The Zapatistas-does anybody remember this group? Well neither did we and then we had a personal experience with them. But first here is some background information about the movement.
Back on January 1, 1994, a previously unknown leftist guerrilla army emerged from the forests to occupy San Cristobal de las Casas along with other towns in Chiapas, Mexico. This was also the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was implemented and the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) linked anti-globalization rhetoric with Mexican revolutionary slogans. Their stated mission was to improve the low living standards of Mexico’s indigenous people by taking the control of land, resources and power back from the centuries old oligarchy. In a few days the Mexican army pushed back the rebels who retreated to the Lacandon jungle. A war of propaganda continued in the 90’s when tensions and killings escalated. There was a 1997 massacre in Acteal, peasants took over hundreds of farms and ranches and by 1999 thousands of villagers fled their homes. Today their political influence is limited and mainly located in this area of Chiapas with many autonomous communities.
While researching Chiapas for our travels I read a short history about the movement. I recall thinking that they probably had some understandable grievances worth fighting for but not in such a manner. I read that some travelers driving from San Cristobal to Palenque were diverted to a longer route to avoid “political issues.” We had also been advised to watch out for the indigenous people who string ropes across the roadways in Chiapas wanting money. Just drive on and they will lower the rope we were told.
So when the line of vehicles in front of us came to a complete halt as we drove into Ososingo, a Zapatista strong hold and about midway on our 5 hour drive between San Cristobal and Palenque, we weren’t completely surprised. Drivers just shut off their motors and sat there baking under the high noon sun and waited. “What is happening,” we asked those near us. “It is a bloqueo (blockade),” they told us. “Por que (why) and what do they want?” we asked. “They want money. They have demands. It is the Zapatistas.”
Oh…so this group with its lofty goals to elevate the lives of the indigenous routinely blocks traffic on route 199 to extort money from whomever wants or needs to reach their destination badly enough. What is this if not highway robbery? We started goofing around with a few guys on the sidelines. We laughed as they pulled their shirts up over their faces mocking the balaclava clad, “revolutionaries.” Jay climbed on top of the truck to stand on top of our spare tire looking ahead to the blockade shouting, “let us pass!” I was laughing a little too loudly until the looks on our fellow comedians changed drastically as they cautioned us to be “respectful.” Oops, I guess we were having a little too much fun at such a serious event or maybe they recognized a “pipe puffing subcomandante” and became fearful.
Finally after over an hour of waiting, several trucks passed us in the opposite direction loaded with the balaclava clad members of the gang. Some of them took smart phone movies of the line-up they created as I waved for the cameras. We inched forward to the head of the line where a long wooden plank with dozens of nails was thrown to the pavement in front of our vehicle. We’re just touristas we told them and they told us “that will be 50 pesos.” We were given a signed document with a list of their “demands.” We learned later that we were lucky because sometimes the blockades last for more than 8 hours and then they “require” 100 pesos per person to let people pass.
Recently, a Zapatista was killed by the Mexican military at such an event. Needless to say, that only made things worse so the military (who were present) turned a blind eye. We’ve been told that the large buses will not take this route anymore and drive an alternate route to the Palenque Ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The blockades are diverting much needed pesos away from the small businesses along the route. Maybe I’m misinformed but I thought these were the people they’re supposedly trying to advance within the socioeconomic system. We were minutes from giving up on Chiapas and heading straight for Guatemala along with the Mexican pesos we would have circulated in the small communities during our visit. I wonder if the Zapatistas think about that?