Chiapas: Ten Years Later


been ten years since the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico launched
their rebellion to create “a world where many worlds fit.”
Once the heroes of progressive movements around the world, the continuing
struggle and development of autonomous institutions in Chiapas now
takes place with little media fanfare. 

Ross has written several books on the Zapatista struggle including

Rebellion from the Roots


The War Against Oblivion


La Journada

, Mexico’s foremost independent daily, describes
Ross as, “the new John Reed covering the new Mexican revolution.” 


You’ve been covering the Zapatistas and the situation in Chiapas
for more than ten years now. In terms of daily life for the indigenous
in the base communities, what’s changed since the 1994 insurgency?


In 1994 we didn’t know this area very well, but we began to
go into the villages and we could see that there was no infrastructure.
Ten years later, at the very least, we see schools in communities,
and some clinics. We see that a whole array of collectives and cooperatives
has developed. The most visually startling image of these communities
is the enormous number of murals painted on all the walls. There
are over 400 murals in Zapatista communities in the 38 autonomous

think some things are more material or concrete, but what you can
never measure is the way people feel about themselves—“the
seizing,” as the archbishop emeritus of San Cristobal, Samual
Ruiz, calls it, “the Indians becoming the subject of their
own destiny.” In a real sense, the Zapatistas have done that.
They’ve taken control of their own destiny. They have created
a system of autonomous municipalities in five regions, which are
in effect building their own way to live. 

2001, the Zapatistas launched their March on the Capital to push
for a lasting peace agreement. It was compared to Martin Luther
King’s march on Washington, winning the Zapatistas tremendous
popular support, but it failed to produce a lasting agreement. Has
there been any movement towards peace since the March? Do you see
any hope for meaningful talks? 

not going to be any peace talks as there’s really nothing to
talk about. The Zapatistas negotiated for 22 months for the San
Andres Accords, which would have been a landmark agreement, extending
a form of autonomy to 57 distinct indigenous peoples in Mexico. 

Mexican Congress mutilated that law, after years of struggle, after
referendums that drew millions to vote in favor of this law, so
the Zapatistas said, “Why do we have to ask the government
permission to establish autonomy?’ 

Zapatistas are just doing what they agreed on with the government.
They’re establishing their autonomy. I think the distinction
here is that five or six years ago, when the PRI (Institutional
Revolutionary Party) still ran the show and the president was a
guy named Zedillo, the government would have come down hard with
the military or police. What the Zapatistas are doing now, in terms
of building an autonomous structure, is being ignored by the government. 

Vicente Fox tried to take command of the situation. He sent the
COCOPA [Constitutional Reforms on Indigenous Rights and Culture]
accords to Congress and Congress shot them down. Fox realized he
was getting deeper into a problem he could never resolve. Although
he had promised to resolve it in “15 minutes,” he’s
washed his hands of it. In a sense, this has been a great boon for
the Zapatistas; they haven’t had the kind of pressure you would
expect from the government.

talk of Fox trying to “wash his hands” of the situation,
but most of the violence directed against Zapatista support bases
has come from paramilitary organizations, not the official army.
Most observers feel Zedillo’s administration backed these groups,
or at least turned a blind eye to their atrocities. Are paramilitaries
still active in Chiapas and what is their relationship with Fox’s

debated the question of the paramilitaries for a long time. I for
one don’t believe there are active paramilitaries in the way
there were in the period immediately following the rebellion, on
through the Acteal massacre [when 45 unarmed villagers were killed
in a church] and the months after. 

are disaffected PRIistas in many communities, essentially because
the Zapatistas are doing much better than the PRI communities. Now
that the PRI is out of power, it can’t service the communities
and its electoral clientele is leaving—and often joining the
PRD [Party of the Democratic Revolution, who are social democrats]
in Ocosingo and other places in the jungle and the highlands. 

PRI communities are now emigrating out of the area. The highest
migration rates in southern Mexico come from Chiapas—small
coffee farmers affected by the collapse of coffee prices, small
corn farmers—most of them from PRI communities. The Zapatistas
have this infrastructure, so people don’t leave. They are able
to take care of their own, through, for example, the Mut Vitz coffee
collective, which sells organic coffee when the price of regular
coffee has fallen. 

are a lot of disaffected PRIistas living in communities right next
to the Zapatista communities, and I think this makes for tensions. 

are the Zapatistas creating the schools, clinics, and economic cooperatives
that have made them better off than their PRIista counterparts? 

think we have to understand that creating autonomy is a fiction
unless you have some way of financing it. The main source of funding
for the Zapatistas is organic coffee. You have the Mut Vitz Coffee
Cooperative, with 28 communities and 6 autonomous municipalities,
and they’re selling between 10 and 15 containers a year now.
They have over 500 farmers who are accredited as organic growers.
There’s a steady market there and it brings an enormous amount
of money back to Zapatista communities. 

a lot of NGO money and activity that generates infrastructure as
well. The problem, at least in the first couple of years, is that
all the money goes to Mut Vitz or Oventic, communities that are
near the road, where there is a greater access. The back country
communities get nothing. 

the reorganization system of the Caracoles last August, a deal was
worked out where the Juntas of Buen Goberino, or “good government
committees,” were established and the NGOs now have to go to
the good government committees and say, “We’d like to
do this in this community.” And the Juntas say, “Well,
yes you can do that, but you also have to give us 10 percent of
the seed money for some other project.” It’s a way of
redistributing the wealth. 

there’s plain old civil society solidarity, which is certainly
not as heavy as it was in the past. In the first few years of the
rebellion, when the Zapatistas were unable to leave their communities
to go out and plant corn, it was civil society that provided tons
and tons of corn to the Zapatista communities to keep them alive. 

many respects the Zapatistas have been somewhat forgotten; they’re
not on the front pages. But money still comes in. 

role has the U.S. security apparatus played in the conflict and
how has that role evolved through ten years of Zapatismo? 

role of the U.S. military is somewhat reduced in Chiapas. There
are still probably 18,000 troops in the jungles, cañadas, and
highlands. The army has announced no reduction in troops and they
would be the first to announce that reduction. It is a presence
and that could be used any time it was warranted or unwarranted
to oppose the Zapatistas. 

difference is that the military does not patrol with the kind of
intensity it did in the past. It’s pretty much confined to
barracks. There must be a lot of stir-crazy soldiers who can’t
figure out what they’re doing out there in the jungle. 

year, the U.S. trained over 600 Mexican officers; the previous year
it was over 700. Mexican officers are everywhere, not only at the
School of the Americas, but at the Center for Special Forces in
Fort Bragg, North Carolina, right through to the army propaganda
school in Indianapolis and the war college in Fort Leavenworth.
Those officers will come back and serve an average of 20 years in
the Mexican military and they will always have this U.S. contact
with them. 

Ramond Castillo, who designed the counter-insurgency program that
resulted in the deaths at Acteal, was trained at the Center for
Special Forces. Essentially, the folks who fought the war against
the Zapatistas were U.S. trained officers. The Mexican military
is armed lock, stock, and just about barrel by the U.S. There is
an enormous amount of hardware in the country: transport planes,
munitions, guns, hummers, right down to ready-to-eat meals—all
from the Pentagon. 

you think the EZLN could defend themselves if they had to? 

don’t know what the condition of their arms is. My suspicion
is that if you don’t have a constant supply and upgrading of
arms, then your military capacity diminishes. For all I know, they
may have that capacity and may be renewing it, but we haven’t
seen any signs. 

last time the Zapatista army and the Mexican military exchanged
gunfire was on June 10, 1998 in what is now called San Juan de la
Libertad. The army tried to dismantle the autonomous muni- cipality
and ten people were killed. That massacre—nine of the ten people
killed were civilians—ended when the Zapatistas started firing
back. That was the first time they had fired back in awhile. 

weapon of the Zapatistas has been the word, not the gun; “el
fuego y el palabra” [fire and word], and el palabra is certainly
more dominant at this stage of the game. 

thing you have to remember is that one guerrilla fighter is worth
ten fighters in a standing army, particularly in a terrain where
people know the landscape and where to hide. We saw this first in
1994 when the army chased the Zapatistas back into the jungle and
again in 1995 when the army invaded the jungle and the Zapatista
communities abandoned ship and started moving down the river banks. 

army is at a real disadvantage in the jungle. I think the Zapatistas
would be able to stand off the military for long enough that it
wouldn’t be worth the military’s time to continue. 

we talk about what’s happening with genetically engineered
corn in Chiapas? 

don’t know much about transgenic corn in Chiapas, except that
people are very, very afraid of it. We do know what’s going
on with transgenic corn in the next states over: Oaxaca and Puebla.
In 2001, through some strange circumstances, a small village in
the Sierra del Norte of Oaxaca discovered that their cornfields
were contaminated by transgenic corn—specifically, Bt corn.
The story is that once NAFTA kicked in, the amount of corn imported
to Mexico increased from year to year. It’s currently around
six million tons and will probably be a little more next year. 

have good reason to believe that four million of those six million
tons are transgenic corn. U.S. farmers can’t sell that corn
in Europe or Japan so we think they’re dumping it across the

ago, trying to sort out the animal and human corn that was coming
into the country, green dye was put into the box cars for the animal
feed. Within weeks green tortillas were showing up in the Mexican
market. There is no distinction between the two; one is a pretext
for the other. 

find GM corn in Jalapa, at the top of the Sierra del Norte, across
the Sierra in Puebla, and in 11 out of 22 corn growing regions in
Puebla and Oaxaca, where corn first appeared 7,000-10,000 years
ago; and we find now that Bt and Starling corn is growing in these
Milpas. We see that the plasma of the 300 to 3,000 distinct types,
families, and varieties of Mexican corn are in danger of being homogenized.
That’s really the greatest danger of GE corn—to eliminate
biodiversity, to eliminate millions of years of biological history. 

you start making corn a commodity—which it is not to the indigenous
people—you’re threatening a whole culture and way of life.
The Mayan people are the people of the corn. When you talk about
changing the corn, you’re talking about changing a way of life
that has existed for millennia. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation,
which represents in many respects the Mayan people, is going to

the Zapatistas first came on the international scene they were seen
as something new, a movement that rejected the “free-market,”
and made no attempt to seize state power. Do you think the idea
of rejecting state power is becoming a new norm for social movements? 

think it is actually a social movement and there are a number of
examples we can look at throughout Latin America. One such example
is the piquetero movement and other youth movements in Argentina—this
kind of horizontal, non-hierarchical left. I think we see some of
that in the Sin Tierras [landless workers] Movement in Brazil. Although
the structures are different, we see an echo of Zapatismo. Most
importantly, in Bolivia, a movement of that kind was responsible
for the defense of water resources against the Bechtel Corporation,
forcing it to retire. This was one of the great victories for the
anti-globalization movement. 

think among those people, Oscar Olivera and his committee, there
is a real understanding of the Zapatismo approach of not organizing
to take over state power. I should mention that all of the political
ideas that came out of the Zapatista rebellion of 1994—wonderful
ideas about communal decision making, serving the community, and
organizing in a way that did not aim to take state power—all
these ideas were welcomed by the left all over the world as a new
model, a model to change the world. 

think we needed the Zapatistas more than they needed us. If you
look at the historical moment— NAFTA had just been signed—
many folks in the labor movement or the human rights movement who
had been battling NAFTA for a number of years were in a sense lost.
All of a sudden, in the first hour of the North America Free Trade
Agreement, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation rises up against
it. We rushed to their defense. We saw it as a way of helping us
build our movement, and learning from them as well. 

the end, I think the Zapatistas didn’t stage their rebellion
to save us. They did that to save themselves in the face of a globalization
that, even as far back as 1993-94, threatened the corn of the “people
of the corn.” After ten years they’ve done pretty well
saving themselves and that is the real purpose of the Zapatista


Chris Arsenault
is coordinator of Students Taking Action in Chiapas. He took the photos
appearing in this article.