On January 1, 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) rose up in arms, reclaiming 618,000 acres of land in Chiapas, Mexico. While EZLN soldiers in the countryside expropriated plantations the Zapatistas and their ancestors had toiled for generations, others invaded Chiapas' major cities to burn the land titles kept in government buildings.
Over the next couple of years, the EZLN redistributed the reclaimed land to indigenous farmers regardless of political affiliation, under one condition: that they refuse to collaborate with the government and that they never, under any circumstance, sign government documents pertaining to land ownership.
By refusing to legalize their land, Zapatistas free indigenous people from every law that was designed to rob them of their territory and natural resources. Even the ejido system (government-recognized communally held land that could not be bought nor sold) that Emiliano Zapata fought and died for was a compromise between government control over indigenous territory and traditional Mayan practices of collectively working land that belonged to everyone.
President Carlos Salinas de Gotari reformed Article 27 of the Mexican constitution in 1992 in preparation for the North American Free Trade Agreement, allowing ejidos to be bought, sold, and used as loan collateral. This was the spark that led to the zapatistas' 1994 uprising, but it has also been the government's most effective tool for carving out pieces of Zapatista territory and bringing it back under government control.
Following the EZLN's uprising and seizure of vast quantities of land, the Mexican government bought out the former owners of the recuperated land. It then offered free, no-strings-attached land titles to the Zapatistas and other indigenous peoples on the land in an attempt to bring the land back within the government's domain. After all, owner-less recuperated land cannot be bought, sold, or used as loan collateral, but thanks to President Salinas' constitutional reform, government-recognized ejidos can. Legalizing land, even if it means that zapatistas and their allies are its official owners, opens up the possibility that the extremely impoverished indigenous landowners will sell their land or use it as collateral for loans they cannot repay.
The EZLN saw through the government's strategy and encouraged occupants of recuperated lands to resist legalization. However, some non-Zapatistas who had promised the EZLN they wouldn't legalize, reneged and signed papers making them the legal owners of the recuperated lands on which they lived and worked. Wooed by politicians' empty promises of community development projects, some zapatistas left the movement to join other indigenous organizations and legalize their land.
In other cases, indigenous organizations have invaded Zapatista lands, and rather than communally working the land with the Zapatistas, they block Zapatistas' access to the land and its resources and work with the government to legalize it, excluding Zapatista families from the land titles. Local politicians encourage this behavior by offering to pay all expenses in the process of legalizing Zapatista lands.
The government has thrown its full support behind the carving up of recuperated land by arming, protecting, and collaborating with paramilitary organizations that invade autonomous lands and terrorize their inhabitants. The most infamous instance occurred in Acteal on December 22, 1997, when paramilitaries massacred 45 members of the pacifist Catholic organization Las Abejas. All but nine of the victims were women and children. The attack occurred while a police patrol stationed 200 meters (218 yards) away did nothing to intervene—on the contrary, the EZLN intercepted government radio communications that indicated the police were there to provide backup for the paramilitaries. When police finally did arrive on the scene after the violence had ended and the perpetrators had fled, they were under high-level orders to “pick up [the bodies] before the journalists get here.”
The international backlash that followed the massacre closed the book on classically defined paramilitaries in Chiapas. Paramilitary organizations like the Anti-Zapatista Revolutionary Indigenous Movement (MIRA) and Peace and Justice folded under international scrutiny. A more sophisticated, twenty-first century paramilitary organization rose from their ashes: the Organization for the Defense of Indigenous and Campesino Rights (OPDDIC).
Founded in May 1998, just months after the Acteal massacre, the OPDDIC has a paramilitary heart and a civilian face. The Mexican government recognizes it as a registered NGO. Most of its members are unarmed—they provide the political legitimacy necessary for the organization to openly work with the government. Its founder and leader is Pedro Chulin Jimenez, former local congressman and ex-head of the paramilitary organization MIRA. MIRA was notorious for its armed invasions of Zapatista communities, forcing residents from their homes and preventing their return.
Presented as an alternative to the Zapatistas—as an organization that respects the law and works with the government instead of against it in order to win indigenous rights - the OPDDIC promotes the appropriation of more lands for indigenous campesinos. It offers to help indigenous people become the legal owners of their very own piece of land - land that was previously recuperated by the EZLN. To receive the OPDDIC's help, indigenous campesinos become members of the organization. The OPDDIC then works with the government to legalize the members’ land.
Leaked minutes from OPDDIC-government meetings show how OPDDIC leaders and government officials plan the legalization of recuperated lands with the intention of excluding and displacing Zapatistas who occupy and work the land in question. Once recuperated lands are legalized under the ownership of OPDDIC-affiliated campesinos, all other occupants whose names were intentionally left off the land titles have three options:
- Leave their organizations and join the OPDDIC.
- Pay the OPDDIC a monthly fee to remain on the land.
- Face constant harassment, hostilities, and violence perpetuated by OPDDIC members and police.
The government supports the OPDDIC's civilian side as well as its paramilitary side. OPDDIC members often cruise Zapatista territory in government vehicles driven by police officers. Ex-OPDDIC members have publicly testified to receiving weapons from the government on behalf of the organization. OPDDIC members enter and leave federal military bases, presumably for military training.
The government also provides hands-on support to help the OPDDIC terrorize Zapatistas. On September 11, 2007, fifty to sixty OPDDIC members armed with machetes, clubs, and .22 caliber pistols attacked a group of nine Zapatistas alongside a highway near the hotly contested community of Bolon Ajaw. Six escaped, but the three who didn't were brutally beaten. During the beatings OPDDIC member Jeronimo Urbina Lopez shot Zapatista Miguel Jimenez Alvaro in the chin. OPDDIC members took the three seriously injured Zapatistas to the Agua Azul jail, where police took them into custody, wrote down the prisoners' names, and took their photos as OPDDIC members continued to threaten them, saying, “We're going to kill you,” and “...we're going to rape [your wives and daughters] and make them our women.”
Paramilitary violence and land invasions present the Zapatistas with a complex dilemma: they are designed to provoke a violent reaction, therefore justifying federal military intervention in the region to disarm the Zapatistas. Always the innovators, Zapatistas have found other ways to defend themselves.
When OPDDIC and police kidnapped the three Bolon Ajaw Zapatistas, Zapatista bases of support responded by felling trees onto roads and cutting the electricity to Agua Azul. This prevented the prisoners' transfer to a Palenque prison and shut down Agua Azul, a tourist hot-spot owned and operated by the OPDDIC. The government was forced to negotiate with the Zapatistas' Good Government Council and release the prisoners.
The Other Campaign, initiated by the Zapatistas in 2005, has also rallied in defense of recuperated land. Responding to the Zapatistas' call for a global Campaign in Defense of Land and Territory, the Other Campaign led a successful international boycott against the coffee chain Cafe la Selva and the Union de Ejidos de la Selva (UES), the cooperative that produces its coffee.
The Other Campaign initiated the boycott because UES coffee producers took advantage of the enormous displacement caused by a 1995 military offensive and claimed land Zapatistas had fled as their own, making themselves the legal owners. When Zapatistas returned to their homes, they found that their land now belonged to UES members. UES members visited Zapatista homes armed with machetes, trying to scare them into fleeing once again. Thanks to the boycott and protests, UES members retreated from the affected community and Zapatistas reclaimed their homes.
The Chiapas-based Center for Political Analysis and Social and Economic Investigations (CAPISE) has also joined the Campaign in Defense of Land and Territory. It sends brigades of national and international observers to threatened Zapatista communities to document threats and violence in the hopes that their presence and scrutiny will deter further violence and invasions. The brigades persist despite paramilitary threats—the OPDDIC has threatened to rape female brigadistas on numerous occasions.
The Zapatista uprising that inspired the world to action in 1994 was rooted in indigenous land rights. The land Zapatistas fought, bled, and died for is now under attack. The EZLN's strength has always been national and international solidarity, not its weapons. What remains to be seen is if the international community is strong enough and willing to defend the Zapatistas from the most sophisticated and complex attack to date.
A similar version of this article was published in issue #29 of Left Turn magazine.