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Bush's War on Terrorism Fixes Zapatistas in its Sights

MexBarb #1128

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS (Oct. 9th) - The Indians stood bunched together outside the shinny appliance store on the narrow main drag of this old colonial city, transfixed by banks of television monitors upon which jumbo jets kept plowing into crumbling skyscrapers. "They thought it was a movie at first" recalls the young clerk of that black Tuesday morning, "they were talking in Tzotzil and I could not understand."

Indian responses to traumatic events, even those as close to home as the seven year-long uprising of the largely Mayan Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), are often heavily veiled here in this chronically-impoverished, deeply indigenous southern state. "We were at a meeting of women and they told us that the North Americans had been bombed. We did not understand this at first because it is always the North Americans who bomb other people" remembers "Irene", a member of an artisans collective in the Zapatista highland autonomous municipality of Aldama. Back in 1994, during the first days of the Mexican military's campaign against the Zapatista rebels, U.S.- manufactured helicopters dropped several bombs and Swiss jet fighters pumped U.S.-made missiles into and around rebel villages.

This September 11th, when some of the men from Aldama arrived at Ovantic, the EZLN's most public outpost in the Altos of Chiapas, the community restaurant was packed and all eyes riveted on the only television screen in town. "One companero joked that Bush was 'chichiron' (fried pork skin) but others shushed him" recalls "Manuel", "we all saw that many people must be dead..."

All throughout the Mayan highlands and jungle of Chiapas, whole villages gathered around single, flickering screens trying to make sense of the disquieting images of September 11th. In some, particularly the many Evangelical communities that dot the conflict zone, Black Tuesday was seen as the beginning of the end of the world - syncretically, Mayan sacred writings anticipate the end of this world - and the beginning of the next - between 2010 and 2012.

In other villages, observed non-government organization workers, the attitude was "more like what are the crazy gringos up to now? "We go into a lot of communities and they are asking us to bring them videos of the airplanes" reports Gustavo Castro, chief analyst with a San Cristobal think tank that initials itself CIEPAC. "The indigenas cannot locate New York City on the map and they do not know what the twin towers were - but they know something has changed. They are assimilating the images and engraving them on their understandings. They have learned that the empire is vulnerable, that the U.S. is not invincible. Does this help them or hurt them? This is what they are weighing now..."

Although the terror attack on the U.S. has not yet provoked response from the General Command of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, Subcomandante Marcos and his companeros were no doubt as mesmerized as the rest of the world by the unimagineable images transmitted on their car battery-powered black and white set September 11th. Tucked away in their mountain camps above the hamlet with the haunting name of La Realidad ("The Reality") down in the Lacandon jungle, the rebels' Clandestine Indigenous Revolutionary Committee (CCRI) has not spoken for five months, since May 1st, when the Mexican congress mutilated an Indian Rights law for which they had long fought.

The Zapatistas have repeatedly been labeled terrorists by Mexican and U.S. authorities - a current U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration web page tags them as such, as does Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, senate majority leader for President Vicente Fox's rightist National Action or PAN party. Former president Ernesto Zedillo alleged the EZLN was a terrorist organization during the first days of the 1995 economic collapse, and sent 30,000 troops into the jungle to bring its leaders to justice. 21 Zapatista supporters were rounded up and so charged - "terrorism" is usually teamed up with "sedition", "subversion", and "conspiracy" on Mexican courtroom dockets. 20 of the accused terrorists were subsequently absolved of all charges (one militant who confessed to toppling an electricity pylon with a pick up truck, was convicted.)

Chief of the Zapatista "terroristas" was Javier Elorriaga who spent 15 months behind bars before the charges dissolved. A mild-mannered, pipe-smoking, Mexico City intellectual, Elorriaga is still incredulous about the terrorism charges: "I am not a terrorist - the EZLN has historically always been against terrorism..."

If terrorism is to be defined as the use of deadly violence against a civilian population in order to sow fear and doubt about a government that can no longer protect its citizens, then the Zapatistas have been more terrorized than terroristic. The rebels' celebrated January 1st, 1994 uprising in the first hours of the North American Free Trade Agreement, was directed at military and police forces that had suppressed Indian social movements for decades, and not against civilians - in fact, it was the military and police which were responsible for almost all of the civilian loss of life during the 12-day shooting war. After less than two weeks of armed uprising, the EZLN acceded to the demands of the civil society to silence their guns and begin a dialogue with the government. There have been few incidents of armed conflict since.

Although terrorism and guerrilla warfare have become synonymous in U.S. President George Bush's declared war against the former, not all guerrilleros are terrorists - and the EZLN is neither.

Militarily, the Zapatistas consider themselves a standing army that confronts the enemy on the battlefield - the EZLN remains at war with the Mexican government.

Since the first week of the 1994 uprising when some ultra-left groups sought to display their solidarity by blowing up banks and underground parking garages, the EZLN has repeatedly condemned bombings as provocations that only bring more repression down upon their bases - the Zapatistas espouse mass collective pressure, rather than individual acts of terrorism, as the most effective way to obtain social change.

In a sharp 1996 interchange with the Popular Revolutionary Army or EPR, a group deemed responsible for multiple bombings and deadly ambushes in which civilians have been killed (five members of a split- off group are currently imprisoned for bombing banks this August), the EZLN's silver-tongued spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos flatly turned down EPR support: "we didn't ask for your support and we don't want your support. We have different goals. We are fighting for democracy and justice. If you ever came to power, we would have to fight you too..." But more recently, the EZLN has asked the Popular Revolutionary Army's endorsement of the now-moribund Indian Rights law.

Since that law was mangled by congress, the EPR has stepped up its activities in Chiapas and is thought responsible for a series of attacks on police-military convoys between Puerto Cate and Simijovel in the highlands - in one terrifying attack, three military vehicles were blown up on the open road.

In addition to denouncing left terrorism, the EZLN condemns state terrorism - whether that of U.S.-supplied Mexican army helicopters bombing Indian villages in Chiapas, or the United Nations carpet bombing Serbia. The EZLN once refused to meet with a high United Nations human rights official because of U.N. sponsorship of the bombings in the Balkans.

As if to enhance his Nostradamus-like aura, Subcomandante Marcos sometimes prophecizes a world war much like Bush has planned against international terrorism. In one document ("Seven Pieces of Neo-liberalism", 1997), the Sub describes globalization as "the fragmentation of the nation-state", later to be united in a U.S.-dominated coalition "by violence" - this "megalopolis of power" would use terrorist attack as a pretext to seize economic control of the planet, a scenario eerily reminiscent of Bush-Republican congressional strategies to win "fast track" authority to negotiate the Free Trade Treaty of the Americas" (ALCA in Spanish) and impose NAFTA upon the entire continent, as a supposed bulwark against Bin Laden and his terrorist gang.

Despite the threat of World War III and the impending triumph of corporate globalization, the EZLN remains locked in a deathly still quiescence. Indeed, the ski-masked Indian "terrorists" appear to be awaiting a very institutional signal - a Mexican Supreme Court decision on the validity of the gutted Indian Rights law that has been passed by congress and promulgated by Fox. "It is as if they are giving the system one more chance" marvels Castro, "the Zapatistas have taken the legal route. They have dialogued and negotiated and signed agreements and held peaceful protests - and they have gotten screwed over time! Vicente Fox ought to be grateful to them for not being terrorists."

At this writing, 320 appeals have been filed against the Indian Rights law with the highest court in the land by organizations such as the National Indigenous Congress, majority-Indian municipalities (counties), state governors, and political parties. One example: 250 indigenous municipalities in Oaxaca filed so many petitions to block the law, that a pick-up truck had to be hired to haul five tons of paper up to Mexico City to deposit the appeals with the court. In Michoacan, rather than await a court decision expected sometime early next year, the Purepecha Nation has simply declared itself autonomous - Indian autonomy was stripped from the law by the Mexican senate.

Indigenous autonomy is one Zapatista goal but certainly not the only one. Still, by refusing to speak out until the high court has passed judgment on the constitutionality of the Indian Rights law, the comandantes have painted themselves into a silent corner at a moment when many supporters feel keenly the absence of their voice. "They should be in the vanguard against the coming war but they are not heard from" laments Noe Pineda, communications director for San Cristobal's Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center.

Nonetheless, Bush's War against Terrorism may soon force the rebels to speak up for their own survival. Because Chiapas is a border state with abundant resources, it is considered a "strategic zone" for national security. Although no count is available, hundreds of troops and immigration agents were rushed to safeguard the southern border following the Black Tuesday attacks. Now they are reportedly fine-combing the jungle and the sierra for Arabs (13 Yemenis were recently picked up in Palenque), "terrorists" (indistinct from "Arabs" although the last international terrorist collared in Chiapas was an Austrian), and other subversives.

"Indians are always considered national security risks" remarks Marcos Macias, the first indigino to ever head up the government's National Indigenous Institute, "we are under permanent observation." In times of high tension, such suspicions are not going to make life any easier for the Mayan rebels, many of whose camps lie within 20 kilometers of a militarized border.

Moreover, Bush's campaign against international terrorism is going to require a lot of oil to power the war machine and EZLN jungle settlements appear to be sitting on top of important deposits of fossil fuels - Marcos once boasted potential reserves rivaled those of the Persian Gulf. Intensified efforts by the Fox administration to exploit petroleum, natural gas, and uranium reserves on Zapatista autonomous land under the guise of cooperation with Bush's war will inevitably lead to Indian resistance in this corner of Chiapas. Under the Bush doctrine of either being "with us or with the terrorists", resistance to supplying Washington's war efforts could be tantamount to terrorism itself.

The gathering war clouds and deepening world recession have hit Chiapas like a ton of stones. Tourism, the state's second industry, has collapsed in the wake of terrorist attack, and the price of coffee, Chiapas's key agricultural export, has toppled to its lowest level in a generation, thrusting 500 Indian farmers a month into the migration stream north to the U.S. Whole communities as spread as Nuevo Huistan near the heart of the jungle, and San Juan Chamula in the highlands, are now dependent upon remissions from "El Norte." In both those communities, reports Fray Bart's Pineda, families say they have not heard from their men since Black Tuesday.

The Zapatista flame first surged in the region ten years ago when the bottom fell out of the coffee market and NAFTA threatened the Mayan corn culture. But now, with the EZLN sworn to silence, observers like Pineda and Castro sense that the EPR will seek to fill the vacuum. "That is when the real terrorism could begin" Pineda frets.

Although the world is dominated by Washington's super-power vision, seven years of indigenous struggle in the Zapatistas' self-declared "war against oblivion" contain lessons for those who are about to plunge the planet into an excess of global revenge.

On the eve of Christmas 1997, 46 members of Las Abejas ("The Bees"), a coffee growing and honey gathering collective organized by the San Cristobal diocese and sympathetic to the Zapatista cause, were massacred by fanatic Presbyterians, members of the then-ruling (71 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), an act designed by the military and state police to separate the Zapatistas from their civil bases in the highlands. Given the smallness of the Abeja community, the killings can be quantified as an act of terror comparable to ten World Trade Center disasters. Nonetheless, the return of hundreds of Abeja families in recent months to communities from which they were once forced to flee under threat of death, seems to underscore that a modicum of reconciliation is still possible between the terrorized and the terrorists.

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