La Garrucha: Anatomy of a Struggle
(no hay una traducción español)

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Monday, July 27, 1998. We travel from early morning until well after dark, by air from Boston to Chicago to Mexico City to Tuxtla Gutiérrez and then by laboring bus from the capital of Chiapas for well over two hours, climbing up to the regal old colonial capital in the bowl of a crest of the highlands, San Cristóbal de las Casas. We come as members of the July-August 1998 Chiapas Media Project delegation. Our goal: to go, together with experienced Mexican film-makers, into the Selva Lacandona, the rainforest jungle in the mountains of eastern Chiapas, where many of the base support communities for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation are located. There "we" are to conduct video film-making workshops, at which campesinos selected by their communities will learn the rudiments of film making and video camera operation. At the end of the workshops we will give video equipment to each of the participating communities.

These small villages, mainly but not exclusively of indigenous Maya Indians, will then have the means to record various aspects of their lives as they themselves understand them, not through the culturally-conditioned eyes of "ladino" or "gringo" anthropologists and sociologists. In this way they will be able to show us their cultures, customs, fiestas, and their systems of values, so very different from the dominant values of "western" culture. We will come to understand and hopefully respect them. A laudable long-term educational goal. In fact, this project was initially supported in part by funding from the Mexican government.

But it would be, if not disingenuous at least not very forthcoming to fail to mention the critically important short-term goal, providing a means of protection against the counter-insurgency warfare directed against these communities by the Federal and State Governments and their paid terrorists, the paramilitary thugs armed with high-powered military weapons. Hard evidence of violations of human rights can be an effective means of preventing further violations. Of course the current human rights violations they suffer is one aspect of their lives, evidence of which can also serve to help educate us.

We know we are going deep into the jungle. The e-mail from Alex a month earlier said, "Depending on the conditions when we arrive, we will visit La Garrucha, Morelia and Oventic." These are three of the five aguascalientes, centers of communication, training and education for the 32 self-declared autonomous municipalities. So it is curious that Alex, who meets us at the Mexico City airport, declines to utter the name of any of the indigenous communities we will visit. All the way from the airport in the afternoon until the next morning in the privacy of our room in San Cristóbal she keeps her silence on our destinations. Why?

The cat and mouse game

Our trip is perfectly legal. We are travelling along with thousands of other foreign tourists into this beautiful mountainous region rich in deep canyons, racing waters, azure lakes, and the ruins of ancient cities. San Cristóbal lives largely on tourist money. Both the Federal Government and the State of Chiapas want all the shopping-crazed foreigners they can attract. The immigration officer at the Mexico City airport, assuming we are all rich "gringos", makes no inquiry about our spending habits before stamping our 90-day visas. Officially Chiapas (and all of Mexico) is at peace and we are free to travel anywhere that is open to the general public. In reality the Federal and Chiapas State governments are engaged in a dirty war against those civilian communities that are sympathetic to the Zapatistas, and they don't want the world to know it. So we are really, although unofficially, unwelcome to visit precisely those communities that most interest us. That's why Alex is careful to be discreet in public places.

We are behaving legally, but the government officials act arbitrarily and illegally, so we have to be careful. We may have the letter and the spirit of the law, but they have the power, and they are ready to use it to try to hide the truth. And we don't want to be expelled. Only some months ago, on February 19, Tom Hansen, one of the co-organizers of the Chiapas Media Project, was seized while on a similar trip, blindfolded and transported first to a jail in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the state capital by unidentified government agents, interrogated at length (without any physical torture), then taken to a filthy jail in Mexico City, and finally, two days after his arrest and being held incommunicado, expelled back to the U.S. He is contesting that action before a Mexican judge, seeking to have the arrest and expulsion ruled illegal, so that his right to re-enter Mexico will be restored. Other international visitors showing solidarity with the Zapatistas have also been expelled in recent months. However, the bad publicity for the government caused by these actions seems to have made it back off somewhat from this particular aggressive tactic. Still, we need to be wary, not because of physical danger to ourselves but to gain our goal.

The plan

Tuesday. After an inspired breakfast at Casa de Pan we gather in our hotel room for introductions, discussion, and planning. Today will be for orientation and preparation. Our Mexican compañeros arrived during breakfast, after driving the whole night from Oaxaca City, physically tired but eager and full of intellectual zest. We will leave from the hotel in the Project's ancient Mercedes bus at 10pm. That way we will avoid wasting time sleeping. But that's not the purpose, rather it's to avoid if possible being stopped at any of the retenes, the roadblocks with which Chiapas is afflicted. This measles consists, at last count, of no less than 245 checkpoints maintained by the army (158), the state police (57), the immigration "service" (25), and the federal "judicial" police (5).

With all these checkpoints you'd think the governments, federal and state, could have prevented the massacre of 45 people, mainly women and children at Acteal in December 97 by those oh-so-brave paramilitaries with their illegal high-powered automatic rifles. They could have, of course, if they had wanted to. But the checkpoints are only operative when the soldiers and their counterparts at the nonmilitary retenes aren't sleeping. Evidentally the paramilitary groups move on the roads at night, and so avoid embarrassing the checkpoint officials. We plan to do likewise. Of course we can't be certain. If word of our departure gets out we might be surprised by a staffed checkpoint at any time of the night. So we plan our tourist destinations, just in case. Our first real destination is La Garrucha, roughly about six hours from San Cristóbal on our bus. We'll be there for four days.

There's lots to do, food and drinking water to buy, as well as hammocks, waterproof boots and ponchos for those who don't already have them, iodine solution to use for making water potable after our bottled supply runs out. We also have a meeting planned, at the Fray Bartolomé Center for Human Rights, where we will get an up-to-the-minute briefing on the crisis situation, and information on our theoretical legal rights in the unlikely event that we are detained by one or another of the authorities. The briefing is given by Oscar Hernandez, an impressively knowledgeable staff member. He offers, and we welcome, a brief historical overview. Most impressive to me is his mention of a lengthy campaign, I think it was in the 80's, when the Federal government sought to eliminate an armed uprising in the state of Guerrero by a group of about 60 armed guerrillas.

As I recall, Hernandez said it took the army eight years to destroy the quite small armed group. The campaign involved a ferocious assault in which the state of Guerrero was to a large extent sealed off, some entire towns were obliterated, literally, and the corpses of many of the former inhabitants subsequently washed up on the beaches. All this was done with a great effort, mainly successful at the time, to keep it secret. Of course it is news to me. Most important, I think, is Hernandez' assessment that the government knows very well it is impossible to obliterate the Zapatista army by any similar campaign. I want to learn more about the struggle in Guerrero, and ask Hernandez where I might read about it. His answer, in the book, Guerra en el Paraiso (War in Paradise), by Carlos Montemayor. It doesn't exist in English translation, but I have since gotten a copy of the original. How I would love to read Spanish fluently! At the briefing there is some uncertainty about what it is advisable to write down, for example names and places, in the remote event we are later being interrogated. Most of us choose to write.

We later try, more or less unsuccessfully, to catch some sleep in the afternoon, then get supper and gather at the hotel with our gear, ready to leave. 10pm is optimistic. We get started soon after midnight. Darkness and dirty windows. Our tired eyes see little. Hours pass, no checkpoints operating along our route during these first hours of Wednesday. Then, about 5:30 or 6:00am we are at the gate of La Garrucha. So far, so good. The compound is lighted with electric lamps, and fenced. Alex and Paco, our co-leaders, talk with the person responsible for arrangements. We are admitted and shown the dirt floor sheds where we are to sleep. The first workshop is "scheduled" for 10am. Undying optimism!

While I'm trying to get a little sleep in my hammock, I'm unaware of the young campesinos trekking through the mountains from their distant villages to La Garrucha, some walking as much as six or eight hours to get here so that they can participate in the workshops. Nancy, my campañera, is up with the first full light of dawn with her notebook, recording her impressions and conversations.

The mystery

I am mystified. Here we are in a completely unfortified compound, not very large, surrounded by what amounts to a chicken-wire fence with two unsecured gates, generally open, through which occasional horses, pigs, chickens and dogs freely wander. Two or three minutes is all it takes to walk from one end of the compound to the other in any direction.

I know very well that all of Chiapas is heavily militarized by something like sixty percent of the entire Mexican Army, armed to the hilt with all the deadly paraphenalia of modern high-tech counterinsurgency warfare, much of it generously provided by the U.S. under the guise of helping our neighbor fight the "drug war." Each day military convoys of several trucks loaded with dozens of ostentatiously-armed soldiers rumble their way along the dirt road just a few yards from our hammocks in the shed to remind us of "reality" as the Mexican government wishes to see it. And a few times daily helicopters buzz the compound at low level, observing, harassing, threatening as they slowly pursue their oval loops above us, deafening in their endless struggle against gravity.

The mystery to me is that despite the overwhelming military power constantly displayed by the government, I don't detect any sense of palpable fear or insecurity among the campesinos with whom we are sharing the compound. They show neither anxiety nor bravado. They are simply here for their tours, maybe for a few days or a week or whatever, fulfilling their obligations to their communities, which are served by and share responsibity for maintaining this aguascalientes. Stoically they stand in little knots in the early morning light "guarding" the compound, clear weeds with their machetes, gather and bring in firewood from the surrounding jungle for cooking, doing whatever needs to be done, without fanfare or haste, very deliberate, low-key. When convoys pass or helicopters circle, they observe, no hiding, no flinching, no tensing. Obviously they "know" the military will not enter La Garrucha.

Standoff in the jungle

Just a few kilometers, maybe less, along the dirt road in either direction is a military encampment. In spite of the arithmetic of power there is a sense of stability, in which neither "side" is prepared to attack the other. How come? What is the nature of this "stability", this standoff? I want to use an analogy from physics, where a dynamical system in equilibrium can exist in what is called "stable equilibrium" or "unstable equilibrium", depending on the forces that act on the system. An example of stable equilibrium is a ball in a bowl. The ball rests at the bottom of the bowl. If its position is disturbed slightly, it rolls back to the bottom. If however the bowl is first turned upside down and the ball carefully placed precisely on the top, then if there is no disturbance it remains in equilibrium. But the slightest disturbance causes it to roll off the bowl. This dynamical state is an example of unstable equilibrium. Neither of these two dynamical systems is analogous to the standoff between contending forces in the jungle.

A useful analogy is provided by a ball resting in a slight depression at the top of an upside-down bowl. In this situation a small enough disturbance will not move the ball out of the depression and it will return to the center. But if the disturbance is sufficient to move the ball beyond the depression then it will accelerate down the outside of the bowl. Here the contending forces are gravity, which "wants" to get the ball as far down as possible, and the upward force exerted by the surface of the depression, which "wants" to prevent the ball from descending. Only as long as the ball is within the small depression is stability -- a standoff between these two forces -- maintained.

If the analogy is useful, as I think, there must be analogous forces at work in the Lacandon. The Federal and Chiapas State governments, with all their agencies, correspond to the gravitational force. They want a full-fledged military victory that will result in elimination of the Zapatista movement. They hope that provocation can "move the ball beyond the depression" by inciting a military response from the Zapatista army, justifying a total assault against the rebel army and the base support communities. What are the opposing forces, working to "keep the ball's motion circumscribed within the depression"?

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation is clearly "only" a symbolic force, though symbolism as we all know is not to be discounted. One day a flatbed truck with perhaps two dozen campesinos drives into the compound. The men all wear hats, carry backpacks, and of course are equipped with the omnipresent "Swiss Army knives of Mexico", their all-purpose machetes. Late in the afternoon they hike off into the hills adjacent to La Garrucha, and disappear into the heavy foliage of the mountains. Quietly. They are unarmed. Later we learn they will remain in the mountains for a three-day tour of duty, and then be replaced by yet another group. No one says there are weapons up in the mountains. But the soldiers of the Federal army don't go up there.

More than the symbolism of armed troops training in the mountains constrains the federal army. The Mexican government and the small group of super-wealthy élites whose interests it serves want to maintain the international commercial ties that generate and support the enormous skewing of wealth in the country. The members of this small group, which includes some of the world's richest people, prosper while the growth of povery and destitution rages among their compatriots. So they promote the myth that Mexico, like the recently so-called Asian tigers, is rapidly emerging as a first-world country, a good place for investing foreign capital. Secure investments require domestic tranquility. The last thing these Mexican plutocrats want is the international investment bankers and their associates viewing Mexico as moving towards the Guatemalatization of its "Indian problem." I believe this desire, reflected in the government's erratic behavior, is an important force constraining the conflict "within the small depression of stability." Without it they would not hesitate, I'm certain, as their Guatemala counterparts did, to massacre even a hundred thousand Indians or more, whatever was "required." Mexico, like all nation-states, is not to be confused with humanitarian institutions.

The government's record of indecisiveness

When on January 1, 1994 the Zapatista army suddenly emerged from the cloudforest and seized a number of cities and towns in Chiapas, then-President Salinas di Gortari immediately sent in the federal army and air force to crush the rebellion, which they started to do, with much brutality and violation of human rights. But word got out, also immediately, and international awareness of and sympathy for the rebellion, and condemnation of military atrocities inflicted on indigenous civilian communities, led Salinas to proclaim a ceasefire only eleven days later, and to proceed towards lengthy negotiations with representatives of the insurgents. The ongoing scrutiny of the Mexican and Chiapas state governments' activities in that southernmost state was then and continues to be an important counterforce that helps restrain the government from unlimited use of the military option, a constraint that helps "keep the ball within the small depression."

The January 12, 1994 government ceasefire began a truce that lasted just over a year, into the presidency of Ernesto Zedillo. A much-quoted Chase Manhattan Bank memorandum dated January 13, 1995 warned Mexican government officials that "the government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and security policy." This infamous memorandum, by Riordan Roett of Chase Manhattan's Emerging Market Group made it clear that the "drug war" was a cover for US military and economic aid to Mexico; the real purpose being to maintain political stability so that investor interests and confidence, and profits of course, would be assured.

Less than four weeks after the Chase Manhattan memo, on February 9, 1995 the Federal armed forces broke the truce with a massive invasion of the Zapatista areas, followed by establishment of numerous military posts throughout the area, on roads and in communities sympathetic to the insurgents. Again during this intense but brief period of military action, government forces carried out many violent actions against civilians. Again the news spread rapidly to the outside world, which reacted as before, and again the Mexican government stopped the overt military attack. In the three-and-a-half years since then counterinsurgency warfare has been the primary government tactic. Here we are in La Garrucha (the official name of the community), whose inhabitants declare it to be El municipio autónomo Francisco Gómez. In the standoff we, as well as the campesinos, feel secure against any immediate threat.

Tenuous Stability

Although the standoff seems stable, the stability is tenuous. Like gravity, the governments (federal and state) are relentless in their desire to bring down the EZLN (the acronym in Spanish of the Zapatista Army) and to "neutralize", by obliteration if necessary, the rebels base of support in sympathetic civilian communities. They are in fact directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of poor campesinos in some of these communities, principally through enforced starvation and associated deprivations, caused by the sporadic but ongoing terrorist campaign, which includes destruction of crops, homes, livestock and food reserves, as well as murder and rape. In a feeble attempt to maintain the myth of legitimacy for its unprecedented militarization of Chiapas, the most glaring acts of terrorism and brutality against the campesinos are usually relegated to the paramilitary semi-unofficial goon-squads.

Low-intensity warfare is merely a different tactic than declared war, but the strategic goal, attaining destruction of the "enemy forces", remains the same. What makes it particularly horrendous (as though declared open warfare is not itself horrendous enough) is that it targets civilians, people who are supposedly protected by the Geneva Conventions, those "international rules of war" that nation-states almost universally ignore. While goons massacred 45 people, mostly women and children, in the village of Acteal on December 22, 1997, the federal army and state and municipal police stood by, rather nearby, for hours. Not only did they sanction the atrocity by their proximity and deliberate non-intervention; it is these supposed protectors of public order, together with rich landowners, who organize, arm, pay and direct these murderous paramilitary gangs.

President Zedillo's response to international shock and outrage? Predictable. Feigned outrage, some shuffling of supposedly remiss officials, arrests of some of the cowards who carried out the massacre, increased military forces "to provide more security", new road blockades to prevent ready access by journalists to the most-threatened populations, increased harrassment and/or expulsion of foreigners involved in human rights monitoring or other humanitarian support work. To repeated demands by the threatened campesinos that the government disarm the paramilitaries and remove the mammoth excess of federal armed forces, the government's response is to send in more troops and to deny the existence of paramilitaries. In fact, Mexican officials are instructed to avoid even uttering the term "paramilitaries."

Losing the propaganda war

The Mexican government, like all governments, maintains publicly that its actions are taken for legitimate reasons, always in pursuit of the national interest. However, the government's military and hardly-hidden paramilitary assaults have been widely condemned, both in Mexico and on the world stage of public opinion. The Center of Economic and Political Investigations of Community Action (the Spanish acronym is CIEPAC) bulletin of July 31, 1998 is a comprehensive synopsis of Chiapas-related events in the six or seven months preceding our trip. A brief quote: "Along general lines, we can state that the war strategy [of the government] spans three periods during the first six months [of 1998]: 1) The Acteal massacre of December 22 marks the beginning of the strategy; 2) At least 5 spectacular strikes are carried out: police-military operations in Taniperla, the one perpetrated in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, in Tierra y Libertad, in Nicolás Ruiz and in the municipality of Tenejapa, and 3) The massacre at El Bosque in the month of June." The complete bulletin is at:

On June 10th, in a combined action, 1200 military and police dismantled the autonomous municipality of San Juan de la Libertad (officially El Bosque), in an armed confrontation with Zapatista support groups. Two police and eight civilians were killed. The International Service for Peace (the Spanish acronym is SIPAZ) Urgent Action Alert of June 13, 1998 reported on this "first violent confrontation between Zapatista supporters and Mexican security forces since January 1994...El Bosque is the fourth autonomous municipality to be dismantled by a massive police-military operation in the last two months [April 8-June 10]." Following that action the government promised to suspend such operations in order to reduce the level of tension. In the eleven and one-half weeks from the June 10 assault until our arrival in La Garrucha July 29, no further such major assault occurred. Once again international pressure seems to have played a significant role in staying the Méxican government's hand.

We should not underestimate the importance of the grassroots information network effort to counter official government propaganda. This effort contributes substantially to the outcries against the government's recurrent attempts to "solve the problem of the Zapatista insurgency" by military assaults and/or counterinsurgncy warfare. The Mexican government considers the grassroots effort significant enough that it harrasses and even expels involved foreigners, and surveilles and harasses its own nationals involved in getting and distributing reliable information about the conflict. So we're all wary but glad to be part of a delegation working to introduce indigenous videotaping as another tool of the grassroots information network.
--G.S., Cambridge, October 10, 1998

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