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LibreOrganize 0.6.0 - Documentation

Violence in Chiapas Challenges Zapatismo

from the March 6, 2024 Bulletin

Leonardo Toledo is a professor in the masters program in environmental education and communication at Moxviquil University, a Mayan area in the Chiapas highlands. An opinion columnist, he has been published in Chiapas ParaleloPie de Página, DesinformémonosEl Salto Diario, and Sentido Común magazine.

Kurt Hackbarth, free-lance journalist, playwright, and co-host of the Mexico Solidarity Project’s Soberanía podcast, interviewed Leonardo Toledo for Jacobin magazine.

KURT HACKBARTH: What is causing the recent rise in violence in Chiapas?


LEONARDO TOLEDO: Thirty years ago, we lived in a semi-feudal situation where the big ranchers had a stranglehold on their territories and on state politics. They controlled elections, they controlled the economy.


The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) movement changed everything. They created a big leap in political participation and public presence, and that prompted a host of new dynamics. Their transformations were for the better, and also for the worse. Not on purpose, they unleashed a series of circumstances that created new challenges and perspectives.


First was the idea that people from the pueblos were political beings, active members of the political and economic arena. Before, Indigenous people had to step off the sidewalk for whites to pass!

 Zapatista soldiers, 1994 Photo: Memoria Política de México

Second, outsiders looked at Chiapas exclusively from the perspective of Zapatismo. When big foreign visitors came, it was to see the Zapatistas with their balaclavas, weapons, and parades. The rest of the population felt, "They only pay attention to them.” So, arming oneself became an aesthetic issue, a desire to be better, to be cool.

This created solid ground for organized crime to establish itself because everyone had weapons. Now many community conflicts were resolved through the force of arms — from family matters to boundary disputes between landowners and municipalities. And then people linked to organized crime settled in those areas; with them came the drug trade, human trafficking, gang control of alcohol and prostitution.


What effect did the López Obrador administration’s elimination of the federal trust funds distributed by previous governments have?


Chiapas had subsisted on federal resources, and these resources had been distributed in a discretionary manner for many years. Juan Sabines, a 1980s governor, famously brought along an assistant with a briefcase everywhere he went. He just opened it up, took out wads of bills, and handed them out — his way of solving problems all over the state. 


This method was even more forcefully employed after 1994 to contain the Zapatista insurgency. Many organizations besides the EZLN also had a presence in the state, and without participating in the armed struggle, they joined the protest for better conditions. And the way to control them was by distributing money.


Then the organizations started splitting, because if you showed up with another name, they gave you the same amount of money. The big organizations fragmented into a thousand small ones. To finance this, Ernesto Zedillo’s government created three trust funds separate from any formal program that would require accountability or reporting. Organization leaders received wads of cash, took out a good chunk for themselves, and distributed it. 


After 2018, the López Obrador government got rid of the trusts. His policy of direct-transfer programs made the organizational intermediaries unnecessary. In retaliation, those groups often blocked the federal benefits census so that people couldnt access those resources — no pension, no scholarships, nothing.


Organizational leaders faced a crisis. All their negotiation and mobilization skills, everything they’d learned over the last thirty years, no longer worked. In many cases, these leaders and organizations moved into darker places. Some became paid pressure groups. When a pueblo in the Highlands wanted to force something through, they showed up with their weapons. In the cities, they moved into selling protection. Signs appeared on storefronts in San Cristóbal, Comitán, and Tuxtla Gutiérrez, saying, This business is protected by . . .” and the name of the organization appeared with images of Che Guevara, Subcomandante Marcos, or Lucio Cabañas.


Another undeniable factor is the pandemic. How did that contribute to the crisis?

San Cristobal de las Casas

After the uprising of 1994, many people migrated from the Highlands to San Cristóbal. What was a small town grew into a city of more than 130,000. But with the pandemic, the hotel, domestic, and restaurant workers were told, All of you have to leave.” Nobody got any severance or even a promise they’d have their job when it was over.

So, 2020 was tough because, remember, many of them were no longer on the benefits census and couldnt access federal programs.


Some tried going back to their pueblos, but many met resistance as they were seen as spreaders of the pandemic. Others looked for ways to make money, and that sometimes meant going outside the law. Gangs appeared. And these young, discarded, stigmatized people became the ones who brought the bacon home. Parents ceased to be the heads of the family, or at least had to treat their children as equals. It completely upended family dynamics.


Are weapons and the rise of gangs the reasons why Zapatistas are dismantling their civilian structure — its autonomous municipalities and the Councils of Good Government?


The Councils of Good Government broke down for several reasons. In 2012 the state of Chiapas decided to allow Zapatistas to participate in local government while retaining their autonomy. But the Zapatistas immediately expelled anyone who chose to participate. Then, in 2020 when the pandemic hit, many people in Zapatista territories saw no way out of their economic straits. The Councils of Good Government had to expel many of their own who were only trying to survive. Thus, their numbers dwindled. The largest Zapatista municipality, Polhó in Chenalhó, ceased to be Zapatista several years ago. 


Since then, a huge influx of migrants has crossed the southern border. When the Sinaloa cartel alone controlled the border, it was a free zone where everyones merchandise passed through without conflict. Now the Jalisco cartel is challenging the Sinaloa for control of the border area, resulting in more weaponry and an element of cruelty never seen before. Because of the difference in firepower, the Zapatistas aren’t going to start shooting at cartels because they will lose. All of this has forced them to say, No, we cant go on like this.”

Locals at the memorial where a young mother of four was killed in downtown San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, February 26, 2022.(Artur Widak / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Where is Morena in all of this? Through elections, it won control of the government structures in Chiapas.


The Zapatismo presence meant that for a long time, people on the left, especially young people, didnt participate in the electoral struggle. Later, when Morena formed in Chiapas, many young people did join. But in the selection of candidates for 2018, the old cadres from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), and Green” Party showed up and made off with everything, displacing them. The younger crowd became disappointed in party life, and many left, leaving Morena in the hands of the chapulines (people who jump from one party to another).


All the factors I mentioned necessitated another transformation within the Zapatista movement. This ability to adapt is characteristic of them throughout their history, to go from an armed movement to peacemakers to an autonomous movement. 

“Another World is Possible”, Schools for Chiapas

For the first time, they now allow themselves to interact with the rest of their communities. A major problem with the autonomous structure as originally conceived was that they couldn’t participate in any form of official governance whatsoever. Now they have to rebuild those dynamics.