Freedom News

Explainer: New Zapatista Autonomy

Last week, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) released this declaration, setting out a new decentralised structure for the autonomous indigenous communities in Chiapas. Freedom spoke to Bill Weinberg, a longtime journalist and anarchist in New York City, to get more insight into this change and its significance. His book about the Zapatistas, Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico, was published by Verso in 2000. He spent much time in Chiapas and elsewhere in Mexico during the 1990s, covering the indigenous movements, including the Zapatistas. In recent decades, he has been spending more time in South America and is now completing a book about indigenous struggles in the Andes, particularly Peru. He continues to follow the Zapatistas and Chiapas closely and covers world autonomy movements on his website,

Freedom: Having read the declaration that the Zapatistas released regarding the change to their autonomy structure, how would you explain the change? What do you think is the substance of the transformation or transition that this declaration announces?

Bill Weinberg: Well, I’m reading it as a response to new pressures, the resurgence of paramilitary activity in Chiapas targeting the Zapatista communities in particular. Now, this is very closely linked to the narco gangs, which are trying to establish control on the Mexican border with Guatemala. And it seems that it’s a further decentralisation of the movement. When they first announced that they were disbanding their autonomous municipalities, I was a little bit worried. That was what was in the fourth part of the new series of communiques, issued on November 6; but then, on November 13, they issued the ninth part, explaining the “new structure of Zapatista autonomy”, which makes clear that they’re essentially keeping in place a system of local autonomous governance, but it’s going to be more localised.

They’re breaking down the so called MAREZ, the Zapatista rebel autonomous municipalities, into their constituent base communities, which are to be called local autonomous governments or GAL by its Spanish acronym. Whereas according to the communique, there were only a few dozen MAREZ Zapatista autonomous municipalities; there are now thousands of GALs and local autonomous governments. And, according to this communique, there’s a series of structures where the GALs can come together on the basis of voluntary association into a federative structure, into greater entities at the regional level. 

So the next level up are the collectives of Zapatista autonomous governments or CGAZs, and these are going to replace the so called “good government juntas”, which had coordinated the old autonomous municipalities, corresponding to the caracoles, the Zapatista community assembly meeting places, which had been constructed in several villages in Chiapas. 

Next, there will be a further level up from that when the assemblies of collectives of autonomous governments form an ACGAZ in “zones,” larger entities than “regions.” So, it appears that everything is becoming more accountable to the base communities and that the largest structures, which are formed on the basis of voluntary association or federative principles, are becoming entities that emerge from the spontaneous action of the base. So it seems there’s a further decentralisation of the movement, which I’m assuming is seen as more resilient.

Quite darkly, the translation of the communique, the official English translation online on the Zapatista website, states, “the structure and disposition of the EZLN have been reorganised to increase the defence and security of towns and mother Earth in the event of aggressions, attacks, epidemics, invasion of companies that prey on nature, partial or total military occupations, natural catastrophes and nuclear wars”! 

FreedomSo, can you explain a bit more about what’s been going on in recent times with the cartels, with the Mexican police or military, and other forces that have been threatening the Zapatista communities?

BW: Well, back in the 1990s, in the years immediately following the 1994 Zapatista uprising, there were all of these paramilitary groups, basically organised at the local and regional level, which were forming an anti-Zapatista coalition, trying to terrorise the movement into submission. And that was being formed by local landowners, cattle barons, and the so called caciques. These indigenous village bosses were clients of what was then the ruling one-party dictatorship in Mexico under the PRI—the so-called Institutional Revolutionary Party, which was famously more institutional than it was revolutionary. And this, of course, climaxed in the famous massacre at Acetal in December of 1997, where about 40 members of a community were massacred, not even a Zapatista community exactly, but a peasant indigenous pacifist group called Las Abejas, meaning The Bees, who were sympathetic to the Zapatistas but not under their command structure. So that was the ugly, hideous climax of the paramilitary campaign against the Zapatistas and communities that sympathised with them back in the 1990s. 

Then the PRI lost power in the national election of 2000—and the Zapatistas, I think, deserve credit for provoking Mexico’s democratic opening because the PRI realised that they were going to have to bend a little bit, or they were going to be faced with a revolution. That’s how things looked back in 1994; it was seen as a possibility. So that’s when they started to allow free elections, more or less. Unfortunately, the political right rather than the left most successfully exploited the democratic opening, with PAN, the National Action Party, coming to power under Vicente Fox, and the neoliberal reform only hastened after that.

Nonetheless, this broke up the three-way nexus between the PRI, the official armed forces and the local paramilitary groups in Chiapas. However, as far as I can tell, the caciques generally remained loyal to the PRI. But maybe the degree of cooperation they were getting from the official armed forces, on a clandestine basis, began to lessen, and that nexus began to weaken. So, in this process, the paramilitaries moved into some degree of abeyance in the first years of the 21st century. 

Vicente Fox famously said that he would solve the dilemma of Chiapas and make peace with the Zapatistas in 15 minutes; of course, he failed to do that because the government still hasn’t given them their minimum demand for peace, which is a meaningful constitutional reform instating autonomy for indigenous communities. There was a kind of pseudo-reform, which the Zapatistas did not accept, that came out of the abortive dialogue under President Ernesto Zedillo in the 1990s, but there was never any real such reform, certainly, none that the Zapatista Army of National Liberation ever accepted. So, while there wasn’t any peace deal with the government, contrary to what Fox had hubristically promised, the violence went into abeyance in Chapas, and the government was, to a certain extent, taking a hands-off approach and letting the Zapatista communities run themselves. So, maybe a “repressive tolerance” approach to a certain extent. 

2018 map adapted from

What started to happen in the meantime was that the narco wars got out of control, initially mainly affecting northern Mexico and the entry ports into the United States, where the rival Tijuana, Juárez and Gulf cartels were vying for control of those border crossings. But in the years after 2000, the violence began to spread throughout Mexico, basically making its way from the north southwards, with the cartels trying to establish control over traffic routes through the entire country, as well as control of poppy cultivation and cannabis cultivation, and also began to take on more of an actual paramilitary element, with groups like the Zetas emerging. And then Felipe Calderón, Fox’s successor, also from the PAN, unleashed the army on the cartels—which only predictably had the effect of dramatically escalating the violence. 

So under his rule, the violence spread throughout the country, eventually reaching the south, most significantly Guerrero, but also increasingly going all the way down to Chapas, the southernmost state in Mexico. And it seems now that there’s a bid on the part of various criminal networks, perhaps some of them linked to the Zetas, to gain control over the Guatemala border and the entry points into Mexico. So, in this context, there’s been a resurgence of paramilitary anti-Zapatista violence—not at the level that it was back in the 1990s, but still, several people have been killed, and there have been armed attacks on base communities over the past years.

Interestingly, in the initial communique announcing the reorganisation, the communique of November 6 announcing the disbandment of the autonomous municipalities, Subcomandante Moises, who signed the communique, obliquely referred to a new pressure in the growing power of the “disorganised crime cartels” in Chiapas. So it’s a very typically Zapatista ironic or tongue-in-cheek rendering—not organised crime, but disorganised crime, implying how the cartels have become so fragmented with internecine warfare. That is, it’s not exactly clear who’s in control. It isn’t like back in the nineties when the big three cartels were from Tijuana, Juarez and the Gulf. Now, it’s a much, much more complicated picture. But they’re even more violent now than they were back then.

FreedomHow does that link to decentralising the structure? How would that provide resilience that was not provided by the previous one?

BW: That’s a good question, and I might be able to give you a better answer if I was in Chiapas, which I’m not, but generally, centralisation gives your enemies a target to attack, right? Further decentralising might create more dispersed targets and make the movement more resilient. There isn’t going to be any central focus point of Zapatista organisation that these new paramilitary groups could target—if they are, in fact, new, which I’m not sure they are. Because, as I say, they went into abeyance, to an extent at least, when the PRI lost power because the party had been like the glue holding the alliance between the local paramilitary groups and the official armed forces. So, to what extent is that nexus still in place? And, of course, that’s related to the larger question of the relationship between the cartels and the state. 

While Calderón sicced the army on the cartels, at the same time, lots of his own officials, including military officials, were revealed to be co-opted by the cartels. There’s been this extremely sinister development of cartel gunmen and militias that are wearing the uniforms of state or federal police in various areas of Mexico. So, where are they getting those uniforms? Are they knockoffs, or are they actually getting real uniforms? So it’s an interesting question—to what degree is the old anti-Zapatista nexus between the paramilitaries and the official armed forces still alive?

FreedomThis raises the question of how decentralised, anti-hierarchical non-state actors can combat hierarchical non-state or semi-state actors like cartels or militias. This is a typical argument against anarchism. “What will you do when the gangsters come for you when the police are gone?” Does this change represent the Zapatista response, or does it show that they don’t have a response?

BW: I would opt for the former. I would say that, yes, this is the response. I mean, look, there’s been a lot of criticism of the Zapatistas from the so-called hard left or ultras, as they call them in Mexico— that they set out with these big ambitions back in 1994 that they were going to overthrow the government and have a national revolution and march on Mexico City, but of course they haven’t done that. So they’ve been taunted by the ultras as being actually “armed reformists”. But I don’t take that view. As I stated earlier, the Zapatistas, in large part, provoked the democratic opening in Mexico, and they did provoke constitutional reforms. Not something that they saw as fulfilling their demands, but nevertheless, a greater degree of autonomy has been given under the Mexican Constitution for indigenous communities. 

And finally, most significantly, despite the limitations they’ve faced in the ongoing state of neither war nor peace for more than a generation now in Chiapas, they’ve managed to preserve a self-governing autonomous zone. There are still large swathes of land, generally the poorer and more marginal and remote areas of the state, but nonetheless, large swathes of territory in the mountains and jungle of Chapas are not under the control of the government. Not the national, state, or “official” municipal governments. They’re under the control of the base communities. So it seems to me that they’ve already achieved a great degree of resiliency in the face of all of the pressure they’ve been facing, particularly the armed pressure from paramilitary groups, but also on occasion from government military drives against them. Nonetheless, they’ve managed to hang on to their territory. 

So, I think they know what they’re doing regarding autonomous self-government. I believe the facts demonstrate that. They’re putting a new structure in place, which they’re just announcing now, but I imagine it’s already been in place for a while. It probably began to spontaneously develop as something rooted in the smallest localities of the state, in the base communities and is more organic and, therefore, more resilient.

Related to this is the whole question of indigenous leadership among the Zapatistas and the question of what has been or perhaps still is the role of the “cadre,” so to speak. The notorious Subcomandante Marcos, who a few years back “abolished himself” and said the new voice of the movement was going to be Subcomandante Galeano, and we all assumed that that was just Marcos writing under a new name. 

But now, this most recent communique has been issued by Subcomandante Moisés, and Moises was one of the original, indigenous, I believe Tzeltal Maya, leaders of the movement from the very beginning, and one of the leaders of the command structure of the military wing of the movement, the Indigenous Revolutionary Clandestine Committee or CCRI. So there’s also a sense that, as a part of this whole reorganisation process, the actual Maya leadership of the movement may be coming into its own more. In contrast, to the extent that they’ve continued to exist, the mestizo cadre is becoming less relevant.

FreedomThere are obvious analogies between Chiapas and other experiences of decentralist revolutionary organisations during wartime, such as the situation in Rojava today, the historical examples of Catalonia in the Spanish Civil War or the Makhnovshchina in Ukraine during the Russian Revolution. Is there some general insight to be gained from these examples about the conditions of possibility for decentralised autonomy?

BW: I guess the difference is that the Zapatistas, in contrast to the situation in Ukraine a century ago and contrast to the Rojava Kurds today, have avoided having to wage a direct military struggle for the defence of their lands, which in turn entails getting your hands dirty with inevitable political entanglements. I mean, anarchists don’t like it when I say this, but it is a fact that the Rojava Kurds are being backed by US imperialism and have US Special Forces troops embedded among their ranks and coordinated their military campaign against ISIS with the Pentagon. 

Similarly, the Makhnovistas had to cut a deal with the Red Army, which ultimately betrayed them, to fight the Whites and the Ukrainian nationalists. You can say the same thing about Spain. The anarchists of Catalonia had to make a pact with the Popular Front government in Madrid to fight Franco’s forces. Then, they were betrayed by the Popular Front government and crushed before Franco even took over. So the Zapatistas have avoided that, to a certain extent, just by having the good luck of being in a remote, marginal, and not very strategic part of the world. Although there is oil, the one thing which does now make it strategic is the fact that it lies along the Guatemalan border, which makes it attractive to the cartels. So, to a certain extent, the Zapatistas are now being drawn into the realm of potential entanglement, but thus far, they’ve largely been able to avoid that.

FreedomIf decentralising is an attempt to defend communities from coercion, that might carry the danger of isolationism. But it looks like the Zapatistas are trying to maintain an internationalist perspective through that. Perhaps you can comment on how they continue linking what they’re doing locally to world affairs.

BW: I said that the Zapatistas sparked a political opening in Mexico. I think they also sparked a political opening on the global stage. The anti-globalisation movement that climaxed at the Seattle protests in 1999 was largely inspired by the Zapatistas, who, of course, timed their uprising to coincide with the North American Free Trade Agreement coming into force on January 1, 1994. And they’ve maintained those international links all these years, with the “Intergalactic Encuentros,” as they called them, bringing activists from all over the world to their territories. This is a clear spirit of internationalism and multiculturalism and the exchange of emissaries with other movements, like the Rojava Kurds. So this has all been very, very encouraging. 

Now, when in this initial communique of November 6, they announced that they were putting this new structure of autonomy in place, they said that they’re going to close their territories to outsiders. I was a little bit worried that maybe this indicated that they were withdrawing from the world, abandoning this ethic of internationalism, and becoming more isolated and insular. But that is not the case in the new communique, and I imagine this is a temporary measure while they’re putting this transition to a new structure in place. I imagine they will maintain their “intergalactic” spirit in one form or another.

~ Interviewed by Uri Gordon

Image: lauranazimiec / CC BY 2.0 Deed

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