Report on the 2011 Observation and Solidarity Brigade to Zapatista Communities

In response to increasing levels of aggression and harassment, the Brigade of Observation and Solidarity with the Zapatista Communities visited Chiapas from August 27 to September 2, 2011. The objectives of the brigade were: to listen to the voices of the Good Government Juntas, of the Zapatista support base (BAZ) communities, and of their women, men and children, to document the repression in several Zapatista communities, as well as to document advances in the construction of autonomy in Zapatista communities, and to demonstrate solidarity with the Zapatistas while showing them that “no estan solos” – they are not alone.

The Brigade met in San Cristobal on the August 27 and divided itself up into four groups to visit the Caracoles of Oventic, La Realidad, La Garrucha and Morelia. There were fifty-seven participants from Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Spain, Italy, Norway, the UK and Poland.

The following day, the four groups went to the four caracoles. We went to Morelia, where there have been problems with the ORCAO (Organización Regional de Cafecultores de Ocosingo – Regional Coffee Growers Organization of Ocosingo). We spent the first day there in the caracol, meeting with the junta to introduce ourselves and to plan our time there. We visited and stayed in two BAZ (Zapatista support base) communities, 1° de Enero and Moises Gandhi, listening to testimonies about the attacks that had been occurring. We also heard the accounts of progress made in the construction of autonomy in the areas of health, education, production, and women’s participation—with brigade members taking notes, photographing, recording and filming the meetings. Around 150-200 BAZ attended the meetings, which lasted for hours. Many spoke (in Spanish and Tzeltal), while many others listened patiently.

On Wednesday we visited an autonomous health clinic, and saw where the autonomous kindergarten and women’s autonomous collective shop had been fenced off by the ORCAO, in the ejido (communal land) Tierra Madre. We also visited the ejido Martires, to film the place where two companer@s were kidnapped from their homes, which were looted, while their possessions and crops were destroyed. The ORCAO had asked one of the compas to join them and leave the Zapatistas, and when he refused, had threatened to beat and kidnap him, a threat which they carried out on the June 20, 2011. They have also been trying to seize the land.

Later that day we went to predio doctor and filmed the testimony of a companer@ who explained how the ORCAO have been trying to get the land there, fencing it off and destroying maize, bean and pumpkin crops. We then went back to the Morelia caracol itself, to interview the junta. The junta added more information and clarified a few things as well. They explained how the autonomous justice system worked, as well as reminding us of some other problems in the caracol Morelia – with the OPDDIC, for example, in Bolom Ajaw, and also the kidnapping of two Zapatista cameramen and the theft of their equipment in Ocosingo1.

On Thursday we went back to San Cristobal to write up the report and press release. On Friday there was a press conference for alternative media – which was streamed live on the internet and can be watched or listened to online2. We had a debriefing meeting after the press conference. At the meeting we agreed to donate whatever left over from the money that had been collected to cover the brigade’s costs. This came to several thousand pesos to be split between the caracoles as they saw fit. (The brigadistas had all given a $500 (peso) contribution to buy food with – so as not to be a burden on the caracoles and communities we visited, and to cover petrol costs.)

We were able to confirm that the current strategy being used by the Mexican government is one of trying to provoke confrontations between the BAZ and their indigenous brothers and sisters, and to directly attack the construction of autonomy (for example attacks on autonomous schools, attempts to seize the regained land, etc.) In the past 2-3 years there have been continuous and systematic attacks and provocations made by the ORCAO, who have a strong presence in the areas around the caracoles of Morelia and Garrucha, which appears strategic. Their actions are identical in all their areas of operation: the theft of agricultural equipment, the attempted theft of recuperated lands, threats to the Zapatista support bases, intimidation with guns, assaults with rocks and catapults, kidnappings and the destruction of the homes and cultures of the Zapatista communities.

The nature of the counterinsurgency strategies and forms of repression used by the Mexican government against the Zapatistas has changed over time. From the use of direct combat and the heavy (and continued) militarization of Chiapas, the setting up of military bases, etc., the Mexican government changed tack a little to create paramilitary groups to do their dirty work for them. These groups have carried out the “low intensity” warfare strategy – making threats, including death threats, and attacking, kidnapping and killing compas BAZ.

In more recent years, however, the strategy has increasingly been to try to provoke confrontations and promote conflict between the BAZ and their indigenous brothers and sisters, by co-opting people from neighboring communities, to cause trouble in the BAZ communities. For example, the Organization for the Defense of Indigenous and Campesino Rights (OPDDIC), who began trying to provoke confrontations and attacking the compas several years ago, and caused a lot of problems in Bolom Ajaw from 2004 onwards. The OPDDIC used to be the main aggressor against the Zapatista communities, however the Morelia JGB told us that they are less of a problem now, and that it is the ORCAO who are causing more problems. The OPDDIC now appear to only be active in the Agua Azul area and in parts of Ocosingo.

In some cases local activists of the political parties in power – the PRI, PRD, PAN and PVEM are the ones causing conflict. The attacks are increasing in intensity in the areas of the Caracoles of La Realidad and Oventic, with party activists persuading ejidatarios (inhabitants of communal land) and communities to take part in trying to seize land and destroy Zapatista autonomous projects. In other cases they are former compas who were co-opted by the government and left the struggle. The ORCAO’s members include former BAZ.

Part of the strategy of recent years is the social programs run by the Mexican government – which didn’t exist before 1994 – and whose purpose is to try to buy the BAZ and manipulate those who have left the movement and those who were never part of the struggle but were simply neighbors, or even relatives of the BAZ, and who many BAZ still refer to as brothers and sisters. These social programs allow the Mexican government to portray itself as a progressive, humane government – while conducting a failed “war on drugs” that has left 50,000 dead. They are also a way for the Mexican state to extend more control over people’s lives.

Another part of this strategy is to try to discredit the leadership and the Zapatista movement as a whole – for example, releasing false information that some of the leaders have sold out and trying to make it seem that the Zapatistas don’t exist any more, are irrelevant, or are responsible for violence and property damage. The day we left the Caracol Morelia (Thursday) some ORCAO members had cut the water supply to Ocosingo and blocked the road pretending to be Zapatistas, wearing balaclavas and holding up an EZLN banner. The carrot and the stick, discredit and try to make invisible – the aim is to demoralize and co-opt the compas BAZ.

The stick, of course, is always there too – from theft of crops vital to the BAZ’s subsistence (food crops and other crops that provide a vital source of income), to direct attacks on the Zapatistas construction of autonomy – schools, production projects, women’s cooperatives – to attempts to take the land the compas regained in the 1994 uprising, to threats of violence including death threats, physical attacks and kidnapping. The brigade documented these attacks and provocations (see reports from each caracol and videos online3)

However, the Mexican government has failed to break the hearts and spirits of the Zapatistas. We were able to see the progress they have made in creating autonomous health, education and production systems.

We were inspired and deeply impressed with their continued resistance, their resilience and commitment to the struggle. The members of the junta who, after having finished their week’s turn, instead of going back to their homes and communities gave extra time to organize meetings so that we members of the brigade could hear the voices and testimonies of the BAZ from a number of communities. We were impressed by their quiet patience and clear thinking, their dedication to supporting the BAZ communities’ projects and improving their living conditions, and by the quiet confidence of the younger generation who had grown up in the revolution and had studied hard to serve their communities. The compas who came to the meetings we had, with pozol (fermented maize drink)and children, and sat through hours of testimonies of the attacks and reports about autonomy, and, in some cases, ended up sleeping on the floor because the meeting finished too late for them to be able to go home safely. And the compas who stood up in front of many people and gave their accounts, in Spanish or in Tzeltal, and the compas who translated for them because we couldn’t speak their languages. They apologized to us, for not speaking sufficient Spanish, or for possible mistakes they might make in their second language, when we should have been apologizing for not speaking their languages. They were extremely courteous and deeply respectful, feeding us frequently in case we were hungry, the junta in particular along with the compas BAZ, worked so hard to make the whole thing work.

And there was the work we didn’t see, of course – before we came, preparing for the brigade and afterwards, listening to, looking at and watching hours of audio, video and photos taken to check through and make sure it would be ok to publish it afterwards.

And of course – the real progress they had made in vitally important areas such as healthcare, education, justice, production of food and other products that could be used and also sold to benefit the BAZ and their projects. By comparison, the Zapatistas have made far more progress in these areas than Mayan communities in neighboring Guatemala, where there has been a lot of international aid since the peace accords were signed in December 1996, yet the material living conditions of rural and particularly Mayan communities are not much better than they were before the war. It demonstrates the vital importance of the people governing themselves from the bottom up, gaining (and keeping) access to the land – which always was and is an essential part of the struggle – and running their own services.