When the phone rang in the Berkeley apartment of a man we’ll call Jorge, in the early afternoon of April 12, he had no way of knowing that it wouldn’t stop ringing for the next two days. A tense voice brought news from San Cristobal de las Casas, a town of sixty thousand in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas: One thousand soldiers had invaded the Zapatista autonomous municipality of Taniperlas. Fires were raging in the city center, and most people had disappeared into the jungle. Three of Jorge’s closest friends, Americans from San Francisco and the East Bay, had fallen into the hands of the Mexican army.
Jorge’s adrenaline pulsed for a quick second as he hung up the phone, but he tried to think calmly. Picking up the phone again, he put in calls to authorities at the U.S. consulate, human rights groups, and friends connected with the stateside Zapatista support network. Find out what you can, he thought. That’s the best you can do. From Berkeley to leftist colonies in L.A. and New York, to activist camps in Mexico City and San Cristobal, half-baked rumors and legitimate updates made the rounds. Hours passed before he got a break: Jorge’s friends were being held in San Cristobal’s tiny immigration headquarters. He even got the phone number.
“That was a total fluke,” Jorge recalls. “They wouldn’t let me talk to them directly, but I think they were surprised that someone from the States was calling this small office in San Cristobal. So we, like, hit right where they were.”
The phone rang: The Americans and nine other foreign nationals were tossed into a van and driven to Tuxtla Gutierrez, the Chiapas state capital. The phone rang: A plane had just left Tuxtla Gutierrez for Mexico City; his three friends were on board. Now Jorge had guessed what would happen. The Americans would be expelled — it was just a question of when and for how long. Jorge called the media and leaked the lead. The phone rang: The Americans had been put on a plane bound for Los Angeles, accompanied by immigration police who sat with them during the flight. While they were being loaded onto the plane, two Associated Press photographers had snapped off some shots. Mexican cops threw one of them up against a bus and bashed him in the head with their rifle butts.
By 11 that night, Jorge got the phone call he had been waiting for: His friends were safely back in San Francisco. “They’d been up for two days and had gone through a lot. They were exhausted, and I said, ‘Well, you’re outta luck, because there’s gonna be a press conference tomorrow morning.’ They weren’t exactly happy to hear it — I think it was hard for them to focus.”
At 8 the next morning, Jorge saw his friends — Jeff Conant, Travis Loller, and Michael Sabato — for the first time in months. He was shocked at their appearance; they were bone-thin and weather-beaten, and exhaustion and stress had carved hollow sinkholes in their eyes. Loller saw Jorge and cracked a wry smile. “You’ve put on weight,” she said.
They had an hour before the press conference, so Jorge listened quietly as the three sat down and got their story straight. At 9 a.m., they stood up, walked into the conference room, and sat at a table before the assembled members of the national press.
These Americans were dangerous subversives, Mexican officials had charged. They were conspiring with the guerrillas of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) to replace the Mexican government with revolutionary bodies that challenged the legitimate authorities. The three deported Americans sat before the press and denied the charges, insisting that all they were doing was acting as human rights observers, occasionally under the auspices of the Catholic Church.
They were lying through their teeth. Only three days had passed since soldiers had surrounded them on the outskirts of Taniperlas, and the three young activists still held out a slim hope that their permanent expulsion could be reduced to temporary exile. If they stuck to their story that they were either human rights observers or, according to some reports, goofy tourists who stumbled into a war zone, perhaps someday they would be allowed back to the place they had called home for two years.
“I don’t know exactly when they made that decision,” Jorge says. “I said, ‘Look, you should just say outright what you were doing. I don’t think you can pull a fast one on the press. Journalists will be on to you in a minute. Just tell it straight up. Tell them what you were doing and ask them why the government thinks it’s so dangerous.'”
What they were in fact doing, the great international crime that resulted in their armed expulsion from Mexico, was installing running water systems in indigenous villages in Chiapas.
“Revolution on Spring Break”
To adventurers from around the world, the conflict between the Mexican government and the indigenous revolutionaries in Chiapas is emerging as the Spanish Civil War of the modern era. Alluring stories of assaults by Zapatista rebels armed with wooden guns on Chiapas landlords, stories made instantly available on the Internet, have gradually drawn young radical leftists to the isolated mudpits of what is geographically the Central American highlands. The arrest of Conant, Loller, and Sabato has suddenly focused media attention on the phenomenon, and opinion makers are curiously unsure of what to make of them. In one Washington Post story, an inside-the-beltway think-tanker on Latin America called them “earnest and good-willed people who do not know what they are getting into,” while an unnamed anthropologist dismissed them as “kids coming down to make revolution on spring break.”
But spring break doesn’t last two years, and it takes more than a fascination with radical chic to spend it digging trenches in the mud while unearthly torrents of rain drive yet more muck into the hole. If Chiapas is the Spanish Civil War of the ’90s, it is being fought with a unique new array of weapons: surveying equipment, waste disposal tanks, brass pipes, and spigots. Conant, Loller, and dozens of other Bay Area residents have smuggled themselves into the Zapatista communities with the subversive purpose of making villagers’ lives better, of building running water and electrical systems. There has been smuggling — of antibiotics and speculums into outlawed villages.
Mexican authorities find all this unacceptable. The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has based its nearly seventy years of rule on being the sole supplier of infrastructure and services, on being the only game in town. That isolated communities of ignorant indios decided to defy them — worse, ignore them — and that people were coming from around the world to help, is unthinkable to party officials. So it is that, over the last four years, “low-intensity warfare” has emerged in Chiapas: Zapatistas and their foreign supporters build infrastructure and communities as if the PRI did not exist, and PRI apparatchiks and the army (and occasionally drunken death squad members) tear that infrastructure down. Revolutionaries build a small riverside hydropower generator. Soldiers move in, destroy it, and surreally offer a replacement from the PRI. And, more than occasionally, people die, their mutilated bodies found floating in a river or strung up in a tree.
Among the many idealistic young people from around the world who have enlisted in this strange struggle are hundreds of Americans, among them as many as 100 graduates of the University of California-Berkeley and other Bay Area radicals who have decided to liquidate their comfy lives in the U.S., insert themselves into a Third World war zone, mix concrete in the jungle, and hide from soldiers.
Enchanted by the Subcommandante
For Jorge and Loller, a four-year-long Chiapas adventure began on January 1, 1994, with the soft buzzing of fax transmissions. On that morning, the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was scheduled to be implemented, Zapatista rebels announced their existence by seizing control of San Cristobal and other major towns in the dense Lacandon jungle. Landowners were invited to pack up and leave. By the time the authorities in Mexico City got over their shock and sent in the troops, retaking San Cristobal, the EZLN ran much of the state of Chiapas. Moreover, in the months leading up to the uprising, Zapatistas had quietly sent supporters to the capital and across the nation, bearing communiqués and newspapers that listed the EZLN’s platform. When news of the revolt reached radical movements elsewhere in Mexico, the Zapatistas were already set to explain what was up.
Jorge was living in Berkeley as an activist working on immigrant rights and Central American issues when his contacts in Mexico City first told him about the EZLN. He had taken an interest in student activism since his high school days in Los Angeles and, being half Peruvian, was particularly drawn to the politics of El Salvador and Nicaragua in the ’80s. As a student at Sonoma State University and later as an activist in Berkeley, Jorge had thrown himself into solidarity movements for the Sandinistas and the Salvadoran rebels. But the last four years had been a confusing time. The Cold War had made the future of Central America into an American obsession; with that era essentially over, and with an imperfect peace settling over the region, solidarity groups in the Bay Area felt a loss of direction. “This was the first real revolutionary movement in Latin America after the fall of the Eastern Bloc,” Jorge says. “I was pretty much primed.”
“I talked to my friends in Mexico City and New York, and gradually the communiqués were spreading around. Some of them I got indirectly through friends in the U.S., and others were faxed or e-mailed to me from Mexico.” Something special about the Zapatistas caught his eye. Perhaps it was partly the sheer theatricality of their leader, Subcommandante Marcos. His proclamations on the Internet captured Jorge’s attention, but he insists that it was the ideals of the Zapatistas, the anti-authoritarian quality they brought to their movement, that was the kicker. The EZLN was doing something unprecedented, Jorge thought, conducting an insurgency that was — theoretically, anyway — free of the vanguardist dogma that had so frequently served as cover for human rights abuses in Nicaragua and elsewhere. This was a secular, radical indigenous rights movement, indicting free trade and championing women’s empowerment in articulate, passionate tracts from somewhere in the jungle.
Jorge, Loller, and some other friends began translating Subcommandante Marcos’ tracts into English. By the end of the year, they published a book: Zapatista! Documents of the New Revolution.
“Eventually I was getting burned out on that,” says Jorge. “Translating Marcos is very difficult, because he has a very flowery style. Sometimes he’s difficult to understand even in Spanish. Often he’ll make obscure literary allusions or use archaic Spanish words from Cervantes, and everyday people are like, ‘What is he talking about?’ Yes, some communiqués are very straightforward, but then he’ll write, ‘The sea holds a child in her arms…’ Some of the things that he writes just sound a lot cheesier in English.”
Into the War Zone
After a few months of translating, Jorge decided to fly down and check out the country for himself. In May 1994, he flew to Mexico City, hooked up with some friends, and caught a bus to San Cristobal. They didn’t exactly know what they were looking for, just that they had heard about this Zapatista thing and wanted to find it.
Traveling to a war zone may sound like it would be harrowing, but the climate in Chiapas in 1994 was surprisingly casual. The army was nowhere to be found, and the place was not yet home to the hordes of foreigners and solidarity people who would later swarm into the region. San Cristobal had just a few reporters and the beginnings of a human rights monitoring apparatus. Vast areas of Chiapas were in the hands of the Zapatistas, and things were damn quiet.
“Back then, you couldn’t go down there and get in touch with someone who could point you to the Zapatistas,” says Jorge. “If you wanted to see what was going on, you had to strike out on your own. And back then, it was rumor and innuendo in San Cristobal. Someone from the New York Times would say, ‘Oh, you have to go to such-and-such a place, and there you can get a message out, and they might talk to you.’ And another reporter would say, ‘No no no, that place is dried up. Here’s where you have to go.'”
Eventually, Jorge and his friends headed into the countryside, catching buses to smaller cities like Ocosingo, and hopping onto trucks filled with peasants, pigs, and chickens for the bumpy ride into one of the rural communities.
“Community” is an overused, mostly powerless word in English. But activists and supporters use it to refer to small Chiapas villages because they can’t think of another that is more accurate. Some villages have a special legal status and are called ejidos. Formed during the occasional spurts of land reform that have marked the history of PRI-controlled Mexico, those tracts of land were reserved for peasants to live on and conduct subsistence-level farming. The land is collectively owned and parceled out to individual families to till; up until NAFTA, the peasants were prohibited from selling their plots, guaranteeing another generation a way to keep from starving, if little else. Other hamlets are recent affairs, newly settled by indigenous populations displaced from other parts of the country. The land those peasants farm was typically part of a vast territory owned by one landlord, and the tenants had paid homage to him like a feudal liege. Most of the landlords are gone now, and no one is entirely sure what to call the land they left behind.
It was in one such community that Jorge came face to face with the man whose words he had been translating for months. “We were some of the few people from outside of Chiapas who were there at the time. One day, a truck drove into the center, and Marcos just popped out from behind the wheel. It was easy to spot him; although the government likes to say that the peasants are being run by outsiders, really the only non-indigenous person around is Marcos himself. So when you see this green-eyed, pipe-smoking guy, you get the idea who he is pretty fast.”
Marcos wears a mask; no one has seen him without it, but most Mexicans have a pretty good idea who he is. They believe he is Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente, a professor from a Mexico City university who disappeared two decades ago. Guillen vanished along with the rest of the National Liberation Front, a small band of largely intellectual Maoists. “He talked with us for a long time about the process of becoming the EZLN,” says Jorge. “They were once a Maoist sectarian group. He admitted that. They were vanguardist types when they went into the jungle in the early ’80s. It was only after a few years of being immersed in the communities that they began to realize that their whole way of organizing was meaningless there. He talked a lot about the jungle, how the jungle does not negotiate, how it makes it so you have to change.
“At first I had no idea what was going on down there, so when I first saw him I was pretty excited. After a while, I figured out his role. Marcos is a mouthpiece; it’s his job to translate what the Zapatistas are doing into something that the rest of Mexico can understand. Now if I were to see him, I’d probably go, ‘Ahh, whatever.'” It was the everyday lives of the Zapatista villagers that began to intrigue Jorge. When his time in Chiapas was up, he came north to Berkeley, but told himself he was going to go back.
Reality Tourists and Peace Campers
One person who discovered the Zapatistas through the tracts Jorge had translated was a former Boston University activist named Jeff Conant. Conant and Michael Sabato had cut their teeth on the anti-apartheid shanties at BU in the ’80s and had their radical sensibilities sharpened by the anti-Gulf War riots in San Francisco. Conant eventually quit his job at a stamp factory, figuring he had better things to do with his time than drudging forty hours a week to pay off student loans from a government that was bombing innocent people. For the next few years, Conant flirted with this project or that: performance art in San Francisco, printing lessons, and other gigs.
Eventually, Conant enrolled in the New College of California graduate program in literature, choosing as his focus the aesthetics of Marcos’ communiqués: “He’d write stories about Durito, the little beetle that he speaks to in the jungle and who teaches him about neoliberalism. And then there’s this character, Old Antonio, who’s like this shaman. Old Antonio tells him of the creation of the world, and the stories reflect what’s going on in Chiapas. There’s this whole sort of millenarian revolutionary sensibility.”
Perhaps it was academic interest that brought Conant to Chiapas. A phenomenon known as “revolutionary tourism” was burgeoning, as groups like San Francisco-based Global Exchange offered “reality tours” down to San Cristobal. The local diocese of the Catholic Church had set up “peace camps,” small huts on the outskirts of Zapatista villages where foreigners would camp out for a few months, reading books and waiting for the army to arrive. The reasoning was that the military would balk at committing human rights abuses if it knew that foreigners could take notes and a few photographs and spread the news to the outside world.