Zapatistas Create Good Government Alternative
by: Mary Ann Tenuto Sanchez

As our van approached the entrance to La Garrucha, the former Aguascalientes recently renamed a Caracol, or seashell, we saw a new sign which read: “You are in Zapatista Rebel territory. Here, the People Command and the Government Obeys.” As we pulled into the village a mural announced the name of the Caracol: Resistance Toward A New Dawn.

After reading the series of July comunicados from the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN or Zapatistas), the Chiapas Support Committee (CSC) organized a special October delegation to Chiapas to get a firsthand look at the changes announced in those comunicados. Specifically, the EZLN announced that it was implementing the San Andres Accords and creating a regional governance structure located in each of the five cultural centers, which are now called Caracols. The San Andres Accords were signed between the federal government and the EZLN in February 1996, granting all indigenous peoples new legal rights to self determination. They were never implemented into law.

We parked in front of the Casa de Vigilancia where visitors go through a security interview. The six of us on the delegation went into the house made of wooden boards and metal roof and answered a series of questions: have you been here before; what is your business here; what did you bring with you; a security check. We each wrote down our names, our organization and our nationality. There were approximately eight indigenous people present, half men and half women. A painting of Marcos decorated one wall. Che was next to him. This security screening is new and necessary because visitors no longer need a letter of recommendation in order to enter a Caracol.

After awhile, the person in charge told us to go back to the van and get everything we brought with us ready while he took the information we had given him to the Good Government Junta for its decision. The new regional governing bodies are called Juntas de Buen Gobierno (Good Government Juntas). In less than three minutes we were told that the Junta was ready to receive us. Several people told us that if we had not already been known in the region, the wait would have been much longer.

We passed through a long corridor with doors on each side, marked by a red star with the name of each autonomous municipio (county) in the region. These are the new offices of the four autonomous counties in this jungle region. We followed the security person into an enormous room with a long table, behind which sat eight indigenous men. There were two representatives from each of the four autonomous counties: Francisco Gomez, San Manuel, Francisco Villa and Ricardo Flores Magon. After introductions, we congratulated them on this advance in autonomy, presented a letter from the CSC, and the items we brought with us. Next, the person chairing the Junta explained their new regional role: investigating complaints of alleged human rights abuse, resolving disputes between people in different autonomous counties, and distributing solidarity contributions in an equitable manner.

The four autonomous counties represented on the Junta together encompass the canadas (river valleys) east of the city of Ocosingo, extending into the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, and including the northern portion of that Reserve. This territory represents a very large part of Ocosingo County. Members of each autonomous county serve on a rotating basis, changing every fifteen days. The Chairperson rotates every six months.

As the Chairperson, Carlos, spoke, the significance of this new regional government became apparent. This Junta provides an indigenous alternative to the official (constitutional) county government of Ocosingo. Carlos specifically mentioned that the county government of Ocosingo referred cases to the Junta. I began to explore with him why a government supporter, for example, would want to come to a Zapatista Junta to resolve a dispute with a Zapatista or an independent and why the official government of Ocosingo County would refer cases to the Junta. His explanation reminded me of one reason why Zapatista supporters refer to the local government as the “bad government.”

According to Carlos, if a government supporter has a dispute with a
Zapatista or a member of an independent organization and he goes to Ocosingo to file a complaint in the lower court, the court first charges him a large fee just to file the complaint. According to an expert we spoke with, this fee is not required by law, but is part of the corruption (graft) associated with public office at the local level. If the complainant can pay the fee, he also must hire a lawyer because he does not understand how the courts work and, for an indigenous complainant, he usually has to hire a translator. This is a very expensive and inaccessible process for an indigenous peasant who lives near or below the poverty line in the Jungle! I seemed to remember that there are often many more “fees” required as the case proceeds through the lower court and also in order to win.

In sharp contrast, the Good Government Juntas are free to all who live within their jurisdiction and are conducted in the indigenous language of those who live in the region; a “good government.” Carlos continued to explain how the Ocosingo courts were cooperating. For example, if someone files a complaint for theft with the court in Ocosingo, the court notifies the defendant. If he refuses to show up in court, the court does not force a defendant to appear if he does not have any money, so it refers the case to the Good Government Junta. The court wants the dispute resolved so that conflict between the parties does not escalate. Violence has often resulted from lack of access to the court system. The Zapatista autonomous councils began to provide an alternative dispute resolution process. However, according to Marcos, their success has been mixed with respect to non Zapatistas living within their counties.

I remembered a conversation with a former president of one autonomous council regarding the administration of justice. “We resolve problems according to indigenous justice, not according to money like they do in Ocosingo,” he told me. The new Juntas will, therefore, rely on traditional indigenous concepts of justice to resolve disputes just as the autonomous councils have been doing for the last five years.

We received permission to photograph the murals on the inside of the Junta’s meeting space: an oval serpent ending in a caracol with corn of different colors inside the oval; and a giant hand holding interwoven ribbons of civil society and the serpent. A mural on the outside displayed the name of the Junta: Path of the Future.

The next day, we moved on to visit our sister county of San Manuel, still wondering why the notoriously anti Zapatista county administration of Ocosingo would cooperate with the Juntas. “They screw over us with their productive projects. They don’t need to use these cases to divide us,” one man told us. Translation: the government gives what they call “productive projects,” often cattle, to government supporters, thus giving them an economic advantage over Zapatista supporters since the Zapatistas refuse all government assistance. These projects keep the communities divided because the pro-government organizations can offer more economically than the Zapatista organization can offer. Such projects are part of the low-intensity war against the Zapatista movement.

The folks in San Manuel were somewhat cautious when it came to the other organizations in their valley. “The Ocosingo government is cooperating. We’ll wait and see what the other organizations here do.” This wait and see attitude seems realistic. The question is: How are the Zapatistas going to govern those who oppose their very existence; for example, the paramilitaries of Opdic who dwell in the same river valleys? Fortunately, those paramilitaries are in the minority.

It was during this conversation with the companeros in San Manuel that I began to “get it;” i.e, make a connection. I realized that the autonomous counties are exercising authority over everyone within the territorial boundaries of their county, Zapatistas and non Zapatistas alike. Although they have been doing that for some time, they have done so with varying degrees of success. Now, the Juntas will be passing judgment on actions taken by the autonomous counties if an appeal is sent to them and, importantly, on any party who refuses to resolve a problem at the level of the autonomous council! In that sense, the Good Government Juntas also perform an appellate function and are thus asserting administrative control over all of what they consider Zapatista territory. In other words, they are implementing the San Andres Accords, which granted indigenous peoples throughout Mexico control over their lands and territory, as well as the
right to self government (autonomy).