What Are Israelis Doing in Chiapas? The Rancho Esmeralda Mystery
by Lisa Gonsalves and Mary Ann Tenuto Sanchez (5/12/2003)

In a move shrouded in silence, local EZLN supporters surrounded
Rancho Esmeralda on February 28 of this year, but as this newsletter
goes to press, the Zapatistas have not yet released a statement to the
press or given an interview on this matter. They are not occupying the
land, living on it, or working it. They are just guarding it, thereby
adding mystery to the Rancho Esmeralda saga. Here is the background.
Just east of Ocosingo lie two neighboring Zapatista
communities, namely, Nuevo Jerusalen and San Juanito, both belonging to
the larger autonomous municipality in rebellion, Primero de Enero.
Before the Zapatista uprising on Jan. 1, 1994, this land had been a
cattle ranch owned by the Canelo family. As has happened to many fincas
around the time of the uprising, the owners abandoned ship when they
discovered the campesinos had risen up in arms to take back the land
that was dutifully theirs. One hundred and fifty Tzeltal families now
live in these two communities, among their milpas and Zapata murals.

Sounds ideal, except for the fact that right around the same
time that the Zapatistas took back their land, some other "settlers"
came in to occupy the neighboring territory. For starters, the Mexican
military decided to set up shop right outside the ancient Mayan ruins of
Tonina, installing a huge army complex, including the headquarters of
the 39th Military Region, a major army training base of the 31st
Infantry Battalion, and residential quarters for soldiers and personnel.
And if that wasn't bad enough, a gringo couple, Glenn Wersch and Ellen
Jones, decided to buy some land and set up an
"ecotourist" ranch just 300 meters from Nuevo Jerusalen. They named
their jungle paradise "Rancho Esmeralda" and began hosting a mix of
ecoturistas and fancy-pants authority figures, many of whom flew
unnoticed into a small private airport in order to conduct their
business at the ranch under the safe umbrella of tourism. Not only is
this ranch right next to the two Zapatista communities, but the road to
Rancho Esmeralda cuts right through their villages. Can you taste the
recipe for conflict simmering?
Let's not forget the "public security" (state police) and army
guys. They take every opportunity they can to patrol Zapatista
communities, and what better excuse to pass by and intimidate the
companeros ("compas") than to say they're merely protecting the
interests of the tourists hanging out at el Rancho or at Tonina. Fed up
with all these armed men passing through and intimidating their
communities, the Zapatistas decided to take some action. As the road
that goes through their community was private (not public), they simply
shut it off. They did allow the Wersch couple to travel in and out, but
the tourists had to go through the archaeological zone of Tonina in
order to enter Rancho Esmeralda. You can imagine how much this
frustrated the gringos! A series of confrontations occurred between the
Wersches and the Zapatistas, with each side accusing the other of some
wrongdoing. The tensions continued to build.
Then late last year, the Wersches started the rumors flying: Oh
me! Oh my! The Zapatistas have invaded our ranch! They sent out their
comunicados not only to the U.S. Embassy in Mexico and various U.S.
press sources, but also to Washington. While the allegation was not
true, it was, unfortunately, reported widely in U.S. newspapers. There
were even several articles referring to the Zapatistas as "terrorists."
The final blow came when the U.S. State Department issued a travel
advisory against U.S. citizens going to the eastern part of Chiapas. The
main theme was, "Violent Zapatistas: beware!"

The Wersches packed their bags and left the ranch, demanding
that Governor Salazar send in the troops in order to save their property
and getting U.S. officials to back up their demand. Luckily, Salazar
thought their request as extreme and dismissed the Wersches' plea, which
enraged them even more. The couple is now demanding that the state of
Chiapas pay them at least 5 million pesos ($500,000 USD) for their 10
hectares, for which they paid only 21,00 pesos ($2,100 USD). This same
property is reportedly being sold for $525,000 USD on U.S. real estate
websites! Not to mention that the army has used this whole fiasco to
beef up their patrols around the caņadas (canyons) and to increase
extreme public security around the Ocosingo area.

So it seems that the Wersches themselves created this chaos.
However, there's another spin on this, which is the presence of Israeli
military in the area under suspicious circumstances. Last November,
there was a caravan of forty allterrain Isuzu jeeps (with the logo "Ruta
Maya 2002 Isuzu Challenge" written on them and sporting Israeli flags),
toting around a whole slew of international highups, including top
Israeli military personnel and communications technicians, who were led
by an ex-commander of the Israeli air force. They went all over the
canadas, including the Montes Azules biosphere, hauling a sizable amount
of cellular and satellite equipment. They stated that they were doing
nothing more than overseeing the protection of the environment in this
part of the jungle and that they were delivering the equipment to the
local authorities to oversee this process.

During their thirteen-day adventure, the caravan, funded by
numerous Israeli corporations, was off-route most of the time and
questioned the locals about purchasing their land to set up tourist
sites. The Israelis also visited Guatemala, where they were hobnobbing
with Guatemalan government officials and military personnel. The
connection? Well, it's worthwhile to note that one of the main Israeli
corporations funding this venture was Tadiran, which was hired by the
Guatemalan military to set up a major communications system during the
time of Guatemala's bloody civil war. Let's not forget that the jungles
of Guatemala and Chiapas are filled with all kinds of profitable
resources and that this expedition went hand-in-hand with the push to
evict indigenous people from the Montes Azules biosphere of Chiapas.

Also pertinent to this story are records from Rancho
Esmeralda's guestbook, showing that various U.S. and Israeli military
officials have stayed there. According to the Wersches, the Israelis
could not get into the ranch because Zapatista supporters closed the
road, so they were picked up in Ocosingo and driven onto the Wersches
property from another direction.

Although we now understand that the Zapatistas closed the gates
to their community when they realized exactly who was stomping through
their land, many questions are still unanswered. For example, just who
are Wersch and Jones? Why did U.S. Embassy officials respond so strongly
and ask for such extreme measures from the U.S. State Department for
these two people? Why is this little piece of Rancho Esmeralda land
suddenly worth so much money? Does it have strategic value? If so, to
whom? What do the Zapatistas know that they're not talking about? Why
are they merely surrounding the land and not occupying it? There is much
more to this story than appeared in the U.S. mainstream press. Stay
tuned as this mystery unfolds.

All information taken from various articles in _La Jornada_ by Hermann
Bellinghausen, as well as "De Irak al Usumacinta, nada es casual," a
report written by the Cooperative of Regional Study & Analysis for
Resistance (CEARR), February 2003 and www.ww3report.com/77.html#mexico4

Chiapas Support Committee
P.O. Box 3421
Oakland, CA  94609
(510) 654-9587