The Mexican Indigenous Rights Movement.

The Life and Rights of the Nahua of the Pueblan Sierra.

Robin Rhodes. Postgraduate research project.
British Council-CONACYT exchange scheme. Puebla, Mexico, 1999.
e-mail correspondence:

All history, when it is something more than the accumulation of dates, is invention; I mean: it is not a mere bringing of the past into the light but also an insertion of that past within a reality in progress... it is a question put to the past and, likewise, an answer to the question that the past asks us. We are the ones that have to conclude the mortal dialogue begun by Cuauhtémoc and Hernán Cortes.

Octavio Paz (1984)

On January 1st 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) emerged very publicly in an armed uprising in the state of Chiapas. The political potency it earned stimulated awareness of the movement's demands for indigenous rights reform, and placed the initiative for such reform on subsequent negotiations with the federal government. The reform proposals resulting from this (ongoing) process of negotiation offer an ideal focus for an analysis of the problems and rights abuses suffered by Mexican indigenous groups and the attempts to rectify them. The first half of this work will consider rights to land and territory, social and economic development, legal justice, and (local) autonomy. Since these reforms would operate at a constitutional and national legislative level, they would affect all 56 of the ethnically-distinct indigenous groups in Mexico today.(1) The second half of this work will focus on the Nahua of the Sierra del Norte of Puebla state. It will present a superficial account of life in their communities, coupled with a speculative discussion of the potential impact of these reforms upon that life. It is hoped that this case study will be interesting in its own right whilst also serving to clarify and illustrate the broader discussion of the first half of the work.

The need to define "indigenous" or "Indian" has often caused intense debate. "Purity" of blood and command of an indigenous language are the usual yardsticks of the discussion. We will not concern ourselves unduly with this discussion, which is in fact relatively self-defeating given the contemporary complexities of any indigenous group or community (e.g. the number of "Indian" or "mixed-blood", and monolingual or bilingual inhabitants). Perhaps it is time to let the indigenous define themselves; most Mexican communities that consider themselves indigenous are sure of their ethnic identity.(2) We should, however, note the difference between the terms indigenous and campesino. The literal translation of the latter is "peasant" or "farmer". Jose Blasquis, ex-political editor of the Pueblan-based newspaper Síntesis notes: "Not all campesinos are indigenous. Most indigenous (people) are campesinos". Contemporary indigenous rights discussion includes social rights issues of concern to campesino groups (for that reason reference will be made to campesinos) but also includes additional cultural rights issues as will become apparent.

The twentieth century has witnessed various and progressively detailed attempts to define and implement a cohesive set of "indigenous rights". These rights have usually been treated under the umbrella of human rights although in recent decades (and perhaps largely because of increasingly vocal indigenous rights activism), legislation on both national and international levels has begun to tackle them in isolation. For the sake of comparison and validation we will consider some of that legislation, and especially; Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries. Since human rights are theoretically universal, is it justifiable to speak of distinct indigenous human rights? Christian Bay believes such groups deserve special protection:

Not because they are indigenous peoples, but because they are human beings with indigenous cultures, and with unique ways of being human, should their defence and protection be a matter of the highest-priority concern...(3)

Given the contemporary nature of the subject, and my desire to research on the ground, this study includes a substantial quantity of personal testimony. A healthy detachment is, as always, called for in respect to such information. Likewise, news reports and press opinion should be treated objectively, especially given the polarisation of political thought and continuing problems of press freedom in Mexico. All Spanish sources are provided in translation. Quotations from sources I personally interviewed are not annotated.

The COCOPA proposal (1996).

Whilst tackling the principal rights issues of concern to the indigenous movement today, we will focus on selected extracts of the document submitted in November 1996 by the Concord and Pacification Commission (COCOPA). This parliamentary delegation, in co-ordination with the National Mediation Commission (CONAI), was responsible for mediating the Chiapan negotiations and drafting a mutually acceptable reform document. The document in question represents a renegotiated version of the rights accord signed in San Andres in February 1996. The federal government failed to honour the San Andres accord and rejected the renegotiated COCOPA document. Both rejections signalled a breakdown in talks. However, the 1996 COCOPA document is, in 1999, still relevant. The principal issues with which it is concerned were represented in the public referendum on indigenous rights and culture called by the EZLN on March 21st 1999 ("Recognition of Indigenous Rights and the End to the War of Extermination") in which three million citizens participated.

Land and Territory.

Constitutional reform proposal; COCOPA document (November 29th 1996):(4)

Article 4. Clause V:

To gain access in a collective manner to the use and enjoyment of the natural resources of their lands and territories, understanding these as the totality of the habitat that the indigenous peoples use and occupy, save those whose direct dominion corresponds to the Nation

Article 26 (fragment):

The State will guarantee them their fair access to the distribution of the national wealth.

Before considering the COCOPA proposal as it relates to 'indigenous lands', we should note first that types of land use and modes of occupancy as exist in Mexico are complex. For example, it is difficult to compare the Nahuas' land parcels in the Pueblan Sierra with the Lacandon Indians' inhabitation of the Chiapan jungle. Lands may be of collective or private tenure, and used by communities or individuals for subsistence or commercial agriculture. They may be used for the construction of habitations or the provision of social space. Equally, they might constitute an area of woodland used for the collection of forest resources. Indigenous people are private land owners, ejidal title holders, individuals with rights of access to communal land. This diversity of land use and tenancy causes some problems when attempting to define a single, effective method for protecting indigenous lands.

The Constitution of 1917 provides that all lands and their resources belong to the Nation, which permits their transference to groups or individuals to fulfil social needs. A subsection of Article 27 prescribes that a secondary law "will protect the integrity of the lands of the indigenous groups". Article 106 of the Agrarian Laws to which this refers, states: "The lands that correspond to the indigenous groups must be protected by the authorities". Despite, or perhaps due to this rather vague legal protection, indigenous groups continue to suffer illegal interference on, and expropriation of their lands.

President Salinas' 1992 reform of Article 27 removed the 'inalienability' of ejidos, allowing them for the first time since the Revolution to be traded as a commodity. That is they may be rented, sold, divided into individual parcels, or redesignated 'communal land'. The reform also put an end to the creation of any new ejidos. Communal lands belonging collectively to a community, as distinct from ejidos, continue to be defined 'inalienable' but the pertinent communal assembly may decide to give over part of that land to a 'mercantile society'. A constant complaint of indigenous communities in previous decades was that ejidos were arbitrarily created where communal lands previously existed, or that new legal boundaries were superimposed, thereby causing confusion over, or even loss of property rights. A solution (suggested by the national Indigenous Institute) to these often confusing physical and legal definitions was to declare that all ejidos created over communal lands in the last 50 years return automatically to communal property, whilst a given time period would permit communities to declare retained ejidal status if so desired. These recent legal changes have provided a greater flexibility in respect to tenancy and use, but have also left indigenous lands more vulnerable. Given the extreme poverty of many indigenous communities, there now exists a great temptation to sell ejidal land to resolve immediate economic problems. This may result in the concentration of lands in the hands of a few caciques (mestizo or Indian) or even the dissolution of entire communities. A Yaqui from Sonora expressed this preoccupation:

It is fine that we rent if we want, that we lend the land if we want, that we associate amongst ourselves, but please remove the liberty to sell, take it away because we have great need for money and if we sell we are going to destroy ourselves; the community ...without land there is no community.(5)

Definition of indigenous lands and territories is especially problematic where legal title is non-existent or vague (as it often is). However, COCOPA's proposals essentially seek to provide protection for those lands privately or collectively owned by indigenous groups at the present time. They also seek to preserve the right of access to, and exploitation of areas of natural reserve currently and traditionally used by indigenous groups. It is argued that no judicial standard exists to recognise indigenous rights to such lands, ..."understanding these as the totality of the habitat that the indigenous peoples use and occupy". Francisco Barcenas identifies the (perceived) threat that the indigenous demand greater expanses of land than they currently own or utilise, or the right to create independent states free from federal authority:

The confusion arises through identifying (the) territory as a much greater extension of land than that kept by a human group as property, when in reality it is the space where that human group can freely practice and develop their culture without anyone interfering or prohibiting it, except in the case that they don't respect the norms of co-existence that they accept as an obligation would be the case in respecting the political Constitution.(6)

In the problematic area of resources, it has been suggested that two types be distinguished; those 'essential' or 'strategic' for national development (which the State would retain the right to exploit though ensuring consultation with, and making beneficiaries of, the affected indigenous groups) and those which are not which would be 'given' to the group in whose territory they reside. We should note that at present neither Article 27 nor the Agrarian Laws include any obligation for obtaining consent before expropriating communal goods, or creating or relocating centres of population.

We should look to Covenant 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries (sanctioned by Mexico) as a source of comparison. Articles 13 to 19 of this agreement state that the cultural importance of lands to indigenous groups (and the values with which they keep them) should be respected. The right to the possession of lands that they traditionally occupy should be protected, and measures taken to guarantee their free access to them. Furthermore, their lands may not be removed without consent and if displacement is 'unavoidable', affected groups should have the right to return if the initial causes for the displacement disappear, or lands of equal quality and judicial status provided if not. Indigenous groups should have the liberty to participate in the use, administration and conservation of natural resources residing on their lands, and they must be consulted before any program concerning those resources is authorised. They should participate in the benefits of any extraction of resources and/or receive equitable compensation for resulting environmental damage.(7) Covenant 169 would seem to justify the COCOPA proposal, although the legal recognition of 'indigenous lands' continues to be problematic in some areas.

The definition of these rights is a matter of great contemporary controversy. It has exposed the historical conflict of two seemingly irreconcilable modes of land use; two seemingly irreconcilable cultural positions. For example, one can see both the developmental value to the nation of say petroleum extraction, and the justifiable indigenous demand for protection of the territory which may be lost to such exploration and extraction. Gerardo Perez (philosophy lecturer, and co-ordinator of Culturas Populares, Puebla) argues for the indigenous. "The Nation is an abstraction... the oil zones are in indigenous territory but the benefits of the exploitation don't come to them". He asserts that Mexican land ..."has always been subject to the law of the market". In a further interview he stated:

There is a problem of conception. For the indigenous groups the land has a sacred significance and is not only a means of production... for the ruling group it is simply one more commodity.

Barcenas argues that land is the essential means by which an indigenous group conserves and reproduces its cultural identity. "The land is the place of origin, source of beliefs, sustenance of a cosmovision, peculiar socio-cultural practices, and seat of a common past"(8).


COCOPA proposal:

Article 4. Clause VII:

The Federation, the states and the municipalities will be obliged in the field of their respective responsibilities and with the Cupertino of the indigenous peoples, to promote their fair and sustainable development...

Article 115. Clause V:

...In each municipality, mechanisms of citizen participation will be established in order to assist the municipal councils in the programming, exercise, evaluation, and control of the resources... that are destined for social development.

Article 26 (fragment):

The law will empower the Executive ...

The corresponding legislation will establish the necessary mechanisms so that the plans and programs of development take into account the necessities and cultural specificity of the indigenous communities and peoples.

Statistics of underdevelopment for Latin America are almost universally shocking. 44% of the region's population suffer some degree of malnutrition, and 40 million indigenous live beneath the poverty line(9). Inequality of wealth in Mexico, as elsewhere in the hemisphere, is particularly startling. Seven Mexicans, according to the annual Forbes report on the world's wealthiest, collectively possess 20 thousand 400 million dollars, whilst 4.2 million homes in which 24 million Mexicans live exist in conditions of "extreme poverty". 13.8 million Mexicans live on a budget of a dollar a day (La Jornada 22/6/99). President Zedillo admitted in Feb. 1999 that his government ..."does not have sufficient resources, within the Program for Education, Health, and Nutrition, to help all the families that live in poverty" (La Jornada 26/2/99). The rural zones of Mexico, and their indigenous communities in particular, suffer the highest degree of socio-economic underdevelopment.

Chiapas produces 54% of the hydroelectricity in Mexico and holds 45% of potential oil reserves, yet the government admits that more than 60% of those living in the Selva and Altos regions... have no electricity in their homes. In these areas more than 35% of people over the age of 15 are illiterate and 82% of workers earn less than the minimum salary... In Chiapas as a whole, the percentage of households without running water (41.6%) and sewerage (52%) is double the national average.(10)

Gros Espiell speaking of 'development' in the broadest sense of the term asserts:

The right of development as an individual right has not yet achieved classification as an independent or distinct right; rather it is the consequence of domestic and international recognition of economic, social, and cultural rights of men, especially the right to live, which necessarily implies the right to live in a full and integral manner.(11)

For the Mexican indigenous, 'domestic recognition' of social and economic rights is still woefully lacking. However, the question of development is a controversial one. Chamoux points out that the provision of services ..."can be converted into pretexts to increase exterior control over the indigenous group".(12) Even where not cynically motivated, greater external interference can be an unavoidable by-product of development programs. Furthermore, indigenous perceptions of indigenous needs are not universal. Jose Higinio Ramirez, a traditional healer, states: "We want to show that we are self-sufficient, that if our knowledge is not vast it is sufficient. We do not want health centres or doctors if we have indigenous medicine at hand". Many indigenous communities are vocal in their demand for better state-given health services, but this view proves the point. Questions of acculturation are also pertinent. Indigenous elders may be heard lamenting the detrimental influence of technology such as television on community customs. Conversely, Nahua leader Genaro Dominguez contests the argument (or sometimes excuse) that modernisation is incompatible with indigenous culture:

The Indian cultures, their conception of the world, have a different presence, neither backward nor distorted: uniquely different. The preservation of the Indian peoples is possible even incorporating the innovations and advances of contemporary society. Modernity is not incompatible with 'Indianity'.

What is evident from all of this is that indigenous groups should have the power to decide their future course of development. Article 7 of Convention 169 on Indigenous Rights encapsulates this premise:

The peoples concerned must have the right to decide their own priorities with regard to the process of development, considering that this might affect their lives, beliefs, institutions and spiritual well-being, and the lands that they occupy or use in some way...

Their participation in (if not management of) the formulation and implementation of development programs is subsequently imperative. Varying levels of community development, and different socio-cultural specifics demand that the individual needs of a given community be addressed individually. The COCOPA proposal requires the involvement of residents in the programming, management and allocation of resources in order to ensure development programs ..."take into account the necessities and cultural specificity of the indigenous communities and peoples".

Convention 169 goes further than the COCOPA document by specifying indigenous rights to basic infrastructural, health, social security, education and training programs, and puts even greater emphasis on the need for consultation and co-ordination. Starting from the premise that indigenous groups be allowed to define their course of development, and therefore demand or reject any of the rights and opportunities enjoyed by all other sectors of the national population, we should stipulate a basic criteria of social and economic rights. The following is drawn largely from the ordinances of Convention 169.

Basic nutritional needs are obviously a priority, and for rural indigenous populations this right is inextricably linked to the right to sufficient land and territory to meet these needs. Basic public infrastructure may be defined by decent habitation, drinking water, drainage and sewerage, electrical supply, means of communication, and social and recreational facilities. Indigenous peoples should have access to employment at all levels and without discrimination. They should receive equal remuneration for work of equal value, receive the same protections at work and opportunities for promotion, and enjoy the same rights of association. Members of indigenous groups should also have equal opportunities to means of professional and vocational training (if not be provided with special programs and technical assistance to accommodate their specific economic, social and cultural needs). Handicrafts, rural and community industries, and traditional collection activities should be recognised as important factors in the maintenance of their culture and economic development and self-sufficiency.

Where desired, social security regimes should be extended to indigenous populations. Likewise, adequate health services should be provided and, as far as possible, be organised at community level in co-operation with the groups concerned, and bearing in mind their social and cultural conditions, and traditional curative practices. Indigenous peoples should enjoy the right of access to education at all levels. Educational programs and services should be developed in co-ordination with said peoples with the aim of responding to their needs and aspirations, whilst also embracing their histories, values and knowledge. Where possible, the management of these programs should be progressively transferred to the groups concerned. Indigenous languages should be represented and promoted in educational programs, and especially where teaching children to read and write. Likewise, the opportunity of becoming fluent in the national language must be assured. Governments must ensure indigenous groups are aware of these rights and opportunities.

There are, inevitably, additional issues pertinent to Mexican indigenous groups which do not fall directly within our criteria of 'development'. For example, the campesino organisation El Barzon has often called for the reduction of land rents and an increase in market prices for agricultural products. Clearance of existing debts and more free and equitable access to credit are also demanded. Access to credit is quite literally essential for many campesino smallholders who need capital to buy fertiliser and seed in order to cultivate their lands. Social development programs must be paralleled by policies of sustainable agricultural development and assistance. More generally these issues assert the right of indigenous groups to a political voice within the nation's elective and administrative institutions.


COCOPA proposal:

Article 4. Clause II:

(The right...) To apply their normative systems in the regulation and solution of internal conflicts, respecting individual guarantees, human rights and, in particular, the dignity and integrity of women; their procedures, judgements and decisions will be confirmed by the judicial authorities of the State...

Article 4. Clause VII (fragments):

In order to guarantee the indigenous peoples full access to the jurisdiction of the State, in all the trials and procedures that involve the indigenous individually and collectively, their judicial practices and cultural specificity will be recognised, respecting the precepts of this Constitution. The indigenous will have at all times the right to be assisted by interpreters and defending counsel...

The Federation, the states and the municipalities... will be obliged to stimulate respect for and knowledge of the diverse existing cultures of the Nation, and to combat all forms of discrimination.

Mexico enjoys an undeserved reputation for being generally progressive in respect to human rights. A March 1999 Amnesty International report entitled Mexico, in the shadow of impunity disclosed that from 1994 to 1998 it had observed ..."a serious deterioration in the situation with regard to human rights in Mexico". It observed that ..."if many of the violations - torture, extrajudicial executions, disappearances, and arbitrary detentions - are systematic and occurring nation-wide ...they are particularly acute in Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero, where there exist armed opposition groups". The report concluded that the impunity with which such acts are committed had become "endemic" and it criticised both the way in which Mexico´s system of social justice was structured and administered, and the fact that where members of the armed forces were implicated in rights violations, they were dealt with by military courts (La Jornada 9/3/99).

In the same month a coalition of 93 non-governmental organisations concerned with human and civil rights in Mexico applied to the U.N. for a special body to oversee human rights issues in their country. Their concerns echoed those voiced by the Amnesty report (although they made special reference to the problems attending the militarisation and "para-militarisation" of rural zones) and these were further shared by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (CIDH)(La Jornada 26\2\99). Indigenous groups, especially those in areas of conflict such as Chiapas, are often the target of abuse. We should be particularly careful of denunciations made by political opposition parties, and equally wary of 'neutral' personal testimony, but there exist, for example, allegations that the dismantling of autonomous indigenous communities in Chiapas is facilitated by large numbers of illegal detentions and raids made by the military on the pretext of disactivating insurgent groups (La Jornada 26\2\99).

It is unsurprising that the areas of greatest marginalisation and poverty (areas such as Chiapas with large indigenous populations) reveal the greatest political militancy. It is also unsurprising that the subsequent militarisation of these areas is paralleled by worsening human rights violations, and the curtailment of press coverage and investigation. The Catholic Institute for International Relations notes: "Mexico has a particularly bad record on the repression of journalists. Although killings have become less common, threats and censorship continue...".(13)

Access to, and fair treatment within Mexico's judicial system is also an issue of fundamental importance. There are frequent complaints that in penal cases customary judicial practices are not taken into account, and that indigenous defendants are disadvantaged through an ignorance of Spanish and/or written language, and through inadequate defence for lack of economic resources. In cases of legal conflict over land and land boundaries, communities are often far from the cities where the relevant adjudicating authorities are based.

The COCOPA proposal in respect to judicial reform aims to constitutionally ..."guarantee the indigenous peoples full access to the jurisdiction of the State". It would require respect for the cultural norms of indigenous groups including their judicial practices, and the provision of interpreters and defending counsel with ..."knowledge of their languages and cultures". The problem of potential incompatibility of state and ethnic community practice has not received much open public explanation or debate. Clause II of Article 4 also provides for the right of indigenous communities to resolve "internal conflicts" in accordance with their "normative systems". The type of judicial concern that would fall to the responsibility of the community as opposed to that of the State is also as yet unclear. It is possible that non-written community norms expressed through custom, and moral or religious principle, may at times run contrary to the legislation issued by the corresponding organs of the State. Magdalena Gomez, a lawyer with the National Indigenous Institute, defines "normative system" as ..."the forms that the indigenous peoples have historically applied to resolve all types of conflicts, not only those of a penal matter".(14)(15) She rejects as discriminatory the criticism that these norms have in the past included lynchings and physical punishment, and points to Clause II's inclusion of human rights guarantees and state validation of judicial procedures. The right of women to hold office (prohibited in the normative systems of some groups) would, for instance, presumably be enforced.

The COCOPA document aims to provide additional protection for indigenous women, children and migrants. For example, Article 4 would include the ..."protection of the rights of indigenous migrants as much in the national territory as abroad". Further reform to ordinary legal statute would also tackle rights issues pertinent to these groups.

It is worth noting to what extent other Latin American states permit indigenous communities self-regulation in regard to the administration of justice. In Peru, for example, article 19 of decree 22175 states:

Conflicts and controversies of a civil nature and minimal importance that originate among the members of a native community, as well as the infringements they commit, will be resolved or sanctioned according to the case, in definitive form, by their organs of government.

In civil and penal processes, the Common or Exclusive Tribunals, according to the case, will bear in mind the customs, traditions, beliefs and socio-cultural values of the Communities.(16)

Convention 169 also sets a precedent in respect to these issues. Article 9 states:

In the measure that it might be compatible with the national juridical system and internationally recognised human rights, the methods that the concerned peoples traditionally use in the repression of crimes committed by their members must be respected.

Justice is not a reality for the Mexican indigenous. Unfortunately, the discrimination inherent in Mexican society against its indigenous population will not be eliminated by its constitutional prohibition. Many indigenous citizens now hide or deny their ethnic identity, since it is rarely in their interest to make it known.


COCOPA proposal:

Article 4:

The Mexican Nation has a multicultural composition originally sustained by its indigenous peoples, those that descend from populations that inhabited the country at the beginning of colonisation and before the frontiers of the United Mexican States were established, and whatever their juridical situation may be, they conserve their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions, or part of them.

The indigenous peoples have the right to free determination and, as an expression of this, to autonomy as part of the Mexican State, to:

I. Decide their internal forms of cohabitation and social, economic, political and cultural organisation;

III. Elect their authorities and to practice their forms of internal government in accordance with their norms within the scope of their autonomy, guaranteeing the participation of women in conditions of equity;

IV. Strengthen their political representation and participation in accordance with their cultural specificity;

VI. Preserve and enrich their languages, knowledge and all the elements that form their culture and identity...

The most radical element of the COCOPA document lies in its recognition of the right of the indigenous peoples to ..."free determination and, as an expression of this, to autonomy as part of the Mexican State". It is also the most fundamental element. The selected clauses of Article 4 examined in the previous sections, must be considered, as far as the COCOPA proposal is concerned, as expressions of the right to autonomy described in the preface of that article. Since this issue has proved to be the main stumbling block in EZLN/ federal government negotiations, we should define what is meant and understood by 'autonomy'.

Chambers defines the term as; "the power or right of self-government, esp. partial self-government". The intention, despite claims that the reform would signify secession or a reservation system, is for partial self-government through recognition of the community as an entity of public right. We should note the phrase ..."autonomy as part of the Mexican State". Indigenous communities as units of distinct indigenous populations would enjoy autonomy over that section of the State granted to them, and the "free determination" to decide their ..."internal forms of cohabitation and social, economic, political and cultural organisation". Perhaps a more useful definition is "local autonomy": The right and the effective capacity of local communities to direct, control, and administer, within the framework of the law, under their own responsibility and in relation to the local interest, the public matters that fall to them.

We have already examined some of the areas of community responsibility as proposed by COCOPA. Let us consider here the issue of proposed political autonomy (whilst recognising the implicit link between this and other community rights). Article 4 Clause III defines the right to "elect their authorities and to practice their forms of internal government". Article 115 expands further by recognising the right to define ..."the procedures for the election of their authorities" and the functioning of those authorities in accordance with their traditional practices, ..."within a framework that ensures the unity of the nation State".

Although we should recognise that traditional political practices have progressively, but to varying degrees, been shaped or altered by community integration into the wider state, the right to define and exercise internal political power is clear. The limits of that political power are given by continued obligations to the Constitution (e.g. observance of human rights, and in particular ..."the participation of women") and by a territorial jurisdiction, and through co-ordination with state authorities. The community's political structures and institutions would not be isolated from the national political fabric. For example, we noted previously that Article 115 requires that inhabitants assist municipal councils in the management of resources that in turn are allocated by state or federal government. Gilberto Lopez y Rivas of the National Institute of Anthropology and History states:

The COCOPA proposal... includes a fundamental element that destroys the idea of supposed isolation of the communities: it includes the obligations of the State. There would be a series of shared responsibilities between the State and the communities over education, financing, transference of functions...(17)

The COCOPA proposal also addresses the issue of political representation. The 1996 electoral reform package claimed to guarantee fair competition between distinct political forces for political power. Despite this reform, many indigenous groups remain sceptical of the political system and their representation within it. At present a community-supported representative is obliged to adopt an existing political party.

Articles 116 and 53 of the COCOPA proposal require that ..."electoral districts must be adjusted in accordance with the geographical distribution of said peoples" in order to guarantee their representation in the legislatures. Anthropologist Hector Diaz-Polanco agrees ..."it is necessary to establish special units where those peoples can be majorities... not permanent minorities"(18). Whether local representatives would independently act for their community in the wider political arena, and by implication whether political parties would continue to participate in the political life of those communities, remains unclear. The autonomy question has certainly become entwined in the larger national debate over the nature and future of Mexican democracy. Press and public debate have led to criticism of potential national division and state disintegration. That other non-indigenous groups might claim these same rights has caused concern.

However, pro-reformists argue that the country needs to accept its multicultural composition and to reflect that by changing the process of democratic representation and participation. Several commentators claim that existing municipal councils have long demanded greater local powers. Dolores Gonzalez Saravia asserts:

Faced with the State's crisis of legitimacy and representation, faced with unbalanced regional development... local autonomy appears as an instrument of integration and legitimisation that takes into account the heterogeneity of national society.(19)

She is supported by Adelfo Regino, General Co-ordinator of Services for the Mixe People:

Our proposal of autonomy signifies decision making capacity, that we might decide our future in a manner co-ordinated with the national interests. Our proposal of autonomy is not separatism, secession, 'balkanisation'... it represents a strengthening of national unity... the law and the Constitution have to adapt to the reality.(20)

The government stand-point certainly seems to overlook the nature of the autonomy proposed by COCOPA, although the issue does warrant greater clarification and legal debate. If indigenous groups were indeed seeking secession from the Mexican State, the weight of international law and case practice would be against them. Twentieth century attempts by minorities, ethnic or otherwise, to claim such rights (except in cases of decolonisation) have been unsuccessful. Magdalena Gomez cites a more pertinent precedent of local indigenous autonomy:

There are countries, like Brazil or Bolivia, that now recognise the community as an entity of public right, and in practice those communities are able to participate in the reception of public resources, to design development programs, and to have included a juridical personality...(21)

The Peruvian Constitution also reveals a precedent in respect to community autonomy. Article 161 and 162 state respectively:

161: Native and Campesino Communities have legal existence and juridical personality. They are autonomous in their organisation, communal labour, and use of land, as well as in their economic and administrative (organisation), inside the framework that the law establishes.

The State respects and protects the traditions of the Native and Campesino Communities.

162: The State promotes the integral development of the Native and Campesino Communities. It promotes (their) communal and co-operative enterprises.(22)

The COCOPA document aims, within the right to local autonomy, to protect the cultural integrity of indigenous groups; "To preserve... all the elements that form their culture and identity". The debate it has raised represents a further battle in the historical conflict between 'integration' and 'preservation'. Rodolfo Becerra, professor of anthropology, believes integration in so far as free indigenous movement between the community and the urban employment centres, would provide a ..."cultural interfertilisation ...a cultural enrichment for the natives". The right of indigenous peoples to seek employment in whatever sphere they choose has already been established, but we should recognise that migration is often the result of untenable economic conditions in rural areas, and can play into the hands of state encouraged acculturation policies. Christian Bay asserts:

...even the more humane statutes... assert that 'integration' is the ultimate purpose of the state. In other words, the aim is the forced abandonment and destruction of ethnic and cultural identities... This is not as bloody as outright genocide, but the result is the same: the extinction of yet another culturally distinct people. Ethnocide is like genocide on the instalment plan.(23)

Pro-Zapatista communities in Chiapas have attempted to apply the right to autonomy as set out in the San Andres agreement (and repeated in the COCOPA document) despite the fact that the State has refused to recognise them. Support for this right has broadened. The political opposition party P.A.N. has adopted a policy that approves the application of a series of local autonomy ordinances. Benigno Aladro of that party asserts: ..."we are giving a real solution and true autonomy to the municipality; we are leaving them to take decisions for themselves" (La Jornada 5/4/99). An editorial in the normally right-of-centre Pueblan newspaper El Sol de Puebla stated in April:

...The government is obliged to look for an immediate solution to the Chiapan problem ...The solution is simple; to fully recognise the intrinsic rights of the indigenous to be autonomous; that is, to manage themselves as best pleases them. The centuries they have survived in adversity make them worthy of our absolute, unlimited and fraternal support, and likewise of our admiration.

(El Sol de Puebla 6/4/99).


In brief summary of the work presented thus far, I have examined the principal problems suffered by the Mexican indigenous today, whilst focusing on current attempts to rectify them. Without reiterating the rights issues considered under the headings of land and territory, development, justice, and autonomy, it should be clear that Mexico's indigenous population continues to endure terrible indignities and rights abuses.

I examined the COCOPA constitutional reform proposals in respect to these principal rights issues. The November 1996 document was rejected by the federal government. However, as a relatively undiluted version of the San Andres accord, it still acknowledged the rights demanded by indigenous groups throughout Mexico, whilst maintaining an attentive public. I also briefly considered international legislation and rights discussion in order to bring greater breadth to our analysis.

The ratification of a document of indigenous rights reform is a long way off, and the genuine fulfilment of rights is far from guaranteed even with such legal acknowledgement. Convention 169 on Indigenous Rights, which as we have seen goes further than the COCOPA document in many respects, has been a part of Mexican law since 1991.

The Nahua of the Sierra del Norte and the theoretical implications of an implemented COCOPA plan.

Land and Economy.

The Nahuas of the Sierra del Norte of Puebla state inhabit a zone between 1000 and 2500 metres above sea level. The climate at this level is characterised by high levels of rainfall and frequent fog, and the land by luxuriantly green meadowland and woodland. The geography of these higher zones means agricultural land is often carved out of unforgiving terrain.

Nahua economic activity is characterised by agriculture, and land tenure by private land parcels worked by individual families. Although in many communities land is inherited almost exclusively through the male line, and in others where land is scarce; marriage alliances usually ensure a relatively equitable access to resources, and there exist no customary legal prohibitions against female land ownership. There are few ejidos in the Sierra, but most communities possess communal pasture and woodland. The majority of Sierra communities buy and sell land plots without legal or cultural restraint. The sale of a land parcel is sometimes unavoidable when debts, harvest losses, or illness necessitate a reserve of capital. Lands are also rented with payment made in cash or harvest share in relation to the quantity of land and owner's investment.

Chamoux's study of the Teopixca community between 1969 and 1974 reveals that land units were almost universally small; a slight majority of the land plots there were of three hectares or less in 1970.(24) Although some of the inhabitants of that village had sufficient land and capital to contemplate additional commercial crops, ..."the majority of the farmers cultivate maize, with which one associates beans (they are grown together); these are the basic products for self-consumption".(25) Very few inhabitants had chosen to risk the exclusive cultivation of commercial crops such as chilli, tomatoes or cabbage, although the majority planted one of these after the annual maize harvest. However, Chamoux states that even then, reliance on chemical fertiliser, pledged harvest sales for advance loans, and intensified labour had intimately tied that community with the regional and national economy. Unpaid mutual labour exchange had nearly ceased outside of the (extended) family unit.(26) Complementary economic activities such as limited livestock rearing, collection of forest resources, very occasional hunting and fishing, and production of handicrafts, helped to supplement agricultural income.

Nahua agriculture seems to have changed very little since the early 1970s, though evidence suggests an increase in the production of chilli and coffee. Interviews with Nahua residents were rewarding. Ubdulio Gonzalez Hernandez from Tlaxpanaloya, possesses two or three hectares of land, and continues to rely on an annual maize crop. He tends his own coffee plants and, like many others, works on the large coffee plantations after the October harvest. The region's plantations have in recent decades increasingly opted for profitable coffee cultivation. Because the higher zones of the Sierra occasionally experience frosts which can destroy the coffee harvest, because a young coffee plant will not yield a crop for some three years, and because market prices often fluctuate dramatically; coffee cultivation can be a risky enterprise. The region's indigenous tend to form the seasonal plantation workforce but also cultivate it themselves where their land parcel is sizeable enough to allow a division of that plot into two or three sections (maize will normally be given the greater portion), or where the terrain is less suitable for other crops.

Jesus Martinez, an anthropologist with the National Indigenous Institute, claims the "atomisation" of available land to be one of the greatest problems faced by the Nahua. As land parcels are passed down through hereditary lines, they are increasingly divided and sub-divided. The average Nahua land parcel (calculated by the quantity owned by each jefe de familia) is now between a half and two hectares in size, and the quantities of foodstuffs produced on these rarely provide for more than basic self-consumption and repayment of debts; this is ..."not sufficient to provide a reasonable standard of living and they can't improve their lives". Rodolfo Becerra Mora, professor of anthropology (BUAP), supports this observation asserting that ..."as the land becomes (over) divided, the moment arrives when it is no longer useful to anyone". This, he suggests, has also provoked an increasing trend towards temporary migration to the cities and especially among the younger members of the communities.

Amado Nava Lara, a Nahua married with five children, splits his time between manufacturing work in Mexico City and seasonal labour on the coffee plantations around Huauchinango. He attested to changes in the region. Nahuas used to sell surplus maize but now generally only grow for self-consumption since the tortilla trade is able to buy the crop more cheaply elsewhere. This may explain the increased interest in coffee, although he stated that a lack of grinding machinery means indigenous growers receive a disproportionately lower price for their unground beans. "Yes, we lose lands" he affirmed in response to the question of increasing land pressures.

A visit to the isolated Nahua community of Papatlatla revealed the traditional reliance on maize plus commercial crop pattern. It seems the cultivation of fir trees, sold as Christmas trees or for floral decoration, is a recent development. Raul de la Cruz spoke of the community's current problems. Land plots are generally of only one hectare or less, and even then many inhabitants lack sufficient capital for fertiliser to cultivate the whole plot. Furthermore, given contemporary economic problems and poor market prices ..."at times they don't manage to recuperate what they invest". A land expropriation for the regional power company some ten years previously (there are three hydroelectric dams in the area) had affected agricultural plots and forced the villagers to move from their former lake side position.

Frans Limpens of Amnesty International addresses the Sierra's land-related problems:

The region faces grave problems: the buying of indigenous products at very low prices, the poverty of the ground... the breaking up of private property (in some regions each family possesses half a hectare for cultivation) and the topography of the region which impedes the utilisation of extensive areas.(27)

He omits the much affirmed exploitation of the indigenous by local caciques (economic and/or political 'bosses') who are the owners of the region's coffee and fruit plantations, or commercial bourgeoisie. There are frequent accusations that these caciques illegally expropriate campesinos' lands, especially where they border their own. Pare observes that in the aftermath of the Revolution, large land-owners in the Sierra began to regain power: "...(often) when they weren't able to recover their lands, they monopolised commerce". Land (re)accumulation followed, accompanied by ..."control of the political institutions of government"(28). The region's caciques are also frequently criticised for paying appalling wage rates to indigenous labourers and very low prices for indigenous agricultural products.

As far as the proposed COCOPA legislation can be applied to the Sierra del Norte and its Nahua communities, we should note that given the nature of land tenure and use, the real need is for the definition and protection of property rights. In many communities, families neither possess nor value legal deeds. A Nahua participant in the National Indigenous Institute's 1991 investigation in the Sierra revealed: "The majority of us are small holders and we don't have solicitor's deeds; we have private agreements, as is our custom; with this a new owner can occupy the land".(29) Further land expropriations by state or federal government should be carefully considered and fully recompensed, and coercive or illegal expropriations by caciques effectively punished. Although the latter resides more properly with ensuring fair access to, and treatment within, the judicial system; we should note that continued expropriations will result in a further and increasingly perilous division of lands.

As far as these communities use and exploit woodland resources (not very extensively except in the collection of firewood), said proposals would help to guarantee access to these areas whilst preserving them from destructive exploitation. Barring another wholesale land redistribution program, which is almost unthinkable given the current socio-political realities of Mexico; the protection of land parcels and defence of rights of access to forest resources seem most pressing for the Nahua. Development programs including educational and technical training initiatives, in addition to improved access to credit, are further demands frequently voiced by the Nahua.


Statistics with respect to socio-economic development for the Pueblan sierra (especially as a whole) are rather scarce. However, that many communities lack basic public infrastructure and access to adequate health and educational services is beyond doubt. The poverty of many communities is apparent in the prevalence of malnutrition and related health problems. Statistics for the municipality of Cuetzalan are illustrative:

The zone's population lives in conditions of "high marginalisation", with 42% of the population over fifteen illiterate, 34.5% of the population not having finished primary school, and only 14.7% obtaining education beyond primary level (INI 1994). The National Centre for Municipal Development (1995) reports that 75% of dwellings are without drainage or toilet, 59% don't have electric power, 53% lack running water, 65% have earth floors, and 92% have only one room...

The three principal causes of death in the municipality are directly associated with the conditions of poverty and marginalisation described. These are: malnutrition and anaemia, respiratory illnesses and gastrointestinal infections, occupying between the three, 40% of the most frequent causes of death.(30)

Jesus Martinez (INI) confirms that in many communities ..."living conditions are abominable, especially where dwellings lack concrete floors and drainage". Health services, he suggests, have improved under state programs (there is an average ratio of 1 health clinic per 5 villages) but a lack of roads often makes access difficult.

Huauchinango school teacher, Maria Gutierrez, offers a different picture of development with her experience of the Nahua community of Cuacuila in which she worked for eight years in the 1970s. At that time, she says, ..."there were no means of transport" and electrical supply was installed in a few buildings including the school but was "very deficient". Only 40-50% of residents spoke Spanish. Today, she attests, almost 100% speak Spanish, the majority of families have their own transport (especially pick-up trucks) and enjoy better roads, and "all the houses now have television". Almost all children continue to secondary school (a number largely unchanged from the 1970s) and the community boasts its own medical centre. We should remember that this does not represent a generalisable picture of the Sierra's Nahua communities. Mrs Gutierrez pointed out that Cuacuila's commercially-focused economic activity had forged its greater integration into, and exploitation of, the regional economy. The village lies very close to the modern town of Huauchinango.

An INI directed program of developmental assistance, which by virtue of its policy of operational co-ordination with local residents would seem in line with COCOPA developmental directives, claims to have had some success in the Sierra Norte. Small groups (of perhaps 20-100 people) from within the same community are formed on the basis of mutual interest in a given project or purchase (for instance cash to buy animals or a pick-up truck) and apply to one of the ten INI General Funds (Fondos Generales) in the state of Puebla. Projects are supported or loans granted on the basis of which of these are considered to be of greatest local importance or will serve the greatest number of inhabitants. Both INI functionaries and community members contribute to this process of selection. Community involvement is further encouraged by the creation of various committees run by local inhabitants to oversee the local program. A general management committee (Consejo Directivo) is supported by other organs (Commisión de Valuación, Commisión Técnica, Commisión financiero). Repayment of loans to the General Fund is made on an agreed time schedule, taking into account the ability to pay (repayment includes variable interest rates but may be made in instalments or scheduled to coincide with harvests). This reinvestment in the General Fund provides the capital for further loans and projects. Jesus Ramirez (INI) asserts: "INI identifies what they want, it doesn't decide itself".

There are of course state and federal development programs in operation at any given time. The National Development Plan (Plan Nacional de Desarrollo) determined for the six year period 1988-1994 aimed to aid the poorest and most marginalised regions of Mexico, and especially in the light of then current economic crisis. The Nation's indigenous regions were given special priority. The National Solidarity Program (Programa Nacional de Solidaridad - PRONASOL), an integral part of the National Development Plan, aimed to combat poverty through projects sustained in the direct participation of the members benefiting from them. Both federal and state funds were made available for productive enterprises (often of a co-operative nature) that would increase the income of those involved whilst also utilising the skills and resources of the region and community in question. It was hoped that this would subsequently generate jobs and propel the regional economy. It was also hoped that the production of pre-Hispanic handicrafts would be preserved where projects drew on these traditional skills.

The Textile Handicrafts Centre of the Women of Yaonahuac, set up in the Sierra community of Yaonahuac with the aid of the Women in Solidarity Program (Programa Mujeres en Solidaridad), was one such communal project.(31) The centre is run in co-ordination with the Solidarity Program by a group of women from the community with the aim of turning the traditional weaving and embroidery skills prevalent in the village into a profitable enterprise. The initial investment in the centre (building, raw materials, machinery etc.) was provided by a loan of 69,000 pesos (40% state money, 60% federal money) in 1993 with an agreed repayment schedule of five years. The centre produces wool and cotton shawls, wraps, coats and bed spreads, using waist and pedal looms, modern sowing machinery, and hand embroidery techniques. Whilst the centre had some success, and especially in the light of trade and art exhibitions in other parts of the Republic; falling sales and lack of support from the Solidarity Program (coupled with the women's' lack of knowledge of administration and accountancy), have meant the centre's members have enjoyed very little economic gain for their efforts. However, the women say they have gained new skills and social and personal esteem from involvement in the project. Furthermore, the centre has helped to promote and celebrate the clothing that is still important to that group's cultural identity.

One of the criticisms of the Solidarity Program (PRONASOL) was that whilst the projects and works it had helped initiate often showed short term success, it was not provided with the necessary funds to maintain them. Patricia Saldaña Huerta from the office of Procuración de Justicia (within INI, Puebla) is also less than complementary about community involvement in such programs. The main right violation endured by the Sierra's indigenous, she says, is ..."the right of the communities to participate in public politics and administration". "For example, the INI Regional Fund program is an informal program, not part of official government programming, so those not integrated in it do not benefit. Resources are normally imposed ...they lack the right to a political voice in the allocation of resources". She proceeded to give examples of road building projects where those affected through a loss of a quantity of land were not consulted or recompensed.

Programs that utilise the techniques and resources of indigenous communities in creating profitable enterprises (that also respect their members' methods of organisation) should be applauded. Such programs, where providing a tangible increase in general income, may help to reduce the incidence of involuntary migration to the cities. However, in promoting harmonic and more equitable socio-economic growth in regions like the Sierra, it is unlikely that they will ever supplant the need for salary increases, improved prices for indigenous products, and better educational and technical services.

Once again the need to co-ordinate any such programs with indigenous groups must be asserted. As was mentioned earlier, development projects can be converted into a means of exerting greater external control over a community. They can also disrupt traditional cultural forms. Various Nahua authorities participating in the INI investigation (1991) voiced concerns over the changes they had witnessed in their communities. "When there was no school in our community, the customs were practised more continuously. Now they have been lost through the presence of teachers who aren't indigenous". "We have lost our customs because now there is alot of apparatus like television, radio, tape recorders, newspapers that they publish in Spanish and not in our language".(32)


In regard to issues of autonomy, it is worth noting that the indigenous groups of the Sierra Norte have not been vocal in demanding the full community autonomy rights demanded by pro-Zapatista groups and communities in Chiapas and elsewhere. According to Patricia Saldaña Huerta (Pro. de Just. INI), "They are not asking for autonomy... nor do they use any terms like self-determination, but they do want the right to elect their own authorities and for the state to recognise those authorities ...sometimes authorities are imposed". Perhaps one of the more important figures in terms of a community's relations with state and municipal administration is the Public Agent (Agente Subalterno del Ministerio Público). The municipal (or sometimes state) authorities are charged with approving this functionary, but the community in question will normally be allowed to forward the names of three candidates chosen by popular vote or by the community's auxiliary council. Where an unpopular agent is externally imposed the community may refuse to recognise his authority. Similar conflicts can occur with the selection of the community's Justice of the Peace which in this case is chosen by the Tribunal Superior de Justicia.

The "classic" socio-religious hierarchy (with origins in the pre-Hispanic period) which governed indigenous communities through a rigorously determined system of civil and religious offices is no longer predominant. In the words of Patricia Huerta: "Sierra communities have absorbed the political model that the state has imposed". However, the adoption of that state-imposed municipal model is contained within an ongoing historical process in which Nahua communities have conserved their own sense of political organisation. The titled offices within the system are conceived as parts of an hierarchical "cargo" system which is also considered separate and distinct from that of the state. Certain uniquely indigenous cargos still exist within that system, and the roles and responsibilities of cargo-holders in general reflect the socio-cultural image of the community more than they do that of the wider state. Furthermore, most Nahua communities still retain a council of elders (principales or pasados) composed of male inhabitants who have gained prestige through the fulfilment of these religious and political functions during the course of their lives.(33)

The Auxiliary Municipal President (presidente auxiliar municipal) used to be chosen by previous holders of the post (usually synonymous with the council of elders) but now tend to be elected by popular vote, or through the community's outgoing auxiliary committee. Co-ordination with the relevant municipal authorities may be required, which may also mean that external influence is brought to bear on the choice of candidate. The candidate himself is normally expected to have occupied lesser positions within the cargo system. However, it is now often more important that the candidate have attained certain minimum levels of formal education. As with all community offices, a strong sense of obligation accompanies the position. The president calls community meetings, co-ordinates the activities of other officials and committees, but may also be called to account by the community. He must also show his commitment to the community by taking a leading role in the organisation of religious fiestas. "The authority (president) must always be the first to work and comply" stated one informant in the INI study.(34)

Other community authorities will normally include a vice-president, various councillors (regidores), one or two police chiefs (commandantes)and their assistants (topiles), the Justice of the Peace and his topiles, in addition to a secretary, treasurer, and other "reserves". These authorities and their respective roles vary from one community to the next. Regidores de hacienda (finance), de obras y servicios (works and services), de salubridad (health) may oversee or be replaced by works committees that administer community services such as electricity, water, roads, and health. In other communities the regidores may fulfil the functions of the commandante who normally confronts problems of delinquency and minor crime. The Juez de Paz (Justice of the Peace), in co-ordination with the Public Agent, is charged with public order and imparting justice within the limits of his powers. These officials refer such matters that fall beyond their competence to the municipal or judicial district authorities (as does the Auxiliary President).

Religious offices may also vary in role and number. Mayordomos help organise and usually meet the main expenses of religious festivals, although this expenditure sometimes prevents inhabitants from accepting the position. A committee will usually fulfil the necessary functions when no volunteers are found. Fiscales are normally responsible for cleaning, opening, and maintaining the community church. Topiles also attend the church and collect money for religious works and events. The term also defines the civil police deputies and in many communities topiles fulfil both roles. Unfortunately, given their importance as guardians of cultural forms, positions associated with religious events such as the Capitanes de Danza (dance leaders) are gradually disappearing.

Given the continuing importance of this internal authority, one can easily understand the Nahuas' demand to have at least a choice in the election of the Public Agent and Justice of the Peace, if not the right to elect all their authorities unhindered. Although younger educated Nahua now sometimes challenge the implicit authority of the elders, most communities still put their faith in these older inhabitants who have gained prestige through the cargo system; those who have a "moral ascendancy". The Public Agent, Justice of the Peace, and Auxiliary President often have to play roles outside of the official and administrative. They may be called on to act as mediators in matters such as land disputes, and may help to informally resolve such problems if it is accepted that they have the moral authority to do so. This confidence is also desirable when such functionaries act as intermediaries between inhabitants and the wider state. Local Nahua residents are thus preferred.

Conflicts of practice between positive state law and local customary law can and do occur, and especially where local functionaries are seen to exceed the limits of their power. For example, a community's Justice of the Peace might imprison or fine a local inhabitant for failing to comply with the communal work obligation (faena). This would be within the bounds of his authority in the eyes of the community, but illegal in the context of state and federal law. Certain types of punishment may also be unacceptable to state authorities. One such punishment attested to in the INI investigation was that of tying the guilty party to a tree overnight, then forcing him to run twenty half kilometre laps carrying a stone. Such practices are in line with the Nahuas' methods of correcting a member's behaviour by subjecting him to public shame. The informant describing the practice above explained: "With positive law, one of the values we lose is that of shame, of integrity".(35) Community service type punishments are now more common in such cases. More serious crimes will almost certainly be referred to the municipal or (judicial) district authorities, but there are complaints that indigenous defendants are treated unfairly. "We don't agree when it happens that we bring some prisoner to the town council, they have him in jail, and then impose very high fines that he can't pay". The same community authority also complains of the undermining of internal authority: "We consider it a disadvantage when it happens that a person is guilty and we punish him, and then he demands we go before the town council".(36)

It is interesting to speculate what changes might occur in the Sierra Norte if COCOPA's autonomy proposals were implemented. Since community authority structures essentially mirror the municipal political model, an implemented COCOPA document might simply confer greater powers to the local offices within that system, whilst allowing the community the right to elect candidates of their own choice in accordance with their own methods of election. That is if said community viewed this structure as its "normative system". Given the continued existence of the council of elders and other uniquely indigenous cargos, a community might alternatively revive or re-empower these or other remembered institutions.(37) Jesus Martinez (INI) also asserts and supports the demand that "... indigenous traditional medicine and its practitioners (curanderos: hueseros, parteros) be recognised in law". For a given community's cargo system to be in line with the COCOPA proposal, it would have to adapt to the requirement of allowing women an equal right to all positions within that system. This would represent a dramatic change for some Nahua communities where women have been traditionally prohibited from holding offices of any political authority.

State validation of judicial practices may also be required. Corona and Flores' investigation into domestic violence in Sierran communities (affirming "a high incidence of ill-treatment and violence towards women") suggests that any reforms granting greater internal jurisdiction should include both consciousness raising projects with respect to women's' rights, and reform of customary judicial practices which, in their opinion, legitimise this violence. The study suggests that normative values supporting patriarchal authority (reflected in the male's prerogative of control over both children and wives) and customary law seeking conciliation and reparation of damage (normally to the benefit of community cohesion) help perpetuate physical and sexual violence and intimidation. Mitigating factors such as male violence committed whilst in an inebriated state (his guilt is diminished if not in full control of his senses) or the accusation of the female's failure to properly attend to her husband (a fundamental aspect of the female gender role) often prejudice any hearing in favour of the male. Since separation is very strongly discouraged in most Nahua communities, the Justice of the Peace and Public Agent charged with resolving "minor crimes" (in which category domestic violence is contained) aim for the reconciliation of the couple. Their counsel and judgement is often confined to "scoldings" and small fines, and the reassertion of respective duties. If separation is demanded, the husband will not normally be held responsible for any further maintenance of his spouse or children.(38)

In speculating over what changes might be sought given implemented autonomy rights, it is worth noting what attitudes the Nahua hold in regard to their own authorities and existing relations with mestizo authorities. Informants of the INI investigation of 1991 revealed:

The majority of mestizos continue to view the indigenous with contempt and they abuse their power because they are the authorities. Inspite of this, we the community representatives believe that the laws in themselves aren't bad, just the people who manipulate them in their favour (the mestizos).

Our community has relations with the mestizo authorities because when we don't have the authority, as with some great offence, we send them to the municipal authority so that they can apply the punishment. We also go to the government when there is a problem is good to have good relations because they help us. We consider that the mestizo authorities and our own have the same value, it's just that the mestizo applies justice in another more complicated form.

The customs we have learnt since we were children and that our parents and grandparents taught us, are respect for the traditions and cargos inside the community. There are persons that no longer respect indigenous customs due to the fact that they leave the community, and when they return they disobey the authorities ...There are persons who know a lot about justice because they have learnt through the cargos they have occupied during their lives.(39)


If the rights reform of the COCOPA (or similar) document were to be adopted as law; the first and indispensable course of action would be to ensure Mexico's indigenous groups were fully aware of the specific rights contained therein. This itself speaks of the right to a fully participatory political life and voice of genuine influence. All too often public policies are imposed upon them, and non-indigenous persons claim to represent them. This study is itself guilty of the latter since I have taken the liberty of describing the rights issues most pertinent to the Nahua, and speculating as to the changes that might occur in their communities given implemented (and functioning) rights reform. That recognised, I will summarise.

The protection of property rights, coupled with effective investigation and punishment of coercive or illegal expropriations, is paramount. Equally, plans for land expropriation on behalf of the State must be carefully considered in co-ordination with the relevant communities (ensuring their consent and/or holding a public inquiry in which they are strongly represented). If implemented, those affected must be recompensed in accordance with Convention 169's stipulations regarding displacement, resources, and compensation. A shrinking land base greatly threatens familial subsistence and the survival of Nahua community cohesion. Convention 169 goes much further than the COCOPA document in this respect. The Nahua must also enjoy full rights of access to territory traditionally used in the recollection of woodland resources. The definition of property rights is also a matter of some importance. The INI suggestion for the return of ejidal to communal property seems sensible (where applicable and always in co-ordination with the relevant groups). Legal recognition of Nahua customs regarding ownership and the transference of ownership must also be attempted.

As far as developmental issues are concerned, the Nahua might claim all or any of the infrastructural, health, educational, employment and social service rights detailed in Convention 169. This would assert the general right to the services and opportunities enjoyed by other sectors of the population. Without diminishing the importance of this right nor the government's obligation to fulfil it; development plans would almost certainly be progressively prioritised according to available resources. Basic public infrastructure and access to adequate health services seem most pressing given the extreme poverty of many Nahua communities. Proper co-ordination with the communities concerned would of course highlight the particular needs and demands of a given group. Co-operative development programs such as the INI Regional Fund and PRONASOL programs must be applauded. However, projects of this type must reach all of the groups requesting such aid, ensure full co-ordination and co-management with them, and receive the necessary funding to aim for long term success. Many Nahua have also justifiably demanded technical and educational training initiatives, increased salaries for day labour, fairer prices for their products, and improved access to credit.

The right of fair access to, and treatment within, the judicial system is as vital to the Nahua as to other indigenous groups. This includes the right to interpreters and counsel with knowledge of Nahua custom and judicial practice. Records of rights violations have been difficult to obtain, but it would seem that serious abuses (such as those detailed in Chiapas) occur only with great infrequency. More effective means of denouncing such violations, and improved access to the appropriate authorities in cases of land disputes would, however, seem to be of importance.

Despite the fact that Nahua communities have largely adopted the state-imposed municipal political model, this has been contained within an historical process in which they have conserved their own sense of political organisation. Most Nahua groups view their community cargo system for political and religious offices as distinct from the authority structure of the State. They also exhibit a strong capacity for appropriating external concepts and practices, and adapting them to their own cultural context. There still exist cargos without parallel in the state system, and whilst attitudes towards community and state authorities are varied; "older" authorities such as the council of elders might be re-empowered given an implemented right to autonomy. The power to elect their authorities in accordance with their own methods of election is certainly desired. Furthermore, greater awareness of autonomy rights might result in more radical demands and changes. In accordance with COCOPA's directives, political structures and judicial procedures should be verified as being consistent with internationally recognised human rights, and especially in regard to the participation and protection of Nahua women.

The right to greater political representation, perhaps attained through the adjustment of electoral districts in accordance with the geographical distribution of Nahua populations, is also essential if they are to be able to continue to define their destiny and defend their rights.


Arévalo Álvarez, Luis Ernesto, El Concepto Jurídico y la Génesis de los Derechos Humanos, Universidad Iberoamericana Plantel Golfo Centro (Mexico 1997).

Bartra, Roger,and Boege, Eckart, Caciquismo y Poder Politico en el Mexico Rural, Siglo Veintiuno Editores (Mexico 1978).

Cabrera, Roberto, and Contreras, Rodolfo, (editors), "La Hora de los Pueblos Indios", La Jornada (Mexico, D.F.), December 20th 1996.

The Catholic Institute for International Relations, Mexico - Free Market Failure, CIIR (London 1996).

Chamoux, Marie-Noelle, Nahuas de Huauchinango: Transformaciones Sociales en una Comunidad Campesina, Instituto Nacional Indigenista (Mexico 1987).

Claude, Richard P., and Weston, Burns H., (editors), Human Rights in the World Community - Issues and Action, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia 1992).

Colmenares, Isamel, and Delgado, Arturo, (editors), De Cuauhtemoc a Juarez y de Cortes a Maximiliano, Ediciones Quinto Sol (Mexico 1990).

Corona, Beatriz Martínez, and Flores, Susana Mejía, Ideología y Práctica en Delitos Cometidos Contra Mujeres: El Sistema Judicial y la Violencia en una Región Indígena de Puebla, México, Colegio de Postgraduados, Campus Puebla (Mexico 1997).

Dounce, Teresa Valdivia (ed.), Encuentro de Autoridades Tradicionales - Alaquines, Huauchinango, INI (Mexico 1994).

Gomez, Magdalena, Derechos Indigenas, Instituto Nacional Indigenista (Mexico 1991).

Hewitt de Alcantara, Cynthia, Anthropological Perspectives on Rural Mexico, Routledge and Kegan Paul (London 1984).

Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas, Aspectos Nacionales e Internacionales Sobre Derecho Indígena, UNAM (Mexico, 1991).

Instituto Nacional Indigenista, Programa Nacional de Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas, 1991-1994, Instituto Nacional Indigenista (Mexico).

Leon-Portilla, Miguel, and Sodi, Demetrio, (editors), Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl - Vol. IV, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (Mexico 1963).

Limpens, Frans, El Arco Iris en el Cielo Mexicano: los Pueblos Indigenas, Amnesty International (1995).

Nutini, Hugo G., and Isaac, Barry L., Los Pueblos de Habla Nahuatl de la Region de Tlaxcala y Puebla, Instituto Nacional Indigenista (Mexico 1974).

Pozas, Ricardo, and Pozas, Isabel H., Los Indios en las Clases Sociales de Mexico, Siglo Veintiuno Editores (Mexico 1980).


0This is the official figure based on a criteria of linguistic differentiation. In fact dialects number even more revealing a much greater cultural complexity. Also see note 2 below.


0..."the linguistic criteria used in census-taking is an insufficient means of socially and culturally quantifying the indigenous population. Many groups that have lost their language conserve their identity, cultural inheritance, indigenous social institutions..."; Instituto Nacional Indigenista, Programa Nacional de Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas, 1991-1994, INI (Mexico) p.11.


0Christian Bay in; Richard P. Claude, Burns H. Weston (editors), Human Rights in the World Community, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia 1992), p.126.


0Roberto Cabrera (editor), "La Hora de los Pueblos Indios", La Jornada (Mexico, Dec.20th 1996).


0Magdalena Gomez, Derechos Indigenas - Lectura Comentada del Convenio 169 de la Organización Internacional del Trabajo, Instituto Nacional Indiganista (Mexico, 1995) p.85.


0Francisco Barcenas in; Cabrera, Op.Cit., p.11.


0Gomez, Op.Cit., p.78-98.


0Francisco Barcenas in, Cabrera, Op.Cit., p.12.


0The Catholic Institute for International Relations, Mexico - Free Market Failure, CIIR (London, 1996), p.21.


0The Catholic Institute for International Relations, Ibid., p.22.


0Hector Gros Espiell, "The Right of Development as a Human Right", Claude, Weston (editors), Op.Cit., p.170.


0 Marie-Noëlle Chamoux, Nahuas de Huauchinango: Transformaciones Sociales en una Comunidad Campesina, Instituto Nacional Indigenista (Mexico 1987), p.285.


0The Catholic Institute for International Relations, Op.Cit., p.32.


0 Magdalena Gomez in, Cabrera, Op.Cit., p.5.


0 Corona and Flores give a useful definition and advisory warning: "Customary law refers to the norms relating to the public behaviour of a community's members, which define the rights and obligations of individuals, and that have as an objective the maintenance of internal order and cohesion of the group. This set of norms and customs cannot be considered as a coherent whole, closed and isolated from national law, as we would be accepting an idealised vision of indigenous law, considering it as a survival of the past and not as a product of an historical process".

Beatriz Martínez Corona and Susana Mejía Flores , Ideología y Práctica en Delitos Cometidos Contra Mujeres - El Sistema Judicial y La Violencia en una Región Indígena de Puebla, Mexico, Colegio de Postgraduados, (Mexico, 1997) p.69.


0 Lorenzo Zolezzi Ibarcena, "El Derecho Indígena en el Derecho Peruano Actual", in; Aspectos Nacionales e Internacionales Sobre Derecho Indígena, UNAM (Mexico 1991), p.159.


0Gilberto Lopez y Rivas in, Cabrera, Op.Cit., p.5.


0 Hector Diaz Polanco in, Cabrera, Ibid., p.7.


0Dolores Gonzalez Saravia in, Cabrera, Ibid., p.14.


0Adelfo Regino in, Cabrera, Ibid., p.7.


0 Gomez in, Cabrera, Ibid., p.5.


0 Ibarcena in, Aspectos Nacionales..., Op.Cit., p.155.


0Bay in, Claude, Weston, Op.Cit., p.127.


0Chamoux, Op.Cit., p.158.


0Chamoux, Ibid., p.161.


0Chamoux, "Las Unidades Familiares de Producción Agrícola", Ibid., pp. 147-191.


0Frans Limpens, El Arco Iris en el Cielo Mexicano: los pueblos indigenas, Amnesty International (1995), p.7.


0Luisa Pare, "Caciquismo y Estructura de Poder en la Sierra Norte de Puebla", Caciquismo y Poder Politico en el Mexico Rural, Siglo Veintiuno Editores (Mexico, 1978), p.34.


0 Teresa Valdivia Dounce (editor), Encuentro de Autoridades Tradicionales - Alaquines, Huauchinango, Cuadernos de Antropología Jurídica 3, Instituto Nacional Indigenista (Mexico, 1991), p.37.


0 Equally startling statistics from this survey reveal that almost 50% of the deaths of males between 20 and 49 result from violence and the effects of alcoholism (accidents, homicides, cirrhosis). Corona and Flores, Op.Cit., p.16-17.


0 Oralia Ramirez Sanchez (thesis), Analisis de Caso del Centro Artesanal Textil Suamasehal Tamaxchichiguague Sociedad de Solidaridad Social (BUAP, Puebla 1991).


0 Dounce, Op.Cit., p.43.


0 From a study of the Nahua community of Ozolco: "Those persons who have previously occupied positions with the municipal president every week to discuss community matters. These individuals are the 'chiefs' (principales), and the equivalent of the ancianos, since almost all are elderly men who have considerable influence in the daily matters of the village".

Hugo G. Nutini, and Barry L. Isaac, Los Pueblos de Habla Nahuatl de la Región de Tlaxcala y Puebla, Instituto Nacional Indigenista (Mexico, 1974).


0 Dounce, Op.Cit., p.25.


0 Dounce, Ibid., p.42.


0 Dounce, Ibid., p.42.


0 It is worth noting that the National Indigenous Institute often operates through communities' works committees (or asks that the community elect one) when organising or implementing programs.


0 Corona and Flores, Op.Cit., p.87-90.


0 Dounce, Op.Cit., p.42-44.