Zapatista autonomous justice

A mural  on the front of the Good Government Junta's offices in La Garrucha includes the image of Francisco Gomez, one of the EZLN's early organizers in this Zone. He dies in the bloody battle of Ocosingo in January 1994.

A mural on the front of the Good Government Junta’s offices in La Garrucha includes the image of Francisco Gómez, one of the EZLN’s early organizers in this Zone. He died in the bloody battle of Ocosingo in January 1994.

By: Luis Hernández Navarro

The notoriety that the Zapatista armed uprising acquired in the mass communications media during its first years has diminished noticeably. The rebels have stopped being daily news. There is one who even announces its extinction with approval.

Of course, that’s not true. The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) continues being a very relevant political force inside and outside of the country. However, the attention that the glitter of their guns attracted has been diluted before the epic of constructing from below and without asking permission, against all odds, another world.

Many books, theses and reports –some very good– were written about the indigenous insurrection of the Mexican southeast. Very few have been elaborated about the rebel feat of constructing a government and a system of autonomous justice in a broad territory under their control. Although thousands of people have visited and lived in the Zapatistas communities for varied lapses of time, literature that tells what happens there does not abound.

Certainly, there are some very notable works that give an account of the avatars of the rebel education project, from their experiences with collective organization to production on occupied lands or of the impact of their autonomic project on the struggles of the Indian peoples. Nevertheless, compared with the intellectual boom that accompanied the armed uprising, those that analyze and document day-to-day self-government are rather scarce.

One of those books is Zapatista autonomous justice: Tzeltal jungle zone, from Doctor Paulina Fernández Christlieb. It’s not just one more work, but rather by far the most complete and documented investigation about the way in which justice is imparted in four Zapatista municipios. [1]

Zapatista autonomous justice: Tzeltal jungle zone is a collective work with collectives, which gathers the voices of the rebel support bases. Very far from a classic academic essay, the book makes a passionate X-ray of the construction of alternative government and justice institutions born from the entrails of the rebel communities, a countercurrent to the logics of power.

Those institutions, already present in the January 1, 1994 Uprising and in the laws that it produced, started to take a finished form because of a government betrayal. On February 16, 1996, the federal government signed the San Andrés Accords on Indigenous rights and culture with the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN). Nevertheless, the Mexican State as a whole (its three powers) betrayed its word and refused to convert them into laws. Far from shrinking in fright, the rebels decided to put them into practice, without the restrictions that the ones negotiated obliged.

They have done it, above all, within the autonomous territory established on the thousands of hectares occupied at the beginning of 1994, and distributed to work for the collective benefit. Three administrative spaces have been constructed in this territory in dispute: the communities, the Zapatista Rebel autonomous municipios (MAREZ) and the Good Government Juntas. Their jurisdictions are differentiated by the complexity of the problems that each one of them must solve. That is where justice is exercised, required not only by the rebels, but also, surprisingly, by the non-Zapatistas. Zapatista autonomous justice: Tzeltal jungle zone narrates and analyzes that challenge.

Paulina Fernández confesses that her book has a double proposition. The first is to show the ability of the Zapatista indigenous peoples to construct a project of autonomous life , government and justice, an alternative to the dominant ones in Mexico, on this space in dispute.

The academic idealization of the finca is in style. Some studies present it as a “harmonic” living space between housed serfs and landowners. Through the testimonies of those who suffered the savage exploitation of this productive unit and of their descendants, Zapatista autonomous justice: Tzeltal jungle zone de-mystifies this vision.

“For those who were born and worked on those fincas –Paulina Fernández writes–, what is still important to those old ones that were treated like animals, are the whip lashings that they received as punishment. There are also the more than 12-hour days without pay and the kilometers between the finca and the city where they had to go and from where they had to carry cargo on their backs.”

From that humiliating experience, from the life they came from on the fincas, from the abuse of women, was born the courage and the obligation to change things, the will to rebel against an order not only unjust, but also undignified.

In the midst of an era of soft coups against progressive governments in Latin America, of disenchantment with institutional politics on fringes of the population that are broader every day and of the sharpening of the policies of dispossession against the commons, the experience narrated and analyzed in Zapatista autonomous justice: Tzeltal jungle zone acquires enormous relevance. What the Zapatistas narrate in the book are not abstract ideas to fulfill, but rather another world that is being constructed.

Zapatista autonomous justice: Tzeltal jungle zone is an essential book, not only for comprehending what Zapatismo is today, but also what the struggle for emancipation can be.

[1] The four autonomous Zapatista municipios in the Tzeltal jungle zone are: Francisco Gómez, San Manuel, Ricardo Flores Magón and Francisco Villa. Their Caracol, or headquarters, is located in La Garrucha.


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee

2 Comments on “Zapatista autonomous justice

  1. do you have a website, or can you give me an address where i can get more information about the autonomous villages? thanks

    • The Zapatista autonomous communities do not have a website specifically about them. When there is a seminar sponsored by the EZLN, the comandantes often describe life and the advances made in the autonomous communities. If you have specific questions, I can try to answer in an email.

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