COUNTERINSURGENCY AND AUTONOMY: Report on the 2011 Chiapas Delegation, part 1

By: Mary Ann Tenuto

Shiny new cars slithered over the dirt road like snakes. “Lots of traffic,” I commented in Spanish to a small group chatting nearby. Sitting in front of his home by the side of the unusually busy road, a Zapatista elder responded to my observation about the parade of vehicles: “The government is sending money and projects to all the non-Zapatistas and even trying to buy off individual Zapatistas and Other Campaign adherents. The three political parties are doing the same thing because next year is an election year for all three levels of government. They’re looking for votes and trying to divide people.” He frowned as he finished talking, obviously upset by the government’s economic counterinsurgency tactic.

The topic of the government trying to divide the Zapatista and Other Campaign communities with tons of money received equal attention with that of the war and violence throughout Mexico during the two and a half weeks I spent in Chiapas at the end of March 2011 preparing for and participating in the Chiapas Support Committee’s 10th delegation to Chiapas.

As a matter of principle the Zapatistas do not accept money from government aid programs. That applies to all three levels of government: federal, state and municipal (county). Consequently, these different levels of government have always used the aid programs to divide people from the Zapatistas. Now, it seems that both the amount of money and the amount of effort have increased/intensified. One wonders where the money comes from in a state where many have no money to buy medicine or school supplies. Are the corporations that want indigenous lands giving money to the state government?

One of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) we visited summed it up this way: “Governor Juan Sabines Guerrero is known as the man with the checkbook.” Another NGO said: “The government has an economic strategy: give lots of money to the campesino communities they know can be divided.” [1] Those include some campesino communities belonging to the Other Campaign.

Regardless of where we were or with whom we spoke, the vast quantity of pesos being spent to divide pro-Zapatista communities and the political conflict it was causing dominated the conversation and remains a cause for genuine concern.

During a long interview with the Good Government Junta in La Garrucha, Caracol 3, Tzeltal Jungle Zone, we asked about the government’s strategy to divide people. Different members of the Junta responded to the various strategies being used. “The government is taking communal land and privatizing it. Government agents tell the people that the land will be theirs, but the people end up without any land and poorer than they were before,” one Junta member told us. Another man on the Junta said: “The Government offers housing with strings attached and people in the community are refusing it because most people don’t have confidence in the government and don’t believe it will keep its promises.”

We asked about money the government is offering to people in the region. “The government’s plan is pretty powerful because they are using a lot of money to entice people away and divide the communities,” the Junta told us. “But, the Junta is trying to keep everyone united and keep everyone participating together.” This Junta is in the last month of its three-year term of office and has learned a lot during those three years of experience governing the large region. They know their region, the four municipios (counties) of Francisco Gómez, Ricardo Flores Magón, San Manuel and Francisco (Pancho) Villa. A new council is supposed to be elected during April to serve the next three-year term.

A woman on the Junta reported that the government plans to build a tourist hotel in Ricardo Flores Magón Municipality, “as part of the plan to displace people. We are worried about what effect it will have and whether it will divide people.” This was particularly interesting because we had heard in San Cristóbal that building ecotourist hotels was a way of staking a claim to the land. One story we heard was that an ecotourist hotel had been built near the site of the Chinkultic Massacre.

They concluded their talk by emphasizing that the participation of women was important to them and that the Good Government Junta is for the communities; it is not something separate. They told us they learn from serving on the Junta and take that knowledge back to their communities.

On the way out to La Garrucha we had driven past rows of small and unpainted gray cement block housing outside the city limits of Ocosingo. Our driver said that’s where the government put the people it had evicted from the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve in the name of “conservation” (read it: ecotourism hotels). I asked him if any of the evicted Zapatistas were living in that housing and he said no.

In a conversation with some authorities (not the Junta) I asked about Los Zetas, the ex Mexican Army Special Forces that became narcotraficantes (drug traffickers). I had seen a map put out by the state government of Chiapas showing that the Cañadas east of Ocosingo were full of Los Zetas and another political/military group, the EPR. The map relegated Zapatista Territory to a very small space and all the rest to the two previously mentioned groups. The authorities laughed. “Los Zetas are only along the river,” one of them said, referring to the Usumacinta River, the border between Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico. “And there are no EPR here at all. They’re far away.” I could see why people didn’t trust the government. I wondered what kind of dangerous game the state was playing with its map.

We arrived in San Manuel autonomous municipio very late at night. The drive over a difficult dirt road from La Garrucha took a long time and our visit with the Junta had been long and friendly. Nevertheless, food was already prepared and soon we were served a bowl of hot chicken soup. We all slept in what was once the plantation owner’s bedroom, upstairs over the Compañero Manuel Grocery Warehouse. We were on land recuperated by the Zapatistas as a result of their 1994 Uprising.

Interviews the next morning with education promoters and warehouse workers provided a sharp contrast to the counterinsurgency tactic of flooding the communities with money. They spoke enthusiastically about their autonomous projects. The warehouse now has some competition. The only solution was to raise prices a little so as to still turn a profit for the municipio, but continue to save clients the price of transportation into the city. The education promoters talked about their new capacity-building center, which we would see later in the day. Delegates toured the warehouse and viewed the merchandise purchased wholesale in quantity. They also had the opportunity to question the education promoters (teachers) about the themes taught in autonomous primary schools.

We arrived in Emiliano Zapata after another delicious meal and went over to the new capacity-building center for education promoters. It had large wooden buildings (perfect for hanging hammocks), covered with murals and named after Subcomandante Pedro who was killed in battle at Las Margaritas in January 1994. The training center was set in a beautiful open space by a little stream. It seemed a great place to learn and perfect one’s teaching skills. We also saw and photographed the new primary school in “Zapata.”

Emiliano Zapata is an almost idyllic location. It is the cabecera (county seat) of San Manuel Autonomous Zapatista County in Rebellion. Located on the banks of the mighty Jataté River, it is a natural spa at the end of a hot day. Delegates went to cool off, as did many local residents. The local folks also filled buckets with river water to wash their horses. When it’s quiet at night, you can hear the water rushing downstream. Frogs croak, horses whinny and fireflies light up the night.

The Pharmacy Warehouse was dry and had air circulating through it now, a big improvement with the new roof. We learned that the steers had been moved. They were now populating some recuperated land to insure that no one else would try to claim it. Some were sold and cattle for breeding were purchased with the profits.

Three of us had been in Zapata, as it is called, the week before to prepare the municipio for the arrival of the delegation. Some members of the autonomous council had resigned. The council does a lot of work and it’s hard to have a family member away from home so much. Husbands and wives complain, resulting in resignations. A countywide assembly was in progress as we left to return to San Cristóbal to meet up with the rest of the delegates. The assembly elected 10 new council members who were there to greet the delegation five days later. The assembly also assigned our delegation a responsibility: buying a basketball in Ocosingo. It turned out that their basketball was ruined and they had a basketball tournament planned during the big celebration on April 10 for Emiliano Zapata Day.

So, we said our goodbyes to the new council on Saturday morning. They were busy preparing for a visit from the Junta in La Garrucha and preparing to receive some non-Zapatistas waiting to consult with the council about a problem they were facing. We greeted the non-Zapatistas and then hopped into the farm truck for a dusty ride back to Ocosingo. After purchasing the basketball, we indulged in some papaya licuados and lunch at Las Delicias, a favorite Ocosingo restaurant, and then took a shuttle back to San Cristóbal.

One cannot visit Zapatista territory without noticing the striking contrast between the government’s economic counterinsurgency strategy and the simultaneous construction of autonomy by the Zapatista communities. The struggle between these two cultures is playing out right before our eyes each time we visit Chiapas.

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