Originally published in Left Turn July/Aug 2009
By Simon Sedillo
The facts are clear: indigenous communities in Mexico are being preyed upon by the US military with the help of Kansas University geographers. In 2005, the Department of Geography at Kansas University received $500,000 in Department of Defense funds to map communally-held indigenous land in the Mexican states of San Luis Potosi and Oaxaca. With the help of the US Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO), located at Fort Leavenworth Army base in Leavenworth, Kansas, geography professors Peter Herlihy and Jerome Dobson ploughed ahead with the “Mexico Indigena” project, a part of the larger mapping project, the Bowman Expeditions.
The FMSO researcher assigned to the Bowman Expeditions, Lt. Col. Geoffrey B. Demarest, is suspected of using the maps as military intelligence against indigenous communities that assert autonomy and self-determination through collectively governing and owning their territory. According to Demarest, the only path to ‘progress and security’ in Latin America is through the privatization of such types of communally-held land.
In FMSO publications and a textbook titled “Geoproperty: Foreign Affairs, National Security and Property Rights,” Demarest claims that “informally owned and unregulated land ownership favors illicit use and violence,” and that the only solution to these breeding grounds of crime and insurgency is the privatization and titling of the land.
It should come as no surprise that Demarest was not only trained at the US Army School of the Americas—the facility famous for teaching torture and the creation of paramilitary death squads to Latin American military personnel—but also served as the US Military Attaché at the US Embassy in Guatemala between 1988 and 1991, a time of heavily US-backed military repression against indigenous communities in Guatemala and several high-profile cases of torture and murder.
Before his work on the “Mexico Indigena” project, Demarest was implementing his land data strategies in Colombia, at least up until 2003. A March 2003 FMSO essay written by Demarest titled “Mapping Colombia: Land Data and Strategy,” clearly states the ultimate use of the geographic data: “While the forensic value of land ownership data is relatively obvious, not so obvious is the correlation between land data and military strategy, but this correlation precisely marks an essential attribute of successful counterinsurgent campaigns.”
In the same essay, Demarest takes it a step further and exposes the imperialistic intentions for land data and strategy: “Strategic power becomes the ability to keep and acquire ownership rights around the world. National, sub-, supra- or transnational power can be measured accordingly.”
The FMSO’s primary mission is to assess asymmetric and emerging threats to the national security of the US. By asymmetric threats they mean guerrilla armies, and terrorist organizations. The FMSO is therefore evaluating indigenous-influenced-social movements as emerging threats to the security of US political and economic interests in Mexico.
Oliver Froehling, geographer and academic director of the Universidad de la Tierra (University of the Earth) in Oaxaca city, highlights the danger of these mapping projects when he states: “The Mexico Indigena project subscribes to a military/political strategy. We cannot forget that the mapping begins amidst talks for a US military funding packet known as the Merida Initiative. The control and displacement of indigenous communities intends to remove potential political hot spots, contribute to military control of the region, and ultimately ‘liberate’ natural resources for the benefit of the government and, in turn, its transnational allies.”
Demarest’s notion that the greatest resistance to the neoliberal world order in Mexico comes from indigenous communities claiming autonomy and self-determination in the form of communal territory, is of course, no suspicion. It does.
In 1992, after then president Carlos Salinas de Gortari revoked Article 27 of the constitution that had legally given communal land grants to Mexico’s indigenous farmworker population, and in 1994, after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a series of indigenous-led-and-inspired uprisings in southern Mexico have been mobilizing for self-determination and self-defense of their territory.
One of the most notorious struggles, familiar to Left Turn readers, is that of the Zapatistas, who gained global attention by capturing a third of the state of Chiapas in the early hours of January 1, 1994, the day NAFTA went into effect. They called their armed indigenous uprising a fight against death and oblivion; a fight for peace with dignity, justice, and liberty. While the Zapatistas’ rifle barrels have remained silent for the last 15 years, they have continued to resist, and more importantly to inspire and listen to many struggles all over Mexico and the world.
On June 14, 2006 one of those many struggles, a teacher’s union strike in Oaxaca city, quickly blew up into a popular people’s uprising with a very strong indigenous base. The success of the ensuing 6-month-uprising was fueled by strong ideas of traditional forms of land tenure and the subsequent strategies for self-governance that indigenous communal life entails. Indigenous farm workers, teachers, students, housewives, and laborers came together in a standoff against the state’s governor, Ulises Ruiz Ortiz, demanding his removal from office.
The Oaxacan People’s Popular Assembly (APPO), that ultimately took over the state’s capitol city for six months, using a series of blockades and claimed itself the de-facto governing body, grew out of a strong indigenous base. The first general assembly of the APPO, in which 270 delegates participated, was organized under the Mesoamerican indigenous principle of “lead by obeying,” and the general assembly uses an indigenous form of consensus organizing that has existed in Oaxaca for thousands of years.
Exercising their self-determination, APPO members occupied state, local, and federal government offices throughout the city. Strategies of expropriation were employed immediately. Food, water, transportation, and communication were the primary targets of expropriation. At one point, middle-aged APPO women occupied a state-run TV and radio station. When the station’s antennas were attacked, the APPO responded by occupying 13 commercial radio stations. Oaxacans had never expected to hold the city as long as they did. But murder, disappearance, rape, torture and police led drive-by shootings on the part of the state eroded the social movement’s momentum. Oaxaca and the APPO continue to resist the brutal regime of governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz and demand his removal.
The battle for Oaxaca is no small one. The state is strategic for neoliberal interests as it is extremely wealthy in natural resources. Already it has become a site of a series of industrial mega projects implemented through NAFTA and the Plan Puebla Panama. Highways, railways, ports of trade, wind energy corridors, mines, agribusinesses, and maquiladora-style assembly plants are some examples of the “progress” touted by the proponents of Plan Puebla Panama. However, over the last 15 years, these symbols of progress have only systematically displaced indigenous communities, which are no longer considered “economically viable.” Human life in Oaxaca is just another disposable variable in NAFTA’s equation for profit. To push indigenous people off their land, and to rob them of their means of subsistence is tantamount to genocide.
Curiously, in 2006, at the same time that the APPO was fighting battles on the streets of the capital, the “Mexico Indigena” mapping project quietly moved its operation from the state of San Luis Potosi to Sierra de Juarez, to a biologically diverse and mineral-rich-region the state of Oaxaca.
Question of identity
For the indigenous of southern Mexico, territory and culture are so intertwined in daily life that one without the other is like a bicycle with no wheels. Yet the ‘progress and prosperity’ of free trade inherently implies a loss of identity and tradition for indigenous communities. The constant bombardment of anti-indigenous propaganda in cartoons, TV shows, and newscasts is no accident. In the free-market, indigenousness is culturally devalued. Billboards on the highways between indigenous villages depict white-skinned consumers with absolutely no relationship to the land from which they consume. The mannequins in all the women’s clothing shops in Oaxaca City—the capitol of a state that is 70 percent indigenous—are all tall, skinny, and very, very white. The most prevalent cosmetic product sold to indigenous women is skin bleach. For indigenous communities in Mexico to claim their autonomy and territory is therefore a deeply urgent reclamation of identity.
In Oaxaca, the indigenous have always been more willing to die fighting for their territory than any government has ever been able to kill them and take it, because negating and criminalizing traditional forms of land tenure is to negate indigenous culture and life. Demarest, the FMSO, and the US military know this. But what they have also discovered in their studies of indigenous territory and resistance in Mexico and other regions of Latin America, is that the most dangerous weapon to neoliberalism is not necessarily struggles for state power, or the presence of physical force. Rather, it is the relentless belief in self-governance and self-determination, exemplified in the traditional form of horizontal power harvested by indigenous communities of Mexico, which poses the biggest threat to the world order. This is the key of cultural resistance, applicable to community-based struggles for self-determination everywhere.
The implications of the Bowman Expeditions and the Demarest essays extend beyond indigenous lands, reverberating throughout all sectors of society, and in particular, the world’s urban poor. In a spring 1995 FMSO essay titled “Geopolitics and Urban Armed Conflict in Latin America,” Demarest criminalizes and warns against the potential of all Latin America’s urban poor:
“Moneyed interests in Latin America continue to isolate, physically and socially, the sprawling poor communities. The shantytowns become separately governed areas. They mark the physical dimensions of what in some ways are autonomous nations within nations. At some point their leadership may be seen as a national security threat as opposed to merely a public security threat. Therein lies their geopolitical importance.”
In a previous section of this same essay, Demarest lists anti-state actors who find a home among the world’s poor:
“Distinctive features of the largest or so-called ‘world cities,’ of which Latin America has several, include marked economic and social polarization and intense spatial segregation. We also find what is probably an effect of these conditions: the complementary agendas and overlapping identities of a large array of anti-state actors. Anarchists, criminals, the dispossessed, foreign meddlers, cynical opportunists, lunatics, revolutionaries, labor leaders, ethnic nationals, real estate speculators and others can all form alliances of convenience. They can also commit acts of violence and handle ideas that provoke others. These ideas may be as specific as resisting a rise in bus fares, as immediate as an opportunity for looting following a mass celebration, or as broad as ethnic identity.”
Like communally held indigenous land, unregulated shantytowns are considered precursors to crime and insurgency by the FMSO. In the US and cities around the world, the privatization of poor communities through gentrification is a similar multi-faceted strategy of marginalization through devaluation, criminalization, and displacement. To be poor and organize your community to survive by its own means, to exercise self-determination, according to the Demarest essays, is to be a threat to US political and economic interests, domestically and abroad.
Simón Sedillo is a chicano community rights defense organizer and a documentary film-maker whose work has centered on placing skills, cameras, and editing equipment in the hands of communities in resistance so that they may be able to document their own histories of struggle. Sedillo has spent the last 6 years documenting and teaching community based video documentation in Mexico, in immigrant communities in the US, and with youth of color across the US. Sedillo, who is a contributor to www.elenemigocomun.net, is currently on tour screening short film segments from Oaxaca and Chiapas, and presenting a workshop about neoliberalism and the self-defense of community rights.