Zapatistas Issue a Red Alert, Resurfacing Unwanted Memories for Mexicans

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• EZLN (Zapatista) subcomandante Marcos announced a General Red Alert on June 19, retreating along with insurgents into the mountainside.

• The Zapatista cause has received substantial international support ever since it took up arms against the Mexican government in 1994.

• Historic linkages persist between the infamous Salinas brothers and the EZLN.

• Doubts about the timing of the alert, months before Mexico’s presidential race, imply the EZLN’s political goals.

• Mexico must resolve the matter of the EZLN’s status soon if the country wants to increase investor confidence and participate in the world market as a credible international player.

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) took up arms against the Mexican government in 1994 to highlight the central government’s repression and the plight of the country’s traditionally-ignored indigenous communities. After years of the relative calm that followed, this movement is once again showing signs of activity in Mexico’s poverty-ridden border state of Chiapas. On the morning of Monday, June 19, subcomandante Marcos, the enigmatic leader, head propagandist and spokesperson for Mexico’s most well-known indigenous guerrilla movement (whose real name is Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente, and who hails from the gulf-coast city of Tampico, Tamaulipas), announced in a public letter that his makeshift forces were going on a General Red Alert. This announcement brought to the surface doubts about the link between the EZLN and prominent national political figures, and has sparked concerns about Mexico’s ability to deal with the Zapatistas on a constructive basis.

The announcement followed a March 19 statement by units of the Mexican armed forces stationed in Chiapas, boasting of their destruction of 44 marihuana plantations “within the area of influence of the rebel group, best known as EZLN.” However, on June 23, government spokesperson Rubén Aguilar fully retracted the earlier statement, noting that the plantations were actually out of the EZLN’s range. This retraction most likely came out of fear of the General Red Alert’s possible destabilizing consequences on Mexico’s present political and economic status quo.

Marcos explained in his letter last week that the official EZLN radio station, La Voz de Los Sin Voz (The Voice of the Voiceless), was temporarily closing down and that most of the population was pulling out of their villages. The last time the EZLN declared a similar warning was in December 1997, after the Acteal Massacre, in which the Mexican Red Cross reported the murder of 45 Tzotzil-Mayan peasants by the paramilitary forces known as “mascara roja.” Yet the timing of Marcos’ new alert, in conjunction with next year’s presidential elections, suggests that underlying political factors may be at work in Chiapas, with possible portentous consequences.

Entrenched In the Mountainside
Although the federal government in Mexico City reassured citizens on Tuesday, June 21 that activities in Los Altos and the Selva de Chiapas were normal, Marcos’ alert suggests that this calm could be short-lived. The subcomandante recommended in his letter of warning that all individuals, foreign or domestic, involved in community activities around the region, “should leave rebel territory…or stay under their own risk.” He further stressed the need to evacuate all minors present in the EZLN’s area of influence in central Chiapas.

The EZLN’s leader also called on all his troops involved in peacekeeping and social programs throughout the state to report back to their central command, as their presence would be needed. Marcos explained that those who independently aided the revolutionary group in civil, political or cultural activities throughout the years were cleared of any responsibility for the EZLN’s future actions. “We thank all the men and women,” Marcos writes in his letter, “with sincerity and honesty, who throughout nearly 12 years, have supported our civil and peaceful struggle for the constitutional recognition of the rights and culture of our indigenous populations.”

A Defensive Measure
In a subsequent public announcement issued on June 20, Marcos explained the reason for the warning: “This red alert is a defensive precautionary measure. As you may recall, in February 1995, while the EZLN was engaged in an organizational meeting, it was attacked by government forces.” Marcos included in the letter an accusation against former President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León for the attack, when the military forces during his presidency, stormed several villages in Chiapas in search of EZLN leaders and forced hundreds of residents of the surrounding communities to flee into the forest. The subcomandante further informed his readers of the ex-head-of-state’s involvements with transnational corporations and indicted him for pandering to the West (Zedillo, a Washington favorite, is on the board of directors of the International Institute of Economics and the Union Pacific Corporation). Responding to Marcos’ recent announcements, Luis H. Alvarez, the National Action Party’s (PAN) Commissioner for Dialogue and Negotiation for Chiapas, asked the indigenous communities to “remain acting with order and civility and within the framework of the law.”

Easy Come, Easy Go
Although Los Pinos (Mexico’s presidential residence) and the EZLN have had a predictably rough relationship, matters between them seemed to take a positive turn in 2000. During his presidential campaign, Vicente Fox vowed to resolve the problems in Chiapas in “15 minutos.” While his words seemed laced with an excess of optimism (something that became a feature in many of Fox’s pronouncements), surprisingly, once in office, the former Coca-Cola executive showed some results. Fox removed troops from Zapatista strongholds, released insurgent leaders jailed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and offered congress on December 5, 2000 a peace proposal drafted by his peace commission, the COCOPA (Comisión de Concordia y Pacificación), which would give the indigenous communities autonomous status. These reforms were hailed by most Mexicans, including the EZLN itself, as positive measures which would ease tensions in the region.

In support of the bill, Marcos and his fellow comandantes traveled to Mexico City. This well publicized campaign in March 2001 was colloquially referred to as the “Zapatour,” and was well received by the general public as a peaceful form of activism. Yet when the COCOPA’s bill on autonomy was rejected by the PRI as well as by several legislators from Fox’s own party, the EZLN retreated to the mountainside, terminating their brief flirtation with the Mexican authorities.

Unofficial Autonomy
Yet despite this setback, since July 2003 the EZLN has administered its own system of local rule called Juntas de Buen Gobierno, or Good Government Committees. As a result of the EZLN’s full control of several areas in Chiapas, these juntas have emerged as being in complete control of local citizens who have obtained their positions without the federal government’s official approval. Many believe that if the success of these self-governing communities had been subsequently accepted by federal authorities by accepting the COCOPA’s proposed message, the need for a military presence within the EZLN ultimately would have been eliminated. In this manner, the indigenous communities of Chiapas could have essentially moved from armed resistance to peaceful political dialogue. However, the Mexican establishment has been unable or, perhaps more accurately, unwilling to compromise. The reasons for this intransigence are varied, yet they all seem to stem from Mexico’s historically entrenched tradition – initiated five centuries ago during the Spanish conquista – of marginalizing the country’s indigenous communities.

A Transnational Revolutionary Cause
Although not much progress has been achieved in Mexico, the EZLN has been extraordinarily successful in gaining support for its cause around the world. It has been so well received abroad, that there is arguably more EZLN propaganda circulating in the vias of Rome, than in the calles of any large Mexican city.

It is important to point out that much of the EZLN’s success and its ability to survive has come from the help of many European left-of-center non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In Italy, the many centri sociali, or social centers, which surfaced during the 1970s, have made concentrated efforts to aid the Zapatista cause; examples of these NGOs include Corto Circuito, Associazione Ya Basta! and the Milan-based, Centro Sociale Leoncavallo. The latter, through the sale of two publications on Marcos, has been alleged of collecting funds which are subsequently funneled to Chiapas.

In Spain, the sociedades civiles, which are civil societies that offer moral and financial support to the EZLN, have sprung up across the country, from Cataluña in the north, to Andalucía in the south. These organizations are well-organized, mobile and increasingly Internet-savvy. Accordingly, soon after the EZLN uprising began in 1994, The New York Times described the Zapatista cause as the world’s first “postmodern revolutionary movement.” Hence, given its brilliant alliances, the EZLN has been enormously successful in captivating a global audience.

EZLN: Playing Politics
Besides researching the EZLN’s sources of income, many analysts have also asked themselves why the 1994 uprising occurred specifically during the nation’s presidential campaign period. Curiously, recent movements in Chiapas once again appear to be associated with elections, this time for the 2006 presidential race. Consequently, it is undeniable that besides being one of the continent’s most recognized insurgents, Marcos is also an astute political figure. He has recently exchanged heated rhetoric with the current frontrunner in the Mexican presidential elections, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, accusing him of favoring the U.S.’ free-market economic model and calling him a reflection of former President Carlos Salinas – the man whom many consider today’s most shady, albeit skillful Mexican político.

Suspicious Origins
The fact that several of Mexico’s most criticized political leaders have been allegedly linked to the origins of the EZLN, if true, makes the Zapatista movement more than just a cause in search of indigenous rights. One of these is Raúl Salinas, the ex-president’s elder brother, who on June 13 was released from jail after being exonerated of murdering José Francisco Ruiz Massieu, his ex-brother-in-law and former leader of the PRI. Raúl Salinas, better know as the “uncomfortable brother,” has been allegedly linked in national publications to Mexico’s traditional Maoist factions of the 1970s and 1980s. The movements of Antorcha Campesina (Peasant Torch), as well as Política Popular (Popular Politics, PP), were both identified in Mexico’s Proceso magazine as being possible precursors to the EZLN.

These leftist factions arose from the post-1968 student movements in Mexico City. According to information in Proceso, Política Popular was organized by Alberto Anaya, Hugo Andrés Araujo, Rolando Cordera and Gustavo Gordillo, all of whom were schoolmates of Raúl and Carlos Salinas during their student days at the Economics Department in Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM). These young graduates were schooled under the intellectual leadership of La Sorbonne scholar Adolfo Orive, who studied in Paris with French economist Charles Bettelheim, a principal Maoist theoretician of the Chinese Revolution. Some students of the subject maintain that when the Catholic bishop of Chiapas, Samuel Ruiz, noticed the PP’s successful community programs in Torreón, Coahuila, he was so impressed that he invited the activists to move to Chiapas. This relocation to Mexico’s southern state, claims point out, eventually led to the creation of the EZLN. As a result, some analysts have recently asked whether there is a link between the release from prison of Raúl Salinas in mid-June, and Marcos’ “General Red Alert” only six days later. All of these are allegations, not established facts.

Stature Abroad, Poverty at Home
Whether the EZLN functions more as a political mechanism for Mexico’s powerful elite than as a true champion for the indigenous cause, remains an open question for some. Nevertheless the political vibrancy of the EZLN, as well as the plight of the indigenous community in Chiapas is undeniable. Unfortunately, the group’s success in creating a better life for Mexico’s indigenous populace – more than ten million, according to the government’s National Indigenous Institute – has been relatively limited. And although the Mexican government has prided itself as being one of only 12 countries in the world to surpass the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) mark of $1 trillion (purchasing power parity), forty percent of the population still lives below the poverty line. Moreover, it is an evident and painful reality that an overwhelming part of these underprivileged citizens belong to the indigenous groups which live in Mexico’s increasingly neglected rural areas. Therefore, until the country’s leadership is prepared to negotiate with its indigenous population, while simultaneously putting a halt to pervasive government corruption and skewed practices, social movements such as the EZLN are likely to continue to flourish.

Vicente Fox: Keeping to Tradition
It is also increasingly apparent, as well as distressing, that President Vicente Fox’s celebrated triumph over the PRI’s 71-year-rule has brought virtually no help to the segment of the populace which needs it the most. Fox’s failure to rein in the PRI’s continued influence in congress and state governments has kept most of his initiatives at bay, leaving the EZLN’s concerns virtually ignored. If the situation does not change in the near future, the tensions will mount until confrontations with the Zapatista fighters become inevitable, offsetting Fox’s persistent efforts to make Mexico a stable and safe environment for investors.

An Urgent Resolution
In fact, Fox may even conclude that an armed encounter with the Zapatistas might be a good thing for his image as well as for his legacy, once he steps down. Fellow Mexicans might be prepared to say (according to Fox’s way of thinking), that the president was willing to preserve Mexico’s sovereignty and cohesiveness at any cost. However, developments this week may point toward a more open dialogue between the Zapatistas and the federal government, presenting the EZLN the possibility of participating in Mexico’s political life as an official political party.

Whether subcomandante Marcos’ decision to call his forces to the colors is well-justified, or simply a political ploy, remains to be revealed. Nevertheless, if Mexico wants to be perceived internationally as a country that is prepared to compete against economic heavyweights China and India in international trade, it will need to resolve the EZLN issue with dispatch. If the country’s politicians fail to do so because of inter-party wrangling and internal power struggles, Mexico’s highly applauded, if often contested, steps toward development, which began with the creation of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) in 1994, will soon be rapidly diminished.

For More Information:

“Admite Presidencia que plantío de marihuana no estaban en zona zapatista,” Crónica, 23 June 2005.

“Anuncian la creación de Juntas de Buen Gobierno en territorio rebelde zapatista,” La Jornada, 29 June 2003.

Jáquez, Antonio, “Raúl Salinas: el Hermano Incómodo,” Proceso.

CIA World Factbook, Mexico Country Report.

Comité Clandestino Revolucionario Indígena, Comandancia General del Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, 19 June 2005.

“Sobreviviremos, aun sin nuestra dirigencia: EZLN,” La Jornada, 20 June 2005.