<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Democracy, Liberty and Justice in México

The Zapatistas Build “Autonomous Municipalities” in Chiapas


By Alex Contreras Baspineiro
Narco News South American Bureau Chief

April 29, 2004

San Cristóbal De Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, April 26, 2004: “Democracy, liberty, and justice for all.” These three words have become a motto for the indigenous rebels of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) as they build up their autonomous municipalities in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.


Two Zapaatista girls in the community of Elambó Alto.
Photo: Alex Contreras Baspineiro, D.R. 2004
More than ten years have passed since the Zapatistas’ January 1, 1994 uprising against the Mexican government. Today there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of autonomous municipalities controlled by the Zapatistas. None of the Zapatistas, however – from the commanders to the civilians in their communities – want to give an exact number. They only reply “many,” and “more every day.

This story began more than 20 years ago. It is written by men and women, children and the elderly; by people from indigenous groups here like the Tzotzil, the Tzetzal, the Mam, the Togolabal, the Ch’ol and the Zoques. They are people who were tired of the false promises of the federal and local governments – the “bad governments” as the Zapatistas often call them – and decided to build a new society within their own state.

Traveling through and living in different Zapatista communities in recent days, Narco News spoke to Zapatista women and men to understand how they are building these autonomous communities based on three ideas: democracy, liberty, and equality.

Democracy means that peoples’ thoughts lead to agreement. Not that everyone thinks the same. That the word of authority obeys the word of the majority; that the scepter of command has a collective voice, rather than a single will. That the space reflects everything, both the walkers and the path, and that it inspires thought both within oneself and beyond this world. *


A displaced Zapatista boy and his father return to their hometown.
Photo: Alex Contreras Baspineiro, D.R. 2004
“Before, democracy only meant that we could go chose this or that candidate from some political party, so that they could deceive us,” explained Ezequiel, a leader of the Reception Committee in Oventik. Oventik is one of the five Zapatista caracoles, or base communities – where the five “Good Government Councils” sit – and has been given the name “Resistance and Rebellion for Humanity.”

Ezequiel remembers that, more than 10 years ago, here in the towns of the highlands of Chiapas, political campaigns often offered practically everything to indigenous voters: schools, clinics, roads, housing and other benefits. Once in power, the politicians forgot their promises and obeyed only the laws of neoliberalism and imperialism

“For years and years,” said Ezequiel, “we have seen their promises and tricks. Presidents and governors came and went, but they did nothing for our communities. What’s more, under that democracy, a certain group got very rich. We, the indigenous, became poorer and poorer.”

Pablo, a Zapatista from Elambó Bajo, said that there is now real democracy for all the people who live in the autonomous municipalities. “Everything for everyone, nothing for ourselves.”

Liberty does not mean that each person does what he or she wants; it is being able to choose whatever path you like, to walk the true word. But whichever path you chose, it not must make you lose the mirror, it must not lead you to betray yourself, your own, or others.

In Chiapas, before the Zapatista uprising, and continuing today in non-Zapatista communities, the indigenous were dependent on local political bosses, the police and the army for their rights.

“Now the situation is different in our autonomous municipalities,” said Roberto, a member of the Oventil Good Government Council. “Everyone on the Council has responsibilities and obligations that must be carried out, because that is what the people demand. They are free people, and we must obey them.”


The returning Zapatistas were greeted with flowers and smiles.
Photo: Alex Contreras Baspineiro, D.R. 2004
Roberto, aside from being one of the more visible leaders in Oventik, in recent days also played a large role in bringing nearly 500 displaced Zapatistas back to their hometowns of Elambó Alto, Elambó Bajo, Apaz and Jechbó. He said that the members and supporters of the EZLN “love liberty” and understand that without pressure, the government will never help build a new life.

“We still suffer, we still have many problems relating to health, education, housing and farming, but we are moving forward, in our own way,” he said.

It is not only the government authorities that have abused Mexico’s indigenous. The bosses and those who control the nation’s agriculture practically turned them into slaves.

An elderly Zapatista woman who overheard the interview with Roberto added, “now we are not slaves to anyone, we have freedom.”

Justice is not giving out punishment, it is recovering for each person that which they deserve, and everyone deserves that which the mirror returns to him: himself. He who made death, misery, exploitation, elitism, and arrogance has a great deal of sorrow in his path as his just deserts. He who gave work, life, and struggle, he who was a brother, has a little light as recognition, which always illuminates his face, his chest, and his walk.

Juan, an elderly Zapatista from Elambó Alto, said that after many years the indigenous had finally found justice.

“We have always been deceived, we have always been abused,” said Juan. “We have always been stepped on. Look, I am old, and I can speak with experience. Now we do have justice.”

When a Zapatista leader does not obey the command of the people, his or her removal is certain. However, since the five caracoles were formed on August 10, 2003, no representative or leader has been changed. All have followed through on their obligation to the people.

“The people are wiser than we are as individuals,” said Ezequiel. “we can’t judge and punish others without looking in the mirror first.”

María, a Zapatista woman from Jechbó, said that all here are rewarded for what they do. “The best justice is that of the people.”

There is no discrimination in the autonomous municipalities. Different cultures, religions, genders, human rights and thoughts are all respected.

The Zapatistas don’t have complicated legal institutions like other countries. With just three words – like the ancient Inca with their three concepts of ama sua (“don’t lie”), ama llulla (“don’t steal”), and ama q’ella (“don’t be lazy”) – the Zapatistas are really creating a new society. Their three words are democracy, liberty, and justice.

However, this process is a difficult one. In several municipalities, federal law has come into conflict with the policies of the Zapatistas. On more than one occasion, Zapatistas have been jailed without justification, and government troops have been detained for entering Zapatista territory without permission.

One case that the Zapatistas told us about happened in September of 2003. The president of an autonomous council and two others were detained merely for transporting coal. The Zapatistas had permission for what they were doing from the autonomous municipality of Hidalgo, but they were accused of the federal crime of “intentional ecological damage.” The authorities released them within a few days.

Last October, the EZLN rebels of the municipality of Chalchihuitán detained about 30 soldiers from the Mexican army for installing a camp within autonomous territory. After several hours of detainment, the signing of an agreement and the intervention of the local military commander, the troops were freed.

Cases like these happen every day. The ligitimacy of the autonomous municipalities and the Good Government Councils in the five Zapatista caracoles clash with the official system.

However, the masked men, women, children and elderly of the Zapatista movement are proud to be called rebels. They move forward, building their communities with dignity. As Subcomandante Marcos said, “in our dreams we have seen another world, a real world, a fairer world than that through which we now move…”

* Italic quotes from Subcomandante Marcos, Relatos del Viejo Antonio (Mexico, Centro de Información y Análisis de Chiapas, 1998)

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