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MEXICO
Court upholds flawed rights law
John Ross
10/8/2002
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The country’s high court claims it cannot rule on indigenous communities’ appeal for justice.

In a surprise announcement, the Supreme Court declared on Sept. 6 that it lacked the jurisdiction to rule on the constitutionality of an indigenous rights law that is opposed by the communities that it is supposed to protect. Lawyers for the 330 indigenous communities that had filed appeals were not notified of the decision. The ruling stunned indigenous rights activists, who had been cautiously optimistic about the case.

Over the past year, 330 mainly indigenous municipalities and indigenous rights organizations from 11 states had appealed on the grounds that the law was unconstitutional. The measure passed Congress in May 2001 with the overwhelming backing of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and President Vicente Fox’s National Action Party (PAN) (LP, May 28, 2001). The new law gutted the San Andrés Accords, a landmark agreement between the rebel Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) and the federal government.

The law passed by Congress restricts rights of autonomy and territoriality guaranteed by the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169, which Mexico ratified 12 years ago. The indigenous groups argued that they were not consulted on the legislation and that the states’ ratification of constitutional amendments required by the law was not done by the necessary two-thirds majority (LP, Aug. 6, 2001).

Rather than addressing the substance of the appeals, the Supreme Court claimed that it lacked the jurisdiction to judge the reform’s constitutionality. This appeared to conflict with a 1997 decision in which the court ruled that a candidate who had been barred from the ballot by a constitutional reform should be allowed to run for mayor of Mexico City.

Enactment of the San Andrés Accords has been at the heart of the Zapatista struggle since the documents were signed in 1996. The EZLN has sponsored national referenda in which millions of voters have turned out to demonstrate support for the agreement. The Zapatistas also journeyed to Mexico City three times to demand that Congress approve the accords, and they made enactment of the agreements a condition for future peace talks.

The legislature, however, mutilated the proposed law by relegating autonomy to state legislatures and eliminating the concept of territoriality that included autonomous territories with legal and political standing and collective ownership of land and natural resources. With the law gutted, EZLN leaders lapsed into a silence that has considerably dimmed the Zapatistas’ visibility (LP, July 9, 2001 and Jan. 28, 2002).

The appeals were taken up not just by the Maya of Chiapas, however, but by many of the nation’s 57 indigenous peoples. For the past year, representatives of far-flung communities have traveled to Mexico City to plead their case before the high court, often accompanied by village elders to boost arguments for conserving the supremacy of the communal assembly (LP, July 29, 2002).

"This court has mocked us. It has slammed the door in our face," said Silvestre Campos, representative of four Nahua communities in Mexico state. As he spoke, activists at a small, angry rally outside the Supreme Court laid out representations of 57 skulls, one for each indigenous group, along with a cardboard coffin and funeral candles. A young Mazahua woman in a blouse embroidered with vivid indigo threads set fire to a traditional papier-mâché figure of Judas — which bore a striking resemblance to Uncle Sam.

In indigenous Mexico, subterranean anger breaks out from time to time in startling waves of violence. Four days after the Supreme Court ruling, ski-masked Zapatistas stomped through San Cristóbal de las Casas in the Chiapas highlands, smashing vehicles parked outside a government intelligence agency.

Thirty-five indigenous organizations meeting in Guerrero a week after the ruling decided to launch new demands for a reworking of the law on Oct. 12 — now the Day of Indian Resistance in Mexico. The marches and rallies will mark the 10th anniversary of mobilizations that commemorated 500 years of indigenous resistance in the Americas. That event sparked a revival of indigenous militancy throughout the hemisphere.

The Supreme Court action gives the PRI-PAN congressional majority the green light to implement 40 secondary laws that will lock the new legislation in place. Meanwhile, Catholic bishops, non-governmental organizations and civil society groups are clamoring for a "reform of the reform," and the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) has pledged to reintroduce the original text of the San Andrés Accords. The PRD, however, occupies only 68 seats in the 628-seat bicameral legislature.

Activists say they will appeal for justice to such international bodies as the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the International Labor Organization and the United Nations. But such processes tend to be long and frustrating and often produce only moral victories.

While the glacial-paced legal process and the Zapatistas’ frosty silence have cooled the drawing power of the rebels’ cause, fresh insurrection cannot be discounted. Although the EZLN’s guns have been muzzled for years, armed bands in Guerrero and Oaxaca states could be preparing to move. Indigenous activists are more likely to abandon the legal battle, however, and simply declare the various indigenous peoples autonomous. A resolution passed by the National Indigenous Congress last year called for self-declarations of autonomy should Congress thwart the accords.

Besides 38 Zapatista autonomous municipalities in Chiapas, a handful of self-declared autonomías exist in southern and central Mexico. The newest is San Salvador Atenco, where Nahua farmers successfully fought government expropriation of communal lands for a new airport (LP, May 6, 2002). Widespread declarations of autonomy would probably spark social strife, city hall takeovers and land occupations, creating headaches for Fox for the rest of his term.

 


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