Chiapas cries out: the sound of Zapatista silence

by Leonidas Oikonomakis on December 26, 2012

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With the Zapatista communities under attack by capital and state, the indigenous support bases are rising once more to defend their autonomous utopia.

We all heard the sound of Zapatista silence on the last day of the infamous Maya calendar. We were all impressed by the March of Silent Dignity of the 50.000 Zapatistas in several main cities of Chiapas, who came out of nowhere with the morning mist and disappeared equally silent under the heavy afternoon rain.

But out of nowhere? Not exactly. The Zapatistas came out of their Caracoles and their communities for a reason: and that’s the repression they‘ve been facing over the past years, a repression orchestrated by the Mexican government.

On the wooden wall, written with black paint on the timber, I read: “Viva Marcoz”.

– “Does it refer to you?” I tease the 5 year-old next to me, whose name also happens to be Marcos.

– “No!” he protests, “To the other one! El Subcomandante Marcos!”

On the door of some other wooden construction nearby, I saw the image — or what looked like it — of Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos with his pipe, painted in green and black colors.

I imagine that, decades — or even a century — earlier, in the same jungle, in the same indigenous communities whose living conditions have not changed much ever since, one would come across the same murals with the images of Zapata or Cabañas, and the same kids under different names: Emiliano, or Lucio maybe.

The elders of the community told me that nearby live Nine Kings, hidden behind the waterfalls of Bolon Ajaw. So says legend that gave this area its name. You cannot see them, but anyone who has set her eyes on those five stunning waterfalls would swear that the legend is true.

All I know is that if there ever lived kings, now they are long gone, together with the ranchero who once owned these incredible lands and for whom the indigenous people of the area used to work. The kings and the rancheros are long gone from Bolon Ajaw — they were kicked out by the EZLN in 1994, and the land has since been redistributed to its rightful owners: “those who work it”, as Emiliano Zapata would have put it a century earlier.

The ejido of Bolon Ajaw is being worked by seven families, all of them BAEZLN (EZLN Support Bases), who have been living there since 2003 under very difficult conditions, without electricity, potable water, modern sanitation, or any kind of public service.

Here at nights the fireflies tell you stories; the stories of the community. How it set up itself here in 2003, coming from different areas of Chiapas; how they built their first huts made of timber and soil; how they split the ejido into equal plots, one for each family-plots; how they explored the area to find water-springs; how the school was set up with communal work; how the first corn-harvest was celebrated; how the ejido is expanded with every new family that is born, when their children — who are now adults — get married.

But they tell other stories too…

They speak of repression, attacks, threats. They speak of how the silence of noon is regularly disrupted every single week by the helicopters and the small planes that the government sends to signal to the community that it is being watched. They also speak of a mega-hotel, of the five waterfalls, of golf-courts and helicopter platforms…

But let’s take things one by one.

Bolon Ajaw was recuperated in 1994 by the EZLN, and in 2003 the land was re-distributed to indigenous families to work it. The newly established community set up itself, split the land into equal plots — one for each family — and started working it. The ownership remained communal, in the form of ejido. Soon they also set up the school and they went on with their lives, working the land together, based on volunteer communal work and direct-democratic decision making processes.

But what they did not know, was that their land stood in the middle of the Mesoamerica Project (formerly known as Plan Puebla Panama), which had a different vision for their small ejido and the area of Agual Azul where it stands: a “vision” that involves a 5-star Boutique Hotel, a huge Conference center with golf course (!) for the world’s super-rich to come and play, and a helipad for them to arrive.

According to a leaked document (courtesy of FayBa) which was prepared by Norton Consulting — the Agency that advises the Mexican Government on the “resort development” possibilities of the land in Chiapas — the existence of the community of Bolon Ajaw is spoiling the plan:

The state and local government need to ensure that tourists that visit Chiapas and Palenque feel safe and protected. The Zapatista movement is still strongly associated with Chiapas… Many of those unfamiliar with the region still consider Chiapas to be unsafe… The state needs to protect the developers and hotel operators against the perception of political instability… Before attracting investments, the state must resolve land acquisition and access problems. The acquisition of lands adjacent to the waterfalls is vital…” (via Bricker)

So what the government came up with is to buy the aforementioned land, and go ahead with their plan after that. But the land is communal, and in order for it to be bought or sold, it has to enter the PROCEDE program, a plan that allows ejido land titles to be privatized (according to the amendment of Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution, one of the “detonators” of the Zapatista uprising).

The Zapatistas, of course, would never sell out their land in order to become waiters and cleaning staff for the super-hotel, as the government’s “development vision” has it. Therefore, the only solution for the government was to force the peasants to abandon Bolon Ajaw altogether.

For that, they employed the citizens of the community of Agua Azul, who already receive government subsidies through a share of the tickets the visitors of the Cascades of Agua Azul pay at the Welcome Toll, and the non-Zapatista members of the paramilitary Organization for the Defense of Indigenous and Peasant Rights (OPDDIC).

Through threats, constant harassment and beatings (the last one in 2010), those non-Zapatista indigenous peasants, have been trying to force the inhabitants of Bolon Ajaw out of their land, with the plan to occupy the land themselves and sell it to the government, for the Hotel Project to start rolling again.

To assist them in their godforsaken mission of harassment, the government regularly sends helicopters and small planes — at least twice a week — to fly over the community of Bolon Ajaw, reminding the Zapatista peasants that they will not be allowed to live there in peace.

Fortunately, apart from the random helicopter disturbances (a warm-up for the helipad?), there have been no incidents of harassment since 2010, when non-Zapatista paramilitaries entered the community, badly beat up the men, and threatened the women with sexual harassment. Yet, if Bolon Ajaw has been witnessing a relatively quiet period since 2010, that is certainly not the case for other Zapatista communities.

Take that of San Marcos Aviles for example, a community in the region of Los Altos. The following video — a “cry for help” that the Community prepared a few months ago, and that La Otra Nueva York have uploaded on their campaign website against the repression the Zapatista communities are facing — speaks for itself:

At the same time, ever since 2006 and the election of Felipe Calderon in the Presidential seat, the Zapatistas have also been facing other indirect forms of harassment on behalf of the government. It is not a coincidence that many political prisoners in Mexico today are Zapatista supporters. The case of Fransisco Sántiz López, who has been unjustly imprisoned, is the most prominent example:

Or who can forget the heavy repression with which the government responded to the demonstrations and the mobilizations of Oaxaca and Atenco? It is not a coincidence that in these cases we were also talking about — not members of the Support Bases but still — adherents of the Zapatista Other Campaign. And also the threats, dislocations, imprisonments, and violence other Zapatista communities are dealing with every day, like in the case of the Guadalupe Los Altos, or like in that of the Communities of Comandante Abel and Union Hidalgo.

The Zapatista Silent March of the 21st of December 2012 was a response to all the above. A “silent statement” that shouted “we are still here! And we are still strong!” A statement that demonstrated the support of the indigenous communities for the Zapatista dream of constructing another world through the autonomist, “non-state power road”, despite being under the constant harassment of state power.

And all of us should support them in any way we can. Because in that way we’ll be defending the Zapatista utopia of self-managed communities organizing themselves on the basis of voluntary association, mutual aid and direct democracy.

“But utopias do not exist,” you may say.

For that we should keep defending them. Until they do.

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