Learning, Surviving: Marcos After the Rupture

May 1, 2008

Last summer, reading a news article about the Gathering of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, organized by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), I noticed that the event was to be held in Vicam, Sonora—a small desert town in the north of Mexico, three days by highway from the southern state of Chiapas, the Zapatistas’ home base. It had been 10 years since I had covered the EZLN, and like many others, I had lost track of what became of it. The media had largely stopped paying attention to the EZLN and its most prominent spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos—mostly because of his quarrels with progressive intellectuals and his falling-out with La Jornada, the leftist newspaper that for years was practically the bullhorn for the Zapatista cause.

The indigenous gathering, held in October, was a stop on the nationwide tour that Marcos had begun a year and half earlier, known as the Other Campaign. While the mainstream political parties competed in the presidential election, the EZLN attempted to create a social infrastructure among “the always forgotten: women, indigenous people, youth, and otros amores (gays and lesbians),” with the goal of sparking a “peaceful, civic, nationwide insurrection” that would push toward establishing a new Mexican constitution. I sought out Sergio Rodriguez Lazcano, the EZLN’s civil society liaison, to find out what more to expect. “In January 2008, we entered a new phase of struggle,” he said. “It will be one of mobilization and agitation.”

In 2007, a year after the election, Mexico remained polarized by the accusations of electoral fraud against President Felipe Calderón. And, after 11 years of retreat, a group most thought had disappeared, the Revolutionary Popular Army (EPR), burst onto the scene again with a series of bombings against the state oil company’s installations, demanding the return of captured militants. Marcos canceled the Other Campaign tour in September 2006, explaining in a communiqué that he did not want to hinder the EPR’s efforts, and that growing ­counter-insurgency activity in Zapatista municipalities obliged the EZLN to return to Chiapas. According to the Center for Political Analysis and Social and Economic Research (CAPISE), which has been monitoring military activities in Zapatista territory for five years, the past year had seen paramilitary attacks, forced evictions of Zapatistas from their land, and the establishment of 56 permanent military bases near Zapatista territory. Ernesto Ledesma, head of CAPISE, tells me: “They’re preparing the biggest counter-attack in nine years.”

A few years ago, such a warning would have immediately captured national and international attention. But Marcos and zapatismo had lost their ability to rally support months earlier, with the Other Campaign’s abrupt cancelation. This decline in the EZLN’s ability to rally support has been perceptible since the milestone of 2001, when thousands cheered Marcos and the Zapatistas as they rode unarmed into the capital city to speak before Congress in support of a constitutional amendment that would recognize indigenous self-determination. They were later disappointed when, after so much effort, Congress unanimously passed a different law that did not recognize full indigenous autonomy. Marcos and the EZLN felt betrayed—particularly by the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

The EZLN went silent for two years. But it did not remain immobile. During its withdrawal, it prepared its response to the system: It created five local regions, called caracoles (“snails”), bringing together 39 autonomous municipalities to form an independent government. It also broke with the political class, particularly its allies on the left. In 2003, Marcos singled out the moral leader of the PRD, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, as the principal traitor. In a letter to La Jornada, he mused that as the vote was progressing, Cárdenas probably picked up the phone to call his son, Senator Lázaro Cárdenas, to instruct him to vote for the so-called counter-reform. If the latter hesitated, Marcos said, the father probably snapped: “Are you a senator of the EZLN or the PRD?”

On October 12, 2002, after a year and a half of silence, Marcos tried without success to break his media isolation. He did so with a rare acid tone: In his “Letter From Sup-Marcos to Aguascalientes Madrid,” Marcos criticized Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón for engaging in state terrorism against the Basque nation. Proposing that talks be held, he received the support of intellectuals like José Saramago and Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, but the ETA rejected the insurgent’s intervention, and other intellectuals distanced themselves from him. Carlos Monsiváis, for example, wrote in Mexico: “I for one do not associate the indigenous rebellion in Chiapas with indefensible causes that use the language of intolerance, cheap jokes, and radical self-importance.”

In 2005, Marcos published “The (Impossible?) Geometry of Power in Mexico,” an extensive article in which he denounced the three major parties—the PRD, the PRI, and the PAN—for protecting the same economic interests. But his criticism extended in particular to the PRD’s presidential candidate, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whom he accused of continuing the neoliberal policies of the priísta ex-president Carlos Salinas de Gortari. López Obrador’s rise signified “great profits for the rich and more misery and pillaging for the dispossessed,” he said, later accusing the candidate’s campaign team of being “made up of pure salinistas, both shameless and shamefaced, along with a gang of vile and ruinous people.”

Marcos in fact wanted the right-wing Calderón to become and remain president, says Manuel Camacho Solís, a PRD politician who oversaw the López Obrador campaign’s grassroots organizing and who once brokered the peace talks between the Salinas de Gortari government and the EZLN. Marcos, Camacho claims, hoped that a Calderón presidency would intensify the national crisis and give the EZLN an opportunity to revive, since “it is not the decisive force it was in 1994.”

Intellectuals who had previously been close to zapatismo but also supported López Obrador criticized Marcos, blaming him for dividing the left and thereby collaborating with the Calderón fraud. The writer Elena Poniatowska, former adviser to the Zapatistas, then to López Obrador, told the press that Marcos “envied” López Obrador’s popular support. Another ex-Zapatista adviser, the political scientist Octavio Rodríguez Araujo, called Marcos a “bully.” In a telephone interview, Rodríguez Araujo further reproached Marcos for treating the intelligentsia that once supported him in a “foolish, condescending” way. This, he told me, cost Marcos his principal forum: “He would go ‘achoo’ and they would cover it in La Jornada. But he lashed out at the paper, so now it rarely covers him.”

Marcos’s star has also declined in Italy, once one of his most important bases of international support. Visiting Rome, I spoke to the city’s remaining nucleus of Ya Basta, the Zapatista-inspired network of local Italian groups. They recognized that although Ya Basta is represented in 15 Italian cities, the days of massive mobilizations are long gone. The failure of the Zapatistas’ push for a constitutional amendment in 2001 and their subsequent withdrawal disconcerted them, and months later another blow came: the anti-G8 protests in Genoa, in which hundreds of activists were detained, many of them tortured and at least one killed. “The militants who had made this a way of life felt an emptiness,” says Federico Mariani, a former Ya Basta president. But Gianluca Peciola, a member of a municipal government in Rome, credits the EZLN with first proposing “the possibility of taking public office but exercising power from below.” To this day, she says, some of Rome’s neighborhood assemblies follow the Zapatista maxim to “rule by obeying” (mandar obedeciendo).

Back in Mexico, the Zapatistas are working hard to create new grassroots networks and to strengthen existing ones. The second phase of the Other Campaign began in March 2007 and covered the north. For the first time in its history the EZLN approached a number of small, isolated ethnic groups of northeastern Mexico: Kumiai, Kiliwas, Tohono, Odam, Pimas. In October, the EZLN’s indigenous peoples’ gathering brought many of Mexico’s ethnic groups together in Vicam, groups that the EZLN had contacted during the Other Campaign. Delegations from all over the Americas, a third of which came from the North, shared stories of privatized lands and natural resources, of marginalization and violence. Defending indigenous territory was the pillar of discussions.

The media paid little attention to the gathering, in contrast to the beginning of the Other Campaign in January 2006, which grabbed headlines. Marcos inaugurated the campaign by firing up an old motorcycle like the one the adolescent Che used on his South American excursion. The EZLN emerged out of its territory for the first time since the 2001 legislative failure, in what the press called “the second Zapatour.” In six months it toured the whole country, and Marcos again took up the indigenous practice learned years ago during the EZLN’s formation: “Speak less and listen more.” He held meetings with groups and communities he had never been in contact with, listening for hours to complaints and writing them down. Before leaving Vicam, the young secretary of the governor of the traditional Yaqui authority told Marcos: “The seed has taken hold in these parts, and it will continue growing.”

In May, the Other Campaign ended suddenly, days after the EZLN’s visit to the state of Atenco, where thousands of people rose up in 2002, machete in hand, against the government’s expropriation of land to build an airport. After a police counter-attack, in which 217 people were detained, some tortured, and at least 23 women sexually assaulted, Marcos broke his silence and Zapatista sympathizers mobilized. They blockaded highways, marched, and handed out flyers, while international supporters protested at 15 Mexican embassies. The Zapatistas thought the united front they had been promoting was maturing and broadening. But after Atenco, the elections would arrive and public attention would focus on the PRD’s many demonstrations against electoral fraud. The EZLN could not reestablish its presence.


I hadn’t been to the Zapatista communities in 10 years. The road from La Garrucha, one of the five caracoles, now leads to a military base at San Quintín and has been paved for the army vehicles. I went to interview Marcos and have a look at this Zapatista experience. Caracoles, I had read, are governed by collective bodies called Juntas de Buen Gobierno (JBG), which are independent of the EZLN military structure and whose leadership is elected in assembly and rotates. Each caracol designs its own health and education programs and chooses their leaders. Nobody receives a salary. The pay is corn and beans from the community.

According to some researchers, the decrease in national and international support for the EZLN has hurt the autonomous towns’ finances. The historian Juan Pedro Viqueira, reports that funds are drying up as people desert Zapatista bases. Another historian, Marcos Estrada Saavedra, who studied communities in the Tojolabel region, says he found that the loss of support, together with the “authoritarianism of the EZLN leadership” and the break with the federal government, produced “an impoverishment of the Zapatista communities in comparison with the non-Zapatista ones,” which receive government assistance.1

Other researchers, like the anthropologist Mariana Romo, claim that Zapatistas are not so much deserting as joining a temporary labor migration flow to nearby Cancún and Playa del Carmen.2 It makes economic sense, Romo asserts, for them to work elsewhere for a while in construction and then buy their year’s supply of corn on the way home, rather than growing their own crop and risking it on bad weather. In any case, the Zapatista bases are confronting a difficult new economic reality full of uncertainty. However, Romo emphasizes notable social achievements. In contrast to the non-Zapatista communities, which receive official support, in the autonomous towns there is a perceived reduction in alcoholism and family violence; girls can go to school and play without having to become nannies; maternal and infant mortality has decreased; and there are now clinics and schools where before there were none.

But the shells of the caracoles are fragile. Ernesto Ledesma of CAPISE maintains that the government’s plan to destroy the autonomist experience is rapidly advancing. On the one hand, regular army troops have been replaced by special elite units. On the other, there are 24,700 acres appropriated by the EZLN that were abandoned by tenants and land owners after the uprising, and whose current tenants are now protected by the EZLN from being dislodged. The plan ­proceeds through agrarian institutions that legally hand over these lands to local groups opposed to the Zapatistas, and in other cases­ Zapatista communities are violently evicted. Paramilitary groups have also reappeared, and aggressions against Zapatistas have increased. The paramilitaries have been sheltered in particular by the Chiapas governor, Juan Sabines, an ex–PRI militant turned PRD member. The PRD leadership has remained silent. Camacho Solís, however, acknowledges that the subject has been discussed. He says trusted sources have told him that “there are very sensitive things happening in Chiapas.”

“What is happening?” I ask him.

“There is a risk of violence in Chiapas. There are PRD groups that have been resorting to dirty tricks.”

My interview with Marcos took place in a wooden shack that serves as a guesthouse. I had imagined him as arrogant, but instead found him buried in reflections. “Ask whatever you like,” he says. Sitting on a wooden bench, the subcommander talks to me about his worries. Indeed, he opens up, at one point putting on the table the question that sometimes torments him: Was Marcos a mistake for zapatismo? Our talk lasts more than four hours, in which he recounts the last 14 years of zapatismo. He speaks of how in an early moment, he and the EZLN enjoyed the spotlight and the support of civil society, which in 1994 filled the streets and stopped the EZLN’s war with the government 12 days after it began. “We’re no longer fashionable,” he says laconically, lighting his pipe. Now it’s different: “It’s like we’re in 1993, but in reverse,” he says. “Then we prepared ourselves for the uprising without media attention and outside support. Now it is the government that is preparing the attack.”

What disturbs him the most is the Mexican government’s counter-insurgency strategy, which he says could result in a legally justified military incursion in the near future. Following this strategy, he explains, the government has intentionally escalated local polarization by handing over the EZLN’s appropriated lands to other indigenous groups. “In this way an artificial social conflict is created, grown as if in a laboratory, and that’s then how the government forces could enter: to keep the peace.” The EZLN, he points out, had until now been willing to give out lands under its control to non-Zapatista communities, but sometimes opposing groups (particularly the PRDistas) insist on confronting them.

“If there is an armed aggression, will you respond in kind?”

“Yes. We are now taking preventive measures and, in accord with what the EZLN is, we will not attack anyone, because we respect the truce. But we will not sit with our hands tied if we are attacked by anybody. That’s why we tell the compañeros to take every precaution to avoid an aggression.” La Garrucha is itself one of the caracoles that Marcos thinks has the highest risk of being attacked, since it comprises thousands of appropriated acres of land. In his account of zapatismo, Marcos admits that if the Zapatista communities are living through precarious economic times, and there is a temporary labor migration to Cancún, nonetheless the extreme marginalization that existed before 1994 has been overcome. “The Zapatista communities may not be rich, but there is no hunger.” He says another achievement is that with solid support they have built clinics in marginalized areas where people die of curable diseases. “Before the uprising, the communities of the Lacandón Jungle had the country’s highest mortality rate for infants and children under five years old. No longer.”

The conversation turns to one of the topics that most obsesses him: the caracoles. Their principal achievement, he says, is in having forged new generations of Zapatistas. “The political-military groups generally train young guerrillas, people attracted to armed struggle, who see the military path as the only way to advance.” He believes they have managed to not only inculcate the spirit of struggle among the young, but also to involve them in the responsibilities of government, health care, and education in their own towns, though he notes one remaining unmet goal: the total eradication of family violence. But he sees a gradual change in the quality of life for the indigenous, as well as growing women’s participation in government. “Only recently have women begun to appear in the JBG, and the question of gender has begun to come up in the community budgeting process.”

Once in a while, Marcos adjusts the ski mask over his mouth. He says that when they rose up, it was the red bandana tied around their necks that was to be the EZLN’s symbol. The woolen hood is used only to protect the militants’ identities, but it fascinated so many people that it stuck as the movement’s most memorable emblem. For Marcos, wearing it is an inconvenience. It overheats him or sticks to his skin when it’s cold. “I won’t take up arms wearing a ski mask again,” he says.

I ask him about the media’s inattention to zapatismo and the EZLN’s falling-out with the institutional left. His serene tone doesn’t waver, and he talks at length. He says that although zapatismo’s change of tone began with the criticisms he made against López Obrador during the 2006 elections, the decision to break with former allies had been taken after the legislative failure of 2001. “I felt such responsibility and pain at having failed, of not having foreseen what happened.” Within the EZLN, he says, the armed path was proposed again for a moment, but they decided against it, concluding instead that they had chosen the wrong interlocutors and needed to break with the entire political class, the progressive intelligentsia, and some international supporters.

In 2005, the EZLN released the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle, which stated the change in strategy and opened the struggle to the rest of the oppressed minorities of Mexico and the world. Thus, as the EZLN’s presence diminished in the West, it rose in faraway and impoverished countries. Vía Campesina, a global network with millions of affiliates, became close to the EZLN, and next December it will bring women from the five continents to meet in La Garrucha. And last summer, the intercontinental Zapatista meeting brought supporters from India, Korea, and Pakistan. Marcos says the visitors confirmed for him that “neoliberalism has a virtue,” since despite the variety of languages, they all had the same enemies. “When they named who was dispossessing them of their lands, they were the same names as the companies in Mexico: Wal-Mart, Monsanto, Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola, which were appropriating the springs, harvests, and lands.”

Night descends on La Garrucha, and it’s getting chilly. The discussion winding down, I hurriedly ask a few more questions, trying to unmask him.

“Is it a burden being Marcos?”

“Apart from having to carry my own backpack . . . ,” he says with one of his characteristic jokes.

“Is it a burden?” I insist.


“You’ve never thought, ‘Enough! I don’t want to be Marcos anymore’?”

“After every interview. Yes, it’s a great burden because the idea is still prevalent that the EZLN’s mistakes are Marcos’s, and the good ideas come from the communities. Although we’ve often been lightning rods, among the compañeros this division of labor makes people worry, because they say: ‘In any case, if there’s an attack, it’ll be on you.’ ”

“Do you ever feel vulnerable?”

“Yes. Mostly when I go out on the Other Campaign. I feel ill at ease because it’s not my territory, there’s no media, no compañeros, resources.”

I focus on his hands. Well taken care of, for a man who doesn’t have a permanent home and frequently has to move his encampment for security reasons.

“It’s been 24 year since you arrived here. Sum it up in one word or sentence.”

“Learning. Survival against all odds.”

“Has it been worth it?”

“Yes. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing,” he replies, and then pauses. “If I did think about changing something, it would be this: I wouldn’t have taken such a prominent role in the media.”

But he refuses to give in, even less when the historical moment is opportune: 2010 is only two years away, the bicentennial anniversary of the War of Independence and the centennial anniversary of the Mexican Revolution. That will prove, he says, that “it is a myth that the Mexican people will put up with anything, because at least every 100 years, they say no!”

1. Juan Pedro Viqueira, Las encrucijadas chiapanecas (Tusquets, 2002); Marcos Estrada Saavedra, La comunidad armada rebelde y el EZLN (El Colegio de Mexico, 2007).

2. Mariana Romo, “La descolonizacion de la política: la autonomía zapatista en un contexto de gobernabilidad neoliberal” (Ph.D. diss., University of Texas at Austin).

Laura Castellanos is a freelance journalist based in Mexico. She is the author of México armado: 1943–1981 (Ediciones Era, 2007). This article was originally published in the December 2007 edition of Gatopardo magazine (www.gatopardo.com). Reproduced with permission. Translated and redacted by NACLA.

Tags: Mexico, Ciudad Juarez, femicide, impunity, women, maquilas, violence

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