Between March 16 and March 28, 2017, I (Horizontal member David Black) participated in a Global Exchange “Reality Tour” of Chiapas, Mexico. Our local hosts in San Cristobal were from the peace group Sipaz and our hosts were both Spanish speaking citizens of the Netherlands.
While the highlight of the trip was an overnight stay at the Caracol of Morelia, also included were a number of information sessions and attendance at a ceremony at the village of Acteal commemorating the massacre of 45 people attending a prayer meeting by paramilitaries that occurred in 1997. Those attending were members of an indigenous pacifist group, Los Abejas, (The bees). This moving ceremony has taken place monthly since 1997 and is said to be continued “until there is justice.” Ironically this month some 22 years since the massacre, the Mexican government has just accepted responsibility admitting they had armed the paramilitaries involved.
The EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) began organizing in Chiapas in 1983. Some 10 years later, on January 1, 1994, (the first day NAFTA was to take effect) the Zapatista uprising took over six county seats making a series of demands for the rights of indigenous people. The take over was late that evening when most government troops were drunk from celebrating. Later it became know that many of the Zapatistas were “armed” with carved wood to look like guns. The uprising gained support throughout Mexico and around the world. While some of their demands were met, the government switched to low intensity warfare and the use of paramilitary groups to counter the threat it perceived from the Zapatistas and their revolutionary ideas for living autonomously.
In 2003 the Zapatistas formed five councils of good government to preside over the regions they controlled. During the 2006 Mexican presidential elections, they put forth an “other campaign” organizing outside of the election process. In 2018, however, in an unorthodox charge in tactics, they attempted to build a coalition of indigenous peoples to run an independent, indigenous woman for the Mexican presidency. This attempt failed as the collected signatures were challenged and ballot access denied.
While no longer in the international news, all this time Zapatista supporters have occupied and run portions of rural Chiapas, remaining mostly out of the reach of formal governmental authorities. They have their own teachers and medical providers and stress self sufficiency and self governance. According to the Zapatista’s 2005 Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle:
From that time (2003) and until the middle of 2005, the EZLN leadership has no longer involved itself in giving orders in civil matters, but it has accompanied and helped the authorities who are democratically elected by the peoples. It has also kept watch that the peoples and national and international civil society are kept well informed concerning the aid that is received and how it is used. And now we are passing the work of safeguarding good government to the Zapatista support bases, with temporary positions which are rotated, so that everyone learns and carries out this work. Because we believe that a people which does not watch over its leaders is condemned to be enslaved, and we fought to be free, not to change masters every six years.
In short this was a move from a military command structure to self government.
This background served as preparation for our visit to the Caracol. (Caracol literally translates as “snail” but it is a symbol for centers of autonomous resistance and rebellion.) As we drove in we were greeted by a sign in Spanish that translates to: “You are in Zapatista territory in rebellion. Here the people command and the government obeys.”
The Council had requested we submit our questions in writing, which we did. When we arrived, the Council was attending to other matters as well as preparing to answer our questions. With time to kill, Bradley, one of our Sipaz hosts, our driver and I shot baskets on the village court. When a group of mostly young Zapatista workers arrived for a break, we invited them to join us and enjoyed a four on four game.
Finally it was time to meet with the Council. There are five separate council groups serving this region with nine members each. Members serve three year terms and the groups rotate on a weekly basis so members have time to spend in their villages with their families and work. Council members are chosen by their local communities, are unpaid, and can be replaced by their communities. The councils were organized to supplement the authority of the autonomous municipalities they represent.
A young woman led off answering our questions and it was clear that women and men were given about equal time to speak. Basically, the Councils serve as problem solvers. They listen first and then talk to any other parties. Everyone in the council is expected to share her or his point of view. It can be a slow process, but eventually a decision is made and the parties are expected to make up and settle up if something is due. Other local authorities may become involved and decisions are shared so other groups will be informed of the outcomes. The ultimate aim is for constant, small progress.
In answer to my question as to the greatest threat they face, the response was the “bad government,” meaning local and national authorities. In response to a question about the role of women, the answer was that women have equal rights, participate in all fields, and are required to give their opinions. With respect to health care, “health providers” in each village provide primary care. There are also independent primary and secondary schools.The meeting concluded with a council member saying they felt sorry for us as they can produce the things they need locally and we cannot.
We spent the night in barracks on wooden slats. In the morning we had coffee with local workers and were also served freshly made and cooked tortillas.
On our return to San Cristobal, we were stopped by a road block of a spiked board. A leftist group that was not affiliated with the Zapatistas was collecting money for the family of a slain comrade by stopping vehicles and forcing them to buy copies of their newspaper.
At a Zapatista themed shop back in San Cristobal, I purchased a poster with text in Spanish that translated to: “There are stars, sun and water for everyone. Let’s fight for a new world with dignity, peace and justice.” Another poster proclaimed that a “new world already exists.” referring to Zapatista held territories.
While there is a virtual lack of news about the Zapatistas, a recent release indicates that the EZLN has recently created seven new Caracols, the majority of which will be the seal of Good Government Boards bringing the total of self government bodies like the one described above to 43. What is amazing is that they were able to expand their area despite the continued existence of low intensity warfare and efforts by the government to co-op Zapatista supporters. Right outside the Caracol we visited were new homes the government had built along with a medical center in an attempt to discourage people from joining the Zapatistas.
For another, more detailed, perspective based on an earlier visit to the Caracol of Morelia see