Zapatistas Move Toward Own Government

Times Staff Writer

Latin America’s most famous active guerrilla had not been seen in public in more than two years. So an expectant hush fell as hundreds of Zapatista rebels linked arms to form a security corridor for the awaited entry of their ski-masked, pipe-smoking leader down a steep path to this mountain hamlet.

But Subcommander Marcos did not show. To a disappointed crowd, one of his subordinates made the cryptic announcement Saturday that Marcos had fallen ill with “a bellyache from laughing so much.”

What he was laughing at, and the real reason for his absence, was a matter of speculation throughout a three-day Zapatista celebration that ended here Sunday.


One thing was clear: Nearly 10 years after bursting from the jungle to lead a brief but bloody uprising against the Mexican government, Marcos is moving the Zapatistas toward Indian self-rule in southern Mexico. The cause for the weekend celebration was the swearing-in of five “good government boards” to oversee a scattering of rebel- controlled indigenous communities in impoverished Chiapas state.

His Zapatista National Liberation Army also announced that it was yielding much of its authority to the civilian boards, apparently shifting the movement away from its clandestine military roots to a more open and political identity in which the reclusive Marcos will play a diminished role.

“Armies should be used to defend, not govern,” the guerrilla leader said in a taped message played over loudspeakers to thousands of followers and international supporters here Saturday. He told the new civilian authorities to lead with “reason, not force.” And he ordered his troops to withdraw roadblocks and stop collecting “taxes” from outsiders traveling through rebel territory.

Marcos’ message reinforced a hope that the rebels, while practicing a brand of autonomy not authorized by President Vicente Fox’s national government, intend to live in peace with non- Zapatista Indians after years of bloody skirmishes over land.

The government withheld judgment on the new governing boards, hoping to preserve a cease-fire that has prevailed for much of the past decade.

Federal authorities have mostly ignored the Zapatistas since January 1994, when the Mexican army drove the poorly armed rebels from several towns back into the jungles of Chiapas in 12 days of fighting that claimed 145 lives. The movement, named for 20th century Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, then moved from its original Marxist agenda to champion the struggle of poor Indians to preserve their native languages and culture.

Marcos vanished from sight and said little after leading a Zapatista caravan to Mexico City in March 2001 to seek passage of an Indian rights bill. Although Fox backed the bill, the Mexican Congress passed a diluted version that left the rebels dissatisfied.

The Zapatistas broke off peace talks with the government and began setting up self-governing communities that now number 39, embrace about 400,000 Indians and have little contact with the outside world. They set their watches on “Zapatista time,” an hour ahead of what they call “Fox time.”

Lacking official approval and basic services, these communities have built schools and health clinics with private aid, mostly from the United States and Europe. However, they have been plagued by disputes with pro-government Indians backed by paramilitary forces.

“Every season, more adults from the Zapatista communities show up for teacher training, and we hear about more schools starting up out there,” said Peter Brown, a San Diego teacher who uses American donations to build schools in rebel-held areas.

Zapatista communities, still a minority in Chiapas, also have suffered desertions. Antonio Perez Epech said he fled the rebel village of Polho in November because its corn-farming collective was failing and its leaders refused to let him commute to his two-acre parcel in a non-Zapatista village.

“There was nothing to do in Polho, except the few times when the subcommander sent instructions for everyone to go to a demonstration,” said the 61-year-old farmer, who lives in the pro-government town of Chenalho. “We got bored and hungry.”

The rebel governing boards grew from a flurry of statements posted on the Internet last month by Marcos. He heaped criticism not only on Mexico’s leaders, but on his own movement.

The Zapatista army, he said, had “contaminated” the Indians’ tradition of democracy and self-government by setting itself up as an overlord.

Speaking for the Zapatista army Saturday, a senior officer known as David promised that the rebels would no longer impose their will on villagers who do not consider themselves Zapatistas “as long as they respect our organization.”

The new government bodies are called caracoles, or snails, a Mayan symbol that represents, among other things, “the opening to the heart,” according to one of Marcos’ statements.

In a measure of the tensions, the City Hall, justice of the peace office and many shops in Chenalho shut down Friday after rumors that Zapatistas converging on nearby Oventic would make a detour through the former town to loot and burn. For their part, the Zapatistas denounced an alleged buildup of military forces around Oventic, 30 miles north of San Cristobal de las Casas.

But the event, which turned this hamlet into a giant campground, passed peacefully. The Zapatistas came unarmed, but most of them -- including the musicians and the play-by-play announcer at the basketball tournament -- wore guerrilla-style ski masks.

Despite the move toward openness, rank-and-file members were ordered to refrain from speaking to outsiders during the festivities, frustrating a group of Americans who had traveled here to learn about a school project they support.

It is unclear whether the Zapatistas’ new assertion of autonomy will bring more or less turmoil. Marcos warned that his army would continue to seize drugs, alcohol and illegally cut timber trafficked through its territory and respond to any attacks on Zapatista settlements.

The governor of Chiapas, Pablo Salazar, said Sunday that the new governing boards do not violate any law. But he has been criticized for failing to halt paramilitary activity against Zapatista communities.

“The Zapatistas have taken a positive political action,” said Pedro Raul Lopez Hernandez, president of Chiapas’ independent State Human Rights Commission. “If the governing boards are strong, they will help bring peace between hostile communities. If they are perceived as weak, they will become a target for the paramilitaries.”