Two weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to participate in the solidarity caravan to La Realidad (Reality, the village name) in the south of Chiapas on May 24-25th, to show solidarity to the first-established Zapatista caracol (organisational hubs). The Zapatistas had asked for support after a local Zapatista school teacher José Luis Solís Lopez (his Zapatista name was Galeano), was brutally ambushed and killed on the 2nd of May this year . A tribute would be paid to Galeano on Saturday 24th of May at the caracol. Little did we all know that Subcomandante Marcos would give his last public speech that evening, and once again surprise us with the words and vision of the Zapatistas on their steady paths to re-imaginging and remaking this world.
La Realidad is about 6 hours by car ( about 200Km on mostly small curvy roads) if you go direct from San Cristóbal de las Casas, heading towards the Lacandona jungle and very close to the Guatemalan border. It’s an isolated little village where Zapatistas live side-by-side with non-Zapatistas (as happens in many Zapatista areas). Recently tensions had been mounting there between CIOAC-H* (Central independiente de Obreros Agrícolas y Campesinos, The Historic Independent Agricultural Workers and Campesinos Central) and the Zapatistas over a detained Zapatista vehicle. While both sides were in negotiations, a group of Zapatistas were surrounded and attacked by CIOAC-H members. Galeano was surrounded by 20 CIOAC-H paramilitaries, brutally beaten and shot in the head.
On Friday morning, all those participating in the solidarity caravan were to arrive at the departure point by 7am to register, split into our respective vehicles, and leave together around 8am. Now this is Mexico, and I’m well used to delays, but nobody could have anticipated the day ahead of us. We knew we may be waiting for the Mexico City caravan to join us, plus others who were coming from Oaxaca, Yucatán, and even some very determined people from as far north as Chihuahua (not to mention various overseas people). Yet the more vehicles of all shapes and sizes we added to the caravan, the harder and slower it was going to be to travel together. In the end around 45-odd small vans, cars and 6 50-seater buses from Mexico City (around 600 people in all), set off from San Cristóbal at 1pm, 5 hours late.
In the end it took us 25 hours to reach La Realidad. I’m not going to bore you with many details of the mishaps en route, but I think it’s important to mention this because of the way our caravan was organised, how the organisers treated us punters, how we all reacted, was in stark contrast to what we saw at the caracol compared to how the Zapatistas organised themselves. Many lessons for organisation, self-control and basic human decency to be learnt right there!
In short, there were vehicle break-downs, infiltrated corporate media people who were kicked off the caravan, people left behind in hammocks who’d decided to take naps en route (nut-jobs!), and larger buses getting stuck on the small Chiapas roads. But the worst of it was how the caravan coordinators started off on the wrong foot with everyone, with most of them yelling at us at the toilet stops to hurry up, pushing people aside to get through, never informing us as to why we stopped a million times (we’d find out later through hear-say), and basically treating us like cattle being shipped from A to B. Lots of bad sentiments were created en route, and in the end we slept on the buses in the middle of nowhere at around 3am till sunrise at 630am. We later found out that some Zapatistas had come to meet us after we didn’t arrive at sundown and for our own safety told the caravan to wait till sunrise to continue travelling. This way we would not arrive at night to the village where there were the CIOAC-H paramilitaries and create possible provocation with 600 people descending on them in the dark.
The Zapas call the CIOAC-H organisation paramilitaries, because they have seen many cases of these leaders incentivising and arming their members to cause conflict with the Zapas and other neighbouring indigenous groups in different parts of Chiapas. The Zapas see it as part of the low-intensity war that the Mexican government (at federal and local level) has been engaged in since 1996. In this way, the Mexican government can look away and claim that it’s just another dispute between different indigenous communities.
Paramilitaries is a strong word for me. I see paramilitaries very much linked to the historical Colombian paramilitary context, but I think it’s me who needs to expand my concept of this. Here I see that paramilitary groups can be much smaller, less organised, less well-funded. It’s not like the specialised well-trained and well-funded private armies hired in Colombia by large wealthy land-owners to protect their interests. Here it varies a lot, but it seems that in Chiapas, those in the front lines are just poor fellow campesinos who are looking for a quick buck to feed their families, and a few bricks to build their house. That makes it even sadder, to see the government use indigenous peoples against each other.
En La Realidad
But back to the caravan….we arrived Saturday morning 8am and after some cuing we went into the caracol. La Realidad is caracol I, the first organisational hub set up by the Zapatistas in 2003, when they decided to move towards a civilian-led organisation, and no longer led by their military-wing, the EZLN. (more info. on Zaptista caracoles here) Each one of the other 4 caracoles had also sent a solidarity caravan of their indigenous members (men, women, teenagers, children, sucking babies, the lot!), which had arrived the previous night. When we all assembled a little later, infront of the podium to hear Subcomandante Moises pay hommage to Galeano, I could see that we were in the vast minority, with about 2,500 Zapatistas all lined up and masked-up, well organised, while us 600-odd mestizos, city-slickers, and foreigners were a bit of a disorganised mumbling mess after our 25 hour ordeal on the buses!
In the afternoon, word got around that the leading commanders of the EZLN were about to make an appearance, and so all the indymedia people started prepping their gear, while all the compas started lining up in the main plaza. The indigenous women’s colourful clothes were so eye-catching, with some of them carrying their babies on their backs. The leaders of the EZLN came out on horse-back to music playing over the loud-speakers, gave some quick salutes and quickly retreated to let Sub Moisés begin his homage speech. Sub Marcos was among them, with his pipe, eye patch, and machete on his back, and gave us all a middle-finger salute. Very rock-n-roll you might say. They say he always salutes outsiders that way! Afterwards many commented about the skeletal glove he was wearing, the eye-patch…..; what did it all mean?, what would he say later? The groupie-mania peeved me off, but the Sub later pulled his final stunt.
Subcomandante Moisés gave the homage speech for Galeano. He told us how their local good government central committee had called for the EZLN to come to their community and carry out an investigation into the murder of Galeano. “When we look at compañero Galeano, we see the murderers, and we also see who is behind the murderers. They think that by assassinating compañero Galeano, our organization’s struggle will end, but no. That is why we are here, to clarify that the Zapatista struggle has not ended. What they have done to our compañero Galeano is sad and painful for us, but we’re not going to go from one bad thing to another,” said Sub Moisés. He said that they didn’t seek vengeance, but justice. Those who killed Galeano were only weak people he said, following orders from their leaders in CIOAC-H, who were all just being used as pawns by the rich and powerful for their own profit. “The rage we have is against capitalism, because what they did to compañero Galeano…they would have done to anyone”, he continued. He named particular politicians linked to the PAN (National Action Party, Spanish: Partido Acción Nacional, PAN) political party, and The Green Party in Mexico, which are a total right-wing front here!
Sub Moisés invited us all to go to Galeano’s grave at his wife’s house to pay our final respects there. It was moving to see his simple house, his small little yard, his grave all lit with candles, flowers, hand-embroidered messages on cloth. Everyone left a small stone beside the grave as they passed by.
At around 11.30pm Sub Marcos finally took to the podium for his last comunicado, of which ye’ve all probably read something about. Marcos opened by stating that these would be his last words in public because he would ‘cease to exist’. And so he proceeded to recount in brief how and why their struggle started, what they had been fighting for, how they had decided to struggle to build their autonomies, to build schools and clinics instead of training squadrons. He explained how the persona that is Subcomandante Marcos had been contrived for us outsiders who could only see a mestizo (mixed-race person), because we were not ready to converse with the indigenous peoples themselves. We were only looking for our own reflections. He portrayed the indigenous Zapatistas as giants, which we were unable to see because we were too busy looking down.
I started taking photos, but I soon stopped and began to just listen to what he was saying, about working collectively, to stop living within the cult of the individual, to stop looking for messiahs or leaders. I realised that even in my photo-taking action, I was being egotistical, wanting to get a good photo of him myself. Why not just download a copy of some indymedia photos that would be put up? So I sat down, and just listened.
It was time he said, to let the figure of Marcos die, which the indigenous Zapatistas had created, so that Galeano can live. It is time to let go of the façade that they have used to communicate with the us. Now with the Zapatista Little School we outsiders can find out more directly how they have built up their autonomies (they’ve announced they will have another escuelita, date coming soon).
Marcos brought tears to my eyes in one memorable part when he described the atmosphere in La Realidad when he arrived just after Galeano’s death……
“ ……Our pain spoke quietly, our rage in whispers.
It was as if we were trying to avoid scaring Galeano away with these unfamiliar sounds.
As if our voices and step called to him.
“Wait, compa,” our silence said.
“Don’t go,” our words murmured. …….”
Then he listed so many names of people who have been killed in struggles in Mexico and all over the world, so many loved ones who have ceased to exist while struggling for justice. It really brought the shared grief home to me. I shed a tear for all those I will never meet but who have suffered and will continue to suffer while struggling to change this world. It was one of those moments that fills you up with determined sorrow and rage, that I know that these things are all worth fighting for, and we’ve got to keep struggling together. As Marcos said “To struggle, one only needs a sense of shame, a bit of dignity, and a lot of organisation.”
The Sub said many other things. His speech is worth hearing or reading. He does not disappoint. Astute simplicity.
And so concluded the mirage of Marcos which I’m grateful to have witnessed. I have not been a huge follower, but seeing him in the flesh and hearing his last words left me well impressed. The Zapas were the magicians behind the curtain.
This entry has got lengthy so just some quick notes to round up. Our solidarity caravan had a terrible mishap on the way home. Just as we were lining up in all the vehicles to leave in the morning, one small truck nearly crashed into another. One passenger saw the two cars were about to crash and decided to jump from the back of the truck thinking the truck would fall into a ditch and turn over. This passenger, Davíd Ruíz García, obtain a bad head injury when he jumped and fell, and died in hospital 3 days later. He was a dedicated activist from the town of San Francisco Xochicuautla, in the State of Mexico, near Mexico City. David was involved locally in defending the Otomi-Mexica forests, and had been part of many other solidarity campaigns and processes with different indigenous communities around Mexico.
The Zapas have put a call out for anyone who can help them with fund-raising to build their autonomous school and clinic again. They estimate it will cost about 1,100 euro and have asked anyone who can help in any way they can, to pass on construction materials, books, medical supplies, funds etc. If anyone wants to do a fundraiser wherever they may be, do so, and if you let me know, we can do some bank transfer and I can get it delivered here. I’m helping some folks who are running one here next Saturday.
Keep yer ear to the groun at Enlace Zapatista to find our when the next Zapatista Little School is to be announced.
But what’s really next? Well, just start up or keep running our own autonomies with whoever we have around us, our own autonomous spaces in whatever form we can, with our communities, our friends, our families. It’s tough work, but isn’t everything that’s worth fighting for?
* CIOAC-H – is an organisation the Zapatistas call “paramilitary” – of the National Action Party (PAN) and the Green Ecologist Party of Mexico (PVEM) – represented in Chiapas by Governor Manuel Velasco Coello, whom the EZLN consider the “ultra paramilitary boss.” They believe the government is directly paying off the leaders of CIOAC-H to create conflict in their communities, to continue the low-intensity war that they have been resisting for many years.
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