I was a first-hand witness and then an active participant in a socio-political phenomenon that erupted out of Mexico, went global and became known as Neo-Zapatismo.
As a witness, I just happened to be there when it started, on day one, when no one had a clue what was going on, including, and especially, the Mexican Army, not to mention the Mexican government, Washington, the CIA and any number of international journalists who started to pour into town on day two. Which is when I became an active participant, because the first journalists to arrive found me, and pretty soon all the others started to look me up, too. Meanwhile, the CIA moved into my home, or rather, where I lived and worked at the time, and my life shifted into any number of unknown new gears.
Wikipedia now has a comprehensive entry on the subject, which I suggest you read. Just to get up to speed, as it were. But don’t be surprised if you slow to a halt halfway through. The topics covered range from an in-depth analysis of the origins of neoliberalism through to the birth of indigenous feminism and back. However, in the end, you had to be there to understand. Which I was, but am still not sure if I do. Nevertheless, an old close friend of mine has insisted that I try to write things up. So, I will. Stay with me and I’ll see what I can do.
Day one was the first of January, 1994, the day that NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Act) came into effect and trade barriers dropped between Canada, the USA and Mexico. The town was San Cristobal del Las Casas, nestled in the Mayan highlands of Chiapas, in southern Mexico, once the region’s colonial capital and a must-see destination for anyone interested in Mayan people. And I was a live-in volunteer at Na Bolom, a once privately-owned colonial villa on the outskirts of town, known for decades for its work with the Lacandon Maya, the one Mayan people that never left their home in the vast Lacandon tropical forests of eastern Chiapas. As an Englishman, part of my work was guiding tourists around its premises, its little museum and fascinating library, and greeting guests keen to stay in one of the various rooms that it rented out on a hotel basis. But that night we were all celebrating New Year’s Eve in the one nightclub in town still open well after hours. Two recently-acquired wealthy Mexican friends had turned up earlier in the day with girlfriends, champagne and fireworks and taken me to watch the explosive Mexican festivities from a hilltop overlooking town, after which we repaired to the club and might well have danced until dawn. Except that, somewhere around 3:00 a.m., someone suddenly burst in to declare: “Armed men have taken over the town hall.”
My first reaction was to check it out. So, I walked the short block down to the colonnade at the rear of the town hall and, when shadowy figures toting obviously serious guns half-emerged from its arches, I retraced my steps. My friends’ first reaction, on the other hand, was to avoid being kidnapped. So, amid a general rush for the doors, I accompanied them through dimly-lit, narrow back streets to their hotel, where they boarded a high-end SUV and sped out of town. I, instead, headed for bed, grabbed a couple of hours of sleep and, shortly after day-break, walked cautiously back down to the town square, quite expecting ‘armed men’ to block my way at any moment.
But none did. Instead I found any number of Mayan children clambering joyously in the square’s lush trees to harvest dozens of piñata originally hung there for the town’s far more privileged mestizo children. Meanwhile, a small crowd of townsfolk had gathered in front of the town hall, unknown faces to me who I would later learn included the owner of the town’s miniscule local newspaper, El Tiempo, a reporter from its similarly small radio station and two or three of the town’s left-wing intellectuals, all eager to find out what was going on.
A leaflet circulated in the square that gave us a name for the newcomers: the Ejército Zapatista di Liberacion Nacional (Zapatista Army of National Liberation, or EZLN) and broadly stated their demands for “liberty, democracy, justice and peace”, along with “the right to work, land, housing, food, health, education and independence”. The leaflet included The Women’s Revolutionary Law, a text that was generally ignored for some time, but which was actually revolutionary in its own way as the first ever Charter of Indigenous Women’s Rights.
In fact, one thing was immediately obvious: these rebels, soon known as ‘Zapatistas’, were not regular mestizo Mexicans. They were indigenous Mayan Indians, people native to the land and a people with an entirely non-Western, pre-Colombian way of viewing the world, a unique socio-cultural fact that was key to everything that would follow, but which some would try to deny, others to ignore and which many still fail to appreciate even today.
However, on that first day all I could do was observe. Only a small corps of Zapatistas were armed with assault rifles or anything similar. All the rest – who included women, middle-aged and older men and even the odd teenage girl – shouldered nothing more serious than stout wooden staves. None wore formal uniforms, but all were uniformly dressed in green and with their faces masked in balaclava helmets, an item frequently used in the chilly highland winters that would soon become the rebels’ trademark garment.
Furniture from the town hall had been used to barricade entry roads to the square and the hall itself was off-limits. But otherwise we on-lookers were free to come and go as we wished and the atmosphere became curiously almost festive. The masked newcomers stood guard in calm, attentive and disciplined silence, but at no point exuded any threat of violence. And that absence of fear marks my memory of that day, along with all other encounters I would have with the EZLN over the following weeks and months.
Instead, what worried everyone and kept us looking over our shoulders was the assumption that at some point Mexican soldiers would arrive and we non-combatants would have to flee. But they never did and the serious warfare that did break out the next day, and continued until a cease-fire was called on January 12, happened well out of town. It turned out that the army general in charge of Chiapas had been told on the phone about the uprising but simply refused to believe it and went back to bed, which meant that his men took some 24 hours to get moving, by which time the EZLN were conducting a fighting retreat back to their bases in the Lacandon jungle. This disbelief was actually a testament to the EZLN’s astonishing cohesion, their ability to organize their uprising through months of coordinated planning without once giving away their intentions. Many of their members came from villages and communities in the highlands around San Cristobal, but not once had anyone twigged to their presence, including the generally well-informed local staff at Na Bolom. Another of my Na Bolom jobs, for instance, was helping with a long-standing reforestation program where highland communities could request and receive deliveries of seedling trees. So, it just happened that a couple of days earlier a friend and I had driven one such delivery to a remote village in the highlands, the kind of place where we were generally greeted warmly. But that day we were surprised to meet a distinctly cool reception and were struck by the apparent absence of any men. It only turned out much later that the village was a key EZLN highland Mayan stronghold and most of the villagers had actually just decamped down to San Cristobal in readiness for its up-coming invasion.
Meanwhile, back in the square, the group outside the town hall suddenly gathered around a man who had earlier stood on its balcony to read out the EZLN communique. Unlike his comrades, he was clearly not Mayan and, while wearing a balaclava like all the others, was also smoking a pipe, a curiously unique item that would soon become his global trademark. He gave his name as Marcos, fielded numerous questions and returned on a number of other occasions to field more in long-form interviews that became almost casual conversations. His role as a peerless communicator would later become possibly the EZLN’s most powerful weapon and make most observers place him as their leader. But, from the outset, he was very clear about his rank: he was merely a sub-commander and took orders from above, including orders from women.
Books have since been written about Marcos. But that day he came and went, along with all the others. As dusk fell the square began to empty and the EZLN began to pull out. They had earlier emptied a large pharmacy on one corner of the square and stacked its contents in a huge pile under the nearby town hall portico. Late into the night a truck pulled up and, without a word being said or any obvious order being given, a group of EZLN simply stepped forward and within minutes the truck was loaded and gone. That quiet, calm, coordinated efficiency would become another trademark of these unlikely revolutionaries and, although brief, my memory of that moment has never left me.
We woke the next day to an empty town. Tourists fled. Townsfolk stayed home and only the steep, winding highway down to Tuxtla, the lowland regional capital of Chiapas, stayed open. The large domestic appliance warehouse near the market had been ransacked, but not by the EZLN – as some media outlets would claim – but by enterprising locals alert to the splendid opportunity. After checking things out on foot I returned to my post at the Na Bolom front door and was wondering what to do when two Americans appeared, two international journalists from Chicago, the first on the scene, eager for a scoop. Unlike that Mexican general, they had moved immediately and caught the first plane down to Chiapas and, as an eye-witness, I was a scoop in myself. Over the coming days any number of others would do the same and, although personally ignorant of almost everything that was going on, I began to become surprisingly informed. And one curiously key source of information came from eight American guests who appeared out of the blue on the evening of day two and checked into Na Bolom’s now empty rooms. They went by single-syllable names – Don, Dick and Dan – and one was clearly in charge, Ross, who we volunteers soon began to call ‘Ross the Boss’. One was a woman whose name I never heard and with whom I never spoke and who left after only a couple of days. It turned out that she was a professional ‘voice patterner’, a job description I’d never heard of before. Apparently, she could speak a full twenty-seven languages and her task was to listen to tapes taken in the town square on day one and try to figure out where that mysterious man ‘Marcos’ came from (something that would actually take years to confirm). Two of the guests came in carrying large, serious-looking black briefcases, which we later realized must have contained stuff capable of connecting to satellites, equipment almost unheard of in those days. In fact, over the following weeks, Reuters was for a long time the only news outlet with anything similar. It was 1994, the year that Hotmail hit the world and ‘Internet’ became a word, but when computers were still something largely unknown to the general public. In Na Bolom, although no one ever used the acronym openly, our new guests were clearly folk from the CIA.
A striking feature of Na Bolom was its marvelous dining room, with a table that ran its length and could seat up to twenty-four guests. We volunteers would usually eat there and so, too, for a couple of days, did our new guests. Ross was generally affable with everyone. It was clearly part of his job. However, given my decidedly English accent, he seemed to assume that I must be on-side with his team and, in those early hours and days, happily allowed me to hang around. Consequently, I was doing just that the following day when he assembled some of his team in the dining room and used its table to unfurl the largest paper map I’ve ever seen in my life, some two-square meters detailing the entire state of Chiapas. And, while they all proceeded to discuss where these pesky rebels might perhaps be headquartered, I simply listened in. Ross, still treating me as a pal, explained how, a couple of years earlier, he’d been employed to study the Guatemalan-Mexican border with a view to the up-coming NAFTA trade agreement and had described it to his superiors as “osmotic”, and I would soon have good practical reason to remember that comment. Meanwhile, we volunteers actively eavesdropped on our guests, discovering that Ross was actually Major Ross and his team enjoyed ranks like lieutenant and captain. Ross would reappear a year later, happy to tell me that he was now a colonel, a promotion that I assume he won for whatever work he’d done in Chiapas in the intervening months. Officially, Mexico’s president, Carlos Salinas, called for the January 12 ceasefire due to his own wise sense of diplomacy. However, ever since Pancho Villa successfully took rebel troops in and out of the southern United States way back in 1916, Mexico has never made a move without first listening to Washington. And, in January 1994, with its much-prized NAFTA agreement just off the blocks, the last thing Washington wanted on its new southern commercial border was a new Vietnam-style war.
However, while all this was going on, I thought I already knew Chiapas fairly well. Besides my work with Na Bolom, as a backpacking traveler I’d previously taken the hours-long, tenth-class bus along its northern edge to visit the fabulous ancient Mayan ruins of Palenque. I’d also taken the-then almost never traveled river route into northern Guatemala to visit Tikal, the majestic, jungle-wrapped Mayan ruins that George Lucas used as a location to film the rebel base in his movie, Star Wars. My one companion on that boat that day was a friendly young Honduran who happily explained that he’d been using the route to carry cocaine to dealers in Palenque. I did that trip a number of times and it later became tourist friendly. But that first time I returned by quite another route, on a salt barge down the great Usumacinta River where, when we reached a remote Guatemalan border post, I watched while a clearly un-read border guard carefully studied my passport upside down. I spent that night in a town straight out of an early Sergio Leone movie, where my room was upstairs in the only two-story building on the town’s unpaved one main street and men on horseback made up most of the traffic. And the next day, when I caught another tenth-class bus north out of town, it was only after an hour or so that we reached a Mexican border post and my passport was again required, at which point I realized that I’d spent the night in a totally undetermined location.
I spent the following night in Lacanja, one of the last two Lacandon Mayan villages in the jungle, and traveled on to Palenque the next day with Chan Kin, a Lacandon who I’d met in Na Bolom. He was wearing his people’s traditional white tunic and stood out on a bus packed with entirely different Mayan people. The thing is, the romantic image of a virgin jungle peopled by only a few original inhabitants had long been a story told only to tourists. Well back in the early 1960s the national government had finally begun to apply the agrarian reform laws in Chiapas that had famously been crafted into the Mexican constitution of 1917 by one of its leading revolutionaries, Emiliano Zapata (a man whose name the EZLN very intentionally enshrined into theirs). This move involved opening up the entire Lacandon jungle to settlement and Mayan people from all over the state, then living in virtual slavery elsewhere, had flooded into the area to stake claims to villages that they would often label with names like ‘Liberty’ or ‘Paradise’. Unfortunately, they were promptly followed by any number of unscrupulous landowners, so-called ‘latifondistas’, and decades later many of the new villages were still formally unconfirmed and their leaders forced to travel back and forth to Tuxtla to argue their case, while many found themselves in open and armed conflict with latifondista militia. In fact, when the EZLN originally began to form in the Lacandon jungle in the mid 1980s, the first thing they would offer villages were invariably classes in armed self-defense. And when, in 1991, Mexico removed the agrarian reform clause of Article 27 from its constitution in order to conform with incoming NAFTA regulations, those villages were ready for outright war.
We would learn much of this only later. Meanwhile, on day three, with the Mexican army now in hot pursuit of the retreating EZLN, it was briefly possible to drive east out of town to Ocosingo, one of three other municipalities that Zapatistas had taken on January 1. Various journalists grabbed the opportunity, including a Catalan photographer friend of mine. He returned with grim stories of dogs eating corpses in the street and a massacre in the town’s hospital, where soldiers had apparently simply shot everyone in their beds. Back in San Cristobal we climbed onto the Na Bolom roof to watch Mexican air force jets fire missiles at largely-invisible targets in the mountains around town, while refugees from the conflict began to flood into town.
Then, the next day, a hand-written bombshell hit our little local newspaper, followed by another a couple of days later and more in the following days and weeks and the Mexican government propaganda machine never really recovered from the salvo. The sender gave his address as “the mountains of south-eastern Mexico” and signed off as “Sub-commandante Marcos”. His tone was personal, colloquial and famously unapologetic and Mexicans took to the streets. Polls would show that as many as seventy-percent agreed with the writer, including children from the country’s exclusive and usually silent elite, families whose fathers had happily signed off on the pro-American NAFTA agreement and were now being asked to answer for their actions. Demonstrators everywhere adopted the same chant: “Basta! Somos todos Marcos!” (‘Enough! We are all Marcos!’).
Army road blocks had by then sealed all access to the conflict zone and my CIA friends began to take to their rooms, although journalists continued to flow through Na Bolom and US newspapers began to use a new word, curiously unknown to them until then: Neoliberalism. In fact, the EZLN were globally the first to offer a clear critique of this new, post-Soviet economic approach and leading academics, intellectuals and political analysts from around the world hurried to catch up, or to catch on, according to whoever they usually spoke for. Over the next couple of years, the EZLN would prove the catalyst for the birth of any number of Western movements, such as the No-Global Movement and Occupy Wall Street – not to mention specifically indigenous responses, up to, and including Standing Rock – and, wherever else they have gone since, that remains one of their principal legacies.
Again, all this was in the future. Back in San Cristobal, on day six of the EZLN uprising, a writer working for GQ magazine came through Na Bolom and, after interviewing me for a while, asked if we could meet up later for a drink. What he really wanted to do, he explained, was actually meet real Zapatistas and could I help? Remembering Ross and his marvelous map I promptly answered ‘Yes’, and the next day we caught another tenth-class bus, this time heading south for the Guatemalan border.
We spent our first night in Las Margaritas, another municipality taken by the EZLN on day one but by now an eerily empty virtual ghost town. As I had guessed and hoped, the Mexican army had stormed in pursuit of the rebels and left no one to worry about two white men wandering around behind their lines. The next day another Indian bus took us along a long dirt road parallel to the border until at nightfall we found shelter on a dirt floor in a village that had almost certainly never seen a tourist in its life. Shortly after dawn on our third day we proceeded on foot, eventually reaching a riverside village where we were told to wait while someone found a boat to take us upstream. Our long wait was suddenly interrupted by shouts from the far bank and villagers pointing excitedly at something swimming across the river towards us. To my amazement, it was a full-grown jaguar, that leapt ashore and, fatally, raced for cover inside a nearby shack, where it was followed by machete-wielding villagers who, moments later, emerged triumphantly holding the now-dead jaguar aloft. Something mystically significant about that moment has stayed with me ever since. Mayan leaders today still wear jaguar capes on important ceremonial occasions and ancient Mayan mythology is richly populated with jaguar gods and demi-gods, seen as protector and transformer deities. I was still absorbing the incident when our boat appeared, a rough canoe with an outboard motor that carried us skillfully up swirling rapids for an hour or so before dropping us off at a rickety jetty, where our boatman pointed to a jungle path that he said would lead to a village he called Guadaloupe. We followed his suggestion until, suddenly, a dozen or more balaclava-masked men hefting serious rifles emerged on either side of the path, after which we simply followed orders. My writer got his interview, although it was actually we who got questioned, by serious-looking men who appeared quite prepared to shoot us on the spot should that become their preferred option. Happily, it didn’t, and we were eventually given another dirt floor to sleep on and at dawn the next day sent back from whence we had come. Our swift return journey down river involved no delays and we reached San Cristobal some 24 hours later, on January 12, just in time to hear that a cease-fire had been agreed. Only months later did any of us learn that Guadaloupe was actually the EZLN’s main command and control center and only its strategic distance from the front line had saved any of us that day from being shot.
I would eventually stay in San Cristobal for another full three years. So, I was in town in late February, 1994, when the Mexican government held its first formal meeting with the EZLN, which was staged in the town’s cathedral, where security was provided by three lines of people surrounding its premises, the first composed of Zapatistas, the second of Mexican soldiers and the third by members of the public, or what the EZLN called ‘civil society’, a then little-used term that soon became central to all future political discourse in Mexico. That meeting, and others that followed, were mediated by the San Cristobal bishop, Samuel Ruiz, originally a pro-Vatican appointee but whose experience dealing with the extremely poor Mayan members of his constituency had converted him to the essentially ‘left-wing’ Catholic world of Liberation Theology. His skill in handling his role would later win him a nominee for a Nobel Peace prize, but also an assassination attempt, by a young man who I happened to know who attacked him with a hammer.
That meeting was when the world first saw some of Marcos’ actual superiors, the EZLN commanders themselves, most of whom wore traditional dress, clothing that members of their own communities would immediately recognize as that worn by leading figures. Two of them were women, commanders Ramona and Ana, and the latter, we would learn later, had been the commander in charge of taking San Cristobal. Finally, a couple of women journalists began to pay attention to the still largely ignored Women’s Revolutionary Law, the Charter of Indigenous Women’s Rights that had been released on day one. Mayan society is still essentially patriarchal and, in that context, the Charter was revolutionary in itself. Much of it mirrored Western feminist demands, although with clauses unique to its own world, such as “the right not to be sold into marriage in exchange for a cow”. One struck me as particularly kind, human and intelligent: “the right to have only as many children as we can love and care for.” Subsequently, Marcos would often stress the role that women played in the EZLN and even claim that without them the uprising itself would not have been possible.
On day one I watched an elderly EZLN man nod asleep in a chair while, standing guard beside him, was a balaclava-clad girl who couldn’t have been more than fifteen-years-old. She might well have been his granddaughter and, over the years, I’ve often wondered whether she has since become a mother, or even a grandmother herself. And perhaps even a commander. However, whatever else has happened to her communities in these intervening years – and, presuming she survived those first terrifying days – she will surely never have forgotten that dramatic day.
During that February meeting I donated time of my own to standing in the civil society ring, although by then my main ‘job’ had become accompanying journalists to meet with the EZLN, people from leading outlets such as Newsweek, the New York Times, the Chicago Herald Tribune and the Magnum photo agency. Negotiations that day established the Lacandon jungle as an EZLN ‘zone’, where all access was controlled by Mexican army roadblocks. However, as a Na Bolom volunteer I found that, by taking the long route around via Palenque and then heading in to the other Lacandon Maya village of Naja, you could avoid those roadblocks until eventually you reached an EZLN check point where, if nothing else, my journalists could at least interview real Zapatistas.
In truth, our route had already taken us through any number of EZLN villages. But none were admitting to it openly. The ceasefire was a military solution, temporary and far from secure, and nobody was taking any risks. However, as we bumped through a string of apparently identical jungle villages, all of them strikingly poor, we began to notice that some were subtly different. Suddenly there was no garbage in the streets. Somebody was clearly cleaning up. Children were playing happily outside. Somebody was clearly looking after them. And someone, somewhere, would be reading a book, not unusually a full copy of the Mexican constitution. The EZLN prioritized literacy and health. Anyone joining automatically got offered classes in how to read and write – in Spanish and their own language – while Zapatista women had, from the start, made establishing a network of village health clinics a core project. That San Cristobal pharmacy hadn’t been emptied just to provide bandages for combatants, but also aspirins, sanitary pads and diapers for villages. But the fourth tell was conclusive, and curious: the little village store sold no alcohol, especially none of the potent and usually ubiquitous Mayan cane liquor known as ‘posh’. Call it prohibition, but I never heard anyone complaining. Alcoholism, along with related domestic violence, haunts all Mayan communities and, it seems, the EZLN women had truly managed to convince everyone ‘to just say no’. I still haven’t read any analysis of this phenomenon. It was as if the EZLN had somehow gone culturally Hindu on their world. Nevertheless, after a while we preferred to stop in this kind of village. The sensation of pausing in a small cultural oasis in a dangerous and difficult world was palpable.
Back in San Cristobal, where those of us who had been there on day one all began to know each other partly for that reason, I made a number of splendid new friends, most of them anthropologists, all with an impressively deep understanding of the highland Mayan people and their culture. Marcos originally came from a standard Marxist-Leninist background, a student of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro (along with Nicaragua and the Guatemala genocide years) but much of his genius came from his ability to absorb and include a radically different Mayan world view. Mayan communities are naturally collective. The practice of consensus is culturally taken for granted and leaders know that they owe their authority to the community and not to any personal power base. Mayan philosophy also contains the maxim preguntando caminamos(‘asking we walk’) where leaders listen and ask questions rather than employing the Leninist approach of imposing pre-determined programs. All of this became increasingly obvious over time, while I became increasingly frustrated that the Mexican government never included anthropologists in their negotiating teams.
Meanwhile, one of my new acquaintances, who I was merely honored to know but who also invited me to dinner on a couple of occasions, was Princeton professor Robert Laughlin, the recognized dean of Mayan studies and the author, in the 1960s, of the first-ever English-Mayan dictionary. While I tried to learn Mayan myself, but failed miserably, I was with him one day when he outlined to a German journalist the essence of Mayan grammar. He explained how, while Indo-European languages go ‘subject-verb-object’, Mayan languages instead go ‘subject-verb-subject’. “In other words,” he said, “while you walk the road, the road walks you.” This, I came to realize, was at the heart of a key Zapatista concept that Marcos famously explained on more than one occasion but which invariably gets lost in translation, even from the Spanish: the idea of “commanding obediently”. In democratic terms, this refers to the fact that Zapatistas happily obey orders because they have first happily elected their commanders. However, in Mayan terms, it also means that they happily walk with Marcos, because Marcos walks with them. I have never quite met this concept since, and am not fully sure if I’ve ever entirely understood it. But I think it would be lovely if one day we did.
Thank you for listening. I hope this piece has felt worth reading.