A traveler motoring through southeastern Chiapas these days is apt to encounter neatly-lettered road signs advising that one is now entering “Autonomous Zapatista Rebel Territory”. Several such notices are posted along the two-lane black-top that winds through the highlands up to Oventic, the site of one of five recently inaugurated “caracoles” (literally “spirals”) from which the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) is building regional autonomy.
But as one nears Oventic, other road signs pop up in the nearby cornfields. “EUSKAL PRESOAK! EUSKAL HERRIA!” reads one announcement, against which a Tzotzil-speaking Zapatista militia man leans, casually puffing on a cigarette. The sign, however, is not written in Tzotzil but in an equally esoteric lingo, Euskara, or the language of the Basques, and when translated demands “Let the Basque prisoners return to their homeland!” The road sign in Euskara is a forceful reminder of the odd bond between the largely Mayan EZLN and those who struggle for the independence of the Basque Country (“Pais Vasco” or “Euskadi.”)
“Gora Euskadi!” (Long Live the Basque Homeland!) greeted a ski-masked Indian comandante, Zebedeo, at the recent Oventic inauguration festivities, “that this cry will never be extinguished even in the prisons and torture chambers of the Spanish government!” The comandante then explained that the EZLN supports “the political and cultural struggle” for Basque independence but not the terror tactics of the notorious ETA (“Euskara Ta Askatasuna” or Basque Homeland and Liberty.)
Indeed, a bitter epistolary conflict has erupted between the EZLN’s quixotic spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos and that homicidal terrorist band–at one point in the angry colloquy, Marcos even feared that he could be ETA’s next victim.
Last November, after 18 months of frozen silence, the Subcomandante broke his word fast with a rambling, cheeky comunique addressed to Zapatista supporters at a Madrid conclave. The screed lacerated Spanish king Juan Carlos (“a constipated old man”) and right-wing prime minister Jose Maria Aznar (a “pipsqueak” and a “donkey”) but reserved special vitriol for National Audience judge Baltazar Garzon for his persecution of supporters of Basque independence.
Garzon, often mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, is best known for his flawed attempts to extradite ex-Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to Spain to answer charges of human rights atrocities during his tyrannical regime (1973-89.) The Judge has been more successful in obtaining the extradition of accused Argentinean torturer Ricardo Cavallo from Mexico–Cavallo is charged with the disappearance of at least 5000 Leftists during the “dirty war” (1976-83) in that southern cone nation.
Garzon, whose judicial position allows him ample investigative powers, first won public attention in Spain when he revealed that former Socialist prime minister Felipe Gonzalez had sponsored a counter-terrorism unit, the GAL, deemed responsible for the killings of 27 Basque independence fighters in Spain and France, a disclosure that helped bring down the Gonzalez government.
But Judge Garzon soon turned his legal guns upon the Basque independence movement itself. Hundreds were taken prisoner and tortured (as substantiated each year by Amnesty International), newspapers have been shuttered, and political parties proscribed–Batasuna, outlawed late last year as alleged “apologists for terrorism”, won 11% of the Basque vote in the last elections and held seats in both the national and local parliaments.
In his stinging November note, Marcos labeled Garzon “a grotesque clown” who demonstrates “his true fascist avocation” by persecuting the Basques. The Judge, the dyed white streak in his ample head of hair bristling like a bantee rooster, immediately fired back. The rebel leader was “a ridiculous figure with his pipe”, and “a miserable coward who insults” the nearly 900 victims of ETA terrorism by bad-mouthing Garzon’s crusade. Baltazar Garzon also threw down the gauntlet, challenging the Subcomandante to a debate “without masks or disguises where and whenever you like.”
Not to be daunted, the unflappable Zapatista mouthpiece immediately set a date and a place, April at Lanzarote in the Canary Islands near the home of Nobel Prize-winning author Jose Saramago, a great fan of the rebels. Marcos also summoned ETA and Batasuna and the Aznar government to Lanzarote for a “Festival of the Word” and implored the ETArras to declare a 177-day truce until the talks could be entabled.
Suggesting that the Subcomandante was “mentally unbalanced” and suffering from delusions of grandeur, Spanish authorities turned the invite hands down. ETA was even less diplomatic, tagging the proposed talks “a pantomime” and expressing the suspicion that Marcos was just trying to get his picture back “on the front pages of the newspapers and the popular tee-shirts.” Moreover, by asking for a truce, the Zapatistas were intervening in the internal dynamic of the Basque independence movement. The aspersions put a quick damper on “The Fiesta of the Word” and the fracaso soon faded from public visibility.
Then this past August 8th, as the EZLN was preparing to inaugurate the new “caracoles” with their regional autonomous authorities, who should show up in Chiapas but Judge Baltazar Garzon himself. He was on vacation, Hizzoner insisted to reporters at the airport in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the state capitol, but did not miss the opportunity to diss the Zapatistas’ “caracoles” as being “Illegal” because they do not conform to the Mexican Constitution. Marcos was a charlatan who was bamboozling the Indians the Judge insisted, and soon disappeared into the foliage “on vacation.”
The unexplained absence of Subcomandante Marcos at the Oventic ceremonies August 8th-10th has led to wild speculation that the two adversaries had finally conducted their long-awaited debate–in private.
More probably, Garzon’s mystery trip to Chiapas obeyed his obsession with ETA and not the EZLN–although he may well have had an eye ou the ties between the two groups. The Judge’s touch-downs in Mexico City and Tuxtla came at a moment when President Vicente Fox–with whom Garzon met in July–has ordered a crack-down on suspected ETA terrorists and sympathizers living in Mexico. In most cases, detention and extradition orders have been crafted by Garzon’s office.
Since 1996, when then-presidents Ernesto Zedillo and Felipe Gonzalez inked an extradition treaty that was finalized under Aznar (the agreement opened the door to Spanish support for a free trade pact with the European Union), 36 Basques have been detained and expelled from Mexico into the waiting arms of the Spanish police. One deportee died under suspicious circumstances during a 1997 round-up in which Spanish police officials directly participated in violation of Mexican law.
Now Fox is eager to demonstrate to Aznar and the diminutive prime minister’s big boss, George Bush, that he too can be tough on terrorism.
Item: in late April, Lorenzo Llona, a naturalized citizen, was detained on his way to work in the central Mexican city of Zacatecas and held for extradition to Spain on allegations that he had participated in a triple murder in the Basque province of Guipuzcoa on June 24th, 1981 (Basques picked up in Mexico are increasingly charged with crimes dating back to the 1980s.) The only problem with this scenario is that Llona had already emigrated to Mexico when the murders were committed and had the paperwork to prove it. Nonetheless, Garzon pushes ahead with the extradition claim, a process that could take years while Llona remains behind bars. Item–On July 4th, Miguel Ebxanda, a Basque who may have been in Mexico illegally, was nabbed by immigration agents, driven to the Mexico City airport, and deported to Madrid where Spanish police took immediate custody, before anyone even knew he was missing. Such summary deportations of Basques have become common practice here when the suspect’s papers are adjudged to be not in order.
Item: On July 18th, in a muscular show of force with Judge Garzon in country, Federal Investigation Agency (AFI) robo-cops broke down doors in four Mexican cities and arrested sic Basques and three Mexicans for allegedly laundering ETA moneys (another Garzon investigation.)
All of the Basques arrested were prosperous middle-aged business men and women, some of them naturalized or married to Mexicans. At least one of the arrestees was so confident of his legal status in Spain that he had bought a ticket to move back to Pais Vasco. He and his wife were reportedly waiting for the moving van in front of their Monterrey home when he was collared by the AFI.
The morning after the July 18th raids, code-named “Operation Donasti”, Aznar phoned Fox to congratulate the Mexican president for his tough stance in the War on Terror.
Basques first came to Mexico with the Conquest–Hernan Cortez carried eight Vascos in his crew. The Franciscan missionary Vasco de Quiroga evangelized western Mexico. Basques and their descendants have assembled immense fortunes here and are captains of industry and commerce (one example: the Azcarriaga family, principle owners of the Televisa conglomerate.) Basque names are ubiquitous–an Echeverria has been president and an Arizmendi a bishop.
Basque refugees from the Spanish civil war (1936-39) were welcomed to Mexico by a sympathetic president Lazaro Cardenas. They established businesses and social centers like the Centro Vasco in the old quarter of the capital, for decades a venue noted for conviviality and fine dining. But now the Centro Vasco has fallen on dark days. The AFI and Spanish police are thought to surveil its elegant quarters–the six accused money launderers often met there.
“Being Basque in Mexico these days is a lot like being an Arab in the U.S. right after 9/11” observes Javier Elorriaga, a Mexican of Basque descent and a civil Zapatista leader.
Why Garzon was dirt-digging in Chiapas has not yet emerged from the mud but there is little doubt that he kept tabs on the Zapatista celebrations up at Oventic. Despite its astringent relations with ETA, the EZLN is routinely attacked by his detractors for backing the terrorists. In a paroxysm of xenophobia, ex-president Zedillo once accused the rebels of harboring ETArras in peace camps established by the civil society in the jungles and mountains of Chiapas, and immigration agents in the region continue to zealously pursue possible Basque visitors.
But the coincidences between the Indians and Basque country has less to do with terrorist plots than it does with the essential nature of their struggles. Both are nations within nations–fourth world nations if you will–and both fight for meaningful autonomy from what they regard as the “mal gobierno: (bad government.)
JOHN ROSS was a resident of Pais Vasco during the late 1970s, the most explosive years of the struggle for Basque independence.