Members and supporters of the Zapatista indigenous rebel movement celebrated the 30th anniversary of their brief armed uprising in southern Mexico on Monday even as their social base erodes and violence spurred by drug cartels encroaches on their territory.
Hundreds gathered in the remote community of Dolores Hidalgo in the preceding days to mark the occasion. Some 1,500 young Zapatistas donning uniforms — black balaclavas, green caps and red kerchiefs — stood in formation listening to speeches early Monday.
Subcommander Moises — his nom de guerre — called for the Zapatistas to continue organizing themselves to fight to maintain their autonomy, freedom and democracy.
“We’re alone, like 30 years ago, because alone we have found the new path that we are going to follow,” Moises said. He noted the continuing need to defend their communities from violence. “We don’t need to kill soldiers and bad governments, but if they come we’re going to defend ourselves.”
In November, it was Subcommander Moises who sent a statement saying the Zapatistas had decided to dissolve the “autonomous municipalities” they had established.
At the time, Moises cited the waves of gang violence that have hit the area of Chiapas that borders Guatemala, but did not say whether that was a reason for dissolving the townships. The area held by the Zapatistas includes land near the border.
Details about what will replace the autonomous municipalities remain scarce, but it appears they will reorganize at more of a community level.
The Zapatistas were launched publicly on Jan. 1, 1994 to demand greater Indigenous rights.
Hilario Lorenzo Ruiz saw a number of his friends die in those early days of clashes with the Mexican army in Ocosingo, one of the five municipalities the Zapatistas took control of in January 1994.
Years later he left, demoralized by the movement’s limited results in areas like health access, education, land reform and employment.
Reflecting this week, Ruiz said perhaps the movement’s greatest achievement was drawing the Mexican government’s and the world’s attention to the impoverished state of Chiapas. While some land was redistributed, access to basic services remains poor, he said.
“Even this improvement is relative, we can’t say we’re well, a lot is lacking,” Ruiz said. “Not even in the municipal center is the health service good. We come here to the hospital and there’s nothing.”
The levels of poverty now in Chiapas remain stubbornly similar to what they were 30 years ago when the Zapatistas appeared, according to government data.
Support for the movement has eroded with time and Ruiz lamented that younger generations have not carried the same convictions to maintain the struggle.
Gerardo Alberto González, a professor in the Department of Public Health at the Southern Border College in San Cristobal de las Casas, who has observed the Zapatistas for decades, said the group successfully transitioned from armed conflict to politics and achieved a level of autonomy and recognition for Mexico’s Indigenous peoples that hadn’t existed before.
González said the Zapatistas should be lauded for their contributions to Mexico’s democratization. But after 30 years, the Zapatistas’ ranks have been thinned by outward migration and the incursion of drug traffickers, he said.
González also faulted internal power struggles and a lack of turnover in leadership positions, which have been held by many of the same people for years.