Mexico's Poet Rebel
Subcomandante Marcos and Mexico in Chaos
see Marcos' Note & interview photos
By Ann Louise Bardach
"The government says that this is not an indigenous uprising, but we think that if thousands of indigenous people rise up in protest, then it is indeed an indigenous uprising."
Subcomandante Marcos - Zapatista Communique - January 6, 1994
"No hay paso. Ordenes del Comite. Lo Siento," the handwritten note read. "You can't come through. Orders from the Committee. I'm sorry." It was signed, in his peculiar scrawl, "Subcomandante Marcos." True, I couldn't say I hadn't been warned. The previous night I had bumped into a claque of reporters outside the cathedral in San Cristobal de las Casas. Several of them had just spent three days outside this same camp tap-dancing for an interview with Marcos, the leader of the revolutionaries who call themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army. "He's not giving any more," one of them told me. "He's says it's too dangerous now." "Now," referred to the national climate of electrified shock and horror following the assassination two days earlier, on March 23, of the de facto next president of Mexico, Luis Donaldo Colosio. It was widely whispered that Colosio - like Caesar - had met his death at the hands of those closest to him.
Only nine days before, financier Alfredo Harp Helu, the president of Mexico's largest bank and a close associate and friend of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's, had become the country's latest kidnapping victim, held for a $50 million ransom. Suddenly, Mexico was reeling. Kidnappings and political assassinations - all on the heels of a grass roots revolution in January that burst out in Chiapas, a state so poor, so desperate that, in the words of Carlos Fuentes, "even the rocks are screaming."
The ominous tone of Marcos' note was unmistakable, particularly the last line: "On another occasion, if there is one, we will have the honor of attending to you in the manner you deserve." I read it again and passed it to Medea Benjamin, director of Global Exchange, a left wing humanitarian aid group based in San Francisco. Benjamin, who weighs less than 100 pounds and speaks six languages, had her own agenda, which included arranging for the delivery machetes needed by the local farmers to replace those confiscated by the army. I had suggested we travel together, knowing that her presence could only improve my chances.
I nudged her away from the three skinny, ski-masked, rifle toting Zapatistas who had, upon our arrival, ordered us to wait in an abandoned one room schoolhouse perched on a hill. The village of La Garrucha sits in the Lacondon rain forest, not far from the Guatemala border. Getting there had required dodging six Army checkpoints, not to mention two Zapatista shakedowns once we had entered the rebel-held neutral zone of San Miguel.
I knew Marcos had to be close by. His response to my request to see him had come back in minutes. Urgently, we sat down and scratched out letters of appeal, which we gave to the messengers. Ten minutes later they returned. No interview, they said, and they wanted the provisions - including 20 liters of gasoline - that Medea Benjamin had brought for them. They even demanded that we take back some reporters who were stranded nearby.
Hot, tired and bothered, I stormed out of the schoolhouse and headed over to the Zapatista's convoy truck parked down the road. A soldier bolted out of nowhere, and waved his machine gun for us to go back. Instead, we plopped down on the grass, careful to avoid a second encounter with a cuatro narices, one of the deadliest snakes in the world, which calls this region home. Fifteen minutes later, the same Zapatista was running toward us, "Venga! Venga!" he yelled. Baffled, we followed, and halfway down the dusty road I saw him. Sitting under an ancient, craggy tree between two clusters of thatched huts, surrounded by three masked Zapatistas, their automatic weapons slicing the humid air in front of them, was Marcos, puffing on his pipe, looking as serene as the Buddha.
"I am a brilliant myth," Marcos has said, in response to the rumors and hype about him. However, framed by the wild pigs, ducks and hens grazing on the soft hills behind him, he looked the very stuff of myth. Indeed, it seemed stretched credulity that this vision of bucolic contentment had engineered a post-Cold War revolution.
January 1st was supposed to have been a day of celebration in Mexico over the enactment of President Salinas' fiercely won NAFTA agreement. Mexico was supposed to have become a First World country. At least, that's what the government had been saying and some Mexicans were actually starting to believe it. Instead, a previously unheard of brigade of thousands of armed Indians, burst out of the jungle and seized seven cities and towns in Chiapas. Suddenly, the world was reminded by this remarkably organized band of Mayan Indians in shabby, homemade uniforms that there was another Mexico, the one in which nearly half the population lives below the poverty line.
Within days, the rebels had liberated nearly 200 prison inmates, trashed several police interrogation centers, seized a haul of armaments and burned the records in a half dozen town halls and courthouses. In a show of symbolic stagecraft, the rebels kidnapped General Absalon Castellanos Dominguez, the former governor of Chiapas, whose family has ruled the region for decades as if it were their private fiefdom. For 45 days, the Zapatistas detained Castellanos, subjecting him to a people's trial, and finding him guilty of crimes from plunder to murder. Then, in a grand gesture of reverse noblesse oblige, they released him, unharmed.
Caught utterly by surprise, the military awoke with a fury. Within a week they had brutally re-taken the area. The local Catholic diocese estimates that more than 400 people - mostly civilians- were killed. Although a truce was called and subsequent peace talks with the Zapatistas have shown some promise of reconciliation, Chiapas today, is an armed camp, with anguish and anxiety palpable everywhere.
On January 10th, Mexican newspapers received the first communique from a man calling himself Subcomandante Marcos. It began: "Here we are, the dead of all times, dying once again, but now with the objective of living." By week's end, Marcos had conquered the international media just as he had taken Chiapas. He was hailed as Robin Hood, the Lone Ranger, Geronimo, the "first postmodern guerilla hero," even the reincarnation of his movement's namesake, Emiliano Zapata, the revolutionary Mexican peasant leader, who was tricked into an Army ambush, but who some insist never died.
"This is no ordinary politician," confessed Juan Enriquez Cabot, one of the government's negotiating team. "He moved [people] to tears." He also reduced the normally cynical press corps to a pack of groupies. Each week pilgrimages of reporters trek into the jungle, sometimes waiting more than a week before Marcos deigns to address them en masse. At a dinner party in Mexico City in March that included Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one guest argued that Marcos had to be "at least three people," owing to his prolific missives to the press, often eight-page typed "communiques" of revolutionary fervor leavened with wit, humor and even poetry, which have enthralled Mexicans nearly as much as their soap operas do. Another guest, citing the erudition in the communiques, insisted that, "Marcos is one of us," meaning a member of the intelligentsia.
"I'm sure he was a priest," Carlos Monsivais, one of Mexico's pre-eminent writers, told me. "At the very least, he went to divinity school. You can see it in his writings, his thinking." What seems certain, is that in the mythological pantheon of revolutionary heroes, Subcomandante Marcos has secured a niche for himself and that Mexico will not be the same again.
The genius of the Zapatistas has been in being a 100 percent homegrown peasant revolt. Bereft of ideological rant, even their adversaries have conceded that their demands for social, electoral, and land reforms are legitimate. Moreover, they have struck a chord that resonates with Mexicans of all classes who are disgusted by a country ruled since time immemorial by the mordida - bribe. Two weeks after the Zapatista siege, a crowd estimated 100,000 marched in the Zocalo in Mexico City in support of the insurgents, followed by dozens of demonstrations on April 10th, the 75th anniversary of the death of Zapata. And when Verdi's opera Nabucco was presented at Mexico City's splendid Palacio de las Bellas Artes in early February, the audience jumped to its feet when the chorus sang about rebellion, and chanted, "Viva Zapata! Viva Chiapas!"
"Look, I'm sorry," Marcos began, speaking in hushed Spanish, "but it's too dangerous for you to be here." He explained how the murder of Colosio had changed everything, how the Zapatistas would certainly be blamed for it, and how the Mexican army was closing in on the guerrillas. An attack was imminent, he said, adding that "the Army, no doubt, will kill you and then blame that too on the Zapatistas." He motioned to the planes passing overhead, and said that since Colosio's assassination more than 50 military planes flew overhead every day. "It's just too dangerous," he said, waving toward the hills behind him, "to take you back there to talk."
Then, I wondered, couldn't we talk right where we were? He paused, smiled, and agreed to chat "for a few minutes." More than four hours later, as darkness was falling, I turned off my tape recorder. During that time, Marcos never removed his light wool black ski mask. However, the mask was amply stretched, and it frequently revealed more of his face than it concealed. In fact, the mask seems to enhance his good features and blur his imperfections.
He appears to be around forty years old. His much noted green eyes are actually hazel, and while he is not an Indian, he is olive skinned. His nose is broad and his skin has deep pores. A short dark beard flecked with white is visible around his mouth, but his arms and upper chest are virtually hairless. Most striking, however, considering the fury unleashed by his ragtag army, is his quiet manner. At times his voice is so soft, that he is barely audible. His deep convictions and seemingly imperturbable serenity has convinced many that he is a renegade padre. Marcos has denied it, joking that he hasn't been to Mass since he was eight.
Marcos is smaller than he appears in photographs, amplified by layers of clothing and gear. Though the Lacandon rain forest can sizzle during the day, temperatures have been known to drop to freezing at night. This day it was warm and humid, but Marcos seemed unbothered by his heavy uniform: a long-sleeved brown cotton shirt over a black T-shirt, black jeans, and combat boots. Tied loosely around his neck was a burnt -orange paisley bandana, the official garment of the Zapatistas. Two bandoliers of ammunition crisscrossed his chest, dangling above his pistol and his automatic rifle, and on top of his ski mask, he wore a tattered beige cap with three faded red stars on the brim.
He was effusively thankful for the gasoline. "It's like gold to us," he said, and expressing amazement that it made it through the Army roadblocks. Any supplies that the Army judges useful to the Zapatistas are often confiscated, the military's strategy being to force the rebels out of the designated neutral zone mandated by the peace talks. When they go into the town of Ocosingo to the north or Altamirano to the south-to buy things, Marcos said, they risk their lives. "They have some of our names," he explained. "and if they find your name on the lista negra, the blacklist, you won't be seen again. Four of our people disappeared at the checkpoint in Ocosingo - after the peace process was already under way. To us, this is a sign that they want to provoke us so that we will be forced to respond and then they will have an excuse to attack us."
Marcos offered up a nightmare scenario for the United States if the Mexican government fails to achieve an agreement with the Zapatistas. Claiming that civil war in Mexico will be inevitable if the government retreats from the peace talks, he warned that a dire immigration crisis would result. Already, he said, more than 20,000 people have fled their homes. "What would happen with immigration to the U.S. if the war spread out of Chiapas? Chiapas has about 3 million people and Mexico has 90 million...More than 40 million live in poverty. If there is civil war in Mexico, it doesn't matter how big or thick you construct that wall, the wall along the U.S. border will come down."
When I noter him that Americans in general seem to be sympathetic toward the Mexican insurgents, he seemed relieved. "That's very good news," he says, "because the U.S. government doesn't do anything without first looking at what the American people are thinking. Not since Vietnam," he added. "Now before the U.S. intervenes somewhere, it takes a survey of public opinion like it did in the Persian Gulf War." Clearly the possibility of American military intervention - either overt or covert - has weighed upon him.
To that end, the Zapatista agenda of agrarian and social reform has been carefully crafted. So far the insurgents have dodged being labeled "communists," fidelistas or sandinistas. "The bogey man of the American people were the communists. They were the ones that ate children. There is no more communism in the world," Marcos said. "Fidel Castro? He has a lot of problems in his own country. The Salvadorans? The Nicaraguans? The Left is out of power. So what is behind this revolution in Mexico? We don't want power. We don't want money. Just our land back. The land that was ours and taken from us by the ganaderos [ranchers]. And democracy. There is no democracy. You cannot vote for an alternative. Well, you can vote, but it doesn't mean anything."
He was referring to Mexico's staggering history of electoral fraud, notably the presidential victory of Salinas and his party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 1988. (In 1992, the rebel stronghold of Ocosingo reported an absurd tally of 100 percent for the PRI), "This leads to lots of problems- political repression, jailings, killings," Marcos said drolly. "So in this kind of struggle, the communist bogey man cannot be invoked." Like a seasoned debater, he addressed, unprompted, America's other obsession to the south. "There is another bogeyman, - drug smuggling. They can say, 'There is no cold war, but this is a drug war.' But in our army, in our territory, no drugs are being grown." He waves his hand toward his soldiers, all pencil-thin Indians, most of them under twenty. "You can see that our Army is not a rich one. We don't have guns or good equipment."
What the Zapatistas do have is five centuries of simmering rage at being lied to, tricked and marginalized. After the conquistadors arrived in the early 1500s, there was a lively debate as to whether the Indians were in fact human beings with souls. According to the Spanish chronicler Bartolome de las Casas, Mayans and Aztecs were tortured and killed for sport. Today, some argue, things haven't changed all that much. Making up roughly 15 percent of the population, Mexico's 14 million Indians are its poorest citizens in every respect. La Garucha, like most Indian villages, has no running water or electricity. There is there no gas, and no sewage system.
Marcos said that more than 150,000 Indian children have died from preventable diseases in the last decade, and that 75% of the Indian population is illiterate. I asked him if he meant in Spanish or in the four commonly used Indian languages: Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Tojolobal, and Chol. "In everything," he said. But, he added "we see how quickly they learn, how well they understand things. Our soldiers, who don't speak Spanish, are able to put together a gun. We receive pieces of guns and they keep fooling around until they put it together. These people have a lot to teach us."
Marcos seemed bemused by his new fame. He grinned with embarrassment when he leafed through a stack of clippings which described him as Mexico's lateest sex symbol. "Sex symbol!" he said, laughing like a schoolboy. "If I took the mask off, it would be much worse because I am so good-looking." Ironically, the Zapatista ideal of anonymity - the masks not only conceal them from their enemies, but are intended to maintain egalitarianism among the ranks - has, in fact, backfired. The hottest selling items in Mexico today are Marcos T-shirts, Marcos dolls, Marcos key rings. Other Zapatista soldiers- Moises, Ramona, Arturo, Yolanda-have also become celebrities, but on a much smaller scale. "Right now you can't individualize Marcos," he said, "but without a mask I would be individualized. When I am killed, someone else will simply put on my mask and continue being Marcos."
At best, it is a lofty conceit; in reality, it is delusional.There could likely never be a convincing imitation of this uniquely self-invented creature.
Within minutes of our sitting down, It became evident that Marcos had spent time in the United States. My tape recorder went on the fritz. Marcos picked it up, examined it and began laughing. "Radio Shack! No wonder," he cracked. "Tell Vanity Fair, that the Zapatistas will take up a solidarity collection to buy you another." However, my cheap little machine did not have Radio Shack printed on it, only its brand name, Realistic. Marcos knew that he had betrayed himself and conceded that he had traveled some in the States, deflecting the admission with jokes. "Actually, I worked in the White House." His English is the phonetic English of one who has heard the language a lot, not, as he has said, English learned solely from reading CIA manuals. "I also learned English from reading Vanity Fair," he quipped.
Although initially reluctant to discuss his past, he said he came from "a middle class family" with six children somewhere in central Mexico, which he would describe only as "an urban area, but one with a very provincial atmosphere. Not Mexico City," he said crossing himself. "It was very closed culturally. If you wanted to know about cultural things or what was happening in the rest of the world, you had to go to Mexico City. To go the theater, the movies, to get good books, magazines like Penthouse and Playboy, only in Mexico City."
It seems likely that his family had considerably more wealth than it is politically correct to admit, since they were able to take their six children on vacation trips to the States. "When I was a child, we visited Texas and California. We'd go for a few days to Houston and San Antonio." Marcos' diction and idioms indicate that he's from the North. He said his family was deeply moral but "we were very independent of religion. It was a very humanist philosophy and not attached to any particular political line. We were taught that all human beings had rights, and it was our duty to fight against injustice." Unlike many revolutionaries, Marcos said, he wasn't a rebel who had broken with his family. "My parents taught us that whatever path we chose, we should always choose el camino de la verdad - the path of truth - no matter its cost. That we shouldn't value life over truth. That it was better to lose your life than to lose the truth."
He had been a precocious child he said. "I learned to read in my house, not at school. So when I went to school, I had a great advantage, because I was already well read. I read Shakespeare and Cervantes, Neruda, Fuentes, many books by Latin-American writers. In high school, I read about Hitler, Marx, Lenin, Mussolini - history and political science in general. I learned English in high school and at the university I learned French, Portuguese, Italian." He said he earned a bachelor's degree, began postgraduate studies and dabbled in journalism.
His great influences were not Karl Marx or Jose Marti or Simon Bolivar. "They were Villa, Zapata, Morelos, Hidalgo, Guerrero," - all Mexican revolutionaries. "My parents taught me a lot about Mexican history. So we grew up with these heroes." True or not, keeping his icons and references thoroughly Mexican has been a masterstroke of public relations, frustrating his enemies who initially charged that Chiapas was fomented by "outside agitators."
His relationship with his parent had been close. "I had no emotional problems with my family. I just left home to go to the university," most likely the National Autonomous University of Mexico although he would confirm only that it was "a big one. I went to work and I had my own independent life. I occasionally wrote and spoke to them or went to see them." His father died 15 years ago, his mother 11 years ago. Since then, his contact with his brothers and sisters has been minimal, "because they got married and left home and they later moved to other parts of the country and I've lost touch."
"Lost all contact with your family?" I asked. "No," he said quickly, and nodded toward the three Zapatista soldiers encircling us, standing at ramrod attention for more than four hours, their eyes riveted on their Moses. "These people are my family. These people without faces, without names, are my family now." Ten years ago, Marcos said he came to Chiapas with four of his closest friends. Seven other friends went off to other regions to work with peasants and other Indians. One friend "returned to the city," he said, "while another died in combat in this war," killed by the Army ten years ago, at a military checkpoint not far from where we are. He said that he had taken his friend's name, Marcos, to honor his memory- thereby borrowing a page from the mad-dog revolutionary Pancho Villa, born Doroteo Arango, who took the name of a friend murdered by the Rural Guards. "And it isn't an acronym," he quipped for "Margaritas, Altamirano, Rancho Nuevo, Chanal, Ocosingo, San Cristobal," - the names of towns seized or attacked by the Zapatistas.
Of the original group, only two others remain in Chiapas, one of whom, he said, is a woman doctor. The army evidently believed that she was the same woman doctor in her mid 30's- who had worked at the clinic in the town of Morelia. Following her disappearance on January 1, the army trashed her clinic and rounded up dozens of men, whom they forced to lie face down on a basketball court outside a church - listening to three of their number being tortured inside. Weeks later, the bones of the three men were found in a sack nearby. Both the army and the government initially denied any knowledge of the killings and confiscated the bones from investigators. Following an outcry from international aid groups, a government agency gave the widows of the three men $7,000 each after they waived their right to sue. If the Mexican intelligence agencies know Marcos' identity, as many believe, it would probably be through his link with the doctor.
Amazingly, no one has come forth and publicly identified Marcos. "Well, the people here don't know my background," he explained. "They only know my face and they know that I am called Marcos. Nothing more. If you ask them, 'where is Marcos from?' they'll say, 'from the mountains.'" Even more astonishing is that the preparations for the Zapatista rebellion were ten years in the planning and involved thousands of participants. In Chiapas, where detention, arrest, torture and the use of informers by the police are routine, the fact that no one broke ranks and alerted the government was miraculous.
The Zapatistas have their own intricately organized form of government. The four major ethnic groups each have their own self -governing committees of 15 to 40 members. Above these committees is an inter-ethnic group which is its highest decision making body, the Clandestine Indigenous Revolutionary Committee. This group is made up entirely of commanders, a third of whom are women. When I inquired about Subcomandante Ramona, a small, feisty woman seen at the peace talks, he corrected me. "She's a commander, not a sub commander," he said, clarifying that her rank is higher than his -
no doubt to dodge criticism of a non-Indian having too much power.
I ventured into the tricky issue of family planning in this Catholic country, where one sees young girls clutching babies everywhere. Initially, he made a bitter joke. "We have a very special and effective kind of birth control here: death. Death from disease. If they don't have rehydration salts for diarrhea or aspirin for headaches, how are they going to have access to contraceptives? Yes, we recommend that young girls don't have children and when we have contraceptives, we give them out, but we don't have enough for everyone. The problem is that if the government came to give them out, they wouldn't take them because they don't trust the government. The same with vaccinations. The people think the government is trying to poison them. Here when a girl is 20, nobody looks at her. She's already old. At 25, they look 40. At 30, they look 60, and at 40 they die as if they were old women." I asked him if he has made a family here. "No, I can't have children. Soldiers are discouraged from having children, because we can't take care of them."
Marcos explained that until quite recently the situation of indigenous women has been positively feudal. "In this region, the woman cannot choose their mates. The men buy them. If I want to marry you, I must speak to your parents and I have to give them a goat or a pig. The man and woman get to know each other after they are married." The Zapatistas, he said, have proclaimed a bill of rights for women which has caused nearly as much distress among the Indians as their siege of Chiapas.
"The men are upset because if the woman doesn't want them, she doesn't have to marry them. This is a revolution." Marcos said that women are now allowed to hold "positions of authority," and for the first time, the will have the right to own land, and choose not to have children. "The men protested that as well. It was a long process. If these ideas had come up 10 years ago, no one would have accepted them, not even the women. It was only after the women had trained in the mountains, had become officers, that the men saw that they were capable of following and giving orders.
Homosexuals have fared much worse in the formidably macho state of Chiapas. "They kill homosexuals here," Marcos said. Indeed, human rights groups reported the murders of some 20 men during the tenure of former governor, Patrocinio Gonzalez Garrido. I asked Marcos about his published comments that he was not a homosexual. "I think it was during the Proceso interview. When I said I didn't have a partner, they looked at me as if I were a homosexual. I said it as if to say, "Don't be afraid. I'm not a homosexual," he answered. The Indians, he says, are more laissez-faire about homosexuality. "There is a lot of joking about it. If it's not done openly, they're left alone," he said.
Shortly after the assassination of Colosio, I heard Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia offer mass in the exquisite Spanish Colonial cathedral in the main square of San Cristobal de las Casas. The Church was packed with equal numbers of Indians and Ladinos, many of them weeping, as they listened to their beloved, feisty Bishop. Ruiz, a small, round, bespectacled man, offered prayers for the murdered Colosio, but devoted most of the mass to Archbishop Oscar Romero, the martyred cleric of El Salvador, on the 14th anniversary of his death.
The parallels between Ruiz and Romero are evident. Each week, anonymous threats are made on Ruiz's life, most of them traced to the powerful ganaderos, who loathe Ruiz's open advocacy of Indian rights. Marcos, in fact, laughed off the suggestion that his name is an acronym for Movimiento Armado Revolucionario del Comandante Obsipo Samuel - the Armed Revolutionary Movement of Commander Bishop Samuel - as it has been nicknamed by cynics who doubt the neutrality of San Cristobal's controversial padre. During the mass, the Bishop charged some of the cattle barons with hiding their cattle and then accusing the Indians of having stolen them. "Take a good look at Don Samuel," whispered Roger Maldonado of CON PAZ, a coalition of humanitarian groups. "Who knows how long he'll be around." Asked if the Bishop is worried about his safety, Maldonado said, "No, he's fearless. But we're worried."
Ruiz, whose name is synonymous with liberation theology, and who has taught himself several indigenous languages, was the Zapatista's choice to mediate the peace talks between them and the government. Though the Bishop has enemies both within and outside the Church, he was recently proposed for the Nobel Peace Prize.
I met with the Bishop several days later. Dressed in a gray pinstriped suit with a Mayan beaded necklace draped over his tie, the robust, balding Ruiz looked and behaved more like a grocer than a bishop. He said he hadn't met Marcos until January of this year, although he admitted that he had been hearing about him for the last two years. "We knew his name, we knew of him," he said, "but I didn't meet him until he came here." The Bishop made clear that he resents the current deification of Marcos. "A 'leader' is someone who thinks for everyone and the rest follow him. That is not the situation here. It is a word with a bad ring in Latin America. It smacks of a manipulative strongman. People extol the figure of Marcos as if the Indian people are unable to think, or are like children or animals."
The Bishop said that he thought the Zapatistas' decision to attack had been a relatively recent one, and that even he was surprised by how well the secret had been kept. "The discretion was so great. Around December 26th, 27th, people from different communities came here alarmed. One man said, `My son left the house and he has always obeyed me and always been there for me but this time he said, 'I'm going. I'm going to freedom.' I said, 'What's happening to you? Wait.' ' No, I'm going."' So even within families, people didn't know who belonged to the Movement."
However, there had been signs, he said, that something was astir in the sleepy villages outside San Cristobal. "On one occasion about five years ago, ten mules loaded with merchandise were seen going to a cooperative in a small community. Strange. And all of a sudden, one of the mules picked up speed and broke a rope. The load fell and it turned out that there were arms inside." Still, he said, "we didn't recognize either the magnitude or the proximity of events." As for the Zapatistas, the Bishop holds his cards close to his chest. "Of course there are just wars, but I have not made a judgment whether this is a just war or not," he demurred. "The cause is just. People no longer get scared when they are incarcerated, beaten, tortured and murdered, but rather they continue to organize. So this is a historical point. We have seen this coming for several years."
Did he consult with the Vatican about his role as mediator in the current crisis? "No," he said huffily, "they don't get involved in everything we do. You don't ask permission from your Father to breathe! To eat! Perhaps you ask for a lunch break. But it can't be, with everything happening in all parts of the world, that there has to be an opinion from the Pope." (In fact, last year the Vatican's ambassador to Mexico asked for Ruiz's resignation, and on May 6, Ruiz flew to Rome for a ten day visit with Vatican officials, expected to be a dressing-down. However, Ruiz passionately defended his and the Indians' case. He seemed to have saved his job, and may have done some damage to his enemies.) Perhaps the one issue in which there is no conflict between him and Rome is that of birth control. Just the mention of it brought forth a passionate tirade on the greed of the Western world, NAFTA, and imperialist consumerism. "The evil is the concentration of power First World. Please." he said, throwing his hands up, "The First World, which is causing the problems, should not dictate what we need to do."
I asked him whether he fears for his life. He shrugged. "Look, a human being experiences sadness, happiness, fear and everything else. Christ was afraid before the moment of his passion. He was so fearful that he even sweat blood. I haven't analyzed this because it's not important. With or without fear, I have to do what I have to do."
The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) was born, said Marcos, "as a self defense force. When we came here, the people said, `Yes, we have to take up arms to defend ourselves... to protect the villagers, not to attack.' And that's how we grew." However, 1992 was a watershed year. Demonstrations broke out all over Chiapas to commemorate what the Indians called "500 years of resistance" against those who are still regarded as the conquistadors. Two straws, broke the camel's back. The first was a particularly odious piece of legislation undermining Article 27 of the Constitution, which kept Indian land in the hands of Indians. The second was the impending passage of NAFTA, regarded as a disaster by the Indian and non-Indian poor alike. "NAFTA is a death sentence," said Marcos, "because it sets up this competition according to your level of skill. And what skill level can illiterate people have? And look at this land," he said with a grimace, referring to the ejidos, collective farms set aside for the poor, traditionally the worst land available, often steep, rocky hillsides. "How can we compete with the farms in California and Canada?"
Marcos pointed to a grouping of thatched huts not far from where we're sitting. "We have two very different Mexicos: the one you see over there and Salinas' Mexico-Acapulco, Cancun, the World Trade Center, the big malls," he said, describing the Mexico that ranks fourth in the world in its total number of billionaires. "In the basement of the second Mexico are the Indians."
In 1992, Marcos recalled, "the companeros said 'we have been struggling for 500 years. Now is a good year to say basta!' So they told me that they wanted to start the War.'
"I was the one in charge of military planning. I said that we needed time, because all our past training was for defense and they wanted to attack the cities. In 1992, the communities voted to make war, giving me only a year to make arrangements. We thought the first string of leaders would be killed in the first days of combat, that all of us leading the troops would die. So we had to prepare a second string of military leaders and they had to be hidden away." I asked him if their intention was a suicide mission. "No I wouldn't call it that. You commit suicide when you think life isn't worth living and you shoot yourself in the head. This is about taking risks so that others can live. We were prepared to die, but we didn't want to die." So then what happened? "We went out, fought, and they didn't kill us," he said , then laughed. "We're still here. Our cynical calculation was that we would be killed between January 1 and January 6th."
Marcos said they had originally scheduled the assault for October 12th, but that several days before that, "the army had discovered our arms cache that was up in the mountains over there." He pointed to the hills behind us. "Our forces were in position to attack the cities but we had to pull them back." Marcos claimed that several times during 1993 government soldiers had come upon the Zapatista camps, but that they nixed an attack which might have ended in a bloodbath for fear of scuttling NAFTA's chances in the U.S. Congress. "We had three possible dates. It had to be a holiday so that the troops could get into town as if they were civilians. December 12 was a possibility -the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In fact, he remembered, laughing softly, "the companeros did go to see the Virgin of Guadalupe, because we couldn't stop them."
The next possible date was Christmas, Marcos said, "but the Committee decided that since it was a religious day an attack might be badly interpreted. So I chose December 28, because it is El Dia de los Inocentes [the Mexican equivalent of April Fools Day], and people make a lot of practical jokes on that day, so when the soldiers call and say they're being attacked, the general's going to think they're playing a trick on them and will hang up. But then I thought that when the journalists said there was an attack, no one would believe them. So we decided to postpone until the 31st. I planned the attack for midnight, but the troops didn't arrive in San Cristobal on time, so we started an hour late," he said, as if he were talking about the planning of a high school assembly.
While the initial assault was a stunning military success - utterly surprising the sleepy, hungover soldiers- critical mistakes were later made. "Ocosingo was a place we didn't know well," said Marcos," and I had told them that it didn't make sense to enter into combat in the city. They were trained to fight here in the mountains, not in the cities. They were going to leave but the army arrived and their exit was cut off. That was our most serious error and we paid for it with out lives." According to eyewitnesses, the ensuing battle in the marketplace was a slaughter. Dozens of civilians were killed and seven suspected Zapatistas were executed, their hands tied behind their backs. Marcos said he lost 40 to 50 soldiers in January. He also claimed that more than one hundred government soldiers have defected to the Zapatistas.
Marcos said he had learned about Colosio's assassination late on March 23rd. Immediately, he planned for the worst. "My feeling was that this murder would be blamed on us," he said, "so I called the Committee and recommended that we postpone the peace talks. There is a kind of attack that the Americans call a surgical strike. It would have low political cost because they would not be invading and killing many people."
Upon my arrival at La Garrucha, I had been handed a six-page typed communique, along with a note from Marcos asking me to give it to the press. It is a gloomy missive, almost an obituary. "Goodbye beloved topos [a pun, but literally "moles"]; pass the flag and train now, without rest, those who will follow us... Prepare your tender fierceness and guard your weapons because peace is slipping away from us as fast as it came." Whether or not Marcos truly believed an attack was imminent, accusing the army of such a thing, proved to be a brilliant maneuver. It didn't happen. "You know how to play poker?" Marcos asked me. " In war, it is the same thing." "Marcos is not above putting out a preventive lie," said Roger Maldonado admiringly, "or a pre-emptive one."
At the time of my interview with Marcos, only one gunman, Mario Aburto Martinez, described by the government as "a pacifist," had been arrested for Colosio's murder. "It's JFK, Mexican style," Marcos told me." And they have their Oswald. It can't be a lone crazy person. Look, he put his gun to Colosio's head. The bullet that killed Colosio had to come from somewhere within the government. No one else could have gotten so close to him -only alguien de confianza, someone from within." Marcos jumped to his feet, pulled out his pistol and
re-enacted the murder, using one of his guards, Capitan Mario, as a stand in for Colosio. "He was supposed to be protected by the bodyguards of the high command of the military-the best bodyguards in the country. Let the Zapatistas protect the candidates and we'll do a good job," he said laughing. Colosio's crime, according to Marcos, was that "he began to distance himself from Salinas."
Marcos saw Colosio's murder as part of a conspiracy to restore the far right and the military to power. He said that the army, enraged over their humiliation by the surprise attack, has exceeded its legal authority. Despite their agreement to remain outside city limits, soldiers are seen patrolling streets in the cities and towns. "Another issue is that some of the officers have made deals with the big ganaderos," he said, to function as private goon squads, supplementing las guardias blancas, the much feared security force of the ranchers. In the days before Colosio's death, Marcos claimed. The army in Chiapas doubled their size to 30,000 soldiers, roughly one fourth of the Mexican army.
When I pressed him as to whom he blamed for Colosio's murder, he answered that those responsible belong to "one part of the PRI " - Salinas' party, which has ruled Mexico without interruption for 65 years. "The problem is that there is an internal struggle inside the government, a power struggle," he said. I asked him whether the Zapatistas had similar problems. "Not right now because we have the enemy in front of us," he said. "There are two ways to unite people. One is to be threatened by a common enemy and the other is to respond to people's common concerns and aspirations. That is the Zapatistas' strength."
"Colosio liked Marcos," says the writer Carlos Monsivais. "Colosio said, 'He's a clever man, and I admire him, but I don't share his methods.' He said that at least twice." Marcos reminded me that Colosio had "never called us 'transgressors of the law' or ' violent professionals,' epithets used by others in the PRI. "And he began to speak about things badly done that were the responsibility of the Salinas administration. Somebody didn't like that. But we think that the principle objective for killing Colosio was to get at the Zapatista National Liberation Army. We have the moral high ground, and they need for us to lose it."
As to what PRI stood to gain by murdering one of their own, Marcos responded that they had killed two birds with one stone: Colosio, whom they felt had become too sympathetic to the Indians' demands, and the very popular peace negotiator
Manuel Camacho Solís. Some say that they actually hit three birds with one stone. "The bullet that hit Colosio," says La Jornada correspondent Pedro Armandares, "also knocked the gun out of Marcos' hand. It took away his option of armed response, because the Mexican people can't stomach any more violence."
I saw Camacho in San Cristobal de las Casas about a half hour after the murder of Colosio. He had planned to give a press conference on the status of the peace talks with the Zapatistas. When he finally appeared, the normally confident and handsome Camacho looked ashen, even frightened. Reading a prepared statement of condolence, surrounded by security men, Camacho seemed to know that his immediate political future was finished. Word soon spread that there was considerable pressure from the PRI to oust Camacho as peace negotiator, the job from which he had engineered a stunning political comeback after Salinas passed him over for the Presidency. It was his success at the peace talks that led him to consider a third party run for the Presidency, a speculation, coupled with his sympathetic treatment of the Zapatistas, infuriated many in the PRI. Worse, Camacho had been publicly sparring with Colosio. There was so much ill will within the PRI towards Camacho, that when he arrived at Colosio's funeral, he was asked to leave.
"When there's a killing in Mexico, everyone thinks the government did it," Carlos Monsivais told me casually in Mexico City a week after Colosio's murder. "It tells you the level of suspicion here. It's the biggest credibility gap we have had in Mexico in my lifetime. We're calling it Colosiogate." His comments were supported by the polls, which five days after the assassination showed that 70% of Mexicans believed that the government would not tell the truth about the killing.
Matters only worsened when Salinas chose Miguel Montes Garcia, a former congressman and longtime PRI stalwart, to spearhead the assassination investigation. In 1988, Montes had presided over the Chamber of Deputies, which endorsed the presidential victory of Salinas, a victory which the majority of Mexicans believe was stolen from Cuauhtemoc, the candidate of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). "Montes told me in 1988, when we were both deputies in the National Assembly that Salinas' questionable victory was necessary to preserve stability in Mexico," said a colleague of Montes. (Montes did not return calls for comment.) The former deputy added that he feared for his life if his name were used. It is not an irrational fear. The PRD claims that since 1988, 246 of its supporters, including Cardenas' chief aide, have been murdered.
To date, the investigation of Colosio's death has been a series of blunders. "First, they said it was a lone gunman," said one political insider, "then they said it was a conspiracy of seven people, and then they switch back to it being the work of one crazy person. There is no credibility left for anything the government says." The investigation was further crippled when Jose Federico Benitez, the new, reform-minded police chief of Tiajuana was gunned down in his car in April. Less than 48 hours earlier, in the presence of Washington Post reporter Tod Robberson, Benitez had discovered that all the files on his primary suspect, Jose Rodolfo Rivapalacio. A shaken Benitez told Robberson that he had retained a personal bodyguard, who was later murdered with him.
Speculation about the assassination of Colosio has become the national parlor game. Names most frequently spewed out by the rumor mill include Salinas himself and Jose Maria Cordoba Montoya, the French- born aide snidely dubbed Cardinal Richlieu because of his formidable influence over Salinas. It was allegedly Cordoba who ordered the electoral computers to be shut down when Cardenas took the lead over Salinas in 1988, claiming that they were overheated. Also bandied about is the name of Fernando
Gutiérrez Barrios, who ran Mexican intelligence service for many years, described by one insider as "the only man in Mexico who knows where all the bodies are buried."
I visited Cauhtemoc Cardenas at his family's home in the posh Mexico City neighborhood of Las Lomas de Chapultepec. Cardenas is the son of the revered former president General Lazaro Cardenas, who presided in the 1930s over the most significant land reform in Mexico's history. However, little of the father's luster has drifted down to the son. Though few dispute that victory was his in 1988, his progress in this election has been trudging and difficult. Cardenas has the chiseled Indian features of his mestizo parents; he was named for the last Aztec king, who refused under torture to reveal the secrets of his kingdom's treasure to Cortes. He is widely regarded as incorruptible, reform-minded, and thoroughly decent.
Regrettably, he doesn't have a charismatic bone in his body. When I ask him why he has no security system or bodyguards, he says, "I don't believe in protection, and the proof is what happened to Mr. Colosio." Cardenas refuses to speculate on the motive or the killers, but says he has proposed that "an independent group, unlike Montes," conduct the investigation. Cardenas says he has relentlessly pressed for electoral reform- "basic issues such as guaranteeing a trustworthy, dependable register of our voting lists, equal access to the television and the radio,"- but claims that the PRI has made only modest concessions. "I don't think that the government is ready to guarantee an honest, impartial election," he adds gloomily. "I don't see any political desire for that."
I passed some of Cardenas' complaints to one of PRI's top point men, Jose Angel Gurria Trevino, who was recently named Secretary of International Affairs. A trim, powerful man with blue-eyed Anglo looks and street smart English, Gurria is credited with restructuring Mexico's foreign debt. Some priistas wondered why Salinas didn't select him instead of the charmless Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon to replace Colosio. (Mexican presidents are constitutionally limited to one six-year term.) "We spent almost a billion dollars on electoral reform," Gurria thunders from across his desk at PRI headquarters. "Money that could have been spent on social programs. That's how important this was to us." He instructs an aide to fetch his electoral card and hands it to me. Indeed, it appears to be tamper proof Gurria adds that there will be independent and foreign monitors who will be allowed to "observe" the voting in August.
However, they will not be allowed to "count the vote" or "certify the result" as would be welcomed by both Cardenas and Diego Fernando de Cevallos, the right-of-center candidate of the National Action Party (PAN). "That would be an intrusion into our sovereignty," Gurria said, poker-faced. I ask him what would happen to the PRI if they lost. He laughs, as if I had said the inconceivable, then passed me some recent polls favoring the PRI. "They are already crying foul. No matter what happens, they will say we stole the election," he says, pausing to light a Marlboro. "It will not happen this time. But we will win," he said, leaning across his desk. "We will win."
The next day, I asked a Palenque worker how he will vote. "Our boss says we have to vote for the PRI," he says. "His bosses in Mexico City told him to tell everyone in our union. Otherwise there could be problems." When I tell him that his vote will be secret, he says, "People don't think so," reflecting the commonly held notion of the PRI as Big Brother.
Cardenas gets about as steamed up as he's capable of when talking about the government's sale of billions of dollars' worth of assets over the last decade. Two airlines, numerous banks, and telephone and utility companies were divested, all of them acquired by powerful friends and backers of Salinas. "No one knows under what circumstances they were sold, whether they have been paid for or not, whether it was credit or cash. This has not been made public," he fumes. "Nothing has changed. That's the reason we are living through this crisis, the reason behind the Zapatista uprising and the Colosio assassination. This is a country that is undergoing a very serious social and political breakdown." Regarding Marcos, Cardenas may be too prudish to appreciate him. "I think the communiques are very lucid, generally speaking," he says carefully, as if grading a term paper. "I don't care for some of them, though."
While I am talking with Cardenas, his staff is in the next room, crowded around the television watching Ernesto Zedillo accept the nomination to be PRI's new candidate. Two of the staffers are keeping a tally of how many times Zedillo invokes Colosio by name in his 20-minute speech. The grand total: 35. The strategy seems to be to deify Colosio, then ride his posthumous coattails to victory.
In April, Zedillo made the pilgrimage to Chiapas and had a private meeting with Bishop Ruiz. He announced later that if elected, he would honor any agreements hammered out by the beleaguered Camacho and he talked about the urgent need to restore credibility to the government.
The outpouring of sympathy for Colosio since his murder has somewhat obscured the fact that he was not a strong candidate. Though in the weeks prior to his death he took some bold steps to distance himself from the PRI status quo, his candidacy was in fact floundering. Still, Colosio was charismatic, gregarious and handsome - attributes that neither Cardenas nor Zedillo can claim. The race between the listless Cardenas and the austerely antiseptic Zedillo, an ardent supply-side economics theorist, was looking more and more like the battle of the deadheads.
All that changed on May 13th, when Mexico held its first presidential debate in its history, a direct result of the events in Chiapas. Zedillo, the only candidate not born to wealth, repeatedly invoked his rags-to-riches life and referred to Mexico as "the land of opportunities." The surprise winner, according to the polls, was the aristocratic Diego Fernandez de Cevallos of PAN, the party described by one pundit as "the cleaned up, democratic version of the PRI." A member of Congress, Fernandez is militantly Catholic, deeply macho, and passionately pro-business. Not a few people believe that a coalition government is now a possibility. "Even if the PRI wins fair and square," says Roger Maldonado, "no one will believe them."
Watching from his jungle perch, Marcos has wisely stayed out of the political fray. In conversation, however, he seemed well disposed to the late Colosio, as well as to Camacho. His fury was reserved for Salinas. When I asked him if he had a message for the President, he said, "Just tell him to go." "Where?" I asked. He laughed and waved his hand heavenward, "Just go from this world."
When I met with President Salinas in May at Los Pinos, Mexico's White House, I thought it unwise to pass along Marcos' message. I did however share with him some of Marcos' other musings, such as his belief in the two Mexicos: the haves and the have-nots. "No there is only one Mexico," Salinas said quickly, "Yes, it's true there are some inequalities but half of our budget goes towards social spending." Perhaps not enough, I suggested. "Well, maybe not," the dapper Salinas conceded.. "Every Thursday and Friday, I leave Mexico City and visit the people in the provinces so I know what's going on throughout the country." But did it take the Zapatistas' rebellion to focus his attention on the 40 million Mexicans who live in poverty? "No, it wasn't necessary. We knew." He paused uncomfortably. "Well perhaps it brought it into center focus."
Before January 1st, Salinas had ruled Mexico like a king, unchallenged, unassailable, the white knight hurtling Mexico into the first world. However, the events in Chiapas shattered Salinas' ordered world of Los Pinos, as well as his prestige and his place in history. Supply -side economics, the ruling principle of the salinistas, has disenfranchised much of Mexico's middle class and pushed many under the poverty line. With corruption flourishing at every level, very little has ever "trickled down." One example is that Chiapas provides 60 percent of Mexico's hydroelectric energy but one-third of its homes do not have electricity.
After Salinas called off the military's assault in Chiapas there was briefly a feeling of optimism. Since Colosio's murder, however, the general mood has darkened with a corrosive cynicism. The government's recent purchase of 18 anti-riot water cannons has convinced many that the PRI is preparing for the worst. A showdown appears inevitable. The central demand of the Zapatistas that Article 27 be restored will certainty be rebuffed if Zedillo gains office. His chief of staff, Luis Tellez, drafted the legislation, and Zedillo has already said that he will not bend on the issue.
"Look, it's intolerable and outrageous for you Americans to condemn our treatment of our Indians, after you have exterminated your own," one Salinas staffer told me. "In fact, we're the only country in the world which has a towering statue to a defeated Indian Chief [Cauhetemoc] in the center of its capitol. We have a very complex relationship with our Indians. Remember, in Mexico the Indians were the good guys. Cortes and the conquistadors are the bad guys." As for Marcos, the staffer suggests that the masked man may be "just another person taking advantage of the Indians." But somewhere, mixed in with his disparagement of Marcos, there are traces of envy. "This Marcos is very savvy, very very smart," he says uncomfortably. "God knows what we could do with someone like him on our side. We could really change things."
In early May, Marcos and ten Zapatistas met for eight hours with Camacho and Bishop Ruiz, in a cabin close to the Guatemala border and later announced that the long-stalled peace talks would soon resume.
On May 16th, Cardenas became the first presidential candidate to meet with Marcos. Still smarting from his lackluster performance in the debate, Cardenas was gambling that his risky rendezvous with the rebel leader at their home base in the Lacandon would strike political pay dirt. He was mistaken. After a display of showmanship - queued by a bugle, 500 Zapatista soldiers marched out of the hills in perfect formation, performed military drills, sang some revolutionary anthems then disappeared back into the hills - Marcos disabused Cardenas of any assumed alliance. Accusing the P.R.D. of adopting many of the same policies as the PRI, Marcos declaimed that the support of the Zapatistas would be won by deeds, not promises. "Why is the PRD different?" he demanded from Cardenas. "We are not begging for democracy, we are demanding democracy. If there is not a [free and fair] election that leads to a transition to democracy," he warned, "we will return to the use of arms."
Indeed, Marcos has navigated himself out of the dangerous political waters that threatened to drown him, following Colosio's murder. Even American politicians are now making the pilgrimage to see the masked one. In mid-May, Congressman Robert Torricelli, the chairman of the House Committee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, announced that he would be making the trek into the rain forestto meet with Marcos, accompanied by his girlfriend Bianca Jagger.
Marcos continues to wear two watches, one on each wrist. "One is war time," he explains, "the other is non-military time. When the two watches show the same time, there will be peace. I'm concerned that each day the two watches get further and further away." He says his days are numbered. Carlos Monsivais thinks he's right. "I think he will be martyred, not by the government so much," he says, "but probably by the guardias blancas and the finqueros," the wealthy land barons. Another insider agrees. "In Mexico, those who really cause great change do not live long," he says. "Villa, Zapata, Hidalgo, Guerrero" - all were murdered. Others speculate that Marcos will simply disappear - ride out of history like the Lone Ranger, knowing there's no place left to go after deification.
I asked Marcos how he has found the time to launch a writing career. "I think it's the kind of life I'm leading now that makes me want to write," Marcos said, as he draws a line in the dirt with his finger. "On one side is life and on the other is death. And since January 1st, I'm right on the line. I can easily pass to the other side any day now. So I can't have any ambitions to write the great novel or to have some great career. The only thing I'm certain of is this moment now. So I write as if every day were my last...because I never wrote before. It has become a compulsion for me to put out everything that I have inside me. I have so much built up inside me from these 10 years since I've lived in this part of the country. Being on the edge between life and death has caused this explosion in me. I feel as if I were unplugged - like a soda that has been shaken up for a long time and then the cap was popped off. With this immediate sense of death."
Washington Post link