In a communiqué released on August 17, 2019, Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) announced the creation of seven new caracoles, or organizing regions, together with four new autonomous municipalities in the Mexican state of Chiapas. He ascribed this “exponential growth” to the EZLN’s stalwart political organizing, as well as to the Mexican government’s environmentally and socially destructive policies. Analysts are describing the announcement as ushering in a third wave of Zapatista expansion, following the 1994 uprising and the founding of the five original caracoles in 2003.
To outside observers, the announcement doubtless came as something of a surprise: After years of territorial isolation and military siege, the conflict gave a certain sense of being frozen in time. Yet on the ground, Zapatistas have continued to struggle against many of the same factors that provoked the 1994 insurrection. The infrastructure of their autonomous governance, far from receding, has managed to grow. A quarter of a century after the revolt, we traveled to ground zero of the uprising—the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas—to see what has changed, and what remains.
On a mist-shrouded New Year’s Day, the inhabitants of San Cristóbal de las Casas, a sleepy city of 120,000 in the central highlands of Chiapas, awoke to find their city under occupation by 3,000 members of the EZLN. The insurgents—all indigenous, a third of them women—quickly took over city hall, police stations, and an army garrison, releasing prisoners from the local jail and burning property deeds in protest of the power of large-scale landownership. When a Mexican army helicopter strayed too close, they shot it down.
“We are a product of 500 years of struggle,” began the Declaration of War read out from the city-hall balcony to the people gathered in the main square, or Zócalo. Then came the phrase that would become iconic the world over: “But today we say ¡Ya Basta! (Enough is Enough!).” Named after the equally iconic revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, the Zapatistas planned the rebellion to coincide with the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Their prediction, which history has subsequently borne out, was that NAFTA would hasten the dispossession of indigenous people both by opening up the region to large-scale ranching and by driving down the prices small farmers received for their corn, beans, and coffee. Today, Mexico imports nearly half of the corn and beans it consumes, and is equally dependent on staple products such as American-produced pork, chicken, wheat, and powdered milk.
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Researcher and activist Diana Itzú Gutiérrez Luna, who has worked extensively with Zapatista communities, considers the economic warfare inaugurated by NAFTA part of a larger geopolítica del despojo, or geopolitics of plunder. There are currently 77 military bases in Chiapas, most of them located in the autonomous regions controlled by the Zapatistas and/or in areas rich in natural resources: water, uranium, and the barite used for fracking and the drilling of oil wells. “Basically, what they’re attempting is a territorial advance that implies the extermination of these worlds of indigenous life,” she says. The advance, she notes, has assumed a number of different disguises, from the “Puebla-Panama” development plan pushed by former president Vicente Fox to the “Special Economic Zones” designed to extend Mexico’s border model of tax breaks and low-wage maquiladora labor into the deep south.
After a bloody counterattack by the Mexican army killed at least 145 and wounded hundreds more, a cease-fire was brokered, which eventually led to the 1996 signing of the San Andrés Accords: a series of constitutional reforms that recognized the collective rights, autonomy, and self-determination of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. The accords, however, were never ratified.
And while the federal government was playing parliamentary cat-and-mouse in Mexico City, it was turning the screws in Chiapas, launching what human rights groups have dubbed a guerra integral de desgaste: a comprehensive war of attrition. The bloodiest moment of this war was the 1997 massacre of Acteal, when paramilitary gunmen affiliated with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) massacred 45 pacifist sympathizers of the Zapatistas—including 21 women and 15 children—in a local church. In addition to letting the killings occur, police and local officials proceeded to tamper with the crime scene, hampering future investigations.
Stymied in Congress and besieged at home, Zapatista strategy following 2001 turned inward.
Over 20 years after Acteal, paramilitary activity is alive and well in Chiapas. In a situation with dangerous echoes of the massacre, a land dispute between the highland pueblos of Chenalhó and Chalchihuitán has led to the displacement of some 5,000 people. Meanwhile, a similar dispute between the towns of Aldama Magdalena and Santa Marta caused the displacement of thousands more, with dozens wounded and five dead, including a 3-year-old boy, his life cut short by a bullet that pierced the wall of his home days before we arrived in the region. In a gruesome reprise of the days of Paz y Justicia—the paramilitary group that spun off from Zedillo’s 1995 incursion into Zapatista territory—the current violence is also being stoked by former soldiers. “There is fear, terror, we can’t live,” says Cristobal Santis Jiménez, a representative of Aldama Magdalena. “Why won’t the government act, why won’t it investigate? How long are they going to wait to resolve this?”
On paper, the facts of the case are clear: Following an agrarian reform that overturned the 19th-century privatization of the area’s indigenous lands, a presidential decree awarded 60 hectares of coffee-growing territory, which had historically belonged to Aldama Magadalena, to Santa Marta in 1975. Although the decree was subsequently rescinded—and Aldama’s possession ratified by a 2009 court decision—the aggressions persist. In 2016, families living in the disputed area were driven from their homes. Then, the trees used to provide shade for the coffee were cut down. Soon after, the shots began—at all hours, to the point that nighttime drivers had to navigate with their lights out. The state police arrived, followed by the army. But the firing did not cease. “They see where the shots are coming from but don’t do anything,” Santis says. “They’re useless.”
The members of these communities in conflict are Tzotziles, descendants of the Maya and linked in both blood and culture. Many of them provided early recruits for the EZLN. And to this day, in places like Magdalena Aldama, a dual governing system exists in the form of a traditional municipio, or town hall, and an autonomous Zapatista Council. The structures coexist peacefully—but neither has been able to get a handle on the violence. It is no secret who belongs to the paramilitary groups, Santis says; what is lacking is the will to stop them.
The community sent a letter to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who delegated his Human Rights Subsecretary Alejandro Encinas to deal with the issue. In June, a non-aggression pact was brokered between Santa Marta and Aldama and ratified in the presence of Encinas and Governor Rutilio Escandón in the state capital of Tuxtla Gutiérrez. But the shooting continues: On July 29, 33-year-old Filiberto Pérez Pérez was killed by a bullet that pierced his neck during his grandmother’s wake. Without a concerted effort to arrest and disarm the perpetrators, elaborate signing ceremonies will not be enough.
Since 2001, the Zapatistas have concentrated their energies on building popular democratic structures within their caracoles, comprising the 27 autonomous municipalities under their control. Within each community, decisions are made at assemblies rooted in the principle of mandar obedeciendo (rule by obeying). Unlike the representative model of liberal democracies, where power is handed over to elected officials to wield in sumptuous buildings in faraway capitals, the intent of mandar obedeciendo is to maintain sovereignty in the hands of the community. Zapatista political autonomy, as political scientist Leandro Vergara-Camus notes in Land and Freedom, “is part of the continental indigenous struggle for recognition of collective and cultural rights and the right to self-determination”—precisely what the San Andrés Accords were supposed to have enshrined in the Mexican Constitution.
Through the establishment of regional “good government councils” or Juntas de Buen Gobierno—as opposed to the so-called mal gobierno or bad government they associate with the Mexican state—the Zapatistas have managed to extend their influence beyond the zone of the movement’s origins in the Lacandon jungle and into the northern highlands (in places like Aldama Magdalena) and frontier regions of Chiapas. Their emphasis on collective control of land and development challenges the principle of private property as well as the state’s monopoly over investment decisions. Tangible gains in terms of women’s rights, autonomous education, and health care have further fortified Zapatista infrastructure.
Laudable as it may be, the Zapatista policy of resistencia—accepting no funds or resources from the Mexican state—has presented a practical difficulty in attempts to gain a foothold in communities that rely on government services or agricultural subsidies. Its refusal, further, to build alliances with non-autonomous peasant organizations and political parties (its relationship with center-left parties such as President López Obrador’s MORENA, for example, has been particularly strained) has meant that its influence over national politics has been limited (despite the groundbreaking 2018 presidential campaign of indigenous candidate, María de Jesús Patricio Martínez). For supporters in other parts of Mexico, it has been difficult to figure out how the principles of mandar obedeciendo might be applied in more urban, multiethnic settings. In short, while zapatismo exerts a genuine moral force in Mexican politics, its practical reach has been largely confined to the areas under its direct control.
Nowhere is this division more evident than in the very streets where the rebellion began. San Cristobal, like Mexico as a whole, remains very much a segregated society. Up the street from our hotel, we wander into a sort of hipster mini-mall where vendors grouped around an inner courtyard are selling artisanal beer and coffee, home-made pasta and locally distilled mezcal. At the rear, a tour operator specializes in extreme sports such as rock-climbing and hang-gliding. The clientele is uniformly young and multilingual, bearing an array of cell phones and computer screens that gives the scene a vaguely generic feel of trendy haunts the world over. Save for a few young indigenous women who have spread some blouses on the grass of the inner courtyard hoping for a sale, we are, in the main, white and northern.
Along the three main andadores turísticos (pedestrian streets), a mixture of European languages and eateries abound. On the Andador de Guadalupe, a handful of new vegan restaurants compete with old standbys like the Zapatista-themed TierrAdentro Café and Cultural Center. Farther along, where the street starts sloping upward toward the hilltop Guadalupe Church, the crowd and atmosphere is more mixed. Hippies hawk home-made leather bracelets next to groups of young indigenous women wearing the brilliant, floral-patterned huipil dresses from the nearby flower-growing village of Zinacantán. Most are selling hand-woven rebozos—a cross between a scarf and a shawl—as they approach tourists sitting on the series of patios that line the andador. In recent years, as an increasing number of Chinese-made knock-offs have found their way into the hands of street vendors, local producers have begun a campaign to have the place of origin of such foreign-made facsimiles clearly marked.
On the Andador del Carmen south of the Zócalo, a sparkling new food court offers pad thai and French pastries at upscale prices. On the upper level, a Peruvian seafood restaurant sits across from El Camino de los Altos, a boutique specializing in fine local textiles. Over the past decade or more, San Cristobal has become a laboratory for social enterprises and international NGOs. And while indigenous women, in particular, have benefited from initiatives like El Camino—which operates on collective principles—there is no getting away from the feeling that the harder edges of political struggle have become softened by the focus on start-up entrepreneurship.
Only the Anador Eclesiástico, which leads to the church and former monastery of Santo Domingo, feels untouched by start-up culture’s incursion. Despite the street’s being an extension of the more prosperous Andador del Carmen, a subtle dividing line begins to assert itself by the time you reach the city hall—site of the Zapatista war declaration, recently refurbished after extensive earthquake damage in 2017. Around the grounds of Santo Domingo, the organized chaos of the market imposes itself: Narrow warrens lined with tarpaulin-covered stalls display an assortment of textiles and jewelry in amber and jade.
In the municipal market a block away, a rich selection of local vegetables, fruit, and meat is available. Indigenous women from the nearby pueblo of San Juan Chamula chat casually in Tzotzil (part of the Mayan language family), wearing the carded wool skirts that resemble bear skins. Vendors are selling pox, a traditional Mayan ceremonial drink distilled from corn, sugar, and wheat. Even though a million Chiapans speak an indigenous language—and notably, a third of the state’s population does not speak any Spanish at all—daily life in Jovel, the Tzotzil name for San Cristobal, remains very much stamped by its colonial origins.
At the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center, we sit down with Advocacy Coordinator Rubén Moreno. With so many military bases in the region, we ask, why would the army have outsourced its terror to paramilitary groups? Why not attack directly? “Since the conflict began, the army was active,” Moreno says. “It committed executions, displaced people from their communities. But once the peace accord was signed, the army was apparently not acting anymore. That’s when the paramilitaries were created.”
In this context, it is unsurprising that worries abound in the region regarding President López Obrador’s new National Guard—a militarized police force with sweeping powers to attack drug-related violence that, contrary to earlier promises, will be headed by a military instead of civilian official. Although López Obrador promised in a campaign speech delivered in the symbolic plaza of Tlaltelolco—site of the 1968 student massacre—that he would “never, ever use the army to repress the people,” it only takes one trigger-happy soldier or paramilitary raid, especially in light of the current tensions in Chiapas, to spark a conflagration.
Also under severe scrutiny is López Obrador’s signal infrastructure project for the region: a 950-mile “Maya train” designed to connect the archeological sites that dot the Yucatan Peninsula. “The indigenous peoples in the CNI [National Indigenous Congress] and the Zapatistas have said that these development projects are clear declarations of war,” says Gutiérrez Luna. With Spanish hotel chains already lined up to build luxury units along the train route, it is not hard to see where indigenous critics see themselves fitting into such a model: While tourists will be shuttled from train to hotel in order to drain the region’s water resources, they will be making the beds, serving the meals, or out on the steps selling handicrafts—if they’re not run off first. “It’s not going to provide dignified employment; it’s going to provide the same kinds of jobs that have always been on offer,” Gutiérrez Luna concludes.
In his recent communiqué, Subcomandante Moisés agrees: Obrador’s obsession with the train project, he contends, is part of a conception of indigenous people as “museum pieces,” “multicolored handcrafts for the powerful to hide the grayness of their hearts,” a way to “incorporate into the landscape the ruins of a civilization for tourist delight.” Whereas prior presidents either neglected or repressed the indigenous peoples of Chiapas, López Obrador is serious about developing the region; ironically, many see this as an even greater threat to political and cultural autonomy. A stark reminder that, after a quarter-century of struggle, the gains of the 1994 Zapatista rebellion are far from secure.