Zapatistas Take the City of Palenque for the First Time
After Visiting an Ancient Mayan Royal City, Marcos Will Visit a Notorious Indigenous Shantytown
By Concepción Villafuerte
January 4, 2006
PALENQUE, CHIAPAS, JANUARY 3: Marcos left San Cristóbal at 8 a.m. His 20-vehicle convoy, which also carries a dozen masked indigenous men and women, stopped for a few moments at the Ocosingo gas station so that the Zapatistas could use the bathroom, then continued on without incident.
As the vehicles passed, closely monitored by the police from each of the towns they traveled through, groups of indigenous Zapatistas and sympathizers saluted and shouted “viva!”
The tourists who came to Palenque today, “realized, perhaps with surprise, that they came to see the ruins and instead found people that live, walk, talk, and especially shout, ‘Ya Basta!’” said Subcomandante Marcos in the central plaza, before some five thousand indigenous from the area.
In his third day touring Chiapas, the so-called “Delegate Zero” kept his motorcycle stashed in San Cristóbal and instead rode in a closed white truck to Palenque, which he claimed as “the symbol of Mayan culture, of its splendor and its progress.”
Before some five thousand masked indigenous people from the Zapatista communities bordering the city, Marcos said of this great archeological site that “the big rich capitalists only use it to come visit as if it were from a culture that is already dead, as if the indigenous Mayas, some Zapatistas and some not, no longer existed or had died out with the triumph of neoliberalism in the world.”
From the stage in the central park, where he took out his camera to capture the demonstration, Marcos claimed that “some cattle ranchers were lying in ambush for us at the edge of town with guns.”
The entrance of the indigenous contingent and the convoy caused transit problems, and we could see dozens of families curiously watching the demonstration — guarded at all times by police cars in the distance — as they waited for the roads to clear. On the main avenue where the group passed, very slowly, many merchants momentarily closed their shops, despite Zapatistas insisting on the local sound system: “Do not be afraid, our struggle is peaceful, it is not against the hardworking and honest merchants, it is against the bad government, There will be no problems, join the Other Campaign, we are inviting you.”
The local authorities and residents observed the indigenous march from their balconies, and when Marcos appeared onstage they pulled out their cameras and approached the plaza.
Juan José Hernández, who works at the La Estrella general store, was skeptical toward the mobilization. He understood that it was political, but said that “what it does is scare people, to see them all masked like that, that’s why they close their doors.”
He showed little interest in any other political or electoral movement. “Look,” he said, “they’ve been fighting for twelve years and they’re still just as screwed in those communities, it’s all a lie.”
He has been living for 25 years in this city, and says that the first time the Zapatistas came, in 1994, “they said they were going to come in, that they were on their way. The people hid. I went to see, but nothing happened.” At that time, failures of military strategy, later recognized by the Zapatistas themselves, prevented them from taking Palenque.
Marcos said that today’s demonstration is a small sample of the strength of the Zapatistas in northern Chiapas, and that the strength of the rural and urban workers’ organizations there will join with the Other Campaign.
But he also warned that the demonstration “is a message to the ranchers and the government, one that we give them to take into account in case they want to try something. They will have to pay the price for whatever happens.”
He added that now the EZLN “is trying to join forces with workers from the fields and from the city to transform this system into something more just, more free, and more democratic.”
Referring to the presidential campaigns that will begin January 18, the guerrilla leader said that “during all these days to come we are going to hear a ton of promises and lies trying to feed our hopes that things are going to change if we replace one government with another one. Time and time again, every year, every three years, every six years, they sell us this lie and once every three years, every six years, they lie to us again. We think that they aren’t going to give us anything that we don’t take with our own efforts, with our organized efforts to transform things.”
The rally ended after 5 p.m. without any problems. Both the Mexican flag and the EZLN’s black flag with a red star were displayed, and both the national and Zapatista anthems were sung.
Several indigenous supporters and civil leaders said that they appreciated the visit by the Subcomandante, who will spend the night in Palenque with his entourage, returning early tomorrow to San Cristóbal de las Casas.
Day Four of the Other Campaign: In San Cristóbal Again
A meeting with a group of inhabitants of the northern part of San Cristóbal de las Casas, known as “La Hormiga” (“the ant”) awaits Marco upon his return. Many things out of the ordinary are said and done in this peculiar part of San Cristóbal, beginning with the fact that its inhabitants, after 32 years, have survived, multiplied, and now dominate a great part of the city.
“La Hormiga” is an irregular settlement that was originally settled by indigenous Chamula people – other ethnicities have since added themselves to the mix – that were expelled from their communities of origin for religious differences.
The fist Chamulas were brought here like animals and herded into corrals meant for sheep in November 1974; they were more than 1,400 men, women and children.
The Chamula caciques, the bosses of the municipality that houses all the Chamula villages, are also the towns’ local Pepsi and Coca-Cola distributors – positions that symbolize power as those products could only be acquired through special grants. No one but the rich could sell them, and they also decided how and by whom the town would be governed.
Over time, evangelical, Baptist, Presbitarian, Jehovah’s Witness, Pentacostal, and many other sects made inroads among the Chamulas, winning followers and causing divisions. The Chamula people are among the most conservative of the indigenous. Chamulas remain Chamulas in any part of the world; nevertheless, they became divided as some accepted non-Catholic religions.
And it is not that the Chamulas are exactly apostolic Roman Catholics. No, they adapted the Catholic religion to their own customs. They maintain their temple as they want it; that is, they apply their customs inside the temple and use the Catholic religion as a way to continue those customs.
The main (and only) temple in San Juan is a tourist attraction now, as one can see the iloles (priests) doing their purification rituals and praying with offerings to cure an individual and his family of some illness.
Upon changing religion, those who converted to Protestantism stopped practicing Catholic holidays, at which posh, the alcoholic beverage they make themselves, was always present. The evangelicals no longer drank, no longer lit candles, no longer came to parties, separated themselves from the group, from the community, and prayed in other ways. These divisions exploded in 1974, when the Chamula authorities raided their own villages and dragged out hundreds of entire families. The families were imprisoned and finally the state government “lent” the trucks used to take them out of town and throw them into the sheep corrals. The arguments of the Indians’ “defenders” was what if they, they government, did not get the Protestant families out of Chamula, the caciques would kill them. And that was how that exodus began, with the number of exiles growing day by day.
The evangelical pastors were suddenly overwhelmed by the faithful, and a belt of misery began to form around the old Spanish Royal City, now called San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, México.
There were years and years of complaints, of protest, and of struggle to make the government stop the expulsions. Chamula was followed by other municipalities (equivalent to U.S. counties) of the Chiapas highlands: Chanalhó, Pantelhó, Mitontic, among others; one lost count after a while. The La Hormiga hill was filling up with badly built, improvised huts that lacked any city services. There are now 45 separate shantytowns in the zone with thousands of inhabitants of all creeds, of all political parties, of all the indigenous peoples around San Cristóbal. They are so many that they are now roughly estimated to form two thirds of the city’s population, which is estimated at more than 150,000 (though the census here is not very credible).
La Hormiga has a 32-year history; its original settlers are now old and many have died. The current leaders arrived as children to the city, or were born there. Thirty-two years later in La Hormiga the cacique model has been reproduced, there are rich and there are poor, all indigenous. They have appropriated all the land north of the city to the point where there is little land with non-indigenous owners.
Those Indian children who arrived in this city not knowing where they were or why they were there are now leaders. One of them, Domingo López Angel, invited Subcomandante Marcos to visit La Hormiga.
Domingo López has had such a varied life that it deserves its own book. He has passed through all the religions, all the political parties, was a congressman for the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), and he spent time in jail where convinced 80 fellow indigenous prisoners that they could get out. López Angel told them: “dead or alive, we are getting out of jail.” He called the press and the Human Rights Commission, and in front of them all the prisoners poured gasoline on themselves and threatened to light themselves on fire. It was a spectacular, terrifying act. And because of their daring, the government worked to free the more than 80 indigenous prisoners. The government reviewed their cases and gave them legal options to remain free.
Counseled by Gaspar Morquecho, an anthropologist who came to San Cristóbal in the 1970s, he organized the Regional Council of the Indigenous People of the Chiapas Highlands (CRIACH), joined the evangelicals and earned great prestige. He later won a seat in Congress with the PRD and, as is his style, committed some daring crimes and was removed from office and jailed a second time. During his absence, a second organization began to grow, the Organization of Evangelical Peoples of the Chiapas Highlands (OPEACH). The OPEACH’s leader was a young Indian named Manuel Collazo, who arrived as a baby during the expulsions and filled the leadership vacuum that López Angel had left — not using courage, as López Angel had done, but rather using his guns.
At gunpoint, the northern zone of the city was in Collazo’s hands for some time. He served whoever was in power loyally in return for impunity. And things stayed this way for Collazo until the current governor of Chiapas, Pablo Salazar, arrived.
They locked Manuel Collazo up on March 7, 2003; the government could no longer cover up so much impunity. That day, Manuel Collazo’s followers burned down the main market, sacking and torching three of the most important businesses. They sewed terror in a 500-meter-wide area and no police could enter, on a day when the governor was on a national television program explaining how great his administration was. Amid all the stories of the greatness and progress of the government, the image if the burning, ransacked market appeared, which one reporter had dared to cover. These events in the city of San Cristóbal soured the governor’s report, and in anger he sent Manuel Collazo to prison, where he remains today.
In the northern part of San Cristóbal, in La Hormiga, the people traffic in arms, illegal immigrants, drugs, wood, stolen cars, anything they can. It is an open secret, the things those Indian children who were expelled in 1974 learned to do to survive. Now, they are the scourge of the city. No authority can easily enter those 45 indigenous neighborhoods that unite to maintain control over their people, who must submit to what the pastor, the neighborhood representative, or whoever has the machine gun, wants.
Delegate Zero will come there today.
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