A local group of activistas recently helped facilitiate a relief campaign for a Pastors for Peace Caravan under the theme: "Connecting Communities in the Struggle for Social and Economic Justice." The cadre of compassionate citizens gathered computers and educational supplies, toys, medicine and medical supplies, and also collected money to buy food for displaced indigenous peoples in Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico.

Long-bearded local Ned Powell, who has driven the truck down in past years, spent April driving a route that made seven stops in the U.S. before reaching the border. Bloomington was the beginning of Route B, one of five such routes traversing the U.S. on the way to Mexico.

Powell described his experiences delivering aid:

"My last Caravan to Chiapas had been four years ago when Presidente Zedillo was in power. We were followed for over a thousand miles, photographed and videotaped, and were stopped 29 times at military checkpoints.

"On one of our trips down the only road across the Chiapas Mountains, we were detained at a paramilitary roadblock, where we were extorted to pay a 'toll' in order to pass. If one did not pay, they would rock the vehicle until it turned over. I read that this is one of the ways they get money for weaponry.

"The Chiapas had been described as a zone of low-intensity warfare. It certainly felt like an occupied territory to me. The Mexican Army had an outpost overlooking the checkpoint, confirmation enough for me that the government implicitly sanctioned the group.

"This year there were only three check points. One was for the inspection of vehicles going North, and we were waved through the other two. We were again trailed from the border to the Chiapas, but only by one person with a cell phone, and we were still photographed, but not as intrusively as before."

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The activistas' first stop this time around was the Sisters of St. Francis Community Clinic in Palenque. Drivers were advised to park within the fenced yard of the clinic to avoid government surveillance and possible sabotage to the vehicles. The group unloaded medical and material aid and spent the night.

The next day they entered their central city of operations, San Christobal de Las Casas, Chiapas. There they were briefed by various local and international organizations working in the region.

The international observers asked that no photos or names be taken, as they felt they would be deported. The local town folk and those in the indigenous communities requested the same in fear that the government would harass them or that the paramilitary might murder them.

The activistas met with Sipaz (Si-Paz or Yes-Peace), an international observation program monitoring the conflict in Chiapas, aiding in the construction of a culture of peace by supporting the search for peaceful solutions through fostering dialogue and tolerance between all the actors involved.

They pow-wowed with Caritas, a Catholic relief organization, assisting the local communities with education and trade training, health and agricultural projects, and emergency services for the displaced.

They also spoke with the Network of Community Defenders for Human Rights, a local organization that trains individuals to be paralegals so that they may defend the legal rights of indigenous peoples.

Powell summed up the history of the conflict:s

"I became aware of the Zapatista rebellion that took place 11 years ago on January 1, 1994, the same day that NAFTA went into effect, because I was in the border city of Cuidad Juarez at the time. The major fighting between the government and the rebels only lasted a few weeks, and the Zapatista movement has since become a primarily social and political one.

"After the rebellion there was a collusion of forces that included wealthy landowners, business interests, paramilitary groups and the Mexican Army that violently displaced thousands of indigenous people in Chiapas. Entire communities were forced to abandon their crops and live in hiding without access to adequate food or shelter. One-hundred-and-twenty-three killings and 37 cases of kidnapping and disappearances are blamed on these groups and the paramilitaries have not been disarmed."

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The Center for Regional Political and Economic Investigations, COPECK, informed the activistas that there are six major paramilitary groups operating in Chiapas. Human rights groups charge that the former Mexican president helped to create the "Peace and Justice" paramilitary force, which received about $4 million for agricultural programs, and that officials ignored reports that it was being used to buy weapons.

"The Mexican military has 91 military bases and a paratrooper unit in the Chiapas, about one-third of the Mexican armed forces," Powell said. "The Army has positions in the three valleys, a road has been cut in the Lagodon Jungle, and the Mexican Navy patrols the river between Guatemala and Mexico, effectively encircling the communities."

Before the Caravan left the center of operations in San Christobal, the activistas purchased 18 tons of dried corn and beans. Their next destination was Oventic. They parceled out food and material aid there, were thanked warmly for their direct assistance and then toured the shoe factory and women's textile shop.

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The activistas then went on to Pol Loh and arrived after dark. The community helped unload the corn and beans, and since San Christobal was an hour-and-a-half away, the Caravan left soon after. Some 20 minutes down the road they were stopped by military trucks with red and white flashing lights, a Jeep and a Chiapas State Police car.

"Our Mexican staffer, Victor, leapt out and asked why we were being stopped," Powell recounts. "The commanding officer chambered a round in his weapon, had his trigger finger ready, and pointed the weapon at the New York Pastors for Peace staffer. Six military officers boarded our bus, rummaging about more to intimidate than search.

"Victor then told us to start photographing them. The light show of flash bulbs seemed to help turn the tide as they slowly exited the bus. Ten more minutes of negotiating with the C.O., trigger finger still at the ready, and we were sent on our way. It was a scary night for us, but that's the sort of thing that these people experience all the time."

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The next excursion was down seven miles of dirt road to the village of La Realidad where the activistas spent three nights.

"I had been there before back when the military would storm through the community twice a day," Powell said. "The people told me how helicopters would hover for hours, battering them with their prop wash."

Negotiations between the government and the Zapatistas in 2001 put a stop to the convoys and chopper flights and also led to the removal of some of the military camps. La Realidad now has electricity, thanks to a hydroelectric turbine donated by Italians.

"La Realidad has returned to something like the peaceful Mayan village it once was," Powell said. "They have an autonomous government that makes collective decisions democratically. There are few vehicles, but they co-own a bulldozer and dump truck."

Powell reflects upon his emotional experiences in the village:

"One night I was sleeping outside and awoke to kids touching my beard and giggling. I had joked with them the day before that it would cost 25 centavos for each touch. I wanted to stay and bask in the relative simplicity of their lives, but realized I was deceiving myself. They were well aware that the military camp had only moved 14 kilometers away.

"The importance of the Caravan to them, as much as the aid, was that the outside world had run the gauntlet to support them in their struggle for economic and social justice, that they were not alone. The frustration is that not much more can be done for them. Outside observers do help keep them alive by reporting on the situation.

"I have been a driver on some 15 Pastors for Peace Caravans. I love the work they do and their determination to not let any government stop them from connecting people to people.

"The next P4P Caravan is in July and is intended to try to end the blockade of Cuba. The local group will gladly accept donations or material aid."

Mylo Roze can be reached at miloroze@yahoo.com.

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For more information

Ned Powell

Pastors for Peace
212-926-5757