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A Report from the Red Alert

Zapatistas at Critical Crossroads

by JOHN ROSS

Oventik, Chiapas.

The Zapatista "Caracol" or public meeting center dubbed "Resistance and Rebellion for Humanity" ("where the people govern and the government obeys") at Oventik in the highlands of Chiapas, is an abandoned ghost town these days. The front gate of the Caracol, one of five such centers that dot the Zapatista geography, is bolted and padlocked. Where thousands have celebrated this unique Mayan Indian uprising each January 1 for the past 12 years to mark the rebellion’s advent in 1994, today the only sign of life is a mangy gray mongrel scavenging the locked out buildings for food.

A large black slab of pinewood staked out by the roadside explains the desolation: CLOSED FOR RED ALERT.

The Red Alert, the Zapatistas’ highest level of danger, was imposed from Mexico City May 3 by Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) military commander Subcomandante Marcos now doing business as Delegate Zero. Since January 1, Marcos has been touring the underbelly of this distant neighbor nation in an effort to rebuild the Mexican left from the bottom up under the rubric of "the Other Campaign."

Over the course of the past six months, "La Otra" has visited 20 Mexican states and the federal district connecting up the dots between local struggle organizations and blasting the electoral option during the nation’s bitterly fought presidential campaign. Swimming upstream against the electoral tide, Delegate Zero attacked voting for one of the three major parties in the July 2 presidential election as a useless exercise and fiercely dissed the candidates, particularly the leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), as being incapable of altering Mexico’s severely skewed social dynamic.

Now that Lopez Obrador has apparently been swindled out of the presidency in a fraudulent election, Marcos and the Other Campaign are vilified by AMLO’S supporters as having aided and abetted the declared winner, right-winger Felipe Calderon. Nonetheless, the Other Campaign’s calculated critique of electoral politics may now have more scratch with disaffected voters.

Subcomandante Marcos suspended the Other Campaign and called the Red Alert May 3 on the first day of a pitched battle between federal and state police and militant farmers from San Salvador Atenco just outside Mexico City who had joined or "adhered" to the Other Campaign six days previous. On May 4, several thousand government security forces crushed the farmers’ resistance, killing two young men, raping and sexually abusing a score of women, and jailing more than 200, most of whom have now been released ­ 29 prisoners remain incarcerated.

Delegate Zero than announced that he would stay in Mexico City where he remains holed up at an unknown location until all of the prisoners of Atenco were cut loose. Two months later, the farmers remain imprisoned and the Other Campaign has been eclipsed by the electoral blitz and the subsequent stealing of the presidency from Lopez Obrador. Meanwhile, the Zapatista communities far away in the southeast of Chiapas remain under Red Alert although the events at Atenco presented no overt threat to the EZLN’s five Caracoles and 29 autonomous municipalities.

The Red Alert shuts down the Caracoles, orders the members of the local autonomous governments ­ the Juntas de Buen Gobierno or Good Government Committees that are the cornerstones of civil Zapatismo ­ to disband, halts all NGO infrastructure projects including schools and clinics, silences the rebels’ Radio Insurgente, "the Voice of those Without Voice", and obligates all internationals to abandon the Zapatista zone. Members of Zapatista base communities are restricted in their ability to travel and commerce and other connecting points with the outside world are broken off.

The calling of the Red Alert is a function of the Zapatistas’ political-military structure ­ the Zapatista Army of National Liberation as opposed to the autonomous communities – and as the top military commander, Subcomandante Marcos need not consult with other members of the General Command or the Clandestine Indigenous Revolutionary Committee (CCRI) in declaring the alert. The EZLN has called only a handful of such alerts in its 12 year public history, almost always after serious threats from the Mexican military or local paramilitary bands such as following the massacre of 49 Tzotzil Indian supporters at Acteal at Christmastime 1997.

During a recent fact-finding mission to the Zapatista autonomous zone, some observers who asked that their names not be disclosed complained to this reporter that the now two month-old Red Alert is "disproportionate" and "unjustified", a view generally shared in the NGO community. Others fixed the Red Alert in the context of an ongoing rift between "civil Zapatismo" (the autonomous communities) and the political-military structure, a split that has been rumored since the promulgation of the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle last summer but which is rarely discussed openly.

The Sixth Declaration or "La Sexta" issued in June 2005, which gave birth to the Other Campaign, underscored this internal conflict. In the document, Marcos reasons that after 20 years in construction, the autonomous communities were now prepared to run their own affairs without taking direction from the EZLN’s General Command. In an August 2004 evaluation of the work of the Juntas de Buen Gobierno and the system of Caracoles, Subcomandante Marcos criticized the military wing for continuing to control the Zapatista "autonomias" rather than "accompanying" them in their efforts to administer more than 1100 villages and upwards of 100,000 members of EZLN base communities in eastern Chiapas.

Nonetheless, instead of relinquishing control, the Comandantes installed "reception committees" at each of the Caracoles dominated by members of the rebel military to screen those who did business with the civil Juntas de Buen Gobierno.

Those consulted for this article were universally reluctant to be identified. Some work with NGOs whose access to the communities could be compromised by commenting publicly on the military-civil divide in the Zapatista structure. Others, both in the communities and on the road with the Other Campaign, fear retaliation and exclusion and ultimately a tongue-lashing from Subcomandante Marcos for speaking out. There has been little criticism of the Sup’s top-down control of the Other Campaign which is officially the domain of the "Sexta Commission", thought to include EZLN commanders but whose members are never identified ­ some informants speculate that the Sexta Commission is limited to Marcos.

During six months on the road, the alternative press, which has accompanied La Otra, has been reduced to lionizing the campaign and adherents tend to react defensively when confronted by critical voices outside the movement.

Since Marcos arbitrarily suspended the Other Campaign’s tour of Mexico’s underbelly and entered into a war of attrition with the "mal gobierno" over the release of the prisoners of Atenco, participation has dwindled to double digits from a high of 15,000 at the end of May. A good many of those who continue to identify with the Other Campaign are radicalized high school and university students and members of Marxist-Leninist splinter parties.

Some one-time supporters of La Otra have defected to Lopez Obrador’s post-electoral crusade to demand a ballot-by-ballot recount of the fraud-marred July 2 election that has put more than a million supporters on the streets of Mexico City in recent days. Faced with mass desertion in the ranks of the Other Campaign, Delegate Zero is said to be about to call upon the Zapatista communities in Chiapas to march on Mexico City, a move that can only occur once the Red Alert is lifted.

Although Oventik remains locked down tight, the Zapatista communities in the neighborhood remain open and appear to be functioning normally. Behind their ski masks, the rebels are really farmers and the corn up in the highlands now measures seven feet and is beginning to tassel. There is much work to be done.

Just down the road from the deserted Caracol Resistance and Rebellion for Humanity, two young Zapatistas perch on a ledge overlooking the valley, informal sentinels scanning the mountain roads for signs of military and police intrusion and other dangers. When a big city reporter stops to chat, the two "milicianos" are appropriately wary. "Where is it that you come from?" one asks. "Day Efe", the federal district, the reporter replies. "Day Efe" they echo and lapse into silence.

When might the Red Alert be lifted, they are asked. "Quien sabe?" they breathe back, "who knows?" But the young Zapatistas are cautiously curious about what is going on in the outside world. Yes, they had heard about the Great Fraud in the election. They had seen on television that Lopez Obrador, whom they are not fond of, had drawn a million people to the great Zocalo plaza on July 16 ­ "un chingo de gente."

The young militiamen had questions about Atenco too. Where was it? What actually had happened there? Both most probably knew but were testing the reporter’s veracity. Would they go up to the capital if Sup Marcos summoned them? "We are waiting for the order," they agreed.

There is a struggle going on within the EZLN that remains unresolved, a veteran observer of Zapatista history comments anonymously down in the old colonial city of San Cristobal where so much of that history has been written. "Democracy always comes from the bottom up" he reminds an old comrade, "the Red Alert comes from on top." The contradiction between civil Zapatismo and the military side is sharper than ever now. "Watch closely" he counsels. "The next months could be crucial to the future of the movement."

JOHN ROSS has at last completed "Zapatistas! Making Another World Possible ­ Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006" to be published in October by Nation Books and is now lining up presentations for the fall. Any suggestions? He can be reached at johnross@igc.org