Impressions from A Photojournalist

Against the Current, No. 50, May/June 1994

Dennis Dunleavy

A village priest in Ocosingo told a story that illustrates the conflict well. This is the same city, you may recall, that made Time magazine with a picture of five Zapatistas lined up on the ground, shoulder to shoulder — four of them had been shot at close range in the head. This is the same town that had eleven bloody and decomposing bodies exhumed from a single grave weeks after the conflict began.

On the third day of fighting, said the priest, a Mexican army colonel came to visit him. The officer found the priest and his religious sisters hiding in the basement of the convent.

The battle had been very fierce, the priest said. A low flying jet a day earlier had let loose a few extra bullets that crashed through the old tile roof of the priest’s church. The explanation given later was that the pilot was firing on the market four blocks away where the Zapatistas were held up. The colonel came to ask a question.

“So what’s this struggle about?” the colonel asked the priest, who was a thoughtful, quiet man.

“It’s about marginalization, poverty and people’s failure to find legal means to solve their problems,” replied the priest.

“We are in agreement with you,” said the colonel, “but we must defend our nation.”

The sad truth, it occurs to me, is that our colonel in Ocosingo was coming to the defense of a nation sorely divided at many levels. Chiapas appears, in my mind’s eye, as a shattered bone within the flesh and body of a country not capable of healing itself.

The fractures within society here are numerous and lie deep within the culture, politics, race, religion, economic system and history of Mexico.

All efforts of public relations, denial and neglect serve only the political and economic machinery, and prevent the wound from healing.

What I saw in Chiapas, then, was this badly fractured limb breaking through the skin of what has been portrayed in public opinion as a healthy, although slightly anemic, developing nation.

In the fertile Chiapan highlands, and in the vanishing Lacandon jungle, the high stakes game of free marketeering had been interrupted by people no longer capable of enduring the pain and suffering imposed upon them by land-rich overlords and their henchmen. The government’s immediate response: Send in the troops and silence the rebellion.

The colonel’s defense of his nation, in my opinion, further illustrates the desire of the powerful to further squeeze more misery out of those that can no longer bear the pain.

I listened closely to the accounts of men tortured. I could not bear to hear sobs of indigenous women mourning the disappearances of their loved ones. Fathers were missing, sons detained, and hungry children were crying the in campo.

The Land As An Inheritance

After the Mexican Revolution, much of the arable land was put into the hands of peasants who lived and worked it communally. The ejidos — collectively held lands — were an important and life- reforming part of the 1910 revolution.

In Mexico today, much of what Zapata had gained has been squandered by corruption and lost in the hands of a disproportionate few. I should be careful here to point out that Mexico is a powerful country with great wealth, capable of taking care of its own.

Over the past decade, the leadership of Mexico’s ruling party, the PRI, felt it needed to attract more foreign capital. So in the years leading up to NAFTA’s passage, Mexico hired lobbyists in Washington, public relations firms in New York and took a gamble with “reforms” at home, including the deregulation of agricultural markets and financing requirements. In order to meet economic and trade conditions imposed on it by the United States and the International Monetary Fund, Mexico passed the most controversial reform of all — in effect, privatizing the collectively owned land system.

As Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution was altered, communities became divided over what to do with their communal land. Some communities want to sell their land while others don’t. For some in Chiapas, the Article 27 reforms meant the final dividing line, the great break in the system. Politics, religion, ethnicity, language, economics, geography, and now land ownership were dividing people up. Economic and political divisions have pushed small agrarian communities to be split fundamentally from the soil that feeds their families, and from the heavens above by a host of religions that seek to nurture their souls.

As events now show us, there were some — and not just those in Chiapas — that thought it better to unite in revolution than be divided by a government pursuing what they felt were its own goals. It would be the second time this century that the cry for land and liberty would be heard in Mexico. It was to be the second time that for essentially the same reasons — land, poverty and desperation — blood would flow.

It leaves me feeling a little uncomfortable to talk about the bigger picture with regard to the conflict in Chiapas. In truth, I admit to being unqualified to speak on analyzing the weightier issues of tariffs, land privatization and the suspension of subsidies to farmers.

My thoughts lead me to the costs of war: The memory of an elderly woman who invited us into her home to talk about the death of her husband, who was killed when he left his home to check on the welfare of his sonduring the fighting. And then to the laborers of the fields and fincas who cannot leave their homes to work, buy food or care for their sick, lest they be mistaken for Zapatistas.

And finally, my thoughts lead me to remember the assistant chemist at the hospital in Altamirano, who gave such a clear account of his denouncement by neighbors who declared him to be a rebel. For this he was detained, tortured and now must live in hiding. There is no justice in these denouncements — it is just a way for some to settle old scores.

ATC 50, May-June 1994