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Zapatista Autonomy: Interview with an anarchist comrade

Last month, we posted the English translation of the Zapatista communique outlining the new autonomy structure and an interview with Bill Weinberg, who has written about the movement. We now publish replies to the same questions we put to Bill from an anonymous anarchist comrade with long-term involvement in Chiapas.

Can you tell us about your background and connection to Chiapas?

My background in relation to Chiapas is that I became involved in 94/95 and was able to meet with the CCRI (Clandestine Committee for Indigenous Revolution) in the spring of 1995. At the time they were negotiating with the government for the San Andres Peace Accords, I attended the meeting with two other European comrades and also present was an insurgent commander. At that meeting, Comandante David pointed out the importance of helping the base communities first, as only helping the insurgents would lead to isolation, whereas helping the base communities, in turn, would help maintain the insurgents. At that meeting, it was decided what sort of base community projects I would be working on, and they specified the type of support they needed for the insurgents. I continued to do both sorts of work for the next 30 years, living for several years in San Cristobal de las Casas.

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

The changes are rather dramatic, and in short, they are being implemented because the previous way of decision making was no longer working. They have attempted to maintain unity for thirty years and not respond to provocations. As Marcos has pointed out, this also introduced a pyramid of hierarchy that, in the end, was inflexible and did not address the fact that the government had pretty much undermined the original peace accords and that proxy organisations were killing members of the base communities and stealing their land on a regular basis without a response from the EZLN.

The acceleration of cartel involvement in the last few years has changed the context of the region rather dramatically. The EZLN had to change, or they would cease to be relevant as they slowly lost coherence in the communities. The government actively engaged in counter-organising activities, such as building schools near Zapatista schools, offering accredited degrees to students, and paying teaching positions to volunteer education promoters. The cartels, for their part, offer lots of money and the threat of extreme violence. The decentralisation currently taking place allows the communities to respond and even take offensive action, not just in the case of defending against violence but also in the case of vaccines and many other issues they were previously unable to decide on their own. While this runs the risk of falling into provocation and disunity as one community might decide one thing, another the complete opposite, it also allows much more flexibility, the ability to respond quickly, and more control and autonomy over their own futures. 

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

Cartels have always been a part of the landscape in Chiapas, but until recently, the primary cartel in the area was the Sinaloa Cartel. The violence really began when two other cartels, the Gulf Cartel and the Cartel Jalisco Nuevo Generation (an offshoot of the Los Zetas), moved in very aggressively, challenging the Sinaloa cartel over control of territory and activities (the combinations known as a plaza). The CJNG, in particular, is very violent, engaging in kidnapping, mass murder, house burning, extortion, etc, on a scale never before seen in Chiapas. In the process, they have corrupted the police, military and local politicians. Whereas previously, local paramilitaries and local criminal gangs were aligned with state police and military intelligence, they are now aligned with various cartels, with the police and state apparatus falling into line as well. 

Do you think decentralising the autonomy structure would provide resilience not provided by the previous one?

The decentralising will run the risk of disintegration of the movement, but it is perhaps the only means of resisting the current onslaught of violence and state counter-organising activities.

What does this tell us about how anti-hierarchical non-state actors can combat hierarchical non-state or demi-state actors like cartels or paramilitaries? It’s a common argument against anarchism, “what will you do when the gangsters come for you when the police are gone?” Is this new change a response, or does it show that the Zapatistas don’t have a response? 

The Zapatistas are not afraid to put things into practice, as they mention in one of their recent communiques. They don’t sit around in classrooms and coffee shops theorising but actually try to solve problems they are facing. Unity has always been a strong point of the Zapatistas. Communities are stepping up their local defence at the local level, not allowing anyone unknown to enter their communities. They then look at the most successful efforts and replicate them elsewhere. This involved working closely with non-Zapatista community members, and I’m seeing a level of intergroup unity on the community level that has been absent in the past. This also allows communities to deal with education, health, etc., in a way appropriate to their community, crossing political lines that were either Zapatista or not in the past. In contrast, now they are forging community-wide agreements that strengthen the community even if it means less Zapatista coherence to policies. 

Finally, if 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 are continuing to link what they’re doing locally to world affairs.

The defence of individual communities also means outsiders (caxlanes), including known activists, are no longer allowed in the communities. They are at the same time reaching out to other groups around the world to both understand those groups and to form alliances. This is new; in the past, groups came to Chiapas. For the first time, the EZLN is reaching out and visiting other groups. They are doing this on an individual basis as well. In the mid-2000s, they approached me, and we redefined my role. I think in the next year, we will witness them reaching out more to indigenous groups in the Americas (as opposed to travelling to Europe). The problem of cartels is international; thus, the response needs to be international.

~ Interviewed by Uri Gordon

Image: papermakesplanes / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed

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