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The Shadow War

Basta! Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas

by George Collier and Elizabeth Lowery Quaratiello, foreword by Peter Rosset
Food First Books, 183 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Rebellion from the Roots: Indian Uprising in Chiapas

by John Ross
Common Courage Press, 424 pp., $29.95; $14.95 (paper)

EZLN: Documentos y comunicados

A collection of the writings of Subcomandante Marcos
Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 326 pp., $13.20 (paper) An English translation of many of the documents in EZLN: Documentos y comunicados has recently been published in the US: Shadows of Tender Fury: The Letters and Communiqués of Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, translated by Frank Bardacke, Leslie López, and the Watsonville, California, Human Rights Committee; introduction by John Ross, afterword by Frank Bardacke (Monthly Review Press, 1995).

The peasant uprising in Chiapas that began in January 1994 has already generated many books, and more are in preparation. Most of the books, understandably, are fast turn-around jobs written in Spanish, and aimed at a local audience: round-ups of the first spate of newspaper articles and photographs; brief—often apocryphal—histories of the rebel movement; breathless I-was-there chronicles of mysterious interviews in the jungle; passionate attacks on and defenses of the rebels.

Fortunately for readers in the United States, some of the most interesting new books about Chiapas are in English. There is George Collier’s Basta!, a scholarly investigation of the Zapatistas against the background of the explosive social tensions in Chiapas produced by land struggles, ethnic conflict, the inroads of modern capitalism, and an indolent, often cruel central government. This provides fertile ground for revolt. John Ross’s Rebellion from the Roots is a lively, detailed, and—given the speed at which it was written—surprisingly accurate journalistic account of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, or EZLN. This is the group that spent ten years organizing into an army thousands of the Maya peasants Collier writes about, and that, having organized them, declared war on the Mexican state and demanded the resignation of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari on New Year’s Day, 1994.


January 1 marked the beginning of a year full of astonishing and horrid events. There was the assassination of the official—that is to say, virtually elected—presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, on March 23, and then, on September 28, the assassination of the head of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI, whose candidate Colosio was, and which, in its sixty-five years in power, had presided over occasional bursts of violence, but until last year never suffered any itself. There was also the shaky candidacy of Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, the man appointed to replace Colosio, followed by the August 21 elections, in which, despite all disasters and with just a little fraud, the nerdy-looking Zedillo won handily. Finally, there was the apotheosis, the farewell to power of Mexico’s modernizing president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, on December 1, followed almost immediately by the collapse of the peso and of the Mexican stock market. But no event was as unexpected, as dreamlike in its sheer implausibility, as the assault by skimasked, poorly armed columns of Zapatistas on six of the larger towns in Chiapas—one of the most mountainous, thinly populated, poor, and rural states in Mexico.

The rebellion that turned Mexico upside down started in the former capital of Chiapas, San Cristóbal de las Casas, a town of some 100,000 people, beloved of European tourists, and not much visited by other outsiders, including other Mexicans. There is a stringent quality to the town; the crisp mountain air, the straight, narrow streets with whitewashed houses that abut directly on sidewalks built high to allow for frequent pouring rains, the austere colonial churches—all these seem to enhance the visitor’s clarity of thought.

Befuddlement, however, was the dominant state among most of the people—including some who were very hung over, for it was New Year’s Day—who passed by the Cathedral square that morning and witnessed the debut of a group of rebels who were about to become media stars. What were those ski-masked youths doing, standing around with their weapons—and in some cases with roughly carved wood imitations of weapons—chatting among themselves in Tzeltal and Tojolobal? Was a movie being filmed on location? A local landowner with a reputation for fairness was called over by one of the masked men, who announced himself as one of his occasional day laborers. It was not a movie but an uprising, he said, and this was also the message of a pamphlet left by the retreating rebels to explain what was happening. It consisted mostly of a lengthy text titled “Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle”—the first of what was to become an outpouring of communiqués by the EZLN that ran in the Mexico City press at the rate of at least one a day.

Brother Mexicans:

We are the product of five hundred years of struggle: first against slavery, then in the War of Independence against Spain led by the Insurgents, then in order to avoid being absorbed by United States expansionism, then to be able to promulgate our Constitution and expel French imperialism from our soil. Then the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz denied us the just application of the [1857] Laws of Reform and the people rebelled, forging their own leaders. [Francisco] Villa and [Emiliano] Zapata rose up, poor men like us, who have been denied the most elemental instruction, in order thus to use us as cannon fodder and loot the wealth of our country without any care for the fact that we are dying of hunger and curable diseases; without any care for the fact that we have nothing, absolutely nothing; no roof worthy of the name, nor land, nor work, nor health, nor food, nor education; without the right to elect our authorities freely and democratically; without independence from foreigners, without peace or justice for ourselves and for our children.

Today, we say ENOUGH!

For readers in Mexico City and around the more prosperous parts of the country, the proclamation struck home with the force of self-evident truth. Out of the country’s total population of 90 million, almost half are estimated to live below the poverty line. The 10 million or so indigenous peoples of Mexico are the most shamefully neglected of all the country’s poor. Mexico’s Indians are irrelevant to its wealth; and, in turn, the worthier achievements of a regime that claims descent from the 1910 revolution of Villa and Zapata have bypassed the Indian campesinos, whose land this once was. Nowhere is the native population’s situation more unjust than in Chiapas. The river-rich state provides one fifth of the country’s electricity and a third of its coffee production, but none of this wealth trickles down to the various Maya peoples known by their language groups as Tzeltales, Tzotziles, Choles, Zoques, Lacandones, Mams, and Tojolobales. Thirty percent of the state’s population of about 3.2 million is illiterate, and half live in houses without running water. Alcoholism is rampant, and so are parasitic diseases among children.

The extensive redistribution of land that was made law by the revolutionary constitutional convention of 1917 was largely ignored in Chiapas. It took a visit to the region by President Lázaro Cárdenas in 1940 to force the recalcitrant Chiapas gentry to accept the notion of land reform in the state, but it is doubtful that many peasants would have acquired land had it not been for the fact that cattle ranching was becoming a much more appealing alternative for the rich than the old system of self-sufficient haciendas with large populations of indentured serfs.

Cárdenas and his successors encouraged the freed serfs to settle the Lacandón jungle region. Over the years they were joined by large numbers of landless peasants from other parts of the state, and even from states further north like Oaxaca and Guerrero, where peasant guerrilla movements were defeated by the army in the 1960s and 1970s. The Maya peasants’ legal situation changed, and, nominally, they were incorporated into the Mexican state’s patrimonialist system: in exchange for rudimentary health clinics and rural schools that were often abandoned within a year or two of their inauguration, the PRI-dominated government—the PRI/gobierno—extracted solid blocks of votes. In election after election, in fact, local politicians delivered for the count ballot boxes stuffed with many times more votes than there were registered voters.

It is important to stress that, while the legal system did change, most of Chiapas’s whites did not become more democratic. With another reporter, I once talked to a public-school teacher in San Cristóbal about the uprising. We were standing on a crowded sidewalk, surrounded by Maya Indians, but they might as well have been invisible. Loudly, the schoolteacher explained in textbook racist clichés how lazy the Indians were, and how greedy. “You have to force them to work,” she said. “And they always want more. I guarantee you that if the government gives in to their demands and builds houses for all of them, they’ll soon be asking why they can’t have a car, too.”

I had not seen her like before in Mexico, but only in the bitterly race-and class-divided societies of Guatemala and El Salvador. It was not surprising that the local Catholic Church, taking up the cause of the Indians in the 1960s as the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas had done four centuries before, should have become radicalized in their defense. Led by Bishop Samuel Ruiz, the Church preached its liberation gospel most effectively among the migrants from northern Chiapas and other parts of Mexico who had settled in what is now the almost completely deforested Lacandón jungle. In time, Bishop Ruiz’s followers came to believe that this area, whose center is a region known as Las Cañadas—the canyons—was a new promised land, where a society free of what liberation theologists call “social sin” could be brought forth. It was in this aspiring utopia that the EZLN first took hold in the early 1980s.

The totally unthreatening nature of the insurgency was clear to all by the end of the first week of January 1994. Having trashed the municipal building that sits catty-corner from the Cathedral in San Cristóbal’s central square and covered the town walls with graffiti, the rebels moved on to the local military barracks, where they were successfully turned back. Other rebel columns attempted to take the towns of Ocosingo, Altamirano, and Las Margaritas, and the villages of Chanal, Huixtán, and Oxchuc. In every case they were swiftly crushed by the army. As armored helicopters began strafing the hillsides around Las Cañadas at the end of the first week of January, it seemed obvious that the next act of this improbable revolution would involve the wholesale murder of all villagers in the area suspected of supporting the insurgents.

In the capital and other major cities around the country, tens of thousands took to the streets to protest against attacks on the Zapatistas. To the astonishment of the demonstrators—and, no doubt, even more so of the rebels, not to mention the army high command—President Carlos Salinas de Gortari called for a unilateral cease-fire on January 12. Within days, the EZLN—which in the second part of the Declaration quoted above had vowed to take Mexico City by force and depose the “usurper” Salinas de Gortari—agreed to talk with the government. Under the terms of an unofficial pre-talks agreement, the rebel army retrenched in and around Las Cañadas, an area which continues to function, de facto, as the zone under Zapatista control. Most press reports put the total number of dead in the twelve days of fighting at 150. According to the Zapatistas, the death toll of the fighting was 9 Zapatista soldiers and 12 lost in action, plus 27 confirmed army dead and possibly 30 more.

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