Source: Jacobin Magazine
Twenty-two years after their formation, the Zapatistas continue to resist Mexican state repression.
In February, a federal judge in Mexico admitted that he had no choice but to accept that the state’s case against the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (ELZN) could not move forward. The charges of terrorism, sedition, riot, rebellion, and conspiracy filed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 1994 against Insurgent Subcomandante Marcos and the indigenous leaders of the resistance were null and void: the statute of limitations had expired.
That the two-decade-long battle the Zapatistas waged against the Mexican government’s policy of privatization and neoliberalization would end with a legal whimper seems, at first blush, anticlimatic. But it is part of the famous black-balaclava-clad fighters’ long-term strategy: silence in the face of oppression and opposition.
The San Andrés Accords
The Zapatistas appeared for the first time on the morning of January 1, 1994 to protest the adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Armed members of the Tsotsil, Tseltal, Ch’ol, and Tojolabal indigenous peoples — the poorest of the poor, some barefoot, some carrying guns dating from the 1910 Mexican Revolution, others carrying cardboard cutouts of rifles — seemed like characters from the novels of Carlos Fuentes or Laura Esquivel. Upon their arrival, they took over cities throughout Chiapas, freed prisoners in San Cristobal de las Casas, burned military outposts, and claimed the ranches of wealthy landowners as their own.
Although the world learned of their existence when their battalions came down from the mountains that freezing morning, they had been secretly organizing for the moment in their communities for ten years prior to the 1994 uprising.
“Our date of birth is November 17, 1983,” Subcomandate Insurgent Marcos — who has now changed his name to Galeano to honor a comrade assassinated by paramilitaries in 2014 — recalled. “We prepared in silence for a decade to shout ‘Enough!’,” he said. “By keeping our pain inside, we prepared to cry out in pain, because we could no longer wait and hope to be understood by those who didn’t even understand that they didn’t understand.”
Marcos, an eloquent, pipe-smoking mestizo (the government claimed he was a Mexico City philosophy professor influenced by radical liberation theology), became the public face of the Zapatistas’ struggle. In January of this year, he outlined the reasons for the indigenous uprising:
The resistance of those from below is to wake those who sleep, to enrage those who are content, to force history to say what has been kept silent and to expose the exploitation, killings, displacement, contempt and forgetfulness that is hidden behind the museums, statues, books and monuments to the lies of those above.
In their silence, Carlos Fuentes wrote, the Zapatistas “won the hearts of a nation,” declaring a “war against being forgotten.”
The Mexican government charged Marcos and the indigenous leaders of the Zapatista movement with terrorism, sedition, riot, rebellion, and conspiracy. They met the Zapatistas’ cardboard guns with tanks, soldiers, and helicopter gunships. But when the army failed, the government was forced to negotiate with the indigenous peoples, promising official recognition of ancestral lands, their culture, and their languages.