Breaking Bread with the Zapatistas
Armed with kilos of beans, grammatically incorrect Spanish, a sore head, my hammock and a sense of madness, I set off from San Cristobal de las Casas in the early hours of the morning to rendezvous with three other campamentos. Our reasons for crossing the 'front line' into Zapatista territory to live with the indigenous Mayan communities as International Peace Observers were as varied as we were. Katrina was studying social anthropology, I was interested in human rights and Sarah, well Sarah had quite simply fallen head over heels in love with the Zapatista spokesperson Subcommandante Marcos!
We had crossed each others' paths numerous times in San Cristobal, but the unnerving silence around the uprising and the string of informers used by the government had meant that we were all playing the "I'm only a tourist game". It wasn't until we met at the small independent Human Rights office, (the official governmental human rights organisation insists that there are few human rights abuses in Mexico), that we had known who we could talk to. We had all gone to the training session on what to do if the Mexican army decided to launch a military offensive against the communities (namely flee into the mountains with the villagers). We had also been given information about the low intensity war being waged on Zapatista supporters, the militarisation of the conflict zone, and of the constant human rights abuses suffered by the indigenous communities.
The rules governing campamento work were strict. They had been drawn up in consultation with the participating villages. Your role was to monitor the federal army's incursions into the communities. You were not allowed to build up personal relationships with individuals in the community, nor impact in any way on their everyday lives, drugs and alcohol were banned, as was any party political material. Infringement of any of these rules resulted in your immediate expulsion from Zapatista territory. Five hours after our clandestine meeting outside San Cristobal, the four of us were sat in the back of a truck which was travelling rapidly down what seemed to pass for a road. The early morning mist was beginning to lift, around us was the Selva Lacandon, North America's last remaining tropical rainforest.
I cannot go into detail about how we were smuggled across the front line. Once in, however, a sense of calm that somehow defied logic took over. The others managed to grab some sleep in the back of the truck but I was too filled with a sense of awe to relax. I had read so much about the Zapatistas. They had dared to declare war on the Mexican government, the federal army, NAFTA, and neo-liberalism, and had challenged the first world to act on their demands. I knew that behind the sexy image of the masked men and women who had taken possession of five towns in the state of Chiapas on January 1, 1994 lay the hundreds of indigenous communities whose land I was now travelling through.
Driving deeper and deeper into the jungle we began to pass army camps and villages in quick succession. After three hours we were dropped in a village which had suffered severe reprisals after the 1994 uprising and again in February 1995, when the Mexican government launched its last big offensive. Our arrival caused a stir. The human rights organisation was desperately short of volunteers and the communities were getting nervous at the lack of international observers. Hands were raised in solidarity and a small welcoming party turned up to check our credentials and show us where we were to stay.
Five minutes after our arrival, a welcome of another kind cast a shadow over the chatter of the children who had appeared with a list of questions for us to answer. "What is going on?", I asked in Spanish. "The helicopters", came the reply. I was reminded of the film Platoon as a huge low flying machine began to circle the small gathering that had assembled outside the campamento hut.
As I was soon to discover, the children of the village had incorporated the military's presence into their everyday lives. The pictures they drew, of butterflies, dogs, flowers, horses and houses, were always framed by a helicopter and the sun in the background. But they also had an understanding of the fact that they were part of something much bigger.
Although the helicopter soon flew away, almost immediately the ground appeared to move, and out of the dusty haze I saw the first of many army personnel carriers on the dirt track road we had just travelled down. To say they were large is to somehow underestimate their size. They were rather like the JCBs at Whatley Quarry, which I had clambered on months previously at an action in the Somerset hills in the UK. Somehow the desire to clamber up onto the army personnel carrier was not there! Direct action, Chiapas style, was something I couldn't participate in.
This was only the first of many villages Sarah and I were to stop at while en route to the community we were posted to, but it was from this first village that I took much of my understanding of just what the Zapatistas were about on a day to day level. For example, when we arrived the villagers were involved in preparing a vegetable garden. Everyone was working. All land in Zapatista territory is communal and food is shared out according to need.
However, before I go any further, I should explain the political background to the situation I found myself in. It is no coincidence that the initial uprising of the Zapatistas coincided with the advent of NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement, between Mexico, the US and Canada] at the beginning of 1994. Enshrined in the Mexican constitution drawn up after Zapata's 1910 revolution was the right to land for those who worked it. To ensure the passage of NAFTA into domestic law, the Mexican government scrapped the section of the constitution (Article 27) which guaranteed these land rights, thereby paving the way for commodification of the 'ejidos', or communal landholdings. Transnational companies from around the world have had their eyes on Chiapas for some time, and had been waiting for NAFTA to come into effect to start the process of exploitation. When Article 27 was removed, they thought they could begin the takeover of peasant land in earnest - but they had not bargained on the indigenous Mayan communities of Chiapas standing in their way.
The campesinos of Chiapas are under no illusions about what the pursuit of neo-liberalism means for their communities, their lives and the future of their children. They have had first hand experience of the destruction that is left behind when corporations choose to satisfy their desire for profit. For decades, even before NAFTA, natural resources were being drained out of the state, leaving poverty and death in their wake. The Mexican constitution states quite clearly that if the Mexican people feel dissatisfied with the government they have the right to rise up and remove that government.When Zapata drew up the constitution he was under no illusions that a perfect reality was assured. And it certainly has been far from perfect; the PRI ['Institutional Revolutionary Party'] has been in power for 75 years, growing ever more corrupt in that time, and it has fallen to groups such as the Zapatistas to remind them of this 'constitutional right'.
For the Mexican people they have re-invoked the spirit of Zapata and the 1910 revolution. Their rebellion has spread to all corners of this vast country. Subcommandante Marcos states: "There will be no peace until there is justice."
After a decent night's sleep we said our good-byes to Katrina, who was to stay here. The federal army camp was less than 200 yards from her makeshift hut, and her mediation skills were to be needed on a daily basis. More personnel carriers thundered past; this road was the gateway to the jungle for the federal army. But we were not going to use the road. The communities we were headed for were in the heart of the jungle, far from any roads. Accompanied by seven men from the community we set off from the road into the mountains.
Walking through the jungle with our companions, I remembered a book which had described the events in San Cristobal on January 1, 1994. The arrival of thousands of indigenous Indians, armed and dressed in black balaclavas, in this small colonial town located high in the mountains of southeast Mexico was met with disbelief by its inhabitants. It was New Year's Day, and most people had been drunk the previous night celebrating with friends and family. Individuals who brought news of the armed insurrection moving towards the town were told they had obviously swallowed the hallucinogenic worm in the bottom of their tequila bottles.
One of the Zapatistas' first moves was to round up the police officers on duty in the town and lock them in their own cells. By this time news of the uprising had began to filter through to the army barracks nearby. When the head of the army phoned San Cristobal's police station to verify this information, Subcommandante Marcos answered the phone. He reassured the general, saying that all was quiet in the town, and told him not to pay too much attention to the ramblings of people today, he too had heard some bizarre stories. Meanwhile the Zapatistas had liberated the chemist shops, broken into the municipal building, (burning all the land sale records within), and had mounted armed blockades on every street corner. This was repeated in other towns across Chiapas. This story made me laugh many times on our gruelling trek in the Canyons of southeast Mexico.
On the afternoon of the next day Sarah and myself arrived at the village where we were needed. We had been smuggled past two army bases. Tense moments were all too frequent an occurrence in these parts. I had been studying the faces of our companions as they guided us silently past the huge army garrisons. One man saw me studying him and smiled as if to say 'you'll be OK.' We could see the federal army troops but they were oblivious to our presence.
Our hut, which was to be our home for the next three weeks, was equipped with a table, bench, open fire and cupboard. We were to share it with a variety of wildlife and countless strange and fantastic insects.
We caused an uproar in the schoolhouse when we walked into the village clearing. Our arrival coincided with the school break time. All the children flooded out to greet us, followed by a rather irate adult who realised that getting them all back in the schoolhouse to continue their Spanish lesson would take a momentous effort. The women of the village looked visibly pleased that the two latest campamentos were female. Within ten minutes Sarah was in a remarkably stressed state. "I cannot light the fire", she said, "And they are all looking at me." One of the men - a guy called Juan - announced that the last campamento had not been able to light a fire or cook his own food. He went on, "How are you people going to cope when there are uprisings in your own country?" Juan smiled. Sarah glared but I had already decided that I liked him. My experience on road protests meant that I was able to start the fire. Our first test was over.
That night, our little hut was full to the brim with men and young boys who were keen to find out everything about us. We talked for two hours about families, why we had come to Chiapas, what we were doing here without partners etc., before we got onto the topic of politics. The Zapatista communities are keen to find out about resistance movements in other countries and about the global resistance to neo-liberalism. They see their struggle in an international framework, but news is hard to come by in the jungle and the campamentos act as a tenuous link between them and the world at large.
I had told Sarah about the direct action movement in the UK, and she in turn told the entire village that I sat up trees and on pieces of machinery in my spare time. The men were confused! Did the army not shoot me out of the trees, they asked. I replied no, and added that most of the police in my country do not have guns, (although I am sure a few officers and security guards have had wistful thoughts about how much easier it would have been to clear the M11, Twyford, Newbury and the countless other protest sides with the use of a few 'armas', as they are called in Spanish.)
Sometimes we were arrested at these demonstrations, I told the men. The silence was complete. And you - have you been arrested, they asked. Yes, was the answer. More silence proceeded my reply. "But you are still alive." I'm not sure who was more shocked, me or them. There was no explanation from either party. I was slowly digesting the idea that being arrested in Chiapas meant that you stood a high chance of being murdered, and they were trying to come to terms with the fact that some strange gringo women came from a country where the police did not carry guns and people could survive being detained by the state. I explained that deaths did occur in police custody, but that they were not common place.
I slept that night in my hammock listening to the monkeys screaming. The next morning we found tortillas wrapped in cloth on the kitchen table. The women had risen at four to grind the maize and cook tortillas, which formed the staple diet along with beans, coffee and bananas. 80% of campesinos are malnourished in this area of Chiapas, and yet the state is one of Mexico's main exporters of food. Chiapas also produces 55% of the nations hydroelectric power and yet most of the indigenous people have no access to clean water, sanitation nor electricity. The state is a huge wealth generator for Mexico and yet it is the poorest in the country.
It took us two hours to make a cup of coffee on that first morning. We had to go and collect water from the stream which was down the side of a ravine, which took an hour. We discovered that chopping two pieces of wood each exhausted us, and trying to light the fire again frayed Sarah's temper. We were visited by the women after breakfast. Their company was very special. I could tell that for them to come into our living quarters was a momentous act. I was kicking myself that my Spanish was not better. They shyly asked questions which I didn't understand. Hours later, with the aid of my dictionary, I would grasp what they were asking. The words they used for things were colloquial, which didn't help, and some spoke their indigenous language, having as little confidence in their Spanish as I had in mine. I could only loosely understand their meaning by the context of the conversation. On one occasion I was talking about my partner. One woman asked if we used tablets. I was confused. Three hours later I realised that she was referring to contraceptives. When I saw her later down by the stream, I shouted out "The answer to your earlier question is yes." She laughed.
The communal approach to everyday life was an ideology I had spent much time discussing with others in England, but I was to see it working in fine detail here in the mountains of southeast Chiapas - and working well. The peoples' ability to act as a collective in all matters left a deep impression on me. I had expected to be overwhelmed by the communities but I had not expected the intensity or the depth of their effect on me. Their wisdom in all matters was so acute it scared me. I could only glimpse at their relationship with their environment and with each other through my eurocentric eyes; so much was just simply outside of my experience. When I asked about their decision to take up arms, Maria stated: "We were not happy about taking up arms but we had tried many peaceful ways and always we were killed and tortured. We had no choice … We are fighting for peace, our land, dignity and our rights. We do not want war but we were at war anyway, with the government, with the landowners who took our land. We were dying anyway."
What many people know as the Zapatistas, "the men and women in balaclavas', is only a small part of the story. The Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN) is the Zapatista Army. Behind the masked combatientes lie hundreds of indigenous communities and an organisational structure with roots deeply based in 2,000 years of Mayan tradition and culture, and in experiences of fighting against oppression and exploitation. The EZLN are under the control of the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee [Oooh-er!] which is made up of elected representatives from each of the Zapatista communities or areas. The representatives are responsible for bringing all the proposals from the villages to the committee and vice versa. Everyone is consulted before any decision is reached.
We were visited daily by the children who came to draw pictures with the brightly coloured pencils we had brought. The campamento hut was soon filled with an array of drawings which we stuck to the walls. Resources such as pens, pencils and paper for the children were in short supply. The teacher who taught in the village school disappeared for two weeks to join a state wide demonstration protesting about the fact that many teachers in Chiapas had been on half pay for years. Corruption is so acute that money given for education and health care disappears. The village was also short of basic medicines. Hundreds die in this part of Chiapas alone from curable diseases.
The three weeks I spent in the Selva Lacandon passed all too quickly. I had grown strangely accustomed to the sight of helicopters armed with bombs flying over my head. On the previous day Sarah and myself had taken our last bath together with the other women down by the stream. On the way back we stood on the edge of the clearing and watched the children playing, some were climbing on the laps of any adult who happened to be available for a short nap or a cuddle. No sooner had Sarah turned to me and said "Its perfect here" than, less than ten seconds later, a federal army helicopter flew in low over the village green, causing the scene to shatter as people looked skywards and children stood motionless. Sarah and I looked up too. We could see the huge bombs attached to the side of the helicopter. For the first time I felt sick. The village had asked me to return but would they all still be alive in six months time?
On the night before I was due to leave the people of the community came to say their good-byes. My hand was shaken many times and I was told to take care and to travel safety. "Please come back, and learn more Spanish. There are many here who want to talk about politics with you, and find out more about people who sit up trees", stated Juan. I asked them if I could write about the community for the alternative press in the UK, and explained that I would not mention real names nor identify the village. 'Si, claro', was the response. ('Yes of course'). I was told to carry with me the force of the Zapatistas. I found leaving very difficult.
My return journey through the jungle was slightly quicker. I had acclimatised myself to the humidity, the blistering sun and the high temperatures, but I was far more nervous than before. On the way down the side of the mountains I was told to listen carefully. "El tigre", my companion whispered. I strained my ears but I could not hear the Jaguar's movements. "Is it close?" I asked. "No", came the reply. I arrived back in San Cristobal a day later.
Women in the Struggle
"We aren't going to ask the government to give us freedom, nor are we going to ask you male fools. We are going to ensure our freedom, our respect, and our dignity as women and as human beings." Quote from the women of the EZLN.
One of the first things you notice when you arrive in Zapatista territory is that women in the communities meet and hold your gaze, often responding with a smile to your Buenos Dias. (Good Day) To those arriving in indigenous Mayan communities in Chiapas this small detail may not seem like much to get excited about. But to understand the significance of this gaze you have to stop looking at the act through eurocentric eyes. For behind it is a story and a struggle for equality that has journeyed far in 10 years.
Women have been involved in the Zapatista movement from the start. They make up a third of the armed combatientes in the EZLN. Many hold positions of rank such as major and captain, and three outrank Subcommandante Marcos. The exploitation and oppression of women was one cultural tradition that the women involved in the Zapatista movement decided not to hold on to. They drew up what has become know as the Womens' Revolutionary Law. It demands that women be allowed to choose their husbands, be allowed to decide the number of children they have, have control over their body and its fertility, that women be respected, that the act of rape be punished, that women have the right to an education and to decide what type of work they do. The Womens' Law was translated into the five different indigenous languages in Chiapas and representatives went into all the villages to explain it to the many women who could not read.
The trickling down effect of these changes in cultural traditions on the communities is already visible. The confidence of the little girls and young women, and their presence in the makeshift school houses, is just one concrete example. The fact that in the village where I stayed women in the community had a right to participate in meetings, spoke Spanish and held elected positions of responsibility was another. The older women tell you that much has changed in the last decade, but that there is still room for much more change. As the female combatients come back to the villages with their partners to have children, they in turn bring back different attitudes.
In macho Mexican society it is very rare to see a man participating in any form of child care. In the Zapatista communities, men and boys were not only carrying small children and babies around but also comforting them. When I asked the women about this they laughed, saying women in the EZLN carried guns, in the communities men had learnt to carry babies.
Domestic violence had been epidemic in the indigenous communities prior to the 1980s, mainly as a result of the high rate of alcoholism. Drinking was encouraged by the ranchers and landowners, who regularly stole land from the campesinos only to employ them later as labourers. Wages were even paid in alcohol! Now, in all the Zapatista communities there is a notice as you enter stating; "No alcohol or drugs, only peace and maize." In response to a question about why women participated in the revolutionary struggle, Commandante Ramona explained: "Because, women are also living in a more difficult situation; because women are the most exploited and strongly oppressed, still. Why? Because women, for so many years, for 500 years, have not had the right to speak, to participate in an assembly. They do not have the right to have an education, to speak to the public, or to hold any position in their town…. We get up at three in the morning to prepare the corn, and from there we have no rest until everyone else is sleeping. If there is not enough food, we give our tortilla to the children, to the husband." (From: "Zapatistas! Documents of the New Mexican Revolution" Autonomedia, 1994, available from AK Press [See Reviews section for address.] )
The women's movement in the communities grew simultaneously with the entry of women into the armed struggle. Major Ana Maria; "Women started to get together and organise themselves and they started to join the ranks of the army. And then other women did not join but organised themselves into womens' groups, women alone. And that is another way that women entered the struggle." (Ibid, p.238)
At the Encuentro, Eva, an indigenous woman from the Union de Comuneros Emiliano Zapata, based in Morelia in Central Mexico, reported that the example given by the Zapatista women had encouraged other indigenous women in Mexico to start organising in women only groups. Eva stated; "When we occupy land we do not call this a land occupation but a land re-occupation because the land belongs to us in the first place. When the soldiers come to evict us from our land the men hide behind the women. Sometimes the women get arrested, but the other women who remain demand a car to go to the local prison and release the arrested women. Us women are getting very good at this."
The EZLN has led the way in the demand that women be treated with equally but the struggle even amongst the combatientes has been difficult. Subcommandante Marcos states; "Many times in our daily lives as combatients, in couple relationships, sexist attitudes are reproduced and because of this our laws tend to favour the women." He added; "The government doesn't like the fact that the indigenous people have risen up but we did it. The sexists don't like the fact that the women are doing what they are doing, but they are doing it and that's that." Attitudes and traditions have been slow to change but the indigenous women of Chiapas and Mexico are demanding and ensuring their right to be respected.
All quotes from the main article were taken from personal interviews by the author in Zapatista communities. Quotes not referenced in the Women in the Struggle article were also from personal interviews.
Bristol Chiapas Support Group
Box 19, 82 Colston Street, Bristol BS1 5BB, UK.
c/o BM-CRL, London WC1N 3XX
Mexico Support Group
Latin American House, Kingsgate Place, London NW6
Zapatista Support Society
Warwick University S.U, The University of Warwick, Coventry, CV4 7AL
Bulletins from Mexico
Cabiner Stoned on Constitution Day
What was to have been a peaceful February 5 ceremony to celebrate the 81st Anniversary of the Mexican Constitution in Quere'taro - birthplace of the 1917 document that crowned the Revolution - turned into a street brawl in which demonstrators hurled stones at members of the Mexican Cabinet. According to news accounts, those in attendance dutifully observed protocol, yawning and pasting smiles on their faces. It was, after all, just another anniversary of the Constitution. Everything appeared to be sailing smoothly until the so-called "legal cabinet" was met by a hailstorm of stones upon leaving the area. The protesters were members of the Independent Front of Zapatista Organisations (FIOZ). Their anger had initially been directed at the PAN [one of the main opposition parties to the PRI] government in the state of Quere'taro, and they wore Ku Klux Klan-style hoods that read "Ku Klux PAN". But after half an hour, the protests suddenly shifted focus to being against government policy in Chiapas, demanding that the Army exit Chiapas and the government renew its dialogue with the Zapatistas. FIOZ members hurled rocks at the buses which transported the dignitaries. Considerably sized rocks smashed bus windows to pieces while members of the presidential security team shielded cabinet members with their bodies. Shortly afterwards, riot squads attacked FIOZ members. [There is some speculation that 'FIOZ' might be "fake Zapatistas" - a front for the PRI; Mexican politics is a very murky business - go figure…]
"We want all who walk with the truth to unite in one step" - Subcommandante Marcos.
"Ya Basta" - the Zapatista war cry, which translates into "enough is enough", has resonance for resistance movements throughout the world. The words and actions of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas have inspired millions, but the Zapatistas are clear about the fact that they do not want to sit on a pedestal; they believe their struggle is part of a global awakening. The recent Second Intergalactic Encuentro for Humanity and Against Neo-Liberalism proved them right. Thousands of grassroots activists from across the world gathered together in Spain last August to discuss the development of a global network of resistance.
We heard from direct action movements across five continents, as representatives from the Ogoni in Nigeria, farmers' unions in India, combatientes from the EZLN, landrights delegates from the Philippines, Bolivia, El Salvador, Indonesia, Peru, Assam, Nicaragua, Sem Tierra from Brazil, activists from the US, Germany, Finland, France, Italy, Poland, and from RTS and EF! in the UK, told of the struggle against neo-liberalism. Those of us who attended this conference from the UK want to build not only on the links we made but also on the dreams we shared. The network is in its infancy but as capitalism goes global so too will we.
Murder in Mexico
On December 22nd 1997 a new atrocity was perpetrated against the indigenous peoples of Chiapas. The low intensity war turned to slaughter. 45 people (including 21 women and 15 children) were murdered, and many more wounded, in Acteal, Chenalho province.
This was the climax to months of persecution, in which Zapatista civilians were chased out of 14 communities, had their houses burnt, their possessions stolen, and their land allocated to their tormentors by local authorities and the ejido police!
The killers are PRI-ista paramilitaries, from a group called Peace, Justice and Development. They were armed by Felipe Vazquez Espinosa, regional police chief who told investigators that he received orders from above. Paramilitary Groups are financed by local ranchers, the President of Chenalho province, the Governor of Chiapas and others. There is evidence that the government has a policy of fostering the growth of paramilitary groups in Chiapas and other states in Mexico.
This is part of the classic American 'counter-insurgency' strategy (as outlined in a US Defense Department 'Plan for Chiapas' in October 1994) - a strategy which is manifesting itself in death-squad massacres and 'disappearances' all over Mexico under the cover of the 'war on drugs'. As of early January, around 9,000 people were crowded into 3 refugee camps. With only makeshift shelters and lacking water, firewood and medicines, they are hungry and cold, and young children are dying in the harsh conditions. Many people have been injured and diseases are rampant. A further 2,400 people were still trapped in their communities, surrounded by paramilitaries.
On January 1st 1998, the Mexican federal government sent 5,000 more troops to Chiapas, adding to the 35,000 already there. (By late February troop numbers had increased to 73,000.) Ostensibly, they are to assist the Mexican Department of justice in investigating the massacre, and apprehending those responsible. In practice, operations are being directed against the EZLN, with Morelia and La Realidad - sites of the 1996 Encuentro - under siege, peasants tortured and questioned as to the whereabouts of Subcommandante Marcos, and personal possessions ransacked. These operations are even being undertaken in conjunction with the same paramilitary groups, whose well-known members walk free in towns elsewhere in Chenalho. In some cases unarmed women have been fighting with the army, setting up lines of defense to prevent them from entering their villages and refugee camps. Between the 22nd December and 14th January, in a fantastic wave of international solidarity, there were at least 230 actions in 27 countries. 100,000 people marched in Mexico City, along with thousands more in Spain and Italy.
On Jan. 12, as people around the world protested the Dec. 22 massacre police opened fire on a march of 5,000 Tzotzil and Tzeltal Indians in the Chiapas town of Ocosingo. Police killed Guadalupe Mendez, shooting her in the stomach. They wounded two small children - including the 3 year-old daughter Mendez was carrying in her arms.
As one refugee puts it: "The PRI-istas are happy thinking that they have our things. They are laughing already. They think that they have won, now that we have all left. I think not, my friends. You are going to return, we are going to return to our community. We are without homes, without blankets, without everything, but we want to live. What we want is help to return to our homes, that the PRI-istas aren't left laughing. Our only fault is our organisation, our party, that we are Zapatistas. All we want is a little help from you who can give aid in each nation and in each state. Together, we are not just two or three, we are a mountain of people, we are many."
The struggle continues!