no response to our petitions. There is no justice in the state of Chiapas and the rest of the country; it is easy for them to repress those who struggle for peace with justice and dignity''.
The personal health of the strikers is rapidly deteriorating. According to their representatives ``...they are suffering from diarrhea, head ache, stomach pains, vomiting attacks, weight loss and anemia''. Although an appeal has been made by different civil groups requesting for a doctor to attend to the prisoners one has yet to be found. Another alarming fact disclosed by the prisoners in a press release dated July 14th states that some of the strikers were removed from their cells with ``extreme violence'' under the pretense that they were going to be freed, but were instead placed in solitary confinement.
Although it may not be a good political moment for a hunger strike, the injustices are such that the prisoners can not wait for a better occasion. Aberlardo sums up: ``The government can lie, fabricating thousands of charges against us but we know in our consciences that we are innocent. The compañeros were not born to kill, they were not born to harass, rob and injure other people. The movement emerged against the bad government and not against the people. The prisoners say, `we are here [in jail] for our people, we are here because we demand freedom, justice and democracy'''.
At the end of our interview with Abelardo we gave him a postcard of a mural dedicated to, among other political prisoners from the North, Bobby Sands, and talked about their fate. Abelardo was moved and fell silent before saying: ``That is what I don't want to happen''. Acts of resistance such as hunger striking within prisons are acts that must be accompanied by acts of witness without, as testament to those inside. ``We don't have confidence in the government but we do believe in the civil society both in México and in the world, and we ask them to come here and witness what is happening in Chiapas.''
You can send faxes demanding the immediate and unconditional release of the prisoners in hunger strike:
LA PRESIDENCIA DE LA REPÚBLICA (PRESIDENCY)
Fax: (5) 5-15-37-17/ 5-15-57-29/ 5-16-57-62/ 2-71-17-64/ 5-15-47-83
Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León:email@example.com