A Week as a Human Rights Observer in a Zapatista Community

(An image of the slain “Galeano”)

The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) is an armed revolutionary group based in Mexico’s most southern state, Chiapas. It first rebelled openly on January 1, 1994 with an armed uprising in numerous locations in Chiapas. The original goal was to spark a revolution throughout Mexico. The date of this uprising intentionally coincided with the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement which threatened to privatize indigenous lands, long held communally.1 The Zapatistas do not accept any particular label for their movement but are clearly inspired by local, indigenous autonomy, and socialism as communal ownership of the economy is a distinguishing characteristic. Despite the bizarre rumor among some sectors of North American “anarchists,” the Zapatistas are not pacifist. They are armed specifically because of the history of ineffective, pacifist attempts to get the Mexican government to take them into account. They have since agreed not to expand further by military means but they have not laid down their arms, a required means of defense against the Mexican state and the para-militaries it sponsors.

In early 2015 I had the chance to spend a week in the Zapatista Caracol, La Realidad in the southeast of the state of Chiapas. The Fray Bartolome de las Casas Center for Human Rights (Frayba) is an organization dedicated to defending the human rights of oppressed sectors, particularly in Chiapas State. It has a particular focus on indigenous communities. Frayba helps organize and publicize campaigns, such as “Rostros del Despojo” (Faces of Dispossession). It also monitors abuses of human rights in conjunction with communities which have experienced, or live under threat of, abuses such as executions, imprisonment or displacement. The BriCO program helps to organize the dispatching of international human rights observers to communities in more imminent danger of violations of human rights committed by the Mexican state and the para-militaries it supports. The objective is to show that there is a presence that will record such activities and diffuse the word across the country and the globe. From this, one can draw the sad conclusion that the Mexican state (and its international backers) care less about indigenous lives within Mexico than it does about the black eye that it would receive if the evidence of its abuses would gain much attention. Consequently, abuses are less likely to occur when international observers are present. Some of these communities are Zapatista territory.

In this context, I was dispatched with three other observers to the small village of la Realidad, the site of the murder of the Zapatista known as Galeano on May 2, 2014. In this community, Zapatistas make up just under half of the families, though more identify with the Zapatistas than with any single official government party. With good reason the Zapatistas consider all of the official parties to basically be the same.

Our role as observers was to photograph the military vehicles that would pass by, recording how many personnel there were, the direction they were traveling and the information on the license plate. Nothing abnormal occurred in my time there, but because of the high tensions in the community we were not allowed to leave the observers’ camp which is stationed along the main road coming through the community. The sectors against the Zapatistas are not happy to have international observers in the community and wandering foreigners could arouse emotions and cause an altercation. Since the murder, the two sides in la Realidad are not speaking to each other. Friends and families no longer trust nor speak to each other if they fall on the other side of the divide. Beside the observers’ camp, the Zapatistas were constructing a school to send their children to. Zapatistas were kicked out of the community church as well.

Under Cover of Para-militaries

These days, the prime danger does not come directly from the official military, but from para-militaries. Para-militaries come directly from the communities themselves. Regarding the incident in la Realidad, it is known that the murderers were a group of masked men from within the community but it is still not known who exactly participated in the act which also left many others injured. The Mexican government gets multiple benefits from using para-militaries instead of the official forces, not just in conflicts with Zapatistas but with any indigenous group critical of the government and the interchangeable parties that come to power. The para-militaries give the impression that the government has no direct hand in murders and disappearances, pretending it’s nothing more than indigenous sectors fighting each other. This then helps to justify the governments military presence as though it is seeking to mediate tension. When attacks occur, the government itself does not receive the heat of international criticism. The use of para-militaries also helps to effectively divide the communities internally, instead of the communities uniting against the oppressing outsiders of the Mexican state. To attain the loyalty of sectors of the indigenous population, the Mexican state, formerly indifferent to their interests, now attains allegiance by buying off sectors and funding projects to help those who are willing to switch sides and abandon the Zapatistas.

Nothing New

Even capitalist sources will admit to the displacement thousands of people, just within Chiapas State, immensely more in all of Mexico. Though they will go to strenuous lengths to praise and avoid implicating the state itself.2 While the Zapatistas live under constant threat of state-backed repression, all groups willing to strongly criticize capitalism and the state suffer the same danger. This threat is not new. Some well known, but far from unique examples, include the Acteal massacre and the 43 recently murdered leftist students in Ayotzinapa.3 The government gives dishonest lip-service to searching justice for the murdered, disappeared and displaced. It then ignores and shoves everything under the rug as soon as it can.

On December 22, 1997, 45 indigenous Tzotzil were massacred while praying in the church in Acteal. They belonged to the pacifist group, Las Abejas, and were mostly women and children. The President at the time, Ernesto Zedillo, now lives in Connecticut.4 On September 26, 2014, 43 leftist students from Ayotzinapa were abducted and massacred. The North American press mentioned this at the time but intentionally didn’t mention the important reality of the political positions of the students. The murder of the 43 students unleashed massive, nationwide protests against the government and President Enrique Peña Nieto who, as with past Mexican Presidents, is seen as utterly corrupt and in league with the cartels. Meanwhile, US-based group Appeal of Conscience considered it reasonable to name Peña Nieto (an American darling) as the 2014 Statesman of the Year.5

Despite the struggles and setbacks along the way, the Zapatistas have continued pushing forward. Women in the region have been thoroughly subordinated for centuries. In Zapatista communities there is an authentic drive to promote equality between men and women. Though there are massive leaps that are still required, much has been achieved. Equal participation by women is promoted in governance. Alcohol has been banned in all Zapatista communities. Among the many positive effects of this has been a major reduction in physical abuse of wives by their husbands. They have constructed numerous autonomous, self-governing municipalities. In these areas, the federal government is not allowed to operate or have authority. Services and governance are communal and provided by the communities. These are requirements so that the government can not use leverage of the resources it controls to destroy the movement from within. Small and isolated by the Mexican state, life is not always easy in Zapatista territory. But they strive to provide many important services such as education and healthcare within their communities. Simply the promotion and maintenance of the independence and vitality of the communities is a major success when put into contrast with the history of physical and cultural genocide directed at them since the first days of colonialism. Forced privatization of their land under NAFTA would have been the final colonial blow. To prevent the total division and disintegration of their communities, it could not be allowed.

The Zapatista’s are focusing within their communities and are not promoting another offensive, but because of the incomparably greater resources at the disposal of the Mexican capitalists and their state, the ultimate success or failure of Zapatismo will depend on a successful socialist movement across Mexico. Capitalism, with its inherent drive for expansion caused by competition and the search for profit, means that the pressure from the capitalist state can never cease. An island of socialism in a sea of capitalism, whether labelled socialism or not, can not indefinitely withstand ever-rising and aggressive waters. Capitalism can never permit the existence of an alternative model within its territory. But similar pressures that led to the Zapatista outburst in 1994 are building up throughout the country. It can be seen in the immense disgust for the President and the government as a whole. The contradictions hidden barely below the surface of Mexican society revealed themselves clearly in the mass mobilizations that took off throughout the country in the wake of the Ayotzinapa massacre. While the situation has superficially settled down, the massive discontent in Mexico is a match in a dry field. With nothing but drought to come, the next inevitable friction will produce only larger sparks.

Here is a link to the organization in Mexico, Frayba, that organizes the Human Rights Observers program in conjunction with various indigenous communities:


Here is a group in Canada that works with Frayba to prepare Observers before leaving to Mexico:


1 http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-25550654

2 http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/up-front/posts/2012/02/17-mexico-idp-law-ferris

3 http://www.marxist.com/2014-11-19-15-31-29.htm

4 http://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/mexico/first-anniversary-acteal-massacre-chiapas

5 http://www.appealofconscience.org/d-584/press/Mexican%20President%20Pena%20to%20Receive%20World%20Statesman%20Award


About Antoine

I am from British Columbia and now live in Montreal
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