Rural cities in Chiapas: Government plundering the peasantry

6 10 2010

Note: Having just returned home from five weeks touring A Poetics of Resistance, many people have asked me what’s happenibg right now in Chiapas, and with the Zapatistas. While there are many things “happening,” one worth paying close attention to, as part of Plan Mesoamerica, is detailed in the report below from the respected Chiapanec think-tank CIEPAC. — Jeff C.

Mariela Zunino y Miguel Pickard – 26-december-2008 –  num.571
ciepac, san cristóbal de las casas


After torrential storms in much of South-East Mexico in October and November 2007, the Chiapas state government, led by Juan Sabines Guerrero, put forward the Sustainable Rural Cities program. The program is meant to provide housing for thousands of victims who had lost their loved ones, houses, land, animals and personal possessions. However, the real aim of the Rural Cities program is to “organise” the use of resources in the countryside, which means separating campesinos from the land where they currently live. The program will concentrate people from the countryside into small villages, then transfer ownership of their land and its exploitation to big companies.

The origins of the Rural Cities Program

At the end of June 2008, the leaders of Mexico, Central America and Colombia decided to relaunch the Plan Puebla Panama (PPP) renaming it the “Mesoamerican Integration and Development Project”, or Mesoamerican Project. This new name is an attempt to rejuvenate the PPP, although its logic remains the same: to integrate the whole territory from southern Mexico to Colombia and make it conform to the needs of large-scale capital. Over 100 economic projects made up the PPP when it began in 2001, but it was agreed to leave only a score of these, concentrating on energy, electricity, health, education, telecommunications, agro-fuels, roads and housing.(1)

Thus we now face a “concentrated PPP”. The founding document of the PPP, in its chapter on Mexico,(2) points out that one of the objectives is to generate a sustainable management of resources; hence the need to promote programs of territorial rearrangement due to the highly dispersed population in Southern and South-East Mexico. Similarly, in November 2008, the World Bank published its World Development Report 2009, subtitled “Reshaping Economic Geography”, which claims that economic integration is the key to bringing development to all corners of the world. Economic integration, says the report, means, among other things, bringing urban and rural areas closer together. To quote the World Bank: “The policy challenge is getting density right, harnessing market forces to encourage concentration and promote convergence in living standards between villages and towns and cities.”(3)

This is the context in which to view the Rural Cities Program that the government of Juan Sabines intends to carry out in Chiapas, with the same guiding principles: reorganising rural spaces, concentration to overcome dispersion, and bringing rural production into the market framework. It is obvious that the logic of the Rural Cities project is overwhelmingly economic and not social, as its supporters say.

Evidently, the original idea to build Rural Cities comes not from the Chiapas government but from multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).(4) Rural Cities in Chiapas are thus a part of the mosaic of neoliberal plans, projects and businesses stretching across Mexico.(5)

At the inaugural meeting of the Mesoamerica Project in June 2008, President Felipe Calderon stated that “not only have we decided to speed up the pace but also to move towards an complete integration and development project for the region, and to open the door to social development projects, as in housing and health, which have been planned and approved.”(6) At the same time, Calderon announced an extensive housing programme that includes the funding of mortgage loans for 50,000 dwellings, seeking to extend the Mexican model of house-building throughout Central America. The president of the Advisory Council for Rural Cities, Esteban Moctezuma Barragán, also president of the Azteca Foundation, stated that “there will be Rural Cities not only in Chiapas or even Mexico, but throughout Latin America and the world, and they will be legacy of President Calderon and Governor Sabines, because they solve many problems at the same time, because they reach the root of the problem”(7).

Historical background of the Rural Cities

To “confine” a sector of the population within cities that are built to isolate this same population from their usual surroundings is not a new strategy. The Rural Cities in Chiapas are a variant of the population control that has been used in other kinds of wars. In “hot” wars, such as invasions by countries in the North against so-called colonies in the South, forced confinement of the campesino population is often a part of a much wider strategy of counterinsurgency and pacification. by. Various examples include: the British in their wars in Malaya and Kenya in the early 1950s, the French in Algeria in the 1950s and 1960s, the USA in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, and with some modifications, in Iraq in the first decade of the 21st century, through the isolation and controlled access to certain neighbourhoods in Baghdad. Another example nearer at hand is the model villages (later called “poles of development”) created by the Guatemalan army in the 1980s and 1990s to cut off the civilian peasant population from the insurgents of URNG (the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity).

Cutting off the population from its surroundings in wars is similar to “removing the water from the fish.” The fish in this case are the guerrilla forces or insurgents who can escape detection by “swimming” in a “sea” of the population that protects and supports them. Forcibly confining the civilian population in villages controlled by the regular army makes the insurgents` movements easier to detect. Moreover, it hampers their access to their bases of support for the purposes of recruitment, and restricts dissemination of propaganda for their cause.

The places where civilians are compelled to relocate and concentrate are known by various names: concentration camps, regroupment camps, internment camps, native reserves, model villages, new villages, strategic hamlets, development zones, agro-villages, and now, the oxymoron Rural Cities.

Some aspects of these regroupment centers are repeated in nearly all these forms. Apart from the general objective of keeping the population isolated from insurgents in wartime, and from natural resources in the current offensive of plunder by the Chiapas government, in general there is an attempt to make the rural people change and “modernise” their traditional way of life. The idea is to destroy traditional, campesino and community forms of exchange and lifestyles, forcing the population into the capitalist mode of production with small properties oriented towards the external market. Another objective is to indoctrinate the population through the control of school curricula, churches and the media. In Guatemala, for example, in the model villages established in the 1980s:

The aim was ideological indoctrination and the imposition of values alien to the communities, allegiance to Guatemalan national symbols, the flag, the national anthem and values of individualism and success, concepts alien to the traditional Mayan culture. Daily life was completely regimented, imposing a constant rupture with traditional indigenous values. The language used throughout the program was Spanish, education was given in the language of the powerful “ladino” sectors of Guatemala.(8)

A decade earlier in Vietnam, US military strategists declared:

The Strategic Hamlet Program was much broader than the construction of strategic hamlets per se. It envisioned sequential phases which, beginning with clearing the insurgents from an area and protecting the rural populace, progressed through the establishment of governmental infrastructure and thence to the provision of services which would lead the peasants to identify with their government. The strategic hamlet program was, in short, an attempt to translate the newly articulated theory of counter-insurgency into operational reality. The objective was political though the means to its realization were a mixture of military, social, psychological, economic and political measures.(9)

Rural Cities as an aspect of counterinsurgency

Wherever there are indigenous peoples and communities, men and women fighting for their rights, seeking the dignity and liberty of which they have been robbed, a concurrent, silent war exists to make them disappear, through different variations of counterinsurgency. In Chiapas, the Sabines government is specialised in counterinsurgency. Government programs that talk about the struggle against poverty and advocate development are in fact mechanisms for community disintegration, which include breaking ties of campesino and indigenous ways of life, to obtain total control over territories and natural resources.

The counterinsurgency plan of Juan Sabines is disguised as the “Chiapas Development and Solidarity Plan”, which is far from being “based on the value of solidarity, with respect for the natural resources of future generations” that it claims(10) Rather, it seeks to convert the state of Chiapas into an investors` paradise, through neoliberal economic integration. This brings pressure on the state to become even more immersed in globalisation. Programs such as Amanecer (Dawn), Banchiapas (Chiapas Bank), the Biofuels Project, the Agricultural Convention (CODECOA), and Rural Cities are all part of this “Chiapas Solidarity”, which fits in with the goals of counterinsurgency. Processes such as territorial rearrangement, privatisation of land, militarization of communities, infrastructure megaprojects and the development of tourist centers all fit into the same logic.

Concentrating the population in Rural Cities implies social control, which is fundamental to the plans of capital and the government. Basically, control of the population seeks to fragment and divide any attempt to build an alternative model or one that strays from the government path. The aim is to demobilize people by breaking up their cultures and campesino way of life, separating them from their land and impose the state and business model set up in the new residential centres. Miguel Ángel García from the Chiapas NGO Maderas del Pueblo del Sureste highlights the coincidence of interests, mainly those of cement works and construction firms, but also “there is a political interest in social control, to concentrate people to keep them under control and to have reserve labour, employed or semi-employed “(11).

Rural Cities and the Shock Doctrine

The first Rural Cities to be built by the state government will be in Central and Northern Chiapas. Their location is no accident. The torrential rains of October and November 2007 were especially heavy in that area, affecting about 1,200 families in 34 municipalities. In addition, the town of Juan de Grijalva was buried when a hill collapsed in Ostuacán municipality in the Northern zone. The affected families were housed in temporary shelters or with relatives. From January 2008, over 600 families in 33 communities in the official municipalities of Jitotol, Tecpatán, Pantepec, Coapilla, Copainalá and Ixhuatán were moved to so-called “solidarity camps”.

Model of the Rural Cities Project showing the work financed by each company.
Months before the disaster, the Sabines government had announced the Rural Cities Program, but the rains provided the ideal opportunity to start. The Sabines government announced the discovery of the reason for so much poverty in the state and particularly in the countryside in Chiapas: “We concluded that dispersion is the origin and fundamental cause of extreme poverty” stated the governor in his Second “State of the State” Report.(12)

According to official figures, there are 19,386 localities in the state of Chiapas. In 14,346 (74%) of them, there are fewer than 100 inhabitants, which “makes the provision of services and infrastructure for development difficult, to the detriment of the population`s quality of life” according to the state government. Resolved to confront the “dispersion-poverty issue”, the Sabines government launched the ambitious Rural Cities program to concentrate the “dispersed” people.(13)

In this context, the government`s largest problem is one of public relations – how to convince country people not only to relocate and concentrate but also to break with their traditional way of life, and agree to give up their greatest heritage: the land where they live. The dilemma was huge, but using the adage that crises bring opportunities, the rains and mudslides offered the government a solution. The first Rural Cities would be built in the disaster zone to provide homes for the victims. Altogether eight Rural Cities were ¨[to be] built in 2008 out of a total of 25 during the term of office of governor Juan Sabines which ends in December 2012.(14)

The behaviour of the Chiapas government regarding the Rural Cities is an example of the so-called shock doctrine, about which the Canadian researcher and activist Naomi Klein has written in detail. Her recent book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, describes, with detailed examples, instances where governments in different countries intent on plundering their people have taken advantage of all kinds of disasters to push through measures which at other times would meet violent opposition. These disasters may be natural (earthquakes, hurricanes) or caused by human beings (wars, coups d`état), or a combination of both, like the torrential rains of 2007, which led to floods and landslides in Chiapas because of deforestation and historic floods in Tabasco due to improper release rates at various hydro-electric dams.

Klein explains:

That is how the shock doctrine works: the original disaster – the coup, the terrorist attack, the market meltdown, the war, the tsunami, the hurricane – puts the entire population into a state of collective shock. The falling bombs, the bursts of terror, the pounding winds serve to soften up whole societies much as the blaring music and blows in the torture cells soften up prisoners. Like the terrorized prisoner who gives up the names of comrades and renounces his faith, shocked societies often give up things they would otherwise fiercely protect.(15)

Building housing for the rainstorm survivors in Chiapas would perhaps not deserve so much attention under different circumstances. The difference this time centers on the aims of the state government, using Rural Cities as part of state policy, coordinated among different levels of government, security forces, the private sector and other organisations, in order to concentrate the rural population, and in due course to deprive them of possession and control of the land where they now live.

This two-fold aim of concentration and plunder would be fiercely opposed by the population were it not for the disaster. Homeless, in shock because they have lost relatives, houses and personal possessions, forced by events to relocate to places far from their lands, the affected population undergo what Klein calls a “collective trauma.” They are the perfect target for a government policy of coercion with the least possible resistance. Roberto Sánchez, representative of the community of Juan de Grijalva commented shortly after the tragedy, “People are scared and do not want to return where death and destruction struck.”(16)) In these circumstances, the relocation of thousands of families to Rural Cities, with promises of access to all services – housing, schools, clinics, leisure centres, even internet – become much easier.

Obviously, not all the 25 Rural Cities planned by the Sabines government in Chiapas will be built after a disaster. However, the first do have this characteristic and were selected with the desire to be accepted by the population and built with the least possible resistance. From now on, their main function is the “demonstration effect”, e.g., to set an example to the people whom the government intends to move to the other Rural Cities.

[To be continued]

Our grateful thanks to Deborah Cobbett for the English translation and to Sarah Beckhart and Miguel Pickard for their editorial support.


“Relanzan Plan Puebla Panamá como Proyecto Mesoamérica”, La Jornada, 28 de junio de 2008
“Plan Puebla-Panamá Documento Base, Capítulo México Informe Ejecutivo”, Lic. Francisco Abarca Escamilla.
World Bank, World Development Report 2009 “Reshaping Economic Geography” Overview, page 7 [online]
Japhy Wilson, “The New Phase of the Plan Puebla Panama in Chiapas”, Chiapas Today bulletins, CIEPAC
This includes the SPP and the Mérida Initiative. The Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (ASPAN in Spanish) means the militarisation and loss of sovereignty of the whole of Mexico, or as pointed out by Carlos Fazio, ASPAN is bullet-proofing NAFTA. The SPP is a militarised NAFTA”. In turn, the Merida Initiative is becoming the promoter and gendarme of this militarisation and the control and plunder of natural resources which projects like the PPP intend for Mexico and Central America.
“Presidentes y Jefes de Estado lanzan Proyecto de Integración y Desarrollo de Mesoamérica”, Newsletter del Proyecto Mesoamérica, número 1, noviembre de 2008,
“Ciudades Rurales para vivir mejor: Felipe Calderón”, El Heraldo de Chiapas, 8 de abril de 2008.
Luis Menéndez, “Guatemala: la persistencia del terror”, Herramienta,
Pentágono, The Pentagon Papers, Vol. 2, Capítulo 2, “El programa de aldeas estratégicas, 1961 – 1963”, Beacon Press, 1971.(online summary at
“Plan de Desarrollo Chiapas Solidario 2007012”, en
Interview with Miguel Angel García de Maderas del Pueblo del Sureste AC, 30 de junio de 2008.
“Programa: Ciudades Rurales de Chiapas”, Gobierno del Estado y Fundación Azteca,
It is worth mentioning that since the tragedy in October 2007, the surviving families have been living in crowded temporary camps built by the State government. On a plot called after General Emiliano Zapata (or Santa Ana according to the state authorities), in Tecpatán, displaced people are living in small huts 3.5 metres by 5, built almost touching one another, with 5 to 8 people to a hut. (see Carlos Herrera, “Presentan Casa Modelo”, Cuarto Poder, 22/12/08,
Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Metropolitan Books, Nueva York, 2007, p.17.
Elio Henríquez, “Pobladores de San Juan Grijalva aceptan ser reubicados”, La Jornada,




One response

17 12 2010
California-Chiapas REDD Partnership Heating up Quickly: Hearings in Sacramento | Climate Connections

[…] and a program called Sustainable Rural Cities, which I’ve been following from a distance (see my personal blog, The Watering Hole), and hope to report on more directly in the near future. I briefly interviewed Governor Sabines in […]

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