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Los Caracoles, Chiapas, Mexico – July 2013
Oventik is two hours from San Cristobal de las Casas, the Spanish colonial town in the highlands of Chiapas. The roads are good apart from the potholes and small animals that dart in the path of the motorbike. Breezeblock houses with corrugated iron roofs, the accommodation of the world’s poor, punctuate the trammel on either side.
Oventik is not signposted by anything more than a decaying sign by the side of road, and it’s different here. “Estas entrando Zapatista tierra,” says the sign (You are now entering Zapatista land). To the side is a gate manned by four people, all wearing balaclavas, black socks pulled over their faces with a slit cut out of the middle, from which their eyes peer out. These are the members of the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation).
Looking down the drive that composes the community, you can see grand murals on the walls of all the buildings: Che Guevara and Emiliano Zapata are recurring themes. When we put in a request to come inside, the guards take our passports and return half an hour later: “You can come in but no interviews”, they tell us.
Oventik is one of thirteen “caracoles” (meaning “snails” in Spanish) that are scattered throughout the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. They were won by armed struggle by the indigenous revolutionary group, the Zapatistas, after they rose up on January 1st 1994, the date when the NAFTA free trade agreement with the United States and Canada came into force. As part of its provisions, the Mexican government had to change the near-century old constitution which granted common ownership of land. This was the straw that broke the back of the indigenous communities, who had suffered centuries of discrimination and oppression at the hands of the latifundistas, or large landowners.
The long path down to the bottom of the caracol is a muddy track. On either side stand wooden buildings dedicated to the “dignity of women”, a hospital, a school, a basket-ball court. Our guide is not interested in talking; the balaclava reveals only the eyes, and the eyes have had enough of questions.
The caracol has many different meanings for the Zapatistas. One of their mottos is “caminar al paso del mas lento” (in English, “to walk at the pace of the slowest”), meaning that they can wait until the last member of the community is ready before they continue to move forward. There are murals peppered throughout the caracol depicting snails with the slogan “lento pero avanza” (slow but moving forward) – again signifying the idea that they will move at a snail’s pace, but once they are all ready, they will progress.
This perhaps explains why the world outside of Mexico has heard little of the Zapatistas in recent years. Rumour has it that they have been slowly preparing themselves and will soon re-emerge. Fuelling these rumours was the announcement that in August 2013 the Zapatistas will be organising escuelitas (Little Schools) (Link: http://enlacezapatista.ezln.org.mx/2013/06/13/cupo-lleno-en-comunidades-para-la-escuela-zapatista/) to be held in five caracoles. In these escuelitas seasoned Zapatistas will “give classes on their thought and action on liberty according to Zapatismo: their successes, their failures, their problems, their solutions, the things which have moved forward, the things that have got bogged down, and the things that are missing, because what is missing is yet to come”, according to Sub-comandante Marcos, who is now back in Chiapas after a stint living in Paris.
In the caracol, there is a feeling of empowerment and independence rare in the world, especially in this region.The Mexican military — which has carried out countless attacks on the indigenous communities — is not allowed, in theory, to come into this community, and you can feel the difference.
Further up in the mountains, amongst the clouds and lawns of nature, is Acteal, a small indigenous town, partly run by the Zapatistas. In 1996, the most brutal of the massacres committed against the Zapatistas was carried out here, when 45 people were killed by a paramilitary group while praying in the local church. Many suspect government involvement or complicity in the massacre. Soldiers at a nearby military outpost did not intervene during the attack, which lasted for several hours. Many of them were seen the next day washing the blood off the walls of the local church.
When we arrive it’s in the middle of one of the endless downpours. We walk down the main street into a basketball court sponsored by the EZLN. the entire town is gathered to cheer on their local team. As in Oventik, the outsides of the houses and community buildings are decorated with murals depicting left-wing revolutionaries from Latin America; saints wearing Zapatista balaclavas; and children of different races standing hand in hand.
A local man approaches us and asks if we have seen the monument built to commemorate those who died in the massacre, and he points us in its direction. The monument stands a couple of dozen feet high, half covered in the clouds which are quickly descending over the village. The monument is a clay construction in which the 45 faces of those massacred are depicted, merged together in a collective wail.
We go down some steps to the site where the massacre took place. No longer a church (it was torn down after the masacre) it is now an out-door auditorium with painted wooden crosses nailed to the walls in memory of each person killed. Among the dead were a number of children and pregnant women.
A man approaches us, we tell him that we are visiting from the UK: “why didn’t you visit earlier, before they killed my friends?” he wants to know.