Autonomous Municipalities and 40 years of resistance

Bishop Samuel Ruiz. Photo: AP

Juan Trujillo Limones

“We clearly told the government in 1994 that the people are going to rule in Chiapas,” commented the indigenous Tojolabal Aurelio on that summer morning, while he mixed the cement for repairing the wall of the secondary school in Vicente Guerrero autonomous municipality. Last August 17, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) communicated the creation of seven new Caracoles and four new autonomous municipalities. How is this process understood in the recent history of Chiapas? It’s about a reality that comes from decades of social transformations that interlace politics, religion and the indigenous campesino world. Remembering it is to understand autonomy.

Between 1968 and 1978 a catechist movement was consolidated in the Highlands (los Altos) of Chiapas with the entry of liberation theology. Social mobilization was proof of that, starting with the religious networks woven in the communities and organization of the 1974 Indigenous Congress. [1]

Campesinos of the land seekers movement autonomously won and defended their rights through peaceful struggle. The incorporation of extensions of land into the ejido system permitted the defense of communal land. Thus, communal authorities were established that, by distributing lands, not only allowed equal rights, but also assemblies for balancing the communities against internal and external conflicts.

The social organizations that formed were directed and often created by a group of catechists. On other occasions, it was not necessarily indigenous religious people, but rather highly politicized people with defined objectives and goals.

In the Tsotsil zone of los Altos, like also in the Tojolabal, Tseltal, Zoque and Chol regions of the Lacandón Jungle, the mobilization led thousands of indigenous to struggle for land in organizations like ANCIEZ, OCEZ, CIOAC or Quiptic ta Lecubtesel [2], despite repression from ranchers, landholders, finqueros (estate owners) and governments through their white guards, police and armies.

Although during the decades of the 70s and 80s the governments closed off institutional paths of struggle for land and other rights, the mobilizations of organizations sought, in the beginning, peaceful and autonomous forms for improving the prevailing undignified living conditions.

The response from the state and federal governments was to apply palliative containment measures to the campesino demands and, in most cases, counterinsurgency measures, repression and incarceration of indigenous religious and social leaders.

The “preferential option for the poor” was a radical effort by the San Cristóbal Catholic Diocese to support thousands of communities. The indigenous translated it as a struggle for life that was balanced with ideas about salvation and liberation. The political line of the indigenous religious [leaders], although some could not or would not see it or try to stop it, was drawn towards the transformation of social structures.

This required that the actions would travel beyond their borders to enter the region’s Ladino cities. In the municipal capitals and in Tuxtla [Gutiérrez] are where the procedures of legalization, distribution, purchase and sale of land were found. The diocese had to articulate a political line and it adopted more radical positions for the defense of rights and recuperation of lands. It was not a temporary statement or decision; rather, it was a struggle backed by the impulse of the suffering campesino reality. The arbitrary actions of the government and the finqueros (estate owners) were premeditated ones that resulted in incarcerations, attacks and massacres. The government sought to disqualify social organizations and the diocese so that they would abandon this path.

Between 1968 and 1988, indigenous language and culture were the channels with which the Maya worldview (cosmovisión) appealed to the diocese, activists and guerrillas. The politicization of the indigenous peoples came not only with the impulse of the 1974 Congress, but also and fundamentally with the demand for land and the hope to free themselves from the power and domination of the estate system that, although degraded, still had strength.

At the end of the decade of the 80s, the institutional paths had been closed, because they were just filters that exhausted social struggles. To strengthen the communities, Bishop Samuel Ruiz understood that it was essential to have deacons (who would carry out almost all the priestly work). By 1993, there were 7, 822 catechists and 422 candidates from 2, 608 places. A little later, there were already 311 permanent deacons, whose process consolidated the birth not only of the native church, but also currently, the autonomous one.

The 1994 armed uprising of the EZLN and the gradual installation of autonomous municipalities are only the effects of complex forms of exercising freedom and life through civilian, ejido, spiritual and military authorities that come from more than 40 years of insubordination and popular resistance. The current summer dawn, with seven new Juntas de Buen Gobierno (Good Government Juntas), supposes a new stage in the indigenous history of Mexico.


  1. The 1974 Indigenous Congress was organized by the Catholic Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas after the governor of Chiapas asked Bishop Ruiz to organize a celebration in honor of the anniversary of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, the first bishop of San Cristóbal, who advocated against enslaving the indigenous peoples. Bishop Ruiz invited leftist organizers from cities in other Mexican states do outreach for the Congress in the indigenous communities and, later, to hold capacity building workshops during the Congress. Some of the organizers stayed afterwards to work with indigenous communities on establishing campesino organizations that would advocate for the needs of their constituencies.
  2. Quiptic ta Lecubtesel is the Tseltal name of a large and influential campesino organization in the Cañadas (Canyons) of the Lacandón Jungle east of the city of Ocosingo; its founding came shortly after the 1974 Indigenous Congress. Quiptic later became part of ARIC, ANCIEZ, and then the EZLN. In English Quiptic ta Lecubtesel means United for our Strength!


Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada

Saturday, August 7, 2019

Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: