Autonomy vs. the Mexican Party-State

Against the Current, No. 74, May/June 1998

Hector Diaz-Polanco

THE MASSACRE IN the town of Acteal on December 22, carried out by an armed group associated with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), deeply touched the country of Mexico and had a powerful impact on international public opinion.  Forty-five indigenous people were murdered with unknown cruelty, while others were seriously wounded.

The government attempted to present the facts as if they resulted from family feuds or conflicts between or among the inhabitants of Chenalho, the municipality in which Acteal is located.  Nobody bought that lie. All the reports (from non-governmental organizations, academic researchers, the national press, etc.) indicate that the assassinations formed part of the counterinsurgency strategy designed by the government some time ago.

The policy of encouraging the organization of paramilitary groups, which had carried out countless outrages in various regions of Chiapas for months before, could only culminate in a bloody act of an extreme nature, like that in Acteal.  Almost everything has already been said, in terms of the indignation which this act of barbarism provokes, of what it implies in terms of the failure of the government’s strategy, and of the lessons which the authorities should draw in order to correct their course.

One can add another interpretation as well: the massacre as a failed attempt to detain the struggle for autonomy by the indigenous peoples of Chiapas.

Acteal, in effect, should be situated in a wider context: that of the transformation which Zapatismo has encouraged, especially since 1996, by the establishment of de facto autonomous communities, particularly in the form of autonomous municipal and regional governments.  A rebellion took place on January 1, 1994 in Chiapas, and by the second half of 1997, it was clear from the symptoms that a revolution in the Zapatista zones of influence was developing.  The principal motor of this revolution in process was, without a doubt, the autonomous governments.

During the impasse in the negotiating process, resulting from the suspension of talks in August of 1996, none of the parties remained inactive.  Basically, the government continued its disorganized assistance programs, looking for a way to influence local social organizations and to cutback the influence of the Zapatistas.  Along with that, the Federal Army refined its counterinsurgency strategy through the application of some of the ideas in the “plan de campana” (battle plan) which it had designed back in October of 1994.

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), on its side, pointed out the failure to fulfill the San Andres Larrainzar Accords as the principal cause of the crisis in the talks.  And given that the government showed not the least interest in wanting to fulfill such agreements–partially expressed in the proposal elaborated in that spirit by COCOPA–the Zapatista leadership decided to take a step forward: beginning to apply the agreements, according to its understanding of them.

Autonomous Governments: A Hidden Revolution?

In this way, the municipalities “in rebellion” since 1995 began to transform themselves into “autonomous municipalities.”  These de facto autonomous communities began to multiply both within and outside of the so-called zone of conflict.  By the end of 1993, there were autonomous governments in almost forty municipalities.  But while the autonomous governments in the zone of conflict function in a propitious and favorable environment, and therefore without notable conflicts, those which began to develop in areas outside of that zone (such as that in Chanalho where Acteal is located) immediately stumbled upon opposing forces.

It was natural that it should have occurred that way since the autonomous governments arose as authentic parallel governments, alongside the municipal governments controlled by the PRI, and in competition with them. Very quickly it was apparent that these autonomous governments did not aspire to be merely symbolic, but rather to be genuine alternative forms of political power.

In effect, the autonomous governments began to exercise various roles (such as keeping civil records, carrying out local justice, and dealing with agrarian issues) according to the interpretation of the local communities.  All of that meant the beginning of a change in those regions of Chiapas, aimed directly at the transformation of the old relationships of power and dependence.

In sum, these changes implied an attack on a whole system of national domination in the Indian zones, opposing to the heteronomy or outside control by the official governments, the autonomy of the Zapatista-inspired governments.  The autonomous character of the various “autonomous municipal councils” expressed itself not only in its operation, but also in its constitution and renovation.

The PRI’s star began to be eclipsed in many communities, while the prestige and influence of the autonomous governments grew. The exercise of power itself was called into question.

The reaction was virulent.  In the circles of power, it was understood that this process must be stopped dead in its tracks.  The violent actions which spread throughout Los Altos, particularly during the second half of 1997, were in essence (and continue to be) the governmental response to the Zapatista encouragement of autonomous communities.  This was not a case of conflicts without political significance, family feuds, or mere confrontations among or between communities, but rather the clash of two competing projects.

Thus the majority of the violent actions in the region, including the acts of paramilitary groups boosted by the government, have been the official reaction to the quiet revolution which was being incubated in the region.  It was a question of destroying and disorganizing the threatening structure (the “autonomous councils”) and of dispersing the adversary forces.  Therefore, the first step was intimidation and selective repression, afterwards, a turn to more drastic measures such as the destruction of homes and the expulsion of the population.

What followed inevitably was the most crushing blow: massive destruction, using the paramilitary groups as the executors.  Acteal was surely one such operation, one among others, intended to contain and turn back the effects of the Zapatista autonomy movement.  This interpretation, of course, does not exclude other hypotheses about the specific motivations for the massacre.

To sum up, the development of the Zapatista strategy of promoting de facto autonomous communities seems to be the factor which detonated the events of December 22 in Acteal.  Given that, in addition, the Zapatista process of establishing autonomous communities was carried out under a broad interpretation of the model of autonomy contained in the San Andres Larrainzar Accords, the effects of those Accords began to shape elements of disquieting changes.

As has been said, since the middle of 1997 the establishment of the autonomous municipalities spread within and outside of the so-called zones of conflict.

But in September, a leap was taken as “autonomous regions” began to be organized, and “regional autonomous parliaments” sprang up. Two new developments appeared within the political panorama of Chiapas: the Zapatistas encouraged the construction of the autonomous organizations without waiting for them to be legalized–via the Constitutional reforms dealing with indigenous rights and culture–and in addition constructed them on a scale broader than the villages, which directly threatened the local and regional established powers.

Agreements, Blood, and Law

This time not only the governmental political operators but also the various sectors were directly or indirectly affected.  In strict order and with a vehemence hardly contained, they began to speak out on the disasters which the new Zapatista strategy implied.  There was another desperate declaration, and finally, everything came together in an interesting polemic between the Indigenous Revolutionary Clandestine Committee (CCRI) of the Zapatistas and the Political Secretary.

As might be expected, the first to express their alarm at the “declarations” of the autonomous governments without any legal basis were the far-right-wing lawyers of Chiapas.  Their traditionalist instinct warned them that this project contained an anti-systemic threat.  In November the official preoccupation was expressed through the voice of the then Peace Commissioner Pedro Joaquin Coldwell, who argued that, after the elections of July, the EZLN had decided “to reposition itself,” so that it decided to strengthen its strategy of creating autonomous municipalities, in rebellion, against the legal municipalities.”

At the end of December, while the outrage grew over the Acteal massacre, the then Secretary of Politics Emilio Chauyffet, suggested that the blame for the violent events should be sought in the creation of autonomous governments by the Zapatistas.

“And you know what it is,” he commented on a radio program, “a parallel government which collects taxes … and which even beings to register acts in the civil registry which are not authorized.” And, he threatened, the government “will go to the causes of the conflict and will investigate those who promote these parallel (autonomous) municipal councils, division in the communities, and the local authorities in rebellion.”

In a surprising coincidence, that same day the president of the National Fraternity of Evangelical Christian Churches (CONFRATERNICE) accused the EZLN of being “corresponsible” for the crimes of Acteal, given its “political attitude of wanting to continue to establish autonomous government, which destroys the state of law in Chiapas.”

Almost immediately (the first of January), the Bishop of Tapachula, Felipe Armizmendi, expressed the point of view of a part of the Catholic Church, that “pretending to establish forms of government in the communities without taking the existing law into account constituted a dangerous disorder.” He immediately insinuated a causal relation between the Acteal events and the de facto autonomous governments, since “the autonomous governments established arbitrarily at the initiative of some leaders and without a recognized juridical basis only cause confrontations and death.”

Faced with such reasoning, a question remained in the air: Did blaming the Zapatistas’ autonomous governments somehow explain or perhaps even justify the acts committed at Acteal?

In any case, what remained clear was that, for various sectors of society in Chiapas and for the federal government, what had happened in Acteal was directly related to a development which they saw as negative: the process of establishing autonomous governments inspired by the Zapatistas.  Note that those judgments on the autonomous governments were produced both before and after the bloody events of December 22.

The same day that the declarations of the Bishop of Tapachula were published, the EZLN’s CCRI released a communique dated December 29, 1997, in which the Zapatista leadership defended the legitimacy and the legality of the autonomous governments, focussing on an answer to the opinions of the internal political leaders.  The reasoning should be read in its complete form:

The autonomous indigenous governments are not illegitimate nor do they act outside the law. Their legitimacy (different than that of Mr. Secretary of Politics, who has no legitimacy) is obtained from the communities which name them and which they serve.

Their legality is contemplated in the San Andres Larrainzar Accords, signed by the Federal Government and by the EZLN, and which therefore have a juridical basis.  These first San Andres Larrainzar Accords are those that COCOPA edited and proposed as a Constitutional reform, and which the Secretary of Politics at first accepted and later rejected.

The government official’s answer was not long in coming.  In a communique dated January 1, 1998, the Secretary of Politics dedicated a complete point to the question under discussion.  It read as follows:

The EZLN recognizes the formation of these autonomous government and that these are not illegitimate and that their legality is contemplated in the San Andres Larrainzar Accords.

In the first place, the naming of the members of these autonomous councils does not derive from any legal procedure, they assume arbitrarily chosen faculties and they exercise them in arbitrarily delineated communities, which don’t correspond to the municipal geography.  These autonomous governments are the source of permanent conflict in the communities in which they are involved.

But it is even more surprising that it is said that such councils have juridical basis in the San Andres Larrainzar Accords, because if the EZLN has been saying that those Accords have not been fulfilled and that that is the reason for which they will not return to the negotiating table, how it is possible that they invoke the supposedly unfulfilled Accords as the basis for the legality of the `authorities in rebellion’?

Who is right? Are the Zapatista claims true, or the allegations of the government? Evidently, when the government officials turn to “legality” and “legal procedures” in order to combat the Zapatista positions, we are confronting arguments of an order which with great difficulty can be of sufficient standing to judge a phenomenon of an entirely different order.  That is, the arguments of a legal sort alone, are of little help in understanding or evaluating, by themselves, sociopolitical processes such as the autonomous practices of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas.

The fact that the official institution cannot enter into an analysis of the legitimacy of the autonomous governments puts them immediately in a disadvantageous position.  In this case, the legalistic rationale based exclusively on the juridical formalities proves vacuous, because it does not begin to illuminate the profound implications of the processes that exist at the edge of or even outside the legal formalities, because the latter prove too narrow and too distant from the reality of the country.

But the legal angle of the question should not be avoided.  In this terrain as well, the arguments sketched out in the document of the Secretary of Politics show serious weaknesses.  To suggest, as the communique clearly does, that one cannot invoke the legality of the Accords given that these have still not been fulfilled–in reference to the fact that the San Andres Larrainzar Accords still have not become Constitutional law–does not seem very consistent.

Everything indicates that Chauyffet’s team clearly never understood or assumed clearly that the San Andres Accords were more than a mere arrangement between the parties, that they lacked juridical character as long as they did not convert themselves into part of the legal order through Constitutional reforms.

It is forgotten that the Accords were the fruit of negotiations realized by the mandate of a federal law. That is, the regime pretends to ignore that 1) the “Law for Dialogue, Conciliation and a Peace with Dignity in Chiapas,” approved by the Congress of the Union and Published in the Official Record the 11 of March of 1995, determined that the parties should sit and negotiate, and defined the EZLN as “an organization of Mexican citizens,” 2) the same law establishes that, with the negotiating party called the EZLN, the government should seek “an agreement of concord and pacification,” intended to achieve “a just, lasting, and dignified solution to the armed conflict,” and, 3) the law promises that the government will do what is necessary to attend to the “causes which brought about the conflict and promote agreed upon solutions to the various political, social, cultural and economic demands.”

For those reasons, the results of the negotiations (that is the signed Accords) already have a legal basis, clear and indisputable; they are juridical matters, independently of the will or the desires of the government authorities.  For all the twists and turns the government does regarding this matter, it cannot escape this reality and its promise: the Accords legally oblige the government and it is the law which calls for its complete fulfillment.

The fact that it has still not been converted into part of our Magna Carta [Constitution] does not change anything.  By saying that there is no juridical basis to the Accords, omitting these facts, when one of the parties (the government, of course) has not done what it should have to put this in the Constitution is a glib response.  In this sense, and with regard to the government’s failure to fulfill its promises, one has to remember the old saying, one party cannot claim in its favor something which is the result of its own failure.

For a few days after the barbarous events of Acteal, there shone weakly the possibility, the hope that such a sacrifice would contribute to the definitive turn to dialogue and negotiation of a political solution as the only way out of the crisis.  Also expectations opened up that, as a first step, in the short run the hoped for Constitutional reform could be achieved.  It was a brief glimmer in the night.

Soon the government’s inertia, the repetition of the same patterns of behavior and the refusal to define a really new strategy to deal with the problems returned us to reality.  The two presidential speeches reminded us of the abyss on the edge of which we stood.

· In Nayarit on January 16, Zedillo said that the problems of the indigenous people would not be resolved “establishing a distinction in our Constitution,” with which he let it be understood that he was not disposed to promote real Constitutional reforms.

· A little later, while the country held its breath, in Kanasin (Yucatan), the President reiterated that his government would not use force to resolve the conflict and that he was in agreement with the San Andres Larrainzar Accords, but his omissions with regard to the question of autonomy and the repetition of the issues of supposed “interpretations” which would affect national unity, individual guarantees, etc. put in relief the erratic character of the official line.

The new Secretary of Politics closed the circle in Queretaro on February 5: The government wanted to pass the responsibility for the failure to fulfill the San Andres Larrainzar Accords to the Congress of the Union.  With this leadership of the republic, what space remains for optimism?

For a copy of the footnotes accompanying this article, contact Dan La Botz through his e-mail address:

We are proud to present to our readers this essay by Hector Díaz-Polanco, a professor and researcher at the Centro de Investegaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (CIESAS), an advisor to the EZLN and the author of La Rebelión zapatista y la autonomia (Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1997).  Díaz-Polanco is also a former advisor to the Miskito Indians of Nicaragua in their negotiations with the Sandinista government of Nicaragua.  The translation is by Dan La Botz.

ATC 74, May-June 1998