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  • Susanna

The EZLN: Building a Base for Global Justice


I visited the southern Mexican state of Chiapas four years ago. Walking through its towns, I saw and felt what living with nearly nothing is. Among this paucity of material wealth, a movement against the world’s predatory economic system was born, raising itself to being internationally known and supported. It is in this land where social resistance to economic imperialism, as well as the impunity and corruption that make it possible, translated into an armed guerrilla-like insurrection in January 1994, when the Mexican government was about to celebrate the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. A celebration, for whom? This Agreement favoured foreign companies, as it fit perfectly into the economic model of stripping land from Indigenous people to exploit resources mainly in the energy, mining and oil industries. This type of resource extraction is sometimes called ‘extractivismo’ by activists in Central and South America. The movement that rose in protest in 1994 is called Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), comprised of members of the tzeltal, tzotzil, chol and tojabal Indigenous groups. They demanded ‘work, land, shelter, food, health, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace’, in contrast to the long history of exclusion, abandonment and land-stripping that Indigenous communities have suffered in Mexico. The Mexican government initially responded with military repression, although national and international visibility and civil society protests in support of the EZLN forced it to draw back. If the EZLN gathered so much civil support, it again begs the question of who celebrates and gains from silencing these communities – transnational economic interests do, and those behind them. But these communities were not silenced. Despite military repression and apprehension orders for EZLN members, their fight continued and continues. They reached an important agreement with the Mexican government in 1996, called the San Andrés Larrainzar Agreements on Indigenous Rights and Culture, in which the Mexican government committed to recognising Indigenous communities constitutionally. These Agreements were also the basis for the foundation of the National Indigenous Congress (CNI in Spanish), defined as a space for reflection and solidarity to foster Indigenous representation comprised of 44 different Indigenous groups. Despite these undeniable steps forward, official actions remained mostly deaf to calls for inclusion, dialogue and respect. The last attempt of the EZLN to establish dialogue with the government was the legendary Marcha del Color de la Tierra, in which 24 rebels walked 3000 kilometres to the Zócalo square of Mexico City in March 2001, gathering hundreds of thousands of people in the street under the banner ‘Never again a Mexico without us’. Twenty-seven years after the insurgency, we are still witnessing land-stripping masked as formal ‘inclusion’, such as the consultations for the debated Maya Train, a recent proposal to construct 1500 km of train tracks for a tourist train, passing through the southern Mexican states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo. As the route passes through many Indigenous lands, the government conducted two months of consultations at the end of 2019 with these communities. However, the UN in Mexico denounced the way these consultations were conducted, informing only of the benefits and not potential risks of the project and with a unilateral governmental decision of who to consult, how and where. María de Jesus Patricio, or Marichuy, spokesperson of the CNI, has condemned an increase in Indigenous repression – such as murders and disappearances of CNI members – under the current government of President Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO). This subtle – or not so subtle – repression speaks clearly of how difficult it is to imagine and create an inclusive society in the face of economic interests rooted in extractivismo. As stated in their latest declaration published in January 2021, the Zapatista movement fights not just for Indigenous rights, but for a world in which the neoliberal system as a whole is dismantled and voice is given to historically oppressed groups such as women, migrants, LGBTQ+ and Indigenous people. They fight against racism and the blind destruction and extraction of our natural resources. As they were not truly heard and included by the government, they ended up forming their own autonomous communities, first called aguascalientes and then caracoles, with a parallel health, education and even judicial system. Who is the central government for, then, if it is not for everyone? Predatory economic policies that displace and impoverish many while enriching few end up causing the migration of local and Indigenous communities, which is then stopped by increasingly militarised states that claim to defend ‘national security’ while signing transnational economic treaties that are detrimental to local populations. The contradiction is obvious and unsustainable. Oppressed populations will keep adding up, unless we join the fight and demand that states and governments ‘represent, not replace; propose, not impose; and build, not destroy’. In the words of the January 2021 declaration of the Zapatista movement, ‘equality is respect for differences’. References

  1. Cruz, Laura Valladares de la. "El despojo de los territorios indígenas y las resistencias al extractivismo minero en México." e-cadernos CES 28 (2017).

  2. Casanova, Pablo González. "Los Caracoles zapatistas: redes de resistencia y autonomía." OSAL (2003): 15-30.


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