<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
 English | Español November 20, 2017 | Issue #33


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The Mysterious Silence of the Mexican Zapatistas

“After more than 10 years of war and 20 years of organizing, we can’t take a single step back.”


By Alex Contreras Baspineiro
Narco News South American Bureau Chief

May 7, 2004

LA REALIDAD, Chiapas, April 29, 2004. It’s two in the morning on Thursday, April 29. Unable to sleep, we can see, illuminated by a distant lantern, the shining eyes of a person whose face is covered by a ski mask. “Don’t worry, comrade,” says the face behind the mask, observing our restlessness, “they’re just having a meeting.” We try to get to sleep. Around three, we hear voices, mostly women. “Rest, friend, they’re just doing some organizing,” says someone else, as we hear horses galloping far away.


Members of the Good Government Council in La Realidad
Photo: Alex Contreras Baspineiro, D.R. 2004
Such nights are typical for the insurgents of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN in its Spanish initials) in the Lacandon jungle. They work mysteriously during the day, and also at night. They act with amazing caution, and in silence. Their wisdom comes from their patience. They are at war.

Among them, sometimes a gesture, a glance, or a hiss is enough to tell another what one wants, needs, wants to say about someone else, or what message needs to be transmitted.

When an outsider arrives to these ejidos, or communal lands, he or she is received by members of a committee, while the others – mostly of Tojolabal origin – watch and comment amongst themselves in their own language. Nobody can give outsiders any information. Nobody. The Zapatistas have laws, and the laws must be followed.

A journalist here needs authorization to do an interview, or to take photographs. One must learn to be patient -– very patient. If the Zapatistas do not want to answer a question, they respond, in the most kind and gentle way, “Who knows?”

These masked men and women are in a new process of organization. Since February 14, neither the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee nor the General Command of the EZLN had released a single communiqué.

However, the death of Authentic Journalist and “Governor in rebellion” Amado Avedaño Figueroa on April 29 in the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas obliged the Zapatistas to break their silence. A letter, sent by Subcomandante Marcos to the Avedaño family and the people of Mexico, included these words:

But for the news of his death, it could be that Don Amado had already died, and that what I heard had not been a broken branch just as April turns the calendar’s corner into the next year. But if it had been a broken branch that I heard, then I would have been able to think that perhaps Don Amado had not died, and that he had only turned that corner, and that though we will not see him now, in the coming year he will appear again.

We first knew of Don Amado, and then we saw him…. And it was mutual. Or is. Because it could be that he has died. But it could be that he has not….

Don Amado had, or has, a problem from which not all of us suffer. In place of a heart he had a house, at times disguised as a newspaper suspended in time, or as a leaf, or as a shadow government, or as a storyteller.

And in his house, that is to say, his heart, Don Amado had opened the doors and windows long ago to those who are the color of the earth, and with them shared his roof, his gaze, his ear and his word.

At the “P.S.” at the end of the letter, the masked subcomandante wrote:

As if we had not finished a hug, so shall we leave it for now… as if the silence is waiting… do you hear it?

The Zapatistas in La Realidad and the other caracoles (their main support bases) are in a stage of silence now. But the men, women, young and elderly here are in constant preparation.

It is time to be quiet, they say now. They need to strengthen their organization. They have disappeared into the mountains. And surprises are on the way.

Be Like the Snails

“We are at war, my friend” says the rebel commander who calls himself Comandante Bernal. “That is why we all must be prepared. Our enemy, the bad government, certainly does not sleep, and so we must not sleep either; we must be better-prepared then they are.”


A sign at the entrance to La Realidad, in the Lacandon jungle
Poto: Alex Contreras Baspineiro, D.R. 2004
Bernal says that the Zapatista organization is similar to the life of a caracol, also the Spanish word for “snail” or “conch.”

“Snails are tough little animals. They work in silence, walking slowly and always forward, never backward. If it rains, or if the sun is very hot, they stay on track. When they are on the move, not even a river or an intense downpour can stop them. And if they stumble or fall, they get back up and keep going. We must be like the snails.”

The sound one can make with the shells of bigger caracoles can be used for communication – for instance, to call meetings. There are a lot of snails living in Zapatista territory, and it is common to come across them walking in the mountains. Children can sell them for a few cents as souvenirs from these insurgent communities.

In July, 2003, in “Part I: A Conch,” from his multipart communiqué “Chiapas: The Thirteenth Steel,” Subcomandante Marcos wrote:

Perhaps we might guess what it is about if we look carefully. The Zapatistas are very otherly – I don’t know if I already told you that – and so they imagine things before those things exist, and they think that, by naming them, those things will begin to have life, to walk…and, yes, to create problems. And so I am sure they have already imagined something, and they are going to begin to act as if that something already exists, and no one is going to understand anything for some time, because, in effect, once named, things begin to take on body, life and a tomorrow.

Then we could look for some clue… No, I don’t know where to look… I believe their way is looking with their ears and listening with their eyes. Yes, I know it sounds complicated, but nothing else occurs to me. Come, let’s keep on walking.

Look, the stream is turning into a whirlpool there, and in its center the moon is shimmering its sinuous dance. A whirlpool… or a shell.

They say here that the most ancient say that other, earlier ones said that the most first of these lands held the figure of the shell in high esteem. They say that they say that they said that the conch represents entering into the heart, that is what the very first ones with knowledge said. And they say that they say that they said that the conch also represents leaving the heart in order to walk the world, which is how the first ones called life. And more, they say that they say that they said that they called the collective with the shell, so that the word would go from one to the other and agreement would be reached. And they also say that they say that they said that the conch was help so that the ear could hear even the most distant word. That is what they say that they say that they said. I don’t know. I am walking hand in hand with you, and I am showing you what my ears see and my eyes hear. And I see and hear a shell, the “pu’y’, as they say in their language here. *

The five caracol towns are: Oventik (also known by the Zapatistas as “Resistance and rebellion for humanity”), Morelia (“Whirlwind of our words”), La Garrucha (“Resistance towards the new dawn”), Roberto Barrios (“Caracol that speaks for all”), and La Realidad (“Mother of the caracoles from the sea of our dreams”).

An Innovative Communications System

It may be hard to believe, but the indigenous rebels here in the jungle have an extraordinary communication system: radio communication between the five caracoles, several towns with internet access, parabolic antennas installed at strategic points, computers, and communications committees to oversee all of it. They all work in total secrecy.

There is also Radio Insurgente (97.9 FM), broadcasting from four o’clock in the morning to nine o’clock at night. Radio Insurgente lets the Zapatistas hear messages, communiqués, and music, from traditional Mexican corridos to contemporary protest music.

The Zapatistas wake up, and as they go about their activities, listen to the radio almost all day long, turning it off only before they go to sleep. They call it “horizontal” media.

Sometimes the signal is not very clear, other times it’s barely audible, or there is no transmission at all, but the insurgents know that they have their own media.

They told us that the radio station is portable. One day it could be installed in one place, and another day broadcast from somewhere else. But always in the highlands, both for security and to reach the largest audience.

“So, friend,” says Bernal, “we are prepared. We are at war and communication is important. For example, they already know, in all five caracoles that a Bolivian journalist is here with us. They also know at what time a truck arrives at or leaves one of our towns. In the five caracoles, they know everything.”

The Zapatistas rebels know what they are doing. Now, they are building a new model of society, and they are conscious of this. “The damned government has nothing to do with this, but you can be sure that they are also preparing.”

La Realidad and the Lacandon jungle are Marcos and the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee’s stronghold. Because of this, security and secrecy here are greater than in the rest of the autonomous Zapatista lands of Chiapas.

Comandantes David, Omar, Tacho, Ramona, Estela, Fidelia are in other caracoles, and have their own military, police, and civil organizations.

In nearly all the rebel villages, one can see a series of murals and graffiti accompanying images of revolutionary heroes Emiliano Zapata, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, and Subcomandante Marcos. This, too, is a way of communicating, daily and permanently.

An Alternative Model

The EZLN’s current silence has a point: to strengthen the autonomy of the Zapatista towns and the Good Government Councils in the caracoles, to build an alternative model of society.

“If we do nothing for ourselves, we are finished,” said Comandante Bernal. “After more than 10 years of war and 20 of organizing, we can’t take a single step back. Everyone must move forward. We don’t expect anything from the bad government. From the international community, yes, but we expect the most from our own forces.”

Although poverty is a common feature to all the indigenous towns in Chiapas, the Zapatistas know that they are better off than before in matters of education, health, housing, roads, production and communication. All of their policies are based on three words: democracy, liberty and equality.

They build their own schools, roads, economic cooperatives, hospitals, and clinics in the five caracoles. In La Realidad, for instance, many houses now have running water and electricity, thanks to a water turbine in a nearby river. Their houses are generally made wood with aluminum roofs, and nearby one can usually firewood, some farm animals and crops.

The Zapatista towns are generally orderly and clean. There are signs everywhere advising people to preserve the local ecology and environment.

The Tojolabal, Tzotzil, Tzetzal, Chol, Mochó, Jacalteca, Kanjobal and other indigenous groups that live in the EZLN’s caracoles don’t aspire to any more than to live with dignity, liberty, equality, and true democracy.

Comandante Bernal, in an interview with Narco News, told us that the Zapatistas are dreamers who want to build a model of a new society. In other countries as well, he said, people are rising up to reclaim the rights of those who have no voice.

Here, in La Realidad and other Zapatista towns of the Lacondon jungle, those words said by countless people in different countries around the world – “another nation is possible” – become more of a reality each day.

* From the translation by Irlandesa, Chiapas Independent Media Center

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