A series of articles on indigenous autonomy in the Zapatista communities of Chiapas
Autonomy under Siege
Autonomy Under Siege, this series of reports on the five Zapatista autonomous centres, or caracoles, by Gloria Muñoz Ramírez, was first published in Spanish as a special section of the Mexican national newspaper La Jornada, Sept. 19, 2004, following a series of on-site reports by the author. The Translations are by Laura Carlsen.
We are producing this page in honour of the tenth anniversary of the Caracoles, as the articles were originally produced to mark the completion of their first year.
Caracol #1: La Realidad
The Caracol founded in La Realidad—the first autonomous center built by the Zapatistas—is still celebrating its first anniversary. The rains have flooded the land, mud has washed out the roads, the maize has been harvested, and the indigenous people have doubled their stores of maize seed. Maybe there isn’t less hunger than before, the situation is still difficult in these jungle lands, but a journey through the region today shows something that didn’t exist 10 years ago when we reporters first entered this territory.
At the entrance to the community that is home to the Good Government Board (GGB) “Hacia la Esperanza” (“Toward Hope”), there’s a small wooden clinic painted green with dozens of people standing around it. A white cardboard sign advertises different methods of contraception and vaccination campaigns for kids and adults. “We are fighting diphtheria and tetanus,” a middle-aged indigenous man who works as a health promoter says proudly. In the line, women carry vaccination cards issued by the autonomous government for their children.
Doroteo, a member of the Good Government Board, states, “Before our uprising, the Zapatistas had begun to organize their healthcare, because health is one of the main demands of our struggle—we need it to live, and our struggle is for life.”
This place, now called “Madre de los caracoles del mar de nuestros sueños” (the literal translation from Spanish is “Mother of the Sea Snails of our Dreams”) is famous in the world of resistance because in 1996 one of the founding acts of the anti-globalization struggle took place here—the First Continental Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism. Most recently, the biggest achievement in health has been the inauguration of an operating room. The community had the operating room for three years but couldn’t use it because there were no doctors and also, they admit, due to a lack of organization in the four autonomous municipalities of the region: San Pedro de Michoacán, General Emiliano Zapata, Libertad de Los Pueblos Mayas, and Tierra y Libertad.
“We’ve only operated on two men—one with a hernia, the other with a tumor—and on one women with a cyst where we even did a salpingo (removal of the fallopian tube), but at least now we’re operating in this zone,” says Doroteo. Meanwhile, the woman who recently had the operation is recovering well. “How many indigenous women with cysts are waiting for an operation in this zone?” The reply is cause for concern, but as they say, “Now we’ve started.”
Health is one of the areas where the most progress has been made here in Zapatista territory. This jungle area on the Guatemalan border is not without its problems, both internal and external, but preventive medicine campaigns are multiplying. For example, health commissions in many communities now clean latrines with lime on a weekly basis. In some areas, however, there are communities that “still do not understand the importance of cleaning, and we have to explain that health is the most important and precious thing you can give to the struggle.”
This zone has one of the two largest autonomous hospitals in rebel territory. It is called “Hospital la primera esperanza de los sin rostro de Pedro” (Hospital “The First Hope of the Faceless Ones of Pedro”) in honor of Subcomandante Pedro who was killed in combat in January 1994 and was a leader and compañero of the people of these villages.
The hospital stands amid dense vegetation and is separated by a bridge from the village of San José del Rio. It serves the four autonomous townships but, like all resistance projects, it has caused plenty of problems for the Zapatista communities. Local inhabitants note that it took a lot of work to organize the rotating shifts of the thousands who helped build it over three years, they admit that they faced many obstacles to get it going—they haven’t had and still don’t have doctors of natural medicine, they have only recently started using the operating room, once they had to close for an entire month, they spent a lot of money supporting health promoters, plus a long list of other predictable problems and unimaginable obstacles.
But the hospital exists and now competes with the big state hospital in Guadalupe Tepeyac that was established in 1993, just before the Zapatista uprising, by then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. This white elephant was run by the Red Cross until February 1995, when it was scandalously taken over by the Mexican Army (without any action by the Geneva Convention) before eventually being handed back to the state health authorities.
The Zapatistas say that in the Guadalupe Tepeyac hospital, “Sometimes they don’t want to give us medical attention if we say we’re Zapatistas, or they ask us a lot of questions to find out about our organization, or they treat us like the government treats us, which is with contempt, like they treat all indigenous people. Because of that, we don’t want to go there and now even the PRI members prefer to come to our hospital or micro-clinics because we treat everyone there—Zapatista or not—and we treat them with respect as human beings.”
It is common to find members of the PRI and other organizations in the autonomous hospital. They have chosen not to go to the huge hospital in Guadalupe Tepeyac because, “being indigenous, they, too, are treated very badly, or they tell them they don’t have any medicines.” In the autonomous clinics, those who are not Zapatistas pay only 10 pesos (less than a dollar) for a consultation, and “if we have donated medicines we give them that for free, and if we only have medicines we had to buy, then we charge what it cost us. We don’t make a commercial business out of health,” Doroteo says.
The challenge of providing healthcare not only to members of the base communities, but to all the population in the area is gigantic. Members of the GGB say, “We have a lot of work to do because the need is so great. Sometimes it seems like we need to do a lot more, it feels like we need to do twice as much, but other times it seems like we’re getting there.”
The hospital at San José is also a school for health promoters. It was built with the support of an Italian organization and has dental and herbal clinics and a clinical lab. In addition, there are three municipal clinics—one in Tierra y Libertad, one in Libertad de Los Pueblos Mayas, and another in San Pedro de Michoacán.
In the entire zone there are 118 health promoters dealing with primary illnesses in the same number of community health houses. In the main hospital, in the three municipal clinics, and in the community health houses, the base communities are provided with free consultations and, when available, free medicine.
The health promoters explain that up until several months ago the hospital functioned with health promoters who were economically supported by the four townships. They were given 800 pesos a month each to stay at the hospital full time. In total, the communities spent more than 100,000 pesos over three years. The money came from a warehouse project in the zone.
“But now when the Board was established, we decided to ask the villages for volunteers who would work full-time to care for people’s health in the hospital. Three men and three women answered the call, and they left their families and are now working as interns. The Board supports them with food, travel, shoes, and clothes. We buy them what they need, but they aren’t paid a wage nor given money. These interns are conscientious and working for their people and benefiting from the opportunity to learn about health.”
Midwives, Bone Healers, and Herbalists Strengthen Traditional Medicine
There is a new building nearly ready in La Realidad. It is an herbalist lab and center for preserving foods, and it forms part of a health project that is the pride of this zone. The project has meant the empowerment of more than 300 women herbalists, bone healers, and midwives.
“This dream,” they explain, “began when we realized that we were losing the knowledge of our old men and women. They know how to cure bones and sprains, the use of herbs, and how to deliver children, but all this tradition was being lost because of the use of pharmaceutical medicines. So we agreed in the villages to make a call to those men and women who know traditional healing. It wasn’t easy. At first many didn’t want to share their knowledge. They said it was a gift that could not be passed on because it comes from within. We then started discussions on health in the villages to raise awareness, and as a result many people changed their minds and decided to participate in the courses. There were 20 men and women, great people from our villages, who were appointed as teachers of traditional medicine with 350 pupils, most of them women. As a result, the number of midwives, bone healers, and herbalists in our communities has multiplied.”
The new herbalist laboratory has a story behind it. “An Italian soccer player who died left in his will money to build a soccer field on Zapatista territory. This field was only going to benefit the people of Guadalupe Tepeyac, so we talked with the community and explained that we had other more urgent needs that would benefit all the communities, like a place where compañeros could work on traditional health. The village understood and agreed that it was fair to use the money for the health of everyone. The second step was to talk to the donors. At first they didn’t want the money to be used for anything else, but later they said it was okay.”
More Than 300 Education Promoters Give Classes in Their Villages
Another area that the communities have been working on, despite all odds and overcoming internal obstacles and governmental counter-insurgency campaigns, is education. “For us, the education of our children is the foundation of our resistance. The idea came about because most of us have not been educated, or if we have, it was a very bad official education. There were no schools in the communities, and when there were, they didn’t have teachers, and if we had teachers, they usually didn’t show up and so there were no classes. That was before,” explain the autonomous authorities in the region. “In 1997, we began to work on our plans and programs of study. And seven years later we now have three classes of education promoters able to give classes in their villages. In our schools we teach the history of Mexico, but real history—what has happened to those who struggle in this country. We also teach children about the Zapatista struggle, the struggle of the people,” says Fidelio, an education promoter.
“Most of the villages now have education promoters. Only 30 communities don’t, and we have them in all the villages of the four municipalities,” the Board says. “In this region, in La Realidad, we organized the first Zapatista education in 1997. In 1999 and 2001 we taught other groups of promoters and finished with more than 300 indigenous people able to teach classes in their villages.” Nevertheless, “we have a problem that some single promoters lose interest when they marry, or the village does not give them much support; or there are some who go to work in the United States. We’re trying to resolve this because there is desertion, with promoters leaving.”
While the interview with the Good Government Board was taking place, a course with more than 70 promoters was coming to an end in La Realidad. “Those you see walking around the Caracol are taking a course needed to bring everyone’s knowledge up to the same level. Then they will go through a second course, like a secondary course, although we don’t call it that,” explains Doroteo.
In the four rebel municipalities in the jungle zone there are 42 new community schools: 10 in Libertad de Los Pueblos Mayas, four in General Emiliano Zapata, 20 in San Pedro de Michoacán, and eight in Tierra y Libertad. The schools have cement floors, wooden walls, and laminated roofs. They all have a blackboard, desks, the Mexican flag and, of course, the Zapatista flag, and some have tape recorders and other teaching tools.
To provide for the educational needs of the 30 communities without promoters, the Board asks those in charge “to raise awareness of the importance of this work. We will not force this; the villages need to understand the importance and apply this in their villages because they are convinced it’s worthwhile.”
Most of the communities in this region have two schools—one official, the other autonomous—and the Zapatistas say that in their schools, “Our children learn to read and write first, and they are more hard-working. We do not blame the government teachers, but they leave their classes a lot because they say they have to attend meetings. Our promoters don’t take breaks or get paid.”
Only One Woman is Part of the Autonomous Government
The Good Government Board is composed of seven men and only one woman. Three out of the four autonomous councils do not have a woman member and only one autonomous township—Tierra y Libertad—has a woman member. Out of over 100 education promoters, only six are women (five from Tierra y Libertad and one from San Pedro de Michoacán). The other two townships in this zone, General Emiliano Zapata and Libertad de Los Pueblos Mayas, do not have any women responsible for education.
The area of health is no better for women. There are only seven female promoters in the four municipalities—five in Libertad de Los Pueblos Mayas and two in Tierra y Libertad. “We are aware,” the Board states, “that in this zone there is still very little participation of women, but we see a small improvement because in the past it was unthinkable that even a single woman should participate. We need more women to participate, but the change must begin in the family.
“We need to do more political work in the villages with families. Unfortunately, there is still a belief that if daughters leave the village they will get up to no good. Because of this we need to strengthen discussion and work. On the Board we have a woman compañera, and she goes with us everywhere, and we have never had a problem because we respect her and she respects us. Many women in the villages still think that women could encounter problems if they go and work with men, but that’s not the case. And so we need to raise awareness more among husbands and fathers. They need to get it into their heads that men and women have the same rights.”
Fighting the Coyote: Another Challenge
In the community of Veracruz, the Zapatistas run a warehouse that supplies hundreds of small community shops, both Zapatista and non-Zapatista. This store, named “Todo para Todos” (“Everything for Everybody”), exists so that the shopkeepers in the villages are spared the trip to get supplies from Las Margaritas or Comitán. After the success of this store, another one was opened in Betania and another in Playa Azul. The stores supply the villagers throughout the zone with oil, soap, salt, sugar, beans, maize, and coffee.
During the past three-and-a-half years, the profits from the Veracruz store—over 100,000 pesos—have gone to support the health promoters in the main hospital. The profits also go to support the travel of the autonomous councils and other parts of the organization. In total, 116,614 pesos were spent to support various activities. In these stores, maize bought by the Board is traded in a project aimed at stopping intermediaries (coyotes) from buying up maize at low prices and selling at high prices. Profits from sales go to support the Board’s work and the activities of the four autonomous townships in the region.
“This first year, we bought more than 500 bags of maize—around 44 tons. We’ve already sold half of it, and the rest has been stored in the warehouse, and we are trading it,” explains Doroteo.
There is a big red vehicle just in front of the Board’s office in the Caracol. It’s called Chompiras. It’s the truck the Board recently acquired to transport their goods. Chompiras crosses the jungle and goes as far as the coast and Los Altos to distribute their products. They also have a passenger truck that travels from Las Margaritas to San Quintin. Its first profits went toward the creation of a regional food store.
“The difficulties never end … However, now we even have the Internet, and we are learning to use it to directly manage our communication. What we feel most is that we have a lot of responsibility. Sometimes we feel like the world is on our shoulders because it is difficult to govern, and above all to carry out what the people ask, to govern by obeying, and we don’t have resources. Sometimes it’s as if we’re addicted to problems or that we like them, but we go on learning to overcome them,” conclude the three members of the Good Government Board interviewed.
Caracol #2: Oventic
It’s midsummer and the dawns and sunsets in Oventic are accompanied by a cold mist that shrouds the Caracol of Los Altos, home of the Tzotzil Zapatistas. This is a rebel region, a place of poverty and extreme marginalization, and also the Zapatista territory most visited by people from all over the world. In the first year of autonomous self-government, 4,458 visitors came here from across the globe.
It’s not a coincidence that this Caracol has had the largest number of visitors. It’s closest to San Cristobal de las Casas; from there you can reach Oventic in an hour along a tarmac road. And it’s not only the fact that it is so close that attracts civil society. It’s also because of the mystique of this zone, a special indigenous presence, a rebelliousness visible in every Tzotzil face.
This Caracol has the most buildings and is possibly the largest of the five Caracoles. It has a long central street running through it, where new buildings seem to pop up all the time—cooperatives, the offices of the autonomous municipality and of the Good Government Board, the health clinic, an auditorium, and dormitories. The road ends up at the basketball court and the Zapatista primary and secondary school that bears the name of SERAZLN for its initials in Spanish, meaning Zapatista Rebel Autonomous Education System of National Liberation.
Josué and Ofelia are graduates of SERAZLN and currently members of its general direction. They explain that education is one of the demands of the EZLN, and since 1994 the Zapatistas have looked for a way of organizing education in their communities. In the beginning, they contacted teachers who worked in the state schools and invited them to participate in Zapatista-style education. More than 100 state schoolteachers came to the meeting, but it was hard to work with them, “not because the teachers didn’t want to work with us,” say Josué and Ofelia, “but because they were used to being paid.”
After analyzing the problem, the Zapatistas invited a group of young people to Oventic on Dec. 12, 1998. They were students who had not yet grown accustomed to earning salaries. Nineteen young people arrived that day who were convinced of the need for education, and agreed to receive training over the next two years before enlisting in the secondary school. At last, in September 2000 classes began in the primary/secondary school, supported by people from civil society who were called “companions.”
Planning for the courses was carried out collectively. There were endless meetings where people from all over the zone discussed the needs of the communities and planned the courses and study programs. The secondary school now offers classes in language, communication, math, social sciences, natural sciences, humanities, the Tzotzil language, and production. In humanities, Josué explains, “It’s about the Zapatista philosophy. We reflect on our struggle, since the main objective is for the young people to finish their studies with a different vision for their lives … that is, that they don’t have an individualist life but that work for the collective good of the community, and they understand more about our struggle and who has dominated us and exploited us.”
The education coordinators explain that after three years of study, “We can see that there is a greater understanding of the reality of our lives, that there is a growing awareness, and that students leave with a different mindset. It’s not that they come here to be convinced about our struggle. What happens is that here they gain the tools to be able to recognize their rights and to stand up for themselves. Without a doubt, education motivates our struggle and strengthens the autonomy of our people.
“The Church tells us that we are poor because it’s God’s will. Official education tells us that there are poor people and rich people and that poverty is our lot. But that’s not so, and education helps us to understand this,” Josué states firmly.
Josué and Ofelia recognize that despite all their efforts there are not enough resources to educate all the people, but their dream is “that everybody has a chance to study, both indigenous and non-indigenous people, Zapatistas and non-Zapatistas. We all have a right to be educated.”
In Los Altos, when students finish their secondary education they are asked as part of their graduation what they can do to help their community. They choose to help in areas such as agro-ecology, primary education, working in the trade offices, working in pharmacies, etc. All are obliged to share with their community what they have learned, because if they don’t there’s no point to their training.”
Two classes of students have now graduated. In the first, of 21 pupils only three were women and only five women were in the second group of 19 pupils. This is still a small percentage, but Ofelia notes, “It’s progress in communities where previously women have not had the right to be educated. There are communities that still believe that women only exist to get married and raise children … that they can’t study or work outside the home. But little by little women are waking up and realizing that they have a right to take part in other experiences.”
And it is precisely through education that Tzotzil women are beginning to see other opportunities. In the study of humanism, Ofelia explains, “We see that women have rights, and we see the need to change some customs. So education makes men and women realize the importance of women’s work. This isn’t easy because people have to change how they think, but we’re making a start. Autonomous education is the basis of the consciousness of our communities, and arising from that we can change the situation of indigenous women, because they are capable of doing any kind of work, not only being mothers and making handicrafts.”
This is the only one of the five zones that began organizing its autonomous education programs with a secondary school (the other four started with primary schools). Josué explains, “First we had to train promoters or teachers for the primaries. Now some of those who graduated from secondary school give classes in the newly created primary schools.”
Over the years, the autonomous townships in the Los Altos zone—San Andrés Sacamch’en de Los Pobres, San Juan de la Libertad, San Pedro Polhó, Santa Catarina, Magdalena de La Paz, and San Juan Apostol Cancuc—organized primary education independent of each other under different projects. In the last year, since the advent of the Good Government Board, they have organized a single education system for the whole zone. Now more than 100 education promoters give classes in as many communities.
The problem in this zone is different from that of other townships, since here many official teachers abandoned the schools and the schools were opened again by the autonomous governments. Many other schools have been built in the meantime and more are under construction.
The secondary school was built through the U.S.-based Schools for Chiapas project, run by Pedro Café. This project faces many challenges and has had its problems. For example, for students to board at the school, “We need to feed them and there aren’t enough resources. There aren’t resources for all the school books and equipment we need.” To alleviate these problems, the secondary school also runs the Centro de Lenguas e Idiomas Mayas (Spanish and Maya Languages Center) that offers courses in Spanish and Tzotzil for foreigners, and the income from that is used to provide food for the students, who also pay five pesos a month and a kilo of beans every other week toward their upkeep.
The new system of autonomous education is not without its difficulties, but it is also a source of satisfaction and joy. “We are very happy because the secondary school graduates are now giving classes in our primary schools, because the Zapatista education system starts from below, because it is for all our communities, and because the situation isn’t as bad as it was before,” Josué and Ofelia point out. They add: “Autonomous education has to be for everyone, not only for indigenous people and not only for Zapatistas.” And not only for children. They also have an adult education system in this zone.
Josué and Ofelia explain that the aim is to change their conditions. “Our communities have an obligation to struggle for change because we can’t wait for others to come and take care of us, and in this sense, education is the most powerful weapon our people possess.”
Over 100 Health Consultations a Day in La Guadalupana
Anastasio, an elderly Tzotzil Zapatista, is the director of general health at the Guadalupana clinic—one of the first established by the EZLN. The clinic was founded on Feb. 28, 1992, before the armed uprising, with only eight health promoters.
Anastasio, who only has a second-grade education, says that it has been over 12 years since the community asked him if he would undertake the work in healthcare. He agreed to help the community and the movement and is now the director of one of the most ambitious Zapatista health projects.
Nothing remains any more of the small clinic that treated wounded insurgents during the war. But in its place there is now a hospital-clinic with an operating room, a dental office, a laboratory for clinical analysis, an eye clinic, a gynecology clinic, an herbal laboratory, a pharmacy, and hospital rooms. This clinic and two other health training centers in Magdalena and Polhó are training more than 200 community health workers who also work in their communities. Like other Zapatista promoters, none of them are paid, although the community helps them out by giving them food and supporting them during their studies. The promoters study anatomy, physiology, symptoms, diagnosis and treatments, and above all, preventative medicine, personal and collective hygiene, and vaccination.
The nearby state hospitals, Anastasio says, “do not take in those who are seriously ill; they would rather they died somewhere else. We take them in this clinic, whether they’re Zapatistas or not, and it’s only when we can’t help them that we take them somewhere else. That’s why we need an ambulance.”
The clinic relies on the support of doctors and students who help perform surgery and train the promoters. “But when no one comes from outside we have to get on with it ourselves, and so we study any medical books we can get,” says Lucio, a health promoter who left his community, his family, and his land to work full-time in the clinic for the last eight years. He says, “Before, we had nothing and many people died, most of them from illnesses that could be treated if caught in time. Many children died and because of this we began to organize our own healthcare, because you can’t expect anything from the government.”
Now there’s a clinic in all eight of the townships in Los Altos, as well as more than 300 community health houses that offer basic medicines. Appointments are free for all who support the EZLN, and others are only asked for a small contribution.
Anastasio explains that they are only able to perform minor surgery because they lack the equipment for major operations. “We’re trying to figure out how to resolve this problem because we just don’t have what we need. But we work with what we have; we can’t just give up because we don’t have everything we need.”
The clinic, with all its shortages, is one of the best-organized and equipped in Zapatista territory. It also treats Zapatistas from other regions—from the jungle and the northern part of the state. Government health projects have sought to undermine the autonomous health programs, to the extent that when a Zapatista clinic starts up, a government clinic is soon set up nearby. Anastasio says, “They do this to put pressure on us, hoping that people will go to them. But our people don’t go because they are treated badly in their clinics. They aren’t treated with respect and they aren’t given medicine. So they build these new clinics but they’re always closed. Our clinics, on the other hand, operate 24 hours a day and everyone is treated the same.”
Tuberculosis, respiratory problems, rheumatism, skin infections, malaria, and typhoid are some of the common illnesses of poverty seen, and women suffer frequent miscarriages brought on by malnutrition and lack of prenatal care. Lucio points out though, “Not so many people die as before. We have saved many lives, we take seriously ill people into the hospital, we promote vaccination, we train our health promoters, and in this way, we move forward.”
Coffee, Honey, and Handicrafts: Trade in Resistance
Mut Vitz was set up in 1997 with 694 members from the seven townships. Their coffee is certified organic and authorized for export from the port of Veracruz to Germany, the United States, France, Spain, Switzerland, and Italy. Unfortunately, the cooperative has been unable to expand into the Mexican market except in the state of Puebla. The members don’t have equipment to grind and roast the coffee, so the beans are shipped whole. The Ya’chil Xojobal Chu’lcha’n cooperative has around 900 members, of whom 600 are refugees in Polhó. They have just begun to export coffee and are working to open up markets.
The women also work collectively to make and sell handicrafts. Famous throughout the world for their sewing and crafts, the Tzotzil Zapatista women, who before the war offered their goods for sale in the racist streets of San Cristobal de Las Casas, have now organized into cooperatives where they make and sell their products. The cooperatives Xulum Chon and Las Mujeres por la Dignidad (“Women for Dignity”) sell their textiles for fair-trade prices, earning income that forms an important part of the family economy.
Polhó: Seven Years Away From Home, Devastated by Violence
More than 9,000 refugees forced to flee paramilitary violence now live in Polhó. They survive without land to farm, and food and medicine are always scarce. The Red Cross pulled out of the zone, claiming that there is no longer a war and that they have a lot of work to do in Iraq. Here displacement has created new forms of resistance and autonomy. The people have organized their own education and health systems, cooperatives, and other means of survival.
In their first year of governing, the autonomous authorities throughout the zone gave two and a half million pesos to feed the refugees in Polhó—a substantial sum of money but still not enough to feed the thousands who for the last seven years have been dreaming of returning home. According to the Good Government Board in an interview following its first anniversary, it’s not easy to build autonomy and even less so in conditions like those found in Polhó.
We Didn’t Campaign: GGB
After a year’s work, the Good Government Board affirms proudly, “We’ve proven we have the capacity to govern, work, and identify problems. We’ve learned not to fall into the traps set by the government and political parties. Experience has shown that the first one to raise a fist will lose politically. We are holding on to the idea of resisting through peaceful means, although we know how to defend ourselves.”
The Board says that the most important lesson it has learned over the past year “is to negotiate, to coordinate the work of the Board with the townships. We know we can’t do it alone without the support of national and international civil society. We work from Monday to Sunday, 24 hours a day, and still we can’t catch up with everything. But we’re learning, obeying, and fulfilling our commitments. It’s not easy. Nothing is easy.”
“We didn’t campaign or hand out propaganda to get on the Good Government Board. The people chose us as honest people, and now we are committed. We don’t have a fixed term on the Board—if the people say that we are no longer doing the job properly, then they will get rid of us and replace us with others.
We dream that one day our rights will be recognized, that there will be a total change not only for indigenous people, but for all the poor people of the world. This is not over yet. Here other people will be born, and they won’t ask permission to follow their own path. That is what we dream.”
Caracol #3: La Garrucha
Communication technology has arrived in the Lacandona jungle. The Internet café, Cyber-Pozol, is the only public Internet in the Patiwitz Canyon, or for that matter in all of the territories in resistance. In the café cooperative Smaliyel you can also find Zapatista music, videos, bandanas, handicrafts, sweets, gasoline, and food for sale.
Smaliyel is in the Caracol Resistencia Hacia un Nuevo Amanecer (“Resistance Toward a New Dawn”), in the first rebel zone opened to journalists in 1994. From here the whole world learned about the indigenous people who had taken up arms, the insurrection, their motives, and their sorrows. Today, more than 10 years later, the panorama has changed.
When journalists first came to La Garrucha, there was no Internet—there wasn’t even electricity. There was no autonomous clinic with dental equipment, no autonomous laboratory, no ambulance. The school didn’t function, and a library was unimaginable. After the assassination of Mexican presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994, the future turned cloudy, the region was closed off, and the spotlights moved away from the mountains of Chiapas.
Miguel, three years old, is strolling through the Zapatista shop and declares that Spiderman “is a compa” (compañero, or comrade). When the daily convoy of state soldiers passes, Miguel, now transformed into Spiderman, throws his webs at the soldiers from his hiding place in the bushes. His mother scolds him and he tells her he’s going to tell the Good Government Board on her.
The military patrol that Miguel sees passing by doesn’t exist according to the government. But for the entire time we were here, it passed by four times every day. A convoy of trucks full of soldiers with their weapons in combat position is routine in these militarized lands.
Moises, the same Tzeltal man who met the press 10 years ago, is now an autonomous filmmaker. He takes videos with his mini-camera that are later edited on an Apple Mac. He is currently finishing work on a video about Zapatista women, and a building is under construction that will soon house a media project.
As in the rest of the territories in resistance, there is a vaccination campaign in the villages. Mothers with children in their arms line up at the autonomous clinic, opened in 1995. The International Red Cross had been working in the community of San Miguel since 1994 until it left the zone recently. “They say there is no war here, that there need to be deaths here for them to stay longer,” village residents tell us. Previously, the vaccination campaigns were run by the international agency. Today the Zapatistas run them and the Red Cross only works in a few communities.
With the aim of organizing health services for all Zapatistas, in this zone families carry a health pass that identifies them as Zapatistas. This allows them access to free consultations and free medicine at the clinic. In the small but functional clinical lab, specialist health promoters work on blood analysis, urine tests, tests for parasites, and other basic tests. “What we do most is test for malaria and TB, because these are widespread illnesses in this zone,” explains one of the lab workers.
The clinic is painted in Mexican hot pink and is decorated with murals about the resistance. “Here blows the wind of hope, life, and dignity,” is written on a mural depicting a snail (caracol) and the face of Zapata. Recently painted, the autonomous health center handles about 30 consultations a day. The most common illnesses in the Tzeltal jungle are parasites, malaria, skin infections, and tuberculosis. They also have a dental office, a pharmacy, and, more recently, hospital rooms. Just as in other Zapatista clinics, indigenous members of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) are also treated by health workers. “We charge the PRI members 25 pesos for the consultation and medicine to recover some of the cost.”
The four autonomous townships in the Tzeltal zone are Francisco Gómez, San Manuel, Francisco Villa, and Ricardo Flores Magón. All of these have autonomous health services, and in Francisco Gómez alone 78 health promoters treat basic illnesses in the villages. In spite of these advances, the Good Government Board, “El Camino del Futuro” (“The Way of the Future”), admits that the situation is still far from ideal. Francisco Villa, for example, does not have a clinic or even a pharmacy, and its general development is very much behind that of Ricardo Flores Magón. It is the job of the Board to even out development.
The main clinic in the zone is supported by an Italian organization and the ambulance was donated by Doctors Without Borders. The promoters are not paid a wage and are only supported by being given food. Often, say the autonomous authorities, many promoters do not attend courses because they do not have money for the journey. “They provide a service to the community, but we think they need to be supported more in their work.”
To resolve this and other problems there are health representatives in each of the four autonomous townships who meet every two months to coordinate the work in the zone.
Even with the delays in building schools and training promoters, there are now four townships with autonomous education in their communities. The members of the Good Government Board say, “Our education comes out of the thought of the people. Nothing comes from outside, and it’s not like state education where indigenous history is not respected.” The communities in the Tzeltal jungle have two learning centers for educational promoters—one recently opened in the community of La Culebra in the autonomous municipality of Ricardo Flores Magón, and the other in La Garrucha in the township of Francisco Gómez.
Julio, who comes from Ricardo Flores Magón, explains the meaning of Zapatista autonomous education. “We’re looking at how knowledge relates to the 13 demands of the Zapatista movement. It’s not that someone from outside tells us how to make this link. We are the ones who live here, who suffer and struggle here, and so we’re the ones who know how everything is related. The people have the knowledge. They know many things, and from there consciousness and knowledge is rescued and redeemed.” He explains that one of education’s main aims is to strengthen indigenous identity and respond to the needs of the people. “It’s not a question of teaching indigenous people to be indigenous—we know that already. What we need to know is our history, our past … that’s what real education is for.
“In our schools we also study the national situation, our struggle, the life of our people. The goal of our education is never to depart from the politics and the path of the Zapatista struggle, and to maintain respect for the communities—their language and everything. Our education promoters reflect on the problem of the displacement of people in Montes Azules, the government’s plans for Plan Puebla Panama, the problem of genetically modified seeds, exploitation by factory owners, the government’s political counter-attack, the resistance of our people, the San Andrés Accords, the war of low intensity, the government’s manipulation by buying communities with aid programs such as Procede or school meals or agricultural grants. All of these issues are looked at in our autonomous schools.”
Education promoters are chosen by the people, who ask them if they want to participate. “You can agree, but also you can say no because you have other work and duties, because autonomy involves other work, not only education,” explains Hortensia, an education promoter. She explains that there are promoters who start out and don’t know how to read and write, so they begin at zero. “Some are really happy to be promoters and here they grow and learn and later return to their villages. There are also voluntary promoters who are not elected by the village but come of their own accord. There are some who don’t know anything—the Spanish language, nothing, and here they learn everything.”
Like in other indigenous areas, Zapatista and non-Zapatista, women still suffer inequality. Most of the promoters and students in autonomous schools are male because, as Hortensia points out, “It’s hard to make a change. In our villages, women promoters who leave the house to take courses are still the butt of jokes in the villages, and so are their parents or husbands, like, ‘why did you let your daughter go, she’s up to no good,’ and other made-up stuff, because it’s just not the custom for women to leave their villages. But this doesn’t get us down even though they make fun of us or say we’re doing things that we aren’t doing. As promoters we have to continue with our work. We have to work hard to see how far we can get, because it’s our right. If we leave our work it means that the taunting has defeated us.
“The Zapatista women are the first to come out to defend their community when the army enters the villages. They are on the frontline, so if they’re capable of defending the community then they’re capable of studying. We can’t keep our mouths shut about this situation because if we do, things won’t change. We’re creating a very different kind of education.”
And it was, in fact, a woman, Rosalinda, who gave the speech on the first anniversary of this Good Government Board: “No longer do we need to ask permission to govern ourselves. Already we see what we can do, and we see that in this first year of work we have learned a lot. We stand here firm. We are not going to sell out,” announced the only woman in the autonomous government here.
Bicycle Rental and Shoe Shop
A shoemaking workshop has also been operating for several years. On the walls there is a huge mural of Zapata with an open book, in which you can read “Imagination, creativity, informality, improvisation …”
In front of the third Zapatista Caracol, you can see an old machine for grinding coffee, and, to one side, the peace camp visited year-round by hundreds of people from all over the world. Three women’s cooperatives, a dormitory, two warehouses, the health clinic, a school, and a library make up the buildings.
The Zapatistas are building their autonomy, a process that Julio says “comes from our history, our own customs, our own system of justice, our own cultivations … A process that’s like walking alone. We know how to walk, and although we may make mistakes, they’re our own mistakes and not those imposed on us.”
Caracol #4: Morelia
A tree-fringed river cuts through the fourth Zapatista Caracol, in the ejido of Morelia, in Altamirano. It is the Tzotz Choj region (“brave tiger” in Tzeltzal)—a zone of cattle ranchers and paramilitaries, the place where the federal army raped an indigenous woman and tortured and killed three EZLN militants in 1994.
The Caracol is located at the end of the village in a place surrounded by pine trees. In 1996, the political and cultural meeting space now known as Aguascalientes IV was built here. Today the place is nothing like it was years ago; at the entrance there is an appropriate technology workshop; in the center of the town there’s a shoemaking workshop and dormitories; the auditorium is at the back, and at the side is the office of the Good Government Board with its satellite Internet connection.
As in other Zapatista Caracoles, the wood and cement buildings are decorated with murals showing revolutionary images. On the walls of one of the dormitories, a painting is dedicated to “the martyrs of Morelia, murdered on Jan. 7, 1994.” At the height of the war, the army seized the village, and took the men found in their homes into the town square, where they were tortured, and then shot to death. Although it is an old story, it is one that lives on in the memory of the people here.
Today the atmosphere is different. A group of Catalans from the “Collective of Solidarity with the Zapatista Rebellion” have come to the Caracol and, taking advantage of the fact that there is a group of education promoters here undergoing a training course, joined with them to prepare a puppet show with revolutionary songs and children’s stories.
The newest building is the cafeteria El Paliacate (“The Bandana”), located at the other end of the Caracol. There you can get something to eat and also find copies of the local autonomous publication. This region was the first to organize its own publications to give voice to the views of the people. A few years ago, they published a small newspaper that sent indigenous reporters to cover the Zapatista marches and mobilizations.
Now they distribute a pamphlet published by Autonomous Editions in Rebellion that tells the history of the trade center, “Centro de Comercio Nuevo Amanecer del Arco Iris” (“New Dawn of the Rainbow”), and another that tells the story of the struggle of Zapatista women in the villages and the women insurgents in the Zapatista army.
The trade center “New Dawn of the Rainbow” is one of the things to be proud of in this region. It is located at the Cuxulja crossroads in the Moises Gandhi community, on land occupied in the past by one of the seven military positions whose withdrawal the EZLN demanded. Now, “in the same place where we fought courageously against the military” this collective was formed, surviving threats of eviction from the state Public Security Force and threats from members of the PRI and PRD. The center is the first project jointly organized by the seven autonomous townships in the zone and was begun even before the Good Government Board formed. The seven townships are: Primero de Enero, Olga Isabel, 17 de Noviembre, Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Vicente Guerrero, Miguel Hidalgo, and Lucio Cabañas.
The communities in this region are known for the strong participation of women. The now-famous Comandante Esther who appeared before Congress is the product of more than 10 years of political work in these villages. Progress has been made, although gender inequality still persists. For example, the Good Government Board is the only one with a woman on each of the seven autonomous councils. The Board has a total of 28 members, 21 men and seven women, so there is always a woman on shift, representing a quarter of the autonomous government. It is not a lot, but compared to the other Boards it has the largest presence of women in government.
The Tzeltal, Tzotzil, and Tojolabal women of the seven municipalities are also pioneers in collective work. The number of collectives in the villages has been growing steadily. They now include vegetables and horticulture, sewing and embroidery, candle making, and bakeries. Maria explains that “the profit from this work is distributed to the individual women to a small extent, but the largest part is used for communal benefit.”
Women’s monetary contribution to the family economy gives them a new place within the community, and in this way the women are gaining the respect of their parents, husbands, brothers, and sons.
Seated in the middle of six men in the office of the Good Government Board, the only woman on the shift points out: “We still need to participate more. Some men who understand the struggle are now learning that women are equal in ability to men in all areas of work, but not all men understand … Many men don’t let their wives or daughters take courses or work outside their villages. In villages where men think right, women do their work well.”
The influence of indigenous Zapatista women who are involved in work has now permeated other organizations. Maria says, “In my village the PRI men are beginning to allow their women to go out because the women claim that only the Zapatista women are allowed to go out. The PRI women tell their husbands that they can also earn money with integrity and so they went out to work too.”
Education for Peace and Humanity
While this interview is being held in the Board’s office, players tussle over the ball in the basketball game between male and female education promoters. Gender inequality is also visible in the area of education, but only at the level of promoters, educators, or education delegates (here there are three types). In the community schools there are almost the same number of girls as boys. Most of the teachers are male, but the ratio of male-to-female pupils is nearly equal. The girls are going to school and now spend less time looking after their young brothers and sisters or making tortillas.
Autonomous education has been functioning here since 1995 and now a total of 280 education delegates give classes to 2,500 pupils in seven municipalities. It is also the only zone that has a training center for promoters in each autonomous municipality and not just one for the whole zone.
As in the other Zapatista territories, children not only learn to read and write, but most importantly, “they learn to struggle, to defend their surroundings, to look after nature, and be proud of their culture.” Here they study agricultural production, politics, art, culture, reading and writing, health, sports, math, history, and languages (Spanish and their mother tongues). These courses were developed by 200 indigenous education promoters from the seven municipalities over the course of dozens of meetings.
One odd fact that tells a lot about autonomous education is that to enroll in basic education each child brings a chicken as payment, because the education promoters now rely on a farm with chickens and eggs to provide food for their pupils. Similarly, each one of the primary schools was built from the resources in the community with no external support, so they are made of blocks, planks, or cement. The promoters also work in borrowed or temporary houses with a plastic roof for protection. “A school,” they say, “is not the building.”
The education program in the zone is called “Organización para la nueva educación autónoma indígena por la paz y la humanidad” (“Organization for New Autonomous Education for Peace and Humanity”). Like all Zapatista names, the name reflects a carefully thought-out concept.
The most recent development in education is that this year secondary courses began. It is also the only one of the five Zapatista zones that has a secondary school in each municipality—seven in total. The first generation of primary children has already graduated, and they have now taken courses to make sure everyone is ready to start the next grade. “In the past we could never have dreamed of having a school, and now we have more than 100 primary schools and seven secondary schools,” say the autonomous authorities.
Many Needs and Free Consultation
The Zapatista villages in this region are gradually using fewer pharmaceutical medicines and are promoting campaigns to use herbal and plant medicines. Natural medicine is growing in importance, and medicines are prepared using a variety of natural remedies.
A total of 150 health promoters look after Zapatista and non-Zapatista patients in more than 100 community health houses. They use basic medicines, some pharmaceutical and some herbal. “Herbal medicine is given free and we only charge the cost of pharmaceutical medicines,” explain the members of the Board. There are also seven municipal clinics that offer free consultations to all Zapatistas, like others in the territories in resistance. A lab for clinical analysis has just started up, run by specialized promoters.
The needs are many. In this zone there is no dental service, no clinics with operating rooms, no hospital services, much less an ambulance. When someone gets seriously ill, he or she has to be transferred to the San Carlos Hospital, located in the regional capital of Altamirano. They are looked after there by nuns who in 1994 were threatened with death by the local bosses and ranch owners who accused them of the terrible crime of opening the hospital doors to anyone who knocked.
Despite these needs, the Zapatistas are making advances. They remember when “the government clinics gave us expired medicines, didn’t treat us with respect, and charged us for the consultation like private hospitals.”
The incidence of indigenous members of the PRI being treated in the autonomous health clinics is increasing in this zone. Hilario, a PRI member from the municipality Miguel Hidalgo notes that, “Sometimes we don’t even pay for consultations, but then we don’t have money either. Sometimes they give us ointments and don’t charge us and I think that’s good in an emergency.”
The Board states, “There is no way we will deny anyone a service. Health is for everyone. The money the government gives to the PRI members they spend on alcohol, and then they don’t have money to get health treatment or even for food. For us, health is the most important thing and they’re indigenous people who also need this service.”
Each autonomous municipality has a health commission tasked with investigating the situation in all of the communities. Before the existence of the Good Government Board, the authorities recognized that “many communities did not have a community health house, but now they all do. We have a general health plan, and every three months the commission meets to see how the work is progressing and to see where communities need first aid resources, to study which illnesses are presenting a problem, and to give encouragement where work needs to be done.”
Driving through the nearby villages, you can see the promoters working on three health campaigns: an effort to get rid of parasites, a vaccination campaign, and a hygiene campaign to prevent illnesses. “It is important to educate the people about where illness comes from. Otherwise we will continue to have to treat these illnesses,” Board member Daniel points out.
An End to the Use of Insecticides and Chemical Fertilizers
The land is one of the issues of most concern to the people. Despite difficulties, they are beginning to organize agricultural production. Now there is a production commission in each municipality to organize agricultural and cattle-raising projects. They are also training promoters to learn agro-ecology and veterinary skills. Some farmers now use machetes instead of insecticides to control pests. They also use organic fertilizers without chemicals.
A year has gone by since the Good Government Board began work, but the people have been doing collective work for many years. The Zapatistas continue to learn and above all, “to govern ourselves and to resolve our problems. The people learn to command and oversee our work, and we learn to obey. The people are wise and know if you make a mistake you go off track. That is how we work,” conclude the autonomous authorities.
Caracol #5: Roberto Barrios
In the center of the Caracol, two gangs of nine howler monkeys fight over territory. This spectacle attracts the attention of the members of the Good Government Board (GGB), “Nueva semilla que va a producir” (“A New Seed that will Grow”). Also out to watch the show are peace campers from Argentina, Barcelona, and France; the team of indigenous people charged with the autonomous communications project; and a group from the United States that is building the Zapatista secondary school.
In the middle of the lush jungle and close to the beautiful waterfalls coveted by national and foreign investors, the howler monkeys come down for water to these lands that have been terrorized by the most bloody paramilitary group in all of Zapatista territory, ironically named “Paz y Justicia” (“Peace and Justice”).
The Caracol, located about an hour from the archeological site of Palenque, is under permanent construction. The Internet office is almost done. When it’s ready, inhabitants will be able to send and receive emails to and from the whole world. The office of the Good Government Board has just been completed, too. It is made of cement blocks and decorated with huge colorful Zapatista murals.
The Caracol, “Que habla para todos” (“Speak for us all”), in the northern zone of the state of Chiapas has six autonomous townships, and three other townships are soon to be established. Nature is abundant in this region, “and so we need to defend it,” declares Pedro, a Board member who has just explained that the people’s autonomy begins with taking care of the earth.
To care for their natural resources, the Zapatistas are carrying out a plan to improve the soil. The plan consists of gradually ending the practice of field burning, using organic fertilizer, and eliminating the use of insecticides to increase the land’s fertility. “All this is not easy; it takes a lot of work because the government gives the PRI members chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides, and so the earth continues to be mistreated even though the compas have realized that you can sow without lowering the quality of the land,” autonomous authorities explain.
Since the environmental programs began, more and more Zapatistas use biological insecticides. They say, “It is not about eliminating pests, but scaring them away.” They also use arnica, which serves as both an insecticide and a fertilizer, make organic compost, and reject the use of genetically modified seeds.
The Children Never Get Zeros
Agro-ecology is not new in these villages, nor is the system of autonomous education, which began five years ago, “when we began to think about the need for education to be in the hands of the people. There were already compañerosdoing this in La Realidad, and so we decided to do it too.”
And so began the courses for education promoters in the autonomous program “Semillita del sol” (“Seed of the Sun”), which five years later has produced four generations of promoters. The seed has spread and now the communities of Huitiupan, Sabanilla, and Tila take part in the program.
Under autonomous education, explains another Board member, “Zapatista families have an alternative to the government system. Many people criticize us; they say we are not doing the work well, but the fact is that we now have 352 education promoters giving classes in 159 schools of resistance, of which 37 are totally new. In these schools we have educated around 4,000 Zapatista boys and girls.”
The government schools only give classes in Spanish. The Zapatistas claim that in government schools, “Our children are taught to stop being indigenous, while in our schools we encourage our identity.” In the northern zone, classes are given in Spanish, Zoque, Tzeltal, and Chol, “and we also talk about our struggle and the children are able to develop their own ideas.”
They go on to explain: “Those who don’t know anything are not given a grade of zero. Instead, the group doesn’t move forward until everybody is equal; no-one flunks.” At the end of the courses, the indigenous promoters organize a series of activities that are presented to the parents, who value their children’s learning without giving grades.
The educational process in this region is becoming more and more independent. The first and second generations of promoters were trained with the help of civil society, but the third and fourth generations were trained by graduates without external input. In this way, the project gradually becomes independent of “outside” support, although they still on occasion need to ask for outside help to develop teaching materials. Food for promoters who are undergoing training is provided for by their villages and is not dependent on a project.
Now there are two training centers for promoters, one in Roberto Barrios and the other in Ak’abal Na. They teach math, languages, history, “life, and our environment,” and all the subjects are related back to the Zapatista demands.
The history that is taught to the children is not from official texts—it’s the history of the people and their struggle. The promoters and children have prepared the histories of all of their communities, and these carry on in the schools of resistance by means of a timeline. “The children consult the old people in their villages, and together they create their own teaching materials,” says one of the promoters.
The current challenge to the education system is to link the autonomous projects. To do this, schools are starting classes in health and agro-ecology. In the autonomous municipality of Roberto Barrios, for example, the children learn to care for the earth when they sow the land, and they also learn about issues of hygiene and how to prevent illnesses. The education promoters organize trips for the children to the mountains and rivers, where they are directly involved in preserving the environment.
The autonomous authorities proudly declare that a secondary education project is already underway (the building situated behind the Board’s office is now ready). Here they will take the same subjects as in primary school, with the addition of culture. It’s really not a secondary school but—as its long name indicates—a Cultural Center of Autonomous Zapatista Technical Education. The idea, according to the organizers, is that the center adapt to indigenous reality, since “it’s not about studying to cease being indigenous people, but to be indigenous people with more ideas,” states one promoter. What comes next “will be to one day fulfill the dream of having our own Zapatista university. Before, all this that we now have created was a dream and look, we already have achieved it.”
The six autonomous municipalities in this zone are: El Trabajo, Ak’abal Na, Benito Juarez, Francisco Villa, La Paz, and Vicente Guerrero, and there are another three regions that operate as autonomous townships although they have not yet been formally declared. In addition, there are some communities that have yet to organize autonomous councils. In the entire zone they report an annual income of 1,600,000 pesos and an expenditure of approximately one million. This is very little, taking into account the size of the territory and what its needs are, but it is not insignificant considering that everything is done collectively.
The support of La Garriga, a small, prosperous area in Barcelona, has been very important to this region. La Garriga was declared a sister city to the township of El Trabajo municipality many years ago and is now working with the autonomous authorities in other townships in the zone on education, health, and agro-ecological projects.
Still Work to be Done in Healthcare
One of the areas of work that has lagged behind in these villages is healthcare. The Board members recognize that. “We are organizing health services in all the townships and regions because health is an urgent need in the communities in resistance. Everything we organize in these villages has the aim of having our own system of community and autonomous health.”
When the Caracoles and the Good Government Board were first inaugurated, “The government health centers increased hostility toward our supporters. They ask them a lot of questions and don’t provide them with good care. Because of this our people were afraid to go to the official clinics,” say Board members. The GGB is working with the villages on a plan to prevent illnesses.
The work of a small group of women physiotherapists from Catalonia stands out in the northern zone. Working in a small, air-conditioned room, they give therapeutic massages that help cure some illnesses without the need for medication. The cultural exchange that happens during these massages is amazing. Indigenous men and women from the villages are not accustomed to touch for therapeutic purposes and far less to taking off their clothes. These young, enthusiastic professionals go from village to village offering massage and training so that when they leave, others can carry on their work.
Up to some months ago, the health work in the villages was spotty. Each township worked on its own priorities separately, and there were some that had neither health clinics nor promoters. Today there is already a clinic in each of the six declared municipalities and training courses for promoters in all of the communities. They are working on courses in herbalism and Western “conventional” medicine, just like in the other four Caracoles.
The autonomous clinics do not have doctors or nurses. They are run by village health promoters who also run the vaccination and preventative medicine campaigns. The El Trabajo township is the only one that has a doctor in its clinic in Roberto Barrios and it’s a student doctor.
Parasitic and respiratory illnesses, skin infections, and fever are some of the illnesses now treated by a total of 35 promoters in El Trabajo and 41 in Benito Juárez. Meanwhile, in Francisco Villa they are working on an herbal project, and in the others they are carrying out an analysis of the sanitary situation and working on campaigns to clean latrines, keep animals outside the home, and improve personal and community hygiene. “All of this takes work, but the compas are doing it,” the health coordinator says.
Moy, a young Zapatista, forms part of an autonomous media system that includes a regional radio station and a video project that tells their history, records their fiestas and traditions, and documents human rights violations. A product of this work is “The War of Fear,” a video about Paz y Justicia, the paramilitary group responsible for murders and other crimes in the northern zone.
Rosaura is the newscaster at the only municipal radio station run by the base communities themselves (Radio Insurgente is run by insurgents and not by people from the villages). It is a local station called Radio Resistente that transmits on short wave. They are now working on where to locate the radio transmitter so as to increase the transmission. They broadcast children’s stories, health campaigns, interviews with the women’s cooperatives, and local news.
Women in the Northern Zone
In front of the main entrance to the Caracol is the peace camp where dozens of men and women of all nationalities accompany the besieged community of Roberto Barrios. At one side of the camp there is a multicolored building where a group of women dressed in many colors sew both blouses and hopes for the future.
The first cooperative was born as an indirect product of the paramilitary threat. For long periods of time, the men had to stop their work to guard the Caracol (then called Aguascalientes). Family income began to fall as a result. Women organized and started a project that has allowed them to keep their families afloat.
Over the years, the work of the cooperatives has grown substantially, and now there are many collective projects run by women, such as the bakery, food shops, handicraft cooperatives, confectionery, horticulture, and raising pigs and chickens. The township of Benito Juárez is where the collectives have been promoted the most, with 33 women responsible for their organization.
The work to be done is never-ending. The Good Government Board realizes that they need to do much more to even out the work between men and women; that in the area of health they are far from their aims; that not all the villages apply agro-ecology methods; that in spite of 54 trained education promoters, the secondary school still does not function; that the paramilitary group Paz y Justicia continues to operate; that the Federal Electricity Commission cuts off their electricity; that there are no resources … “We need a lot, and at times it seems more so than in the beginning, but we are happy as long as we have life. Nothing is the same as it was before,” conclude Pedro, Soledad, Leonel, Conception, Walter, Sofia, Rodolfo, and Enrique, all members of the Good Government Board.