Living With Zapatistas

Swinging from the back of a pick-up truck, we wound through dusty parched hills, from cool highlands to the burning woodland region of Chiapas, the poorest state of Mexico, and home to the Zapatistas - a political partisan group of indigenous Mexicans.

When we reached the end of the road, the setting sun was already streaking the sky pink and a horseman led us on foot to the village of La Union.

A German girl and I had come for two weeks as human rights observers to a community of Zapatistas, a group that bases its ideology on that of Emiliano Zapata, an early 20th century Mexican revolutionary.

Gaining international interest since their 1994 uprising, they have as their spokesperson the enigmatic pipe-smoking, masked Subcommandante Marcos. Rumoured to be a Ladino professor of philosophy, he is now based somewhere in the Lacandon jungle with the EZLN - the Zapatista National Liberation Army.

They have been demanding full civil rights for Mexico’s 12 million indigenous inhabitants, access to healthcare, education, and a return of the resource-rich lands of which they have been increasingly deprived.

Met with military intimidation and frequent brutality, their uprising remarkably became more passive, adopting instead all forms of media as their weapon, and the eyes of the world as their shield. Their requests were answered by seemingly favourable accords, which the authorities signed but then refused to turn into law.

In the meantime, the government has diminished its direct interventionalist tactics, whilst playing off rival indigenous political groups, particularly the government-funded PRI and its sometimes bloody paramilitary, against the Zapatistas.

The first person we met was Enrique, a stocky Ladino with a soft square face and pinched-up nose. Over his wavy black locks he wore a wide-brimmed flattop hat.

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