First published by Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.
The line of guards clad in the guerrilla movement’s iconic balaclavas was a sign we had found the place. For anyone who did not get the hint, there was a half rusted sign across the road that read, “You are now in rebel Zapatista territory.”
“Here, the people command, and the government obeys,” it stated.
Less than an hour from the nearest city, and I had already arrived at Oventic. This small, unassuming community in the highlands of Mexico’s Chiapas state is often known as the de facto capital of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), a leftist guerrilla movement that has been a thorn in the side of the Mexican government since the 1990s.
A decade ago, Oventic was easily accessible to outsiders, and gringo tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the EZLN in their heartland were generously accommodated. Today, things are different, and the Zapatistas are more reserved about who they allow to peek inside their world. In late July, I was given the privilege to visit Oventic, and see how the community was doing two decades after the EZLN first shocked the world with its fiery entrance into Mexico’s already complex political landscape.
The Zapatistas’ debut act came in 1994, when seemingly out of nowhere, they seized control of a handful of towns across Chiapas, one of the country’s consistently poorest states. Among the towns captured was the highland city San Cristobal, which is today the heart of the state’s booming tourism sector. The offensive was accompanied by a declaration of war against the Mexican government by the EZLN. They accused the federal government of losing touch with ordinary Mexicans, and called for a nationwide revolt.
Their sudden offensive was timed to coincide with the signing of the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In their early communiques, the Zapatistas warned NAFTA would fail to deliver on its promises of economic prosperity, and would only widen the country’s wealth gap. Any gains under NAFTA would not be seen by the already impoverished indigenous farmers of rural Chiapas, they claimed.
Reminiscing on the time, veteran Mexican journalist Olivier Acuna said the uprising “caught us all by surprise”.
“Basically, nobody outside Chiapas saw it coming; other than, I suppose, intelligence agents,” he said.
However, he argued the EZLN didn’t really come from nowhere.
“Chiapas is a highly marginalized and poverty stricken state, and if you add the long history of massive caciquismo you have a very resented and abused population,” he said.
Caciquismo refers to regional authoritarianism, where local leaders such as mayors weld huge power over their constituents, often in remote rural areas. In hindsight, Acuna said, the uprising was a long time coming. He pointed to decades of local and federal governments abusing the highland population.
“[It’s] majority indigenous people who have been stripped of their lands, and in many cases turned into almost slaves on their own land,” he said.
Today, the EZLN has long since retreated from the city of San Cristobal, though it retains a following in the highlands. An uneasy ceasefire exists, with the Mexican military mostly avoiding contact with EZLN communities, which remain dotted across the countryside. Meanwhile, the Zapatistas themselves have adopted a defensive strategy, focusing on consolidation rather than expansion.
The EZLN says it still retains a sizable fighting force for self defense. (Ryan Mallett-Outtrim)
During my time in Oventic, I spoke with Roy Ketchum, an associate professor in Hispanic studies from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. Ketchum has been observing the EZLN for years, though this was the first time he was able to visit Oventic, after being turned away on a previous trip.
“There’s a vibrant, community based participatory democracy,” he said. “Everyone participates, and everyone is heard.”
Arriving in Oventic
Hoping to catch a glimpse of that democracy for myself, I lined up at the entrance to Oventic. Getting in was easy enough. A masked Zapatistas checked my credentials, took down my name, and directed me past the line of guards. Nobody was armed with anything more than batons.
Inside, Oventic had a fairly basic layout. The main street was lined with a few shops, along with the offices of various administrative bodies. The first was an “Office of the Women for Dignity,” then the “House of the Junta of Good Governance.”
The Office of the Women for Dignity. (Ryan Mallett-Outtrim)
Every few meters, there were water fountains fitted with filters, which appeared to be open for anyone to use.
Further down, there was an open area with a stage. My visit was part of an official event organized on the sidelines of CompArte, an art festival backed by the EZLN in San Cristobal. Although the EZLN pulled out of plans to attend the entire festival, they offered visitors the chance to see some Zapatista art on their own turf, Oventic.
By the time I arrived, the festivities were already underway. First, there was a play depicting the struggles of indigenous farmers under a ruthlessly cruel landlord.
A play depicting the struggles of indigenous farmers living under a brutal landlord (Ryan Mallett-Outtrim)
Then there was some folk music, where a band from a nearby community sang about social issues in the highlands of Chiapas. More theater and music continued throughout the day. Although everything had a political message of some kind, the whole affair was peppered with comedy. In one play making fun of a corrupt politician, performers drove around in a comically floppy, wobbly prop car, while speakers blasted sound effects that sounded like they came straight from The Fast and the Furious. The juxtaposition was glorious, and everyone seemed to have a great time.
The mass media “doesn’t publish complete information”
Between the entertainment, a few EZLN leaders took to the stage to deliver statements. One was introduced as Subcomandante Insurgente Moises, the nom de guerre of one of the movement’s most prolific spokespeople.
Moises’ speech was give slowly and carefully, but with a fierce critique of the Mexican government. “We want to tell you, explain to you once again, how much suffering this rotten capitalist system has caused us,” he said, before turning to discussing a recent massacre in a nearby town.
Just days before I arrived in Oventic, a group of unidentified assailants sprayed a crowd of protesters with gunfire in the village of Chamula. The village is less than an hour from Oventic and is frequented by tourists. Local media reported at least five villagers were killed, including the local mayor. At the time, unverified images circulated on social media showing the bodies of the dead littering the streets, lying in pools of blood.
However, Moises said, “There were actually dozens of dead, not just five corrupt officials.” He accused the corporate media of focusing on the death of the mayor, and ignoring other killings. “They say nothing of those who later died in their homes or of those whose dead or dying bodies were taken away by their families,” he said.
“The press only prints what the bad governments say. Why didn’t the reporters and photographers show the rest of the dead? Why didn’t they show those who were killed by the municipal president’s guards, his opponents?” he said.
Moises continued, “The media doesn’t care about that because [reporting on these deaths] doesn’t make them any money, and because the people who died there were indigenous, and it doesn’t even matter that those indigenous people belonged to political parties. They were all just indigenous.” He added, “Isn’t this racism?”
“This [capitalist] system doesn’t work, it is rotten, it cannot be fixed. It will fall piece by piece and people will die as a result … We had better organize ourselves to build a new house, that is, a new society,” he said.
Hoping to see what it was like inside the EZLN’s society, I spoke to a few people around Oventic. The first person I ran into was a tercio compa (third comrade) using the nom de guerre Wilbert. The tercios compas are the EZLN’s volunteer media workers.
A tercio compa (left), and EZLN guard (right). (Ryan Mallett-Outtrim)
According to Wilbert, “the other press outlets … don’t publish complete information [about the EZLN].”
He said that although conditions in Chiapas state are generally “difficult”, the EZLN is making progress. “We have this beautiful place here,” he said, gesturing towards the main street with its bright murals and orderly line of low buildings.
“Look, we don’t destroy the environment,” Wilbert said.
He continued, “You yourself can see the reality here: we’re not exploited.”
Everyone certainly looked happy. Masked Zapatistas milled around the main street, chatting, or listening to the music coming from the stage. Everything was well maintained, clean and peaceful.
Colorful artwork decorated the streets of Oventic. (Ryan Mallett-Outtrim)
Most of the colorful murals adoring the buildings carried uplifting messages of social progress or images of folk heroes like 19th century Mexican revolutionary and EZLN’s namesake, Emiliano Zapata.
There was also something else — something which took me a long time to put my finger on. Then it finally hit me: there was no litter; not even a stray chocolate bar wrapper.
Polite but reserved
Although our surroundings were indeed beautiful, it was not easy to speak to people. The EZLN’s supporters are overwhelmingly indigenous people from the highlands. Some of the people I tried to speak to only appeared to know a few words of Spanish. Those I did speak with were extremely polite, but somewhat reserved. This is not anything unusual in the highlands, though it did make it hard to find out what a day in the life of a Zapatista was actually like.
At one point, I struck up a conversation with a shopkeeper who introduced herself as Tensia. She said working in a Zapatista community-run store was much better than a private business. “We decide our hours among ourselves,” she said.
Further down the street, I tried asking another shopkeeper to tell me a little about life as a Zapatista. “That’s … not really my job,” she said, before suggesting, “Try speaking to someone at the House of the Junta of Good Governance.”
So I headed back up the hill, and knocked on the administrative building’s door, only to be politely told they were not doing interviews that day.
The House of the Junta of Good Governance, in Oventic. (Ryan Mallett-Outtrim)
As I was leaving, I ran into Ketchum, the US professor who has been keenly interested in the EZLN for years. The first thing he explained was how communities like Oventic function. Oventic itself isn’t actually a fully-functional village, but more of an administrative center for various EZLN communities in the region. The Zapatistas call these centers “caracoles” (snails).
“The caracol is like city hall. It’s like the county seat of the regional government,” Ketchum said, adding that only a small group of workers and students live in a caracol at any given time. Even describing Oventic as a capital is slightly misleading. Each caracol has broad autonomy, with each community largely given free reign over how to manage their own affairs. Oventic is just one of five of these caracoles, though it is also the most well known to the outside world.
Nonetheless, the caracol is central to Zapatista life. Zapatistas from across the region regularly gather in their respective caracoles to make decisions in a collective manner. “I think internally, in the communities decisions are often made really slowly by consensus,” he said.
Although many Zapatistas live in communities entirely held by the EZLN, Ketchum said most actually come from mixed communities, where both Zapatismo and the state function side by side. In these communities, he said one of the main challenges is resolving disputes between Zapatistas and non Zapatistas. In judicial cases involving only Zapatistas, the EZLN’s autonomous judicial system comes into motion, while the state is left out. The EZLN says its judicial system prioritizes reparations over punishment and community dialogue over bureaucracy. However, Ketchum said communities often have to negotiate solutions when there is conflict between Zapatistas and non Zapatistas.
The successes of Zapatismo
Despite this problem, the fact that the EZLN has its own judicial system is notable in a country where the courts have long been criticized by many as both harsh and ineffective.
Since 2008, Mexico has been struggling to reform its justice system, which for years was based on a model that had no inbuilt presumption of innocence and almost no open trials. Cases were mostly resolved through paperwork and it was rare for the accused to even see the presiding judge.
Yet despite the presumption of guilt and limited options for defense, the system often struggled to secure convictions. According to data from the Attorney General’s Office, less than 30% of arrests in 2010 actually led to trials, with over 100,000 suspects released that year due to lack of evidence. For those outside the EZLN, there’s no official data showing how their justice system compares to the government’s, though Ketchum said the EZLN’s alternative legal system is “fully operational in their communities”.
I finished by asking him what he felt the main difference was between being a Zapatista and simply being an ordinary resident of the highlands. “It’s the focus on the gender issue,” he said, explaining the EZLN had invested huge effort into tackling misogyny, particularly violence against women.
“There’s also a slowness of pace that the Zapatistas have brought to their speech with gender neutral language,” he said.
Ketchum had a point. Every Zapatista I had spoken to had gone to excruciating lengths to ensure their speech was gender neutral — a tough order in Spanish. At first, it seemed like it could be a mere formality in official speeches, but it soon became apparent that everyone had adopted gender neutral language as a part of ordinary life.
“From my experience … that sort of language has really taken root,” he said.
However, he said gender equality wasn’t the only front the EZLN was pushing.
“They’re [also] having successes in health and education,” he said.
The EZLN says it has provided basic services like healthcare for its communities across the highlands. In Oventic, there was a small yet seemingly fully-functional medical clinic, which appeared to offer basic healthcare. A sign on the door said general consultations, gynecology, optometry and laboratory services were all available five days a week. Emergency services were available 24 hours, seven days a week. They appeared to have a shiny new ambulance at their disposal. Other services offered a few days a week included dentistry and ultrasounds. Unfortunately, nobody seemed available for an interview, so it was hard to say how many people were served by the clinic.
The medical clinic appeared to offer services most days of the week. (Ryan Mallett-Outtrim)
Consolidation over expansion
Indeed, no one really seemed to know exactly how many people are members of the EZLN.
Each of the EZLN’s five caracoles oversees between seven to 15 municipalities, according to Ketchum. Yet the movement itself has not expanded its territory in years. In 1994, independent estimates suggested the EZLN was a 3000 strong force, though it likely had many more supporters. Today, EZLN supporters can be found across the country, with some owning businesses like coffee shops that sell beans and souvenirs produced in Zapatista communities.
Even if it is unclear how many people are actually members of the EZLN, it is clear that Zapatismo is not going to disappear anytime soon. As they predicted two decades ago, the original causes of the uprising have continued to go largely unaddressed by the Mexican government.
When the EZLN first marched on San Cristobal in 1994, 75.1% of Chiapas’ population lived in poverty, according to data from Mexico’s statistics agency, Coneval. That figure has only risen over the past two decades, and today sits at 78.8%, An additional 15.3% of the population is considered “vulnerable” to slipping into poverty. This leaves just a tiny 6% of the population wealthy enough to not be at risk of falling into impoverishment anytime soon.
Meanwhile, more than one in four people in Chiapas live in extreme poverty. In other words, five times more people are suffering extreme poverty than the number of people in Chiapas that are not living in an economically vulnerable state. Comparably, the nationwide poverty rate sitting at 48.5%, according to Coneval’s latest data.
Given these figures, perhaps the Zapatistas’ warning in 1994 that NAFTA would do little for the state’s poor might well ring truer today than it did back then. Subcomandante Insurgente Moises claims at Oventic that the government in Mexico City still treats the indigenous people of the country’s southernmost state like “shit” are just as hard to refute.
“I don’t know what they see us as, because even garbage is good for fertilizer,” Moises said. “In our case they don’t even see us as garbage. We are nothing but shit to [the rich and powerful],” he said.
In a corner of the country where much of the population still lacks access to basic healthcare and education, the EZLN’s promises of providing its own social services are hard to ignore.
However, Ketchum said the EZLN isn’t interested in pushing its frontlines, or reigniting the conflict with the Mexican state. Instead, it is quietly focusing on developing its own unique system of governance, and creating viable communities as models of what is possible when indigenous people are given the freedom to organize themselves.
“[The EZLN] isn’t expanding in space, but it’s growing deeper,” he said.
The symbol of the snail epitomizes the EZLN’s long term strategy (Ryan Mallett-Outtrim)
The entire state of the EZLN seems perfectly illustrated by the symbol of the caracol — the snail. The idea behind the choice of symbol is simple: the snail is defensive by nature, but the spiral pattern of its shell represents how EZLN ideology will radiate from caracol enclaves like Oventic. Most importantly, the snail is content to take its time.
As one popular EZLN saying goes, “Slow, but advancing.”