Social Justice or Radical Extremism? The Zapatistas of Chiapas

Chuck Hägen
Apr 21 · 12 min read

“In silencing our pain, we are preparing for its scream. Our word, comes from fire. In order to wake those who slept, to raise the fallen, to incense those that conformed and surrendered. To rebel against history.”


BY MID-MORNING, THE HEAT of the summer’s day has already staked its claim on my state of mind. I’m thirsty, weak, and defeated to the very core. In the eyes of hardened men, I do not belong — and I don’t. But amid the dying bastion of male egotism, I want to prove the doubters wrong. And I will.

Resting on a clifftop perch of both privilege and honour, discussing similarly shared values with one of the few men in the village that genuinely enjoys the attention of outside interest, one can’t help but realise just how tiny and insignificant as individuals we are. The ominous spread of jungle and mountain is intense. It’s not the most breathtaking view, and its varying green tapestry displays a rudimentary, almost slapped together appearance. But the evaporating mist lends a sense of surreal eeriness to the occasion, ensuring yet again that this day, like all the others, will yield nothing but a vibe of unsettledness and extreme discomfort. For now though, as I pummel my third cup of coffee for the morning, I will revel in civil conversation with my new friend Tico, my minder no less, and drift lovingly into the mirage reality of the stunning Sierra Madre silence.

The silence.

Deafening, yet soothing. A tangible veil of absurdity in this part of the world, Chiapas, Mexico. To many folk here, the silence is far too risky a commodity to invest one’s belief in. Far too intrepid a desire to behold. The silence symbolises one, and one thing only; la calma antes de la tormenta. The calm before the storm. This is a war zone. The silence is a lie.

“You see over there?” Tico, feigning for a brief moment that the conversation may turn into something other than radical Socialist banter, raises his right arm and gestures nonchalantly towards the southern horizon. “That’s Guatemala.” There’s only one word I can muster to keep the conversation going; “Okay.” But it’s obvious; Tico is just warming up…

“In Guatemala, just over there, the indigenous, like here in Mexico, are treated very poorly. The government won’t give them a chance. A chance to rise, a chance to empower, a chance to be free. Many of them turn to drug running and agenda driven border runs. Guatemalan horsemen, all indigenous, ride across the borders into Mexico and Belize to commit robbery. They hijack overnight buses, raid local tiendas, and worst of all, they rob tourists. Mostly at the Maya ruins along the borders. Their heritage. They steal from their heritage.”

This is just one of dozens of manifesto driven monologues that Tico has exposed me to, and already I have trained myself to simply listen without speaking. There’s always a pertinent point. Tico’s just getting started…

“There is no structure among the indigenous communities in northern Guatemala, no drive or purpose. That’s why it’s different here. We are organised and we have an ongoing mission. Por vida. For life. But many people have the wrong idea about us. We are not violent people by nature. No one in this organisation wants to commit murder. But the truth of the matter is that sometimes we must. It’s the only thing necessary for us to regain our freedom. Somehow, many years ago, we lost our way. We won the Revolution, but that was one-hundred years ago. Now, we are worse off than ever before, so we must regain control. We are proud and militant, all in the name of peace to our people. We are Zapatista!”

The word Zapatista, particularly in this part of the world, outside of the mountain villages of Chiapas and neighbouring state Oaxaca, might as well be the most offensive and insidious of curse words. There is not a great deal of sympathy for the hardline revolutionaries who in the eyes of many are simply using the lure of socialist revolution as a thinly-veiled excuse to rape, pillage and murder their way across the mother mountains. Ask any local from any village that has been infiltrated, and they’ll tell you that for every genuine Zapatista out to free his or her people, there are ten more who are simply in it to cash in. Tico somewhat clarifies this…

“Of course, I completely understand this attitude. Even my own mother is wary of some Zapatistas. And yes, there are men that abuse their power and privilege and become far too carried away with other activities that they forget why they are here in the first place. But rest assured, there are enough of us fighting for freedom to keep most on the straight and narrow, and rest assured that we are doing everything in our power to keep Mexicans safe from such violent atrocities.”

CHUCK HÄGEN ‘Kollaps’ Sneak Peek

The Zapatistas aren’t simply a slapped together throng of trigger happy revolutionaries. The intricately threaded group are focused on societal issues just as much as they are focused on taking down one of the most corrupt governments in Latin American history. Schools dotted throughout the mountain villages of Chiapas — a free and sovereign state — and Oaxaca, act as alternative education centres for children starting at pre-school age all the way through to high school and beyond. Volunteers from all over the world including nations as far and wide as Australia, Iceland, and South Africa, teach English and facts about the Chiapas region to the students -compulsory for all Zapatistas according to Tico — while teachers from local villages handle other subjects including social sciences and Mayan culture.

Damon, an Australian native, is one such volunteer teacher who first trekked into the picturesque lakeside village of Venustiano Carranza — named after an important figure of the Mexican Revolution — in mid-2012. His original intention was simply to explore the area and perhaps scout out some information regarding volunteer teaching. He is yet to leave the area other than for provisions in the nearby city of Tuxtla Gutierrez. Talking to him in this specific part of the world is kind of surreal, but once he gets started he is positively beaming with pride and love for his adoptive villagers…

“The people here are amazing. So generous, and despite the horrendous poverty, they are relatively carefree. The mainstream media is forever portraying the Zapatistas as violent bandits who hijack buses and pillage small towns. Whilst that once may have been the case, it most certainly isn’t anymore. That was over two decades ago during the Chiapas uprising. Now, thanks to better communication via the internet, the bad seeds are able to be weeded out very easily. Everyone here is on the lookout for thugs cashing in on the Zapatista name and when they are found, well, let’s just say that justice is most certainly served.”

Monies donated from sympathisers to the Zapatista cause are gathered and distributed in perfect socialist harmony. Here, this much despised, feared and misunderstood of political ethos functions just fine. On the surface at least, everyone seems happy, and judging by the throngs of portly children studying quietly in the escuelita, the people are well fed.

But there are dangers. Fierce dangers. Whilst it isn’t illegal in Mexico to actively be a part of an organisation like the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional, the current government, under the watchful eye of president Enrique Peña Nieto, are constantly gunning for Zapatista blood, so much so that many soldados are killed each month fighting for their cause. Damon has plenty to say on the subject…

“Sometimes it’s akin to a civil war down here. Whilst I don’t consider myself a Zapatista, I do realise that what I am doing is potentially dangerous. Obviously, the government aren’t big fans of what is being fought for and whenever Nieto sends in his troops (the CISN) that’s when all hell breaks loose. Other than that, despite the intimidating appearances on these guys, it’s relatively chilled.”

Anonymity amongst Zapatistas — including children — is of the utmost importance and is carried with a certain twisted pride. It’s the strangest sight, walking into a classroom of children under twelve-years of age only to see every single one of them wearing bandanas or balaclavas to cover their faces whilst soldados stand guard with loaded assault rifles. The reason for this however is obvious and absolutely necessary. The deception is that things aren’t completely harmonious here. The ominous silence. Apart from random raids conducted by the CISN and Mexican armed forces, many mountain villagers throughout Chiapas and Oaxaca are completely against the movement, and whilst living with a certain amount of intimidation and trepidation, are on the constant lookout for any untoward activity. Damon finds all of this slightly ironic…

“It’s really strange. Everyone here must either hide their identities or essentially keep their mouths shut in order to avoid conflict. But myself and the other volunteers that come from elsewhere are able to roam around with relative freedom. Many non-Zapatistas know what I’m doing here, but as we’re working with children, they leave us alone. The irony is, that this perceived dangerous place is probably one of the safest parts of Mexico for foreigners!”

Words are nice, and in the lulled quiet of peacetime can be somewhat comforting. But taking a quick survey of my immediate area tells me that things could escalate at any given moment. The heavy artillery in these parts are out of this world.

Surrounding the perimeter of the escualita are small armies of strategically placed and highly alert armed guards. These are teenagers who have recently completed school and are keen to rise through the Zapatista ranks beginning at the ground floor, generally the relative safety of a village school. Each armed guard carries two live hand grenades clipped to a belt loop at each hip. They carry knives; one stashed handle up and ready for action in the right combat boot, one in a holster below the left hand grenade. They wear ammunition. Criss-crossed belts strapped in diagonals across the torso John Rambo style make for a damn intimidating accessory. But the piece de resistance just has to be the surplus heavy artillery purchased from the late-eighties heat of the tail end of the civil war in El Salvador and Nicaragua, where the contras, who had purchased those very weapons as surplus stock from Afghanistan and Russia in the late seventies, ran riot. These weapons have done the rounds.

Kalashnikovs and the Chinese made Type 81 assault rifles make up the majority of artillery found around these parts and adorn each wide-eyed young soldier proudly. It’s in the hands of these barely men and women to protect the future… the children.

Out in the field, parading the jungle villages, stalking the mountain ridges and plantations, the more senior soldiers carry additional artillery to the standard AK-47/hand grenade/knife combo. They carry land mines. This is the frontline, and by whatever means necessary, the Mexican military must be prevented from infiltrating villages, schools and safe houses. Tico explains…

“This is where things get serious. Where the war really is. Nobody here wants to do this. No one likes war. Nobody wants to kill another human. Another soldier for simply doing what he feels is right. Just like me. A father, a brother, a son. But we do. Because this is war and what we are doing is fighting the unjust. The injustices done to our people for hundreds of years by a government that is so diseased with corruption and violence that its hedonism and gluttony knows no bounds. So we have plantation workers place mines in the fields so they know where they’re located, we line the ridges with explosives, and we sit back and watch as CISN soldiers try to run the gauntlet. Some get through. Most don’t.”

Tico crosses himself three times upon saying this. The lingering sadness in his weather-worn face confirms that he is most certainly telling the truth. He doesn’t want to kill or maim just as much as you or I. All he wants is peace for himself, his family and his region. But he knows that without militant resistance and on occasion, violent onslaught, that peace may never come. As if to signify his humanity, to proudly display his deep-seated faith in his religion and love for his Lord, to show his frailty as a mere servant to the Earth, he crosses himself twice more, slumps on a tree stump and hands me a small piece of Chiapas made Mayan chocolate.

“Sometimes I think to myself that we will never win this war. That peace will never come. But I can’t give up. None of us can. I have three children in that school. What sort of a father, a man, would I be if I just gave up? Many of us have doubts, it’s human nature. My father, his father… none of us are ever one-hundred percent certain. But one thing I do know is that once I’m gone, whether the war has been won, lost, or is still ongoing, that my children will be just that little bit freer from the shackles of what surrounds us. That’s what I live for. That’s my purpose. That’s what makes me smile. Well that… and this chocolate!”

Chuck Hägen YouTube

And it’s while salivating over that delicious piece of lovingly constructed local dark chocolate, squatting perched on a water-logged Liquidambar stump on a narrow dirt ridge on the edge of the proud village of Venustiano Carranza, next to a man so much more man than myself, that the dawning of a new philosophy all but bitch-slapped my sweaty, sunburnt face. There are no human enemies. Just causal enemies. Simply because one may vehemently disagree with a specific cause, no matter how justified or heinous its motivation, does not necessarily mean that one should ingratiate oneself to the side of enemy of a particular human who happens to be fighting for that cause. We are all trying to do what’s right, yet our own individual versions of what actually is right are so twisted and askew from each other’s perceptions that we become blinded with superficial outrage and ultimately venomous hate.

Are the Zapatistas so wrong for merely trying to fight for their own freedoms and liberties? For themselves, for their children, and indeed their culture? Why are they so hated? So feared? So misunderstood? Is it their attachment to that dreaded, almost machine manufactured word, socialism? Is it their willingness to reach above and beyond even the levels of what their God deems as completely unacceptable simply to honour the cause? Whether they are right or wrong, whether anyone is right or wrong, obtaining a tangible human interaction and acceptance of those standing tall in the crossfire of such battles is of the utmost of importance to all beings. And the reciprocated acceptance by Tico and his men displays to me the ultimate of unions and human traits; that no matter who we are, what side of the river we hail from, we are essentially one. And if a so-called extremist organisation like the Zapatistas can display this level of tolerance and dare I say, affection, then maybe one day our nation’s armies and governments might just follow suit.

For now, let’s just eat some chocolate and not hold our collective breaths.

© Chuck Hägen 2018. Images courtesy of Chuck Hägen, Dan La Botz & Reuters

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