Local Power Plays Fuel Tension in Chiapas


Try this for surreal nomenclature: The hamlet called Moises--that’s Spanish for Moses--Gandhi is the capital of Ernesto Che Guevara township, not far from First of January and just northwest of 17th of November.

But don’t bother looking for these brazenly revolutionary names on any official map of Chiapas, the southeastern Mexican state where Maya Indians rebelled against the government Jan. 1, 1994. Because these are Zapatista rebel-run “autonomous” townships, rival power bases that pose a direct challenge to state authority. Some even issue birth and death certificates, run clinics or schools, and judge and punish local criminals.

A 4-year-old cease-fire may have halted open warfare, but there’s no truce in the sometimes deadly struggle between the government and Zapatistas for control over Che Guevara and scores more townships, or municipalities, scattered through the Chiapas mountains and canyons. While the leaders trade blame for a deadlock in peace talks, the players on the ground have been maneuvering fiercely to reshape the political landscape.


Since the start of the year, the government has retaken control of several pro-Zapatista towns. In July, after sending in as many as 1,000 police officers and soldiers in operations to recapture the towns, it proffered a carrot to balance the stick: temporary official recognition for some breakaway town councils--but only if they agree to work with the state.

The Zapatistas scoff at this new “detente plan” as an attempt to co-opt and undermine them. Instead, they are working to strengthen the parallel town governments. And so the conflict has deepened.

Tensions Increasing Ahead of Elections

Tensions are increasing still further ahead of elections Sunday for mayors in most of the 111 official municipalities across Chiapas, as well as for most of the 24 seats in the state legislature. Voting has been postponed in eight towns along the Pacific coast--far from the conflict zone--where deadly flooding occurred last month. Political parties worry that the Zapatistas will again call for boycotts, as they did in 1995 local balloting, which could result in fresh violence.

An important example of the campaign being waged for Chiapan hearts and minds is the placid farming village of Morelia, in the rebel municipality of 17th of November (named for the day the Zapatista army was founded in 1983). The hamlet of Morelia, home to just a few hundred residents, is so small that the streets aren’t even paved with gravel; instead, grassy lanes separate the houses. A concrete basketball court serves as the village square.

Since the 1994 uprising, residents had been solidly Zapatista. In late May, however, the villagers gathered and decided to declare themselves loyal to the government again. Chiapas Gov. Roberto Albores Guillen cites that decision as a sign that Chiapans are abandoning the Zapatista rebellion.

“Some of the people grew tired of the struggle,” admitted a Zapatista supporter in Morelia who declined to give his name. “We don’t have enough food, so the people have grown weaker.”


The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which has ruled Chiapas as well as the national government for nearly 70 years, has always been skillful at using municipal purse strings and privileges to ensure political loyalty. A Zapatista leader in Morelia claimed that state officials had given a truck, chickens and a gas-cylinder stove to PRI supporters to get them to lead the pro-government move in the community, located in a verdant farming valley six miles down a gravel road from the official municipal seat of Altamirano.

The Zapatista stressed that the rest of the 52 communities that make up 17th of November remain solidly Zapatista.

But a PRI supporter in Morelia, who was equally unwilling to give his name, responded that village members had met openly and chose freely to switch back to the ruling party “because the new [Zapatista] leaders were enriching themselves just like the others used to do.”

Winds Sometimes Shift in Zapatistas’ Favor

In some Chiapan areas, however, the winds have shifted the Zapatistas’ way, with new breakaway villages being proclaimed or reestablished. For instance, rebel supporters set up a new alternative council in July in what they call Tierra y Libertad (Land and Freedom), in Las Margaritas municipality, after a military incursion dismantled its predecessor.

Albores, the state governor, says that most of the 32 autonomous townships claimed by the rebels exist in name only and that just eight have real infrastructure. Those eight, however, cover broad swaths of key pro-Zapatista territory north and east of the colonial city of San Cristobal de las Casas.

In an interview, Albores said a key goal of his government is to reestablish the rule of law. That means cracking down on armed groups of any political persuasion and enforcing the state constitution, he said, and in particular blocking any further breakaways.

“We don’t dispute the right of people to choose their own local rulers,” he said. “But it must be done through legally approved channels.

“We have sought reconciliation and dialogue, and we have shown great patience, but we could not permit [new autonomous towns] because they are detonators of conflict,” Albores said. “When one group says unilaterally, ‘The mayor no longer exists, and we now have a new power structure,’ then automatically groups become polarized. This plants the seeds of confrontation.”

Albores is pushing a “re-municipalization plan” that would carve up the state’s most contentious municipalities into 33 smaller, more manageable towns. He also proposes “transitional legal status” for five of the most important autonomous townships--including Che Guevara and 17th of November--under certain conditions.

Municipalities, as the townships are known, in Chiapas are more akin to U.S. counties than cities or towns. Many of the state’s 111 municipalities are enormous territories embracing hundreds of villages of as few as 100 families each. A number of the purported autonomous municipalities include just a few villages rather than a whole municipality. Yet some parallel towns are strategically vital.

“The government knows perfectly well that as long as these autonomous communities exist, they will never defeat the [Zapatistas], because there the indigenous people have real power,” said Father Pablo Romo, a leader of the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center in San Cristobal. “These are Zapatista power bases [where] the leaders are faceless; the individual leaders change often. The communities are self-regulated, with a great elasticity in power.”

A senior government official in Mexico City said of the autonomous municipalities: “If you have a strategy against the system, what you want to do is liberate territories. Each one was growing in importance.”

Campaign to ‘Change the Reality in Chiapas’

The initiative to redraft Chiapas’ municipalities is part of a broader campaign to “change the reality in Chiapas,” the official said.

“If the rebel municipal presidents are close to the [Zapatista] general command, they won’t accept re-municipalization. If they are close to the people, they will,” the official said. “We have to find a way to get them into the political process.”

Albores, a feisty PRI leader, was appointed in January to finish the term of his lower-profile predecessor, who stepped down after the December massacre of 45 peasants in the village of Acteal.

That blood bath was a stark consequence of the fight for local control: The peasants lived in the hamlet within an autonomous, pro-Zapatista community that the Zapatistas call Polho; the attackers have been identified as pro-government paramilitary groups from the surrounding official municipality of Chenalho.

PRI supporters point out that the Chiapas conflict is not a simple matter of indigenous Zapatistas against white or mestizo (mixed-race) PRI supporters; rather, in these poor communities, the indigenous Mayas are divided between PRI-istas and Zapatistas.

At odds in this conflict are opposite models for local rule: the rebels’ communal, tradition-based approach versus the state’s more formal, individual-vote system.

One of the goals of the Zapatista uprising was to win recognition for traditional indigenous culture, including communal forms of government. The central government has replied that such practices would violate the Mexican Constitution, including the democratic right to a secret ballot.

The autonomous municipalities are linked to one of the most sweeping if less often noticed consequences of the Chiapas uprising: an enormous acceleration in land redistribution, both legal and illegal, from large haciendas and fincas, or farms, to indigenous peasants.

In 17th of November, about 10 finca proprietors had owned most of the valley, and landless peons had labored for them. The owners all fled after the uprising, residents said, and hundreds of families invaded their land, taking a few acres each to establish small corn and bean fields and building homes on the land. (The previous owners were apparently compensated by the government.)

That same process of land redistribution has been repeated across Chiapas, involving more than 500,000 acres changing hands through seizures as well as formal government programs designed to counter the Zapatistas and win back popular support.

“Two years ago, the issue was the land itself, having somewhere to plant your crops,” Father Romo said. “But now, many more do have land, and there has been a leap from just getting land to getting control over the land--through the autonomous municipalities. This is about real local political and economic control.”

The better-organized rebel municipalities, for example, hold communal trials of offenders and mete out punishments, Romo said, restoring local rule of law in communities long neglected by the official judicial system.

Yet Albores said there is widespread grass-roots acceptance of his re-municipalization plan in many of the proposed new towns. In the first such negotiation, rebels and PRI supporters agreed in late July to jointly create a new town within Marques de Comillas on the Guatemalan border, which Albores called a potential model for more such locally driven solutions.

But a mood of confrontation is tangible near major autonomous villages. The gravel road into Moises Gandhi, the unofficial center for the 20 communities in the rebel municipality of Che Guevara, passes through an army base bristling with armored vehicles just off the highway at a key intersection. A visiting reporter was stopped and questioned at an army roadblock there.

Then, half a mile down the road, the visitor confronted Zapatista guards at the entry to the humble municipal seat of Che Guevara, where an “autonomous clinic” was established in May.

The Zapatista guards said no one was present who was authorized to speak and denied a request to enter the town. They constantly glanced back at the mountain ridge separating them from the military base. One guard said of the soldiers, “They are always watching.”

Mexico City Bureau Chief Mary Beth Sheridan contributed to this report.