Remembering the Zapatistas

In 1996-8 I spent 18 months living and working Mexico thanks to a British Council /Mexican Government scholarship. For the first 4 months I was fortunate enough to be based with a conservation NGO in San Cristobal de las Casas. The old colonial town perched on the top on the mountainous southern state of Chiapas was the centre of negotiations between the indigenous people army the Zapatistas (ENZLN) and the Mexican Government. The story of how the Zapatistas took the town and announced its indigenous people’s revolution is recounted in a BBC news item by Father Gonzalo Ituarte who witnessed the events :

Marcos emerges from the Selva Lacandona to negotiate with the Govt

Marcos emerges from the Selva Lacandona to negotiate with the Govt

My strongest memory was seeing the highly elusive subcommandante Marcos walking along the street on his way to the negotiations – he was dressed in green fatigues, a “pasamontana” (balaclava) and smoking his pipe.

The day before the negotiations, he had rode into town on his horse followed by photographers and news cameras. When I saw him that morning in December 1996, twenty unarmed young human rights activists had formed a circle around him as form of protection. International and Mexican human rights groups acted as a shield by bearing witness

Marcos’s army in reality posed little military threat. Their main weapon was their use of the media and persuasive arguments about historical repression and poverty. Whilst safe in San Cristobal, the reality for the Zapatista communities in Selva Lacandona and mountains was different. Human rights groups reported that paramilitary groups (“guardias blancas”) backed by big landowners terrorized the indigenous Zapatista communities.

Later  that month, I visited a Zapatista community as part of a project to market their organic coffee. My Catalan colleague and I spent the night there in a hut. On our return, she told me that during the night we were protected by four Zapatistas with machetes. The “guardia blancas” apparently didn’t like outsiders working with these communities. She also reminded me that when I descended from the truck, a little girl started crying on seeing me. According to her mother, she had never seen a white man before.

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