Zapatistas: the Politics of Life against the Power of Death
It is easy to say “autonomy”, but the word itself cannot encapsulate years of hunger, humiliation, conflict, death, harassment, disdain, and racism. Nor can it reflect the pain and rage that come from seeing a comrade violently murdered. It also lacks reference to the political imagination, the effort, and the creativity needed to resist injustice and elaborate a project of self-government.
horrifically violent way – with guns, machetes, and clubs – before dragging him eighty metres and leaving him to rot. “He didn’t deserve to die like that”, said one comrade. However, initial reports in the media affirmed that a ‘confrontation’ had taken place, with one person dying and thirteen being injured as a result. The media outlets, which called the event a “commotion” (Proceso), a “rumpus” (El Universal), and a “scuffle” (La Jornada), published that the conflict had occurred as a result of disagreements about collective transport routes in the area. And the words used by the press reflected their disregard for the seriousness of the incident that had in fact taken place.
There had indeed been a conflict, with the Zapatistas of the Caracol of La Realidad calling for a comprehensive process of dialogue on May 1st in order to solve it, with the presence of members of the FRAYBA Centre for Human Rights. The other party in the conflict was the CIOAC-H, a group which had confiscated a Zapatista truck in the area after a dispute over the local gravel supply. On May 2nd, 15 members of the CIOAC-H arrived in La Realidad, claiming that the Zapatistas had detained one of its secretaries – Roberto Alfaro Velasco – who himself would soon deny this assertion. Velasco, according to the Zapatistas and FRAYBA, had been participating in the dialogues since the previous day. In fact, a FRAYBA press statement dated May 5th, 2014, would cite, word for word, that Velasco had told the CIOAC-H members: “At no point have I been detained. I have been free and I have decided to stay to solve this problem, and for this reason we have been meeting and exchanging information on a constant basis”.
In the afternoon of May 2nd, however, members of the CIOAC-H began to destroy the autonomous Zapatista school in La Realidad. And, when three Zapatista vehicles arrived, they were ambushed at the entrance of the community. Then, when Zapatista support bases left the meeting and other buildings to support their comrades, they were also attacked – with firearms, machetes, clubs, and stones. Fifteen of them were injured in this event, while Galeano was surrounded, attacked, and killed with brutality and mockery.
The Zapatistas soon denounced the CIOAC-H, which they called a paramilitary group, for the premeditated ambush and murder of May 2nd. They claim they will ensure Galeano’s murderers are brought to justice, though without the involvement of the official government of Mexico. The CIOAC-H, meanwhile, recognises that it works with the government and has asked for its intervention, with ejidal commissioner and CIOAC-H member Javier López Rodríguez telling La Jornada: “We want a solution. What happened can’t be changed, but we now want the support and intervention of all three levels of government in this matter, because we work with them”.
Days after the aforementioned attack, I spoke to a friend of mine, who is a reporter in Chihuahua. I told her about all of the denunciations of Galeano’s death and the aggression against the Zapatistas, and about the acts of solidarity in Mexico and throughout the world. She was surprised that such commotion had been caused by the death of just one person. I said “one is already too much”, and she agreed. She hadn’t asked about the number of deaths out of disregard, but out of surprise. Having reported in Ciudad Juárez when the army patrolled the streets, when dead bodies appeared on a daily basis throughout the city, and when the city suffered one of the highest murder rates in the whole world, she was used to indifference and impunity. For years, she had written daily about brutal murders, whose victims were blamed by the government for their own deaths because “they must have been involved in something dodgy if that happened to them”. For example, General Jorge Juárez Loera – commanding officer of Military Region XI in 2008 when Operation Chihuahua was launched – himself said that “instead of saying one more death, we should say one less criminal” (in response to the escalating murder rate in Ciudad Juárez).
My friend’s surprise at the response to Galeano’s death made me reflect on the way the Zapatistas had acted, along with the prevalent indifference in other sectors of the Mexican population that is sown by government officials saying deaths are “related to organised crime”. The fact is that one murder alone is outrageous and unacceptable, and the Zapatistas’ actions and words reflect this sentiment. They are not alone, though. Luz María Dávila, for example, stood up to Felipe Calderón, telling him that her two children and their friends – all murdered in a massacre – were not “gangsters” and that he was not welcome in Ciudad Juárez. Dávila, however, had to interrupt an official event to be heard, just like the Zapatistas on January 1st, 1994. After twenty years of organisation and resistance, however, they can now be heard without having to do so.
The EZLN communique “Pain and Rage”, which referred on May 8th to the previous week’s attack in La Realidad, cited a Zapatista teacher, who had told Subcomandante Marcos that, because he and his comrades were Zapatistas, they sought justice rather than revenge. Whilst teaching us the value of indignation in the face of murderous brutality, such a comment also teaches us to distinguish between revenge and justice. Vengeance is easy. It is death and destruction. Realising that revenge is not necessarily the same as justice, however, and trying to imagine a different type of justice, is a lot harder.
The State, on the other hand, prefers vengeance. Its violence and impunity in Mexico today is based on the logic of revenge, with Felipe Calderón himself saying in 2010 that 90% of those murdered had died in “battles between cartels”, and that the “innocent civilians” who had been killed were “a minority”. This official justification of an extrajudicial collective death sentence, however, came in a context in which 95% of murders were not even investigated. As Michel Foucault said, a system of power can, through its use of language, strengthen its own power and produce even greater repression. And this has been the case in Mexico. Although the death sentence does not officially exist here, officials apply the death penalty collectively to those who are murdered by calling them “criminals” or “cartel members” – without even investigating the facts.
The media, meanwhile, repeats these illegitimate sentences, and many people hear and believe them. In Culiacán, Sinaloa, I interviewed César, a young survivor of a massacre in which his younger brother had died. They were taking their mother’s truck to a mechanic when an armed group arrived and killed everyone in the proximity. César managed to hide under a truck, but saw his 16-year-old brother ripped apart by bullets. Before the event, he said, he had also believed that those killed were responsible for their own deaths because they were involved in criminal activity in some way.
The State’s logic is that those murdered are savage, and that they go about killing one another. For that reason, the State also goes after them and kills them. But this logic is much deeper and older than drug trafficking. It is part of the simultaneous evolution of the State, its racism, and its hidden wars. It was used by the conquistadors against the indigenous communities in Mexico (and Latin America), and can be seen today in the State’s counterinsurgency strategies and nurturing of paramilitary organisations. Such strategies, however, almost remain hidden today in the media thanks to the use of words like “confrontation”, “commotion”, “rumpus”, and “scuffle”.
The Zapatistas refuse to seek revenge, and refuse to enter into the government’s murderous logic. In the communique of May 8th, Marcos affirmed that “our efforts are for peace, theirs are for war”. This is precisely why their response to Galeano’s death has sought to resist indifference and impunity.
In 1994, the Zapatistas felt they were forced to take up arms in order to combat the oblivion that was engulfing their communities. They had to cover their faces in order to be seen and, in accepting dialogues for peace, they affirmed that nothing would be for them, and everything would be for everyone. As a result, they invited all indigenous communities in Mexico to participate in the process. And, in spite of a failed military operation in February 1995 to capture the EZLN’s leaders “dead or alive”, the Zapatistas and other indigenous groups continued with the peace process. They subsequently signed the San Andrés Accords with the government in 1996, which promised to establish political and economic autonomy in the country’s indigenous communities.
The federal government did not live up to its promises, however, keeping Chiapas heavily militarised and encouraging the growth of paramilitary groups. One of these groups was “Paz y Justicia”, which massacred 45 indigenous Tzotziles while they were praying in a church in Acteal on December 22nd 1997. And, when EZLN delegates travelled in convoy to Mexico City in 2001, to demand the federal government live up to its side of the Accords, the government instead passed a racist law considering indigenous communities to be “subjects of special protection” – and thus under the authority of the federal government.
As a result, the Zapatistas decided to unilaterally comply with the San Andrés Accords, announcing the creation of the Caracoles and the Committees of Good Government in 2003 – and thus the construction of indigenous autonomy without any relation to the three levels of government. The Sixth Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle followed in 2005, and the ‘Other Campaign’ in 2006 – which sought to unite grassroots struggles throughout the country. And, between 2007 and 2009, they called for meetings between Zapatista communities and grassroots movements throughout the world.
Amidst the most severe criticisms of Calderón’s policies between 2010 and 2012, the Committees of Good Government of the five Caracoles continued to denounce the constant paramilitary aggressions they were suffering. And on May 7th, 2011, fifteen thousand Zapatista support bases marched in the protest called by poet Javier Sicilia – whose son had been a victim of a massacre in Temixco, Morelos, in which seven people had been killed.
In these years, media commentators accused Marcos of silent complicity with Calderón’s government, showing both that they did not understand Marcos’s public role as EZLN spokesman, and that they knew neither how to listen nor read. The Committees of Good Government had published numerous denunciations of Calderón’s politics during this period, and decided to organise a massive protest in Chiapas on December 21st, 2012 to emphasise that they were stronger than ever. On this day, thousands of Zapatista support bases marched in absolute silence through numerous municipalities in Chiapas, and a short communique entitled “Did you hear that?” (“¿ESCUCHARON?”) soon followed.
Long, complex, and analytical communiques were subsequently released, presenting the political proposals of the Zapatistas. And the idea of the “Escuelita Zapatista”, which would see thousands of Mexicans and non-Mexicans travel to Zapatista territory (in August 2013, December 2013, and January 2014) to learn about the Zapatistas’ political process, would be presented in these notes. The course would be called “Freedom According to the Zapatistas”.
On March 31st, 2014, the Zapatistas called for a meeting of indigenous communities throughout Mexico, a homage to the deceased philosopher Luis Villoro, and a seminar on “Ethics in the Face of Dispossession” between late May and early June. The CIOAC-H ambush in La Realidad came in this context and, as a response, Subcomandante Moisés suspended all of these events.
On May 13th, in the communique “Fragments of Reality I”, Zapatistas and their sympathisers were called on to pay homage to Galeano on May 24th in La Realidad and elsewhere. Thousands of support bases and people throughout Mexico and the world would attend events to honour Galeano’s life and demonstrate that the Zapatistas of La Realidad were not alone. Also, in a clear denunciation of the misleading reports of the commercial media, only the “free”, “alternative”, and “autonomous” press was allowed to enter La Realidad for the event.
In this event, Moisés affirmed that he would be the new spokesman of the EZLN, a role that Marcos had played for 20 years, affirming that “through my voice speak the pain and rage of hundreds of thousands” of indigenous EZLN members. Without hesitation, he asserted that Galeano’s death was a result of the neoliberal politics of capitalism and that, while Galeano’s killers would be brought to justice, the Zapatistas would not seek vengeance. The only revenge that would be sought would be “against capitalism”.
In his comments, Moisés made a clear distinction between the people who attacked the Zapatistas and the real powers behind them. The power in Chiapas, he said, “is [Manuel] Velasco, and behind him is [President] Peña Nieto, and behind the traitorous Peña Nieto is Big Capital – the true inhuman criminal of neoliberal capitalism”.
In the early morning of May 25th, Marcos read his “final public words”, which lasted around 53 minutes and in which his personality died “so that Galeano could live”. His name, void of a unique story or life, would be put in Galeano’s place so that his life would not be taken away.
The EZLN had changed and developed, power had returned to the powerless, and the figure of Marcos was no longer necessary. The lights were turned off, and Moisés said that another comrade would now speak. Off stage, Marcos said “My name is… Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano. Is anyone else called Galeano?” Other voices responded, affirming “I am Galeano” and “We are all Galeano”, and Marcos then said: “Ah, that’s why they told me that, when I was born again, it would be collectively”.
The news of Marcos’s ‘farewell’ spread quickly across the internet, but there are four main ways in which we can reflect on the occurrence: rumours, speculation, counterinsurgent information from the State, or EZLN communiques. And, personally, I prefer to listen to the EZLN.
In his speech, Marcos affirmed that his personality – once an essential disguise – had become a redundant distraction, and that was why he would be the one to die so that Galeano could live. The disguise was no longer necessary, because the Zapatistas could now communicate with Mexico and the world without it. They no longer needed a mestizo intermediary to relate to the Bad Government, because they had broken all ties with it. Nor did they need him to communicate with the mainstream media, which they had also denounced. They had spent twenty years building autonomy in their recuperated lands, and had built relations with many other grassroots struggles through the Other Campaign and the Escuelita Zapatista. In August 2013, around one thousand three hundred people attended the Escuelita. And, between December and January, around five thousand people arrived at the Indigenous Centre for Integral Capacitation (Cideci) in San Cristóbal to receive four books, two videos on DVD, and a place to study. They would travel to different communities and stay with families for a week, being fed and cared for during their stay – all without the figure of Marcos.
There was fun and laughter in the Escuelitas, but also profound dialogue. They related directly with the Zapatistas who were constructing autonomy in their communities – the same communities which had the organisational capacity necessary to pull off the task of planning and implementing a school of such magnitude.
For me, it was clear from the Escuelitas that life in the countryside is difficult, and not made easier by constant aggression from paramilitary groups, political parties, and the three levels of government. In spite of all of this, however, Zapatista communities have developed an incredible level of political and social organisation. In order to share their political struggle with sympathisers, for example, they received, transported, fed, and accommodated six thousand three hundred people – all with very little money. In August, they only asked for a contribution of 100 Mexican pesos for the cost of producing the books and DVDs and, after more in depth accounting (which was published after the first Escuelita), they realised the individual contributions would need to rise to 380 pesos in order to cover the costs of the second and third schools.
The concept of communities governing themselves according to their own principles and institutions (or ‘autonomy’) may be easy to understand, but understanding everything Zapatista communities have gone through to get to where they are now is a lot more complicated. They have spent eleven years building their Caracoles and Committees of Good Government, twenty years fighting a war against oblivion, and 520 years resisting dispossession and oppression. The word autonomy cannot capture the years of hunger, humiliation, conflict, death, harassment, disdain, and racism. Nor can it reflect the pain and rage that come from seeing a comrade slain mercilessly. Through the Escuelitas, the Zapatistas have tried to share these things with their students, along with the political imagination, effort, and creativity which they have needed in order to resist injustice and elaborate their project of self-government. But the first lesson for students was learning to listen.
Gayatri Spivak wrote an essay called “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, which investigates how the power structures of global capitalism impose different grades of silence on the people attacked and excluded by the system. This investigation made me ask a similar question, especially in the wake of Marcos’s “death” and the Escuelitas: “Can the citizen listen?” It is all too obvious that the State does not listen, so it’s not even worth asking that question, but it is worth asking if the “citizen” – the person included in the capitalist system even if they are exploited or repressed – can hear what the Zapatistas are saying.
Amidst the State’s dispossession and denial of citizens’ rights through numerous racist laws, one of the things shown in the Escuelitas is how the Zapatistas put the theory of “a world in which many worlds fit” into practice. In the course books of “Freedom According to the Zapatistas”, we see how they are building this world alone, and how they openly recognise the setbacks and errors they have faced in the process. This generous act of sharing their experiences with others is part of a concrete political proposal for the construction of a mechanism of communication that crosses traditional barriers. One of these barriers is what Walter Mignolo called “the colonial difference” – the imperialist, racist, and capitalist divide that separates the world into the exploited and the exploiters. Belonging to a particular ethnic group does not put you automatically on one side of this divide – even if you are not an exploiter you can put yourself on the side of the exploiter. But it is not impossible to cross this boundary. Upon positioning oneself against capitalism, racism, and imperialism, one can help to build a unified struggle against injustice through communication and solidarity – regardless of ethnicity or culture.
The 20 years of the Zapatista struggle, along with the Escuelita Zapatista, are both political projects and invitations for others to share their struggles – no matter what their “calendars and geographical locations” may be. And those of us who want to learn from the Zapatistas, and act in solidarity with them, will need to begin by listening – but deeply and politically, without yearning for the presence of a defunct hologram.
Before dissolving his disguise, Marcos made an important, and seemingly simple, comment: “Against death, we demand life”. In his essay “Necropolitics”, Achille Mbembe extends Foucault’s theory of the State, referring not to “Biopower”, which focusses on the administration of life, but to “Necropower”, which is “the power and ability to dictate who can live and who must die”. This form of politics sees murder (the production of death or a slow death “in life”) as the maximum expression of the State’s sovereignty and the battle tactics that evolve alongside it. Mbembe says that Necropower fragments territories, spreads violence, and propounds a state of siege as a military institution – with invisible deaths and open executions occurring simultaneously.
Necropolitics can be seen around the world, from the occupation of Palestine to the numerous neo-imperialist wars of the USA (waged not only with the country’s formal army but also with mercenaries and drones). In Mexico, armed commandos have roamed the streets in recent years, whether in the form of soldiers, police officers, or non-uniformed paramilitaries (Mbembe uses Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s concept of “war machines” to describe these figures). There have been massacres in houses, prisons, medical centres, clubs, garages, and on roads; tens of thousands of Mexican citizens and Central American migrants have disappeared; communal graves have been found throughout the country; bodies have been dissolved in acid; executions take place on a daily basis; hunger and economic violence are used as a weapon of mass destruction; and there is relentless impunity. Considering all of these factors, there should be no doubt that, according to Mbembe’s essay, Necropolitics operates in Mexico today.
In this context, it has been deeply subversive of the Zapatistas to elaborate a policy of life in the last 20 years through its construction of an alternative form of politics. Since the very beginning, according to Marcos, the Zapatistas made it clear that their “dilemma was not between negotiating and fighting, but between dying or living”. And this was soon reflected in the fact that: instead of dedicating themselves to “training guerrillas, soldiers, and squadrons”, they chose to train “promoters of education and healthcare, building the bases of autonomy that the world marvels at today”; instead of “building camps, improving their arsenal, and building walls or trenches”, they chose to build schools, hospitals, and health centres – in order to improve their quality of life; and instead of “fighting to occupy a place in the Parthenon of individualised deaths from below”, they “chose to build life”.
Today, the Zapatistas continue to build life, fighting for justice in a world governed by the power of death. And, through listening, learning, communicating, and showing solidarity, those of us who have also positioned ourselves against capitalism, racism, and imperialism can do the same.
Translated and adapted by Oso Sabio from an article originally written by John Gibler at
Translated for, and posted by, Dorset Chiapas Solidarity 26/06/2014