In February, a federal judge in Mexico admitted that he had no choice but to accept that the state’s case against the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (ELZN) could not move forward. The charges of terrorism, sedition, riot, rebellion, and conspiracy filed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 1994 against Insurgent Subcomandante Marcos and the indigenous leaders of the resistance were null and void: the statute of limitations had expired.
That the two-decade-long battle the Zapatistas waged against the Mexican government’s policy of privatization and neoliberalization would end with a legal whimper seems, at first blush, anticlimatic. But it is part of the famous black-balaclava-clad fighters’ long-term strategy: silence in the face of oppression and opposition.
The San Andrés Accords
The Zapatistas appeared for the first time on the morning of January 1, 1994 to protest the adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Armed members of the Tsotsil, Tseltal, Ch’ol, and Tojolabal indigenous peoples — the poorest of the poor, some barefoot, some carrying guns dating from the 1910 Mexican Revolution, others carrying cardboard cutouts of rifles — seemed like characters from the novels of Carlos Fuentes or Laura Esquivel. Upon their arrival, they took over cities throughout Chiapas, freed prisoners in San Cristobal de las Casas, burned military outposts, and claimed the ranches of wealthy landowners as their own.
Although the world learned of their existence when their battalions came down from the mountains that freezing morning, they had been secretly organizing for the moment in their communities for ten years prior to the 1994 uprising.
“Our date of birth is November 17, 1983,” Subcomandate Insurgent Marcos — who has now changed his name to Galeano to honor a comrade assassinated by paramilitaries in 2014 — recalled. “We prepared in silence for a decade to shout ‘Enough!’,” he said. “By keeping our pain inside, we prepared to cry out in pain, because we could no longer wait and hope to be understood by those who didn’t even understand that they didn’t understand.”
Marcos, an eloquent, pipe-smoking mestizo (the government claimed he was a Mexico City philosophy professor influenced by radical liberation theology), became the public face of the Zapatistas’ struggle. In January of this year, he outlined the reasons for the indigenous uprising:
The resistance of those from below is to wake those who sleep, to enrage those who are content, to force history to say what has been kept silent and to expose the exploitation, killings, displacement, contempt and forgetfulness that is hidden behind the museums, statues, books and monuments to the lies of those above.
In their silence, Carlos Fuentes wrote, the Zapatistas “won the hearts of a nation,” declaring a “war against being forgotten.”
The Mexican government charged Marcos and the indigenous leaders of the Zapatista movement with terrorism, sedition, riot, rebellion, and conspiracy. They met the Zapatistas’ cardboard guns with tanks, soldiers, and helicopter gunships. But when the army failed, the government was forced to negotiate with the indigenous peoples, promising official recognition of ancestral lands, their culture, and their languages.
The San Andrés Accords — signed by the Zapatistas and the state in January of 1995 — marked the first time since the Spanish Empire’s invasion five hundred years previously that indigenous peoples’ collective rights to territory, autonomy, and self-determination had been recognized by the dominant elite.
But, as was apparent almost immediately, the agreement was not worth the paper it was written on. Eight months later, the PRI intensified anti-revolutionary activity in the Chiapas region: daily harassment at military checkpoints, constant overflights by helicopter gunships, and soldiers on patrol in villages with hunting dogs. Even more frightening was how the state outsourced terror to paramilitaries who threatened, intimidated, and forcibly evicted rebel sympathizers and their families from their land at gunpoint — and killed those who opposed them.
The Fray Bartolomé Human Rights Center in Chiapas reports that the military’s “paramilitary strategy has been effective because it relies not only on direct attacks perpetrated with impunity, but also on the psychological effect of the presence of paramilitaries recruited from among supporters of the government within indigenous communities, to create fear and tear apart those communities.”
Why would the government so quickly turn its back on the agreement? Francisco López Bárcenas, a preeminent campaigner for indigenous rights, explained that the accords “would make it more difficult for foreign capitalists to appropriate the resources on collectively owned land.” Mexican intellectual newspaper La Jornadaexplained, “Instead of establishing a new and inclusive social pact, respectful to the original peoples’ right to autonomy, the state decided to maintain the old status quo”: forcing autonomous indigenous peoples submit to government control and work as cheap labor for capitalism. As the Fray Center put it, the government wanted to make sure that wealth “accumulates in as few hands as possible.”
Once the conservative and neoliberal National Action Party (PAN) succeeded in ousting the corporate PRI in 2000, “all México was put up for sale, and the state opted for a low intensity war in an attempt to end the Zapatistas’ resistance,” Bárcenas added.
The silence that followed the accords and the military’s oppression in Chiapas following them is, in large part, due to the media. After portraying Marcos as a postmodern Ché Guevara and the Zapatistas as quixotic revolutionaries, it quickly lost interest. But the silence around their activities has allowed them to create an autonomous society deep in the Lacandon jungle, working quietly against the increasing neoliberalization of Mexico.
There and throughout Chiapas, hand-painted signs at the entrances to hamlets and pueblos mark the frontiers of Zapatista territory: “Here, the people command and the government obeys.” Painted spirals representing caracols, or snails, emphasize the rebels’ intention to “slowly, but surely” continue moving forward to organize their own society, whether the state recognizes it or not.
Sergio Rodríguez Lascano, editor of the Zapatista magazine Rebeldía, describes the Zapatista economy as “based on small agro-ecological parcels of land, tended by families for their own sustenance, together with ranches where the collective production of cattle, corn, coffee, bread, and honey provides an income for the community and contributes to the building of schools and medical clinics.” Zapatista communities train their own teachers, medics, and midwives, run their own pharmacies using traditional herbal medicines, and even organize their own autonomous banks.
Not everyone on the Left agrees with Marcos’s “silence as a strategy” approach or with the Zapatista’s emphasis on local self-reliance.
Mike Gonzalez, a Marxist and Latin American studies professor, thinks “the Zapatistas’ rhetoric of rights is posited on the assumption that a capitalist state is governed by principles and laws rather than class interests,” and while the EZLN’s “heroic resistance” is inspiring, a retreat into local autonomous communities is “a renunciation of any claim to lead society in a different direction. There is not a choice between power and its absence.”
Former Mexican Revolutionary Workers’ Party activist and academic Arturo Anguiano recognizes that the Zapatistas’ attempt to escape capitalism has left the indigenous resistance open to the criticism that it is presenting an alternative that is “too exceptional, too specific, and probably unrepeatable.”
“Marcos explains the Zapatista communities as ‘little islands’ or ‘spaces of resistance’ where social relations can be transformed without waiting for the revolution,” Anguiano relates.
But Lascano doesn’t see it that way. He says the Zapatistas are using the territory seized from the wealthy landowners to “construct an equalitarian alternative” that “is located outside the thinking and practice of the traditional left.”
Part of the ELZN’s distance from recognizable left practice, Lascano argues, is that Zapatista supporters “are not working class and the EZLN is not a workers’ party because the traditional Marxist concept of class consciousness doesn’t exist in these communities. But we have a number of things that have something to do with Marxism. For instance, everyone is involved in the communities’ democratic political organization,” he adds, which range from local assemblies to high-level juntas (councils) that are responsible for running the Zapatista territory’s political, economic, and judicial affairs.
Lascano has declined invitations to join the current national campaign, led by radical Catholic priests, to rewrite Mexico’s Constitution, and was uninterested in the presidential campaign of the left-wing former Mexico City mayor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Quoting Marcos, he declared, “The Zapatistas are going to build something else.”
Historian Severo Martínez Peláez, known for his work on indigenous resistance during Spain’s occupation of Mexico, says
It is a mistake to believe that the oppressed social classes live their “normal” lives when they are resigned to their fate by the inability to change it, and that their lives become “abnormal” when they rebel. This can only seem that way to those who are concerned that that supposed normality is not altered. The Zapatistas take pride that their indigenous communities — belonging to original peoples whose Tsotsil, Tseltal, Ch’ol and Tojolabal names are still unknown even to most Mexicans — are living “abnormal” lives.
Isolated from the country’s left — or, as Anguiano describes it, with the Left isolated from the Zapatistas — the indigenous resistance continues unheralded and out of sight for most Mexicans.
Work from Below
Yet with the return of the PRI to power in 2012, the Zapatistas showed that, even while silent, they have the power to resonate from the mountains of Chiapas to the presidential palace.
That year, the Zapatistas, together with hundreds of thousands of supporters, took to the streets in massive demonstrations throughout Mexico to demand that the original San Andrés agreement to recognize indigenous rights be respected by the political party that signed it.
The demonstrations were silent, but the message was clear: “Can you hear us?”
The Zapatistas have since applied their strategy not just to their old enemies in the PRI, but to the entirety of Mexico’s notoriously corrupt political process, declaring that elections “don’t interest us, nor do they concern us.”
“Mexicans should organize for a world in which the people command and the government obeys. While others wait for those above to solve problems, we Zapatistas have already started building our own liberty, from below,” the EZLN stated.
“We are building a new system and another way of life,” Galeano/Marcos explained on January 1 of this year to the assembled EZLN fighters, Zapatista campesinos, and a few foreigners attending in solidarity, a celebration in the heart of the Lacandon jungle to commemorate three decades of resistance.
Before, to know if someone was a Zapatista, they had to be seen wearing a red bandana or a black balaclava. But now you know if someone is a Zapatista because they know how to work the land; because they care for their indigenous culture; because they know how to work collectively, and because if, when someone claims that the Zapatistas no longer exist, they respond: “Don’t worry, there will be more of us – it may take a while, but there’s going to more of us.”
Despite the continued virtual military occupation of the jungles and mountains of Mexico’s southern frontier, and despite the helicopter gunship patrols, the hunting dogs, and the threats, intimidation, and violence of paramilitaries in the pay of government-supporting political parties, the Zapatista resistance remains proudly undefeated.
Paul Salgado is a former labor union organizer working in communications for indigenous community organizations in Mexico.