Violence stemming from a longstanding territorial dispute in the central highlands of Chiapas has forced more than 5,000 indigenous Tzotzil people to flee their homes, according to a human rights organization and the Catholic Church, which warn there is a humanitarian crisis under way.
The Frayba Human Rights Center says its records show that just over 5,000 people have left nine communities in Chalchihuitán while a further 300 have abandoned their homes in the neighboring municipality of Chenalhó.
A flare-up of a 40-year-old dispute between the two municipalities over the ownership of 900 hectares of land is responsible for the exodus.
Many of the displaced people are currently sleeping in makeshift camps where they are facing cold temperatures, illness and food shortages. Among them are 114 pregnant women who require urgent medical attention, Frayba warned.
The organization has called on the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (CIDH) and the United Nations (UN) to pressure the Mexican government to attend to the problem and warned that displaced residents from both municipalities are suffering serious human rights violations.
“The responsibility of the different levels of government that have allowed this situation to become a humanitarian emergency is clear. In addition, the authorities have been unable to deal with the causes and effects of the violence,” the organization said in a prepared statement.
Residents of the C’analumtic community say they were forced from their homes after a group of armed men from Chenalhó — intent on taking over their land — murdered farmer Samuel Luna Girón on October 18.
One local woman, identified only as Hermelinda, said that residents fled amid the gunfire with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. The armed men subsequently ransacked nine homes before setting them alight and even their chickens and pigs were stolen, she added.
Similar incidents played out in other nearby communities, forcing their residents to flee in search of safety as well. Displaced residents accuse Chenalhó Mayor Rosa Pérez of buying weapons and ammunition for the armed men whom they refer to as “paramilitaries.”
Conditions in the improvised camps have worsened as supplies run out and temperatures drop.
In one camp in the community of Pom, almost everyone is sick and in the absence of medicine, traditional healers try to treat the young and old alike with mixtures of medicinal plants and boiling water. Fever, stomach aches and coughs are among the most common ailments.
Dwindling food supplies, limited to stale tortillas and beans, are shared among children while adults are forced to go without.
San Cristóbal de las Casas Bishop Felipe Arizmendi Esquivel compared the current situation to a 1997 massacre in Acteal, Chenalhó, that left 45 people dead.
Those living in the camps are desperate to return to their homes but while the threat of violence remains, they are too scared to do so.
“. . . We want peace and tranquility,” one young woman at the Pom camp told the newspaper El Universal.
“Help us. Our families are sick and suffering. Our children, aunts, uncles and grandparents are dying in the mountain like animals,” she pleaded.