By Juan Trujillo Limones
As reactions to a decolonizing social process, images of the demolition of statues of conquerors, colonial leaders and slaveholders in Chile and the United States have been around the world for almost a year. In Chiapas, Mexico, photography is still present as a premonitory act that took place on Oct. 12, 1992, when thousands of indigenous people from Chiapas took the colonial city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas in the Los Altos region and tore down the statue of the Spanish conqueror Diego de Mazariegos.
It was 500 years since the arrival and invasion of Europeans to the American continent. Witnesses recalled that the peasants were organized and that they had entered the city, an icon of oligarchic power, with military training and discipline.
Alianza Nacional Campesina Independiente Emiliano Zapata (ANCIEZ), whose influence was notable in the regions of Altos and Selva Lacandona, operated as the political and social arm of what already existed clandestinely—the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN).
The tearing down of Mazariegos annoyed the elite of San Cristobal, whose municipal president, Mario Lescieur Talavera, created a civic committee that years later made a belligerent alliance with the growers’ groups of Palenque and Ocosingo. These represented the remnants of the crescent farm regime to the northeast and southwest of the jungle.
Twenty-seven years later, the EZLN has four new autonomous municipalities and networks that support the Indigenous Government Council (CIG) and vindicate Samir Flores Soberanes, a Nahua indigenous person killed for opposing a hydroelectric plant in Morelos. But the tearing down of the conqueror’s statue came from a complex context in the history of Chiapas and the indigenous people of ANCIEZ, who, as of 1989, emerged in the regions of the Altos and the Lacandon Jungle.
The social situation was not only critical in the face of government repression but also a difficult period prevailed due to the collapse of international coffee prices. It was the period of Governor Patrocinio González Garrido, in which 547 cases of land tenure without settlement of at least 22,598 peasant petitioners stood out.
It was evident that the door to solutions for the agrarian problem had been closed and with it a peaceful way to obtain land with a deep-rooted solution. The march and mobilization of the ANCIEZ on Oct. 12, 1992, was the turning point that precipitated the indigenous uprising of Jan. 1, 1994.
Today, Chiapas is transforming its social fabric. The expansion and influence of indigenous autonomy in 16 other regions suggests an internal reorganization of the movement. The EZLN support bases are active subjects in this process, and those peoples and communities have been preparing for even more radical acts.
Only adherence to the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandona Forest (2005) and participation in the “Other Campaign” (“La Otra Campaña”) of 2006, in which EZLN leaders toured the country with the intention of creating connections among the Zapatistas and preexisting resistance groups throughout Mexico, could sow this process in the southern and southeastern regions of Chiapas such as Chicomuselo, Motozintla, Amatenango del Valle, Tila or Chilón, where there is a significant percentage of the mestizo population.
Twenty-three years after the signing of the San Andrés Accords on culture and indigenous rights and 16 years after the creation of the self-government centers (called the caracoles, or “snails”), it is clear that the demands for the self-determination of the peoples, autonomy and property (communal land and natural resources) are realities in the life of the Zapatistas.
The caracoles operate as autonomous civil spaces where the EZLN’s meetings of self-government, commerce and indigenous education take place. It is about the construction in practice of a new paradigm of resistance and is an example for the struggle of other peoples such as the Mapuche in Chile or the indigenous tribes of the Amazon that fight against agribusiness.
But the creation of seven new caracoles supposes a sustained effort over time to challenge and spread the struggle of these communities. It is the message of the people before the incessant destruction of social life in Mexico increased following the declaration of war on drug trafficking in 2006.
Despite the shift of parties at the federal and state level, the counterinsurgency and paramilitary strategy has been applied with an alarming level of violence since March 2018 in the municipality of Aldama, with 28 wounded, six dead and six wounded from gunshot. Since August 2020, there have been 26 armed attacks by paramilitary militias from Santa Martha Chenalhó.
The dispute of 60 hectares for the last 45 years was the pretext to unleash the escalation of paramilitary violence that caused the displacement of thousands of indigenous people. The Ejido Tila, part of the National Indigenous Congress, was attacked by paramilitaries on Aug. 25, and on Sept. 11, leaving peasant Pedro Jiménez dead.
Also in September, the Zapatista community of Moisés Gandhi in the southeastern region of Los Altos was attacked with paramilitary tactics by militants of the Regional Organization of Coffee Growers of Ocosingo.
Faced with this situation that derives from long ago, the EZLN displayed the internal awareness of its bases and expressed it in a recent communiqué: A mountain on the high seas invites national and international civil society to review the history of the supposed “conquest” of the peoples of the American territory and to undertake a new cycle of resistance. The fall of the conqueror Mazariegos together with the cracking of his colonial forms of social life in Chiapas anticipated the collapse of a structural conception of colonial rule.
The 12 caracoles are windows through which we can see a new moment in decolonizing history and the resistance of the communities.
Juan Trujillo Limones is a journalist and an independent anthropologist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.