The Zapatistas on the march again

[A Personal report from a Workers Solidarity Movement member of the arrival of the Zapatista march in San Criso'bel de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, Feb 24th 2001. These reports are posted to the Ainriail list when first written] This article in French
Since the groundbreaking victory in Mexico's presidential election last December for Vincente Fox, the opposition candidate who ended 80 years of one party rule, the simmering conflict in Chiapas has entered a new stage. Fox, in his election campaign, boasted that he would be able to resolve the conflict in "15 minutes", but events have proved him wrong. In reality the period since the election has seen an intensified media war between the new government and the insurgent Zapatista movement.

The Zapatistas broke off negotiations with the previous government in 1996 over its failure to implement an agreement to end the hostilities, known as the San Andres accords. The government replied by intensifying the repression against the indigenous people of Chiapas by imprisoning many Zapatista supporters and heavily militarising the rebellious areas of the state. The Zapatistas have refused to enter any new negotiations with the government until the previous agreements have been implemented and the repression relaxed.

A new government - a new start?

The new Fox government has presented the unwillingness of the Zapatistas to enter talks as signs of their opposition to peace. They claim that the treacheries committed in the past by Mexican governments are crimes of the old regime, nothing to do with the new administration. With the enthusiastic support of the capitalist media, they have embarked on a propagandistic campaign for 'peace', pure and simple. One of the major television networks is putting huge resources into publicising a massive music concert on the theme: 'all united for peace', and this simplistic message runs through much of the mass media commentary on the issue. The message is clear: 'Fox is a new start, lets wipe the slate clean and just sit down and talk'. According to the logic of the ruling class, if the Zapatistas refuse to talk they are obviously 'against peace', they have some vested interest in continuing the conflict - after all what would they do with themselves if there was peace?

The Zapatistas for their part, with that clear political analysis which has sustained this isolated and impoverished peasant movement against a seven year offensive by the Mexican state, have refused to be taken in by the myth of a new start with the new administration. The people may have changed but it remains the government and there is a certain logic which springs from the institution itself, especially when faced with groups which seek to establish autonomous power. Therefore the Zapatistas have maintained their position, putting forward 3 conditions for the recommencement of talks: the removal of 7 of the 259 army bases in the 'conflict zone'; the release of the Zapatista political prisoners; the implementation of the COCOPA law (developed by a government commision as part of the San Andres accords) which constitutionally guarantees the rights and culture of indigenous groups within Mexico. The government, as part of its media offensive, has made great claims about its 'concessions' to these Zapatista demands, but in reality they have only closed 4 of the 7 military bases. No prisoners in federal jurisdiction have been released (although some 30 prisoners have been released from Chiapas state prisons) and the San Andres accords are no nearer implementation.

The Zapatista response

In response to the government media onslaught, the Zapatistas have responded with criticisms of the neo-liberal policies of the new administration. However, if they were to rely on influence in the mass media alone to combat the propaganda of the Mexican ruling class, they would surely lose. They own no newspapers or television networks, they can't afford PR consultants or advertising campaigns. Therefore the Zapatistas resolved to take their message directly to 'civil society'. Immediately after Fox's election they announced a Zapatista march, a caravan which would tour through Mexico from Chiapas to Mexico city. This caravan is headed by 24 delegates of the Zapatista movement; 23 indigenous comandantes and their popular media-spokesman, sub-comandante Marcos. These delegates will visit 36 towns and will hold meetings with "legislators, peasant and indigenous organisations, trade unions, NGO's, student groups, teachers, intellectuals, reporters and all others who want to meet them". In cases where there are too many groups who want to meet them they will prioritise indigenous groups. They will hold public rallies in many of the towns on the way. They aim to build links with the multitude of organisations, groups and individuals which together make up civil society. The caravan will end up in Mexico city on the 11th of March with a meeting with federal legislators and what promises to be a huge rally in the Zocalo square, the centre of the city.

This caravan is a brave undertaking by the Zapatistas. The 24 delegates are unarmed and they include most of the key military commanders of the EZLN, including their charismatic media figurehead, Marcos. Many of the states which they will pass through have governments which are extremely hostile to the Zapatistas and there are several right-wing paramilitary groups which have threatened the delegation. Their base of mass support is in Chiapas and elsewhere they are much less firmly entrenched among the people. They initially requested that the caravan should be escorted by the International Committee of the Red Cross but they were turned down just two days before the set off - an occurrence which the Zapatistas openly blamed on government interference. Thus, since for obvious reasons they have no faith in the state security apparatus, they are relying on civil society for their security, and the assistance of their supporters among the caravan.

Start of the march

Saturday February 24th saw the beginning of the march. The delegates first congregated in 4 of the Zapatista autonomous municipalities in the Chiapas uplands before travelling, accompanied by the media and their numerous supporters, to the first big event of the caravan: a rally in the town of San Cristobal de Las Casas, the Chiapas town which has been at the centre of the conflict since the beginning. After the San Cristobal rally the caravan was to depart Northwards the following morning towards Mexico city.

The Zapatistas were due to arive in San Cristobal's main square at about 4pm. By noon crowds were starting to gather in the square. There was a low stage at one end, opposite the cathedral, decked with banners sporting slogans in favour of indigenous rights and the EZLN. A group of about 30 youths in the Zapatistas' trademark ski-masks, sat around at one side of the stage. Five or six trucks of the television networks with large satellite dishes on their rooves were parked behind the cathedral. The two small raised areas on the square were bristling with television cameras and press photographers awaiting the start of the event. The rest of the square was filled with a thin crowd of supporters and curious tourists. The public address system on the stage boomed out reggae music. There was not a single policeman or soldier to be seen anywhere in the vicinity.

At about 3pm, the masked youths moved off the square onto the adjoining road which runs along the side of the square, and blocked off the section of the road nearest the square by forming a human chain with linked arms. This let the growing crowd know from which direction the Zapatista delegation would arrive and there was a rush to take up good spots along the sides of this road. I was fortunate enough to be nearby and thus acquired a good, if uncomfortable, spot on top of a high wall just beside the place where the delegates would have to approach the stage. The sides of this street and all the good vantage points were quickly filled with a thick throng. Never before in my life have I seen so much photographic equipment concentrated in one spot, it seemed that almost everybody was wielding a video camera or still camera with an enormous zoom lens. The crowd was very international in character, indeed at this stage locals seemed to be in the minority. Within a couple of metres of my position, I identified Argentine, Chilean, Guatemalan, Italian, French, Canadian, Spanish and US observers. Some were obviously here as supporters while others were merely tourists after an exclusive photo of the famous subcomandante.

By 5pm the delegation still hadn't arrived and the crowd was continuing to swell. Perhaps 1,000 people lined the street from where the delegation would approach the square and many more had taken up positions in the square itself. By now more banners had been erected and hung at various spots around the square. One declared "the indigenous teachers support the EZLN", another bade the Zapatistas welcome to the city of San Cristobal. Presently a column of people dressed in white and chanting slogans was seen in the distance approaching the square and a flurry of excitement ran through the crowd, thinking it was the delegation. But it turned out to be the Italian group "Ya Basta" who had sent a contingent of something between 50 and 100 members to accompany the caravan. All dressed in matching white boiler suits and chanting slogans, their arrival energated the crowd and various of their chants were taken up by different sections of the crowd. One small child, perhaps 3 years old amused the crowd greatly by shouting out "Viva Zapata" at the top of his voice.

The crowd continued to grow and there was still no sign of the Zapatista delegation. At about 7pm, several hundred masked Zapatistas arrived at the opposite end of the square from where the delegation was expected. However, these turned out not to be the delegation, they were merely to reinforce the crowd control, and they took up positions along the approach street, standing shoulder to shoulder to keep the crowd back. Others lined the roped-off passage which led from this street to the stage. By the numbers of ski-masked Zapatistas now around the stage and its approaches, one could tell that they were very concerned for the security of this rare public appearance of Marcos and the other senior figures of the EZLN. The sound system on the stage continued to play music although on a couple of occasions the compere tried to lead chants but these died pretty quickly. Darkness had now fallen and the crowd was becoming somewhat impatient, many of us were tired, uncomfortable, hungry and cold, so it was hard to whip up enthusiasm for singing.

At about 7:30pm a cavalcade of trucks, all full of people, was seen in the distance, rolling into town. We guessed correctly that this was the caravan finally arriving, but some time passed and no delegation appeared. Finally, just after 8pm, we saw a column of people approaching in the distance. As they approached we could make out the fact that they were all ski-masked and some were carrying banners, flags and placards. At the head of the column were the EZLN standard bearers carrying their own flag and the Mexican flag. They wore white clothes and the colourful tassled traditional hats of the region. They marched down the street, followed by a column of several hundred Zapatistas which carried a number of large placards. The foremost placard read: "The Zapatista delegation is not alone, all the Mexican people are with them". The standard bearers halted when they were level with the stage and the column behind them seperated into two groups, one of men, one of women. The two groups linked arms and took up their positions on opposite sides of the road facing each other, leaving a space of perhaps three metres between them. The Zapatista women who were facing me presented an impressive sight. They were all wearing ski-masks or red-patterned headscarves over their faces and several had babies hanging from slings around their shoulders. Many of the Zapatistas and some of the crowd launched into spirited chanting. "The people united will never be defeated"; "Zapata lives, the struggle continues"; "Here and there, the struggle will continue", along with many cries of "EZLN", "viva Marcos", "viva the indigenous people" and other salutes.

Next the Zapatista band appeared. It consisted of about 8 members, all playing traditional instruments, a far cry from the brass bands normally associated with armies. They stopped in front of my position and played a soft and delicate tune. When they were finished it was the turn of the autonomous municipalities. Thousands of masked Zapatistas marched down the street between the massed ranks along the sides of the streets. Many of their ski-masks had slogans like "dignity" stitched or stuck on. Each group had a placard announcing the atonomous municipality from which it came. There were several large banners with the initials of the "EZLN" emblazoned on them, black and red stars were another favourite motif. Before long all the space on the street was taken up and there were still thousands of Zapatistas who hadn't yet entered the street.

Chants rang around the crowd, but it appeared that the delegation still hadn't arrived. After another half hour waiting the long awaited delegation finally appeared. It was heralded by the appearance of the white suited Ya Basta contingent which, with linked arms, cleared a broad space along the road leading up to the stage. Then a coach appeared. With great difficulty it manouveured its way slowly along the road among the massed ranks of Zapatistas and photographers as Ya Basta desperately tried to remain linked around the bus and keep the crowd away. Finally it came to a halt opposite the stage. The door remained closed as a clear path to the stage was secured, guarded by the bodies of innumerable masked Zapatistas. Eventually the door opened and the delegates emerged from the bus one by one and hurried to the stage, allowing us to catch just a glimpse of them. Marcos was one of the last, identifiable by his pipe and the headset which he wore over his ski-mask, and the crowd who had been somewhat muted until now, gave their mightiest chant upon his appearance "Marcos, Marcos". Still he didn't pause at all on his way to the stage and many of the photographers were bitterly dissappointed with the brief glimpse that they got.

At this stage I abandoned my perch on the side of the approach street and made my way into the square itself. There was a large crowd amassed there, the exact number of which I could only give the roughest estimate. I'd guess there were anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 people there, more than half of whom were wearing ski-masks, but this could be widely inaccurate. The only thing that I can say for sure is that there were many thousands there. The delegates lined up on the stage and adressed a speech of inspiration and exhortation to the crowd. This was followed by a series of chants and slogans. By 11pm, the rally was over. The delegates filed off the stage to the Zapatista information centre where they were to spend the night. Many of the international supporters also retired to get an early night before the caravan's departure scheduled for 6am the next morning. For most of the indigenous Zapatistas it was bedtime. They lay down to sleep on the hard stone ground of the square, huddled together against the bitter cold of the night. Many of them didn't even have a blanket to keep themselves warm. The mood among these people was not joyous or celebratory in the wake of the rally, it was a mood of grim determination from a people accustomed to struggling against enormous hardship and difficulties. These people had travelled far from home to sleep on a hard stone floor on a freezing night, many of them went hungry with no money for food, all in the name of dignity, after having struggled for seven long years in this "war against forgetting". The sight of them settling down for the night drove home in a powerful way the immense nobility of their struggle.

viva la marcha zapatista! viva el EZLN! arriba a los que luchan

The Irish Mexico Group will be leafletting in support of the march on Saturday 3rd March at 2pm outside the Bank of Ireland on College Green. On March 9th or 10th they will be organising a demonstration, contact for more details.

There is a PDF file of a poster to advertise the march at

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