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LOCAL News :: Civil & Human Rights

Zapatista update

On the scene account of the Zapatista red alert:

Three days after my farewell from San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (EZLN) issued a red alert for the region where I had just spent more than a month and a half. The EZLN put their autonomous communities on alert and evacuated to live clandestinely in the protection of the Laconda jungle highlands. They called it a "precautionary defense measure". It's the first red alert issued since late 1997 when 45 people from a community of Zapatista sympathizers were massacred in Acteal, Chiapas.

Through its spokesman, Subcomandante Marcos, the EZLN issued four communiques in a matter of four days to explain to the world their actions, their reasons and their assurances.
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Marcos used the first communique to blast the political system of Mexico that continues to ignore the immediate needs and demands of its indigenous people.

The second communique announces full closure of the Zapatista Caracoles and Juntas of Good Government, the administrative bodies of autonomous Zapatista communities. The members of these authorities have been evacuated for their own safety. Radio Insurgente, the Zapatista megaphone to the rest of the world, has stopped functioning. Members of civil society offering protection in Zapatista communities were told their saftey could no longer be guaranteed by the EZLN.

The third communique states the reasons for the red alert to be an internal consultation and restructuring process for the Zapatistas. They are searching for the next step step in their struggle.

The final and longest communique is a heartbreakingly, touching "agradacimiento" to the Mexican and global civil societies that have engaged the indigenous communities of Chiapas in their struggle for survival. Marcos says that the communique is not a farewell letter and that they are going to maintain their struggle against forgetting.

The communique says, "We only wanted to point out that the beginning of our uprising was not only a 'Here we are!' yelled at the ear of a nation deaf and dumb because of the authoritarianism up top. It was also, 'This we are and we will continue to be...but now with dignity, democracy, with justice and liberty.'"

The communique also calls attention to the plight of indigenous people throughout the world who are being displaced from their land and killed for various reasons. The Zapatista struggle is not for the Zapatistas themselves but for all of the embattled global inhabitants clawing their way to surival in this new century.

The National Indigenous Council (CNI) a consortium of 500 Mexican indigenous groups and allies put itself on red alert in reponse to the EZLN communiques along with dozens of other NGO's, human rights groups and allied collectives, according to La Jornada, Mexico's leading leftist daily. Many eyes, ears and hearts are monitoring the situation in Chiapas.

Although the Mexican government wants you to think so, the Zapatistas are not preparing themselves for a new offensive. Hours after announcing the red alert, the Mexican government accused the Zapatistas of trafficking drugs. After an immiediate public outroar, The government had to withdraw its claims, admitting that the marijuana plants they found in Chiapas were in areas outside of Zapatista influence.

Maybe it´s the Mexican government that is preparing for a new offensive. For the past decade it has fulfilled a program of low-intensity warfare by building military bases in Chiapas while funding paramilitary forces. The Mexican government already maintains 30 percent (300,000 soldiers) of its troops in Chiapas and recently beefed up its presence with 7,000 additional troops.

Chiapas, the most heavily militarized state in Mexico, is undergoing more fortification as it touches the Guatemala border. The border issues that are flaring up now are not just about the U.S./Mexican border but also the Mexican/Guatemala border. The U.S. wants to exert more control over the southern border of Mexico to stem the migrational flow from Central America.

The Zapatistas definitely sense that something is up. Marcos states in the final communique "We have the necessary conditions to survive, as an organization, an enemy attack or action which would do away with our current leadership, or attempt to annihilate us totally." Also, with an election year coming up, politics will get messy in Mexico.

The Zapatistas are a popular insurgency of various Mesomaerican peoples who began to organize themselves in the Lacondan jungle in 1983. Different indigenous groups from the country and Chiapas sought refuge in the Laconda during the past century after being displaced from their land. Through the ages, the Mexican indigenous and poor have been maliciously targeted "por ser indigena." Just for being born indigenous, wanting to maintain their customs and land that they have occupied for hundreds of years.

There in the early eighties, the pluralistic hybrid nature of the Zapatista struggle was born. The Zapatistas are composed of indigenous and campesino people from seven different linguistic backgrounds and from different Mexican states. They live in Chiapas, one of the poorest states in the country and with one of the highest indigenous populations. Seven out of ten homes do not have electricity and 80 percent of its children suffer from malnutrition.

The EZLN caught the public eye and dream when, on the first day of 1994, they launched an armed uprising in Chiapas, capturing several townships while demanding their basic human rights to land, food, education, housing, health services, democracy, justice, peace and autonomy. Their uprising coincided with the first day of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Mexico's inclusion with NAFTA required the country to take from land-dependent people communal lands guaranteed by the constitution.

Although the Mexican government hoped to eradicate the Zapatista rebellion from the beginning, they failed as the imagination of civil society was swept away with the Zapatistas.

Inspired by the powerful word and deed of the Zapatistas, civilian people in solidarity engaged the Zapatistas and stepped in to facilitate their survival. People refused to let this struggle disappear by offering protection in Zapatista communities as human rights observers and joining in different projects of painting murals, building schools and water irrigation projects.

Negotiations have occured between the Zapatistas and the Mexican federal government to culminate in the San Andres Accords, which involve constitutional guarantees to indigenous rights and culture, welfare and development and women´s rights.

Even after the government refused to put the San Andres Accords into law, the Zapatistas decided to implement the accords themselves with or without the government's nod. Despite killings and threats from paramilitary forces, they sowed their autonomy in the highlands of Chiapas. They have been building schools and health clinics, creating their own local governments. They have unleashed a colorful torrent of empowerment to run through the already emerald slopes of Chiapas.

Not only that, but the Zapatistas sparked a global movement against war and capitalism. They helped create a movement of multitudes that united people from all over the world. I began to understand the scope of the Zapatista influence when I was in Buenos Aires in 2003, learning about the peoples' movements there and seeing the faces and words of the Zapatistas splashed on the walls as inspiration.

"Better to die on your feet, than to live on your knees," is one of the Zapatista sayings painted on the walls of an autonomous space run by an unemployed workers´ movement in Argentina.

A Chiapan historian, Andres Aubry, wrote that in order for profound social change to occur in Mexico, the change had to take place not in the
indigenous people of Mexico but in the society itself that owes indigenous people their existence. One recent night beset by munchies, I sat on a street corner in Mexico City talking to two older women who had just prepared me the most amazing deep-fried bean and mushroom quesadillas ever eaten in my life.

After chatting for a while, I asked them what they thought about the recent developments in Chiapas. One woman, Gabriela, went off, calling the Zapatista struggle just and damning the government for their inaction on indigenous rights.

"The Zapatistas are saying enough. They've had enough of the killing of their people that has been going on for centuries," she said while waving her finger in the air.

"Do you think they'll survive?" I asked.

"Of course, they have the power of the people on their side," she said. Then I read in the papers of European collectives who have decided not to leave Zapatista communities and will continue to act in solidarity. The Mexican leftist daily, La Jornada, quoted a Spanish woman who planned to remain at the Zapatista caracol Oventic despite its official closure.

She was quoted as saying, "The silence is impressive, everything is strange but we are going to stay here."

"My idea is to bear witness, if it was necessary," she said.

Earlier today in Mexico City, I sat in on a meeting where people came together to plan actions in support of the Zapatistas this week.

Now I think of the Zapatista communities I visited while in Chiapas. At first it saddened me to think of their beautiful mural-covered buildings empty. I was horrified at the prospect of a governmental war on the Zapatistas. But, after seeing the world's heartfelt response and witnessing solidarity at work in its truest form, I am confident the Zapatistas will return with even more fire under their feet. Their march will take the whole Mexican country and the rest of the world with them.
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