Payán and the war in Chiapas

Carlos Payán Velver.

Carlos Payán Velver, founder and former director of La Jornada, died on March 17, 2023, at the age of 94. Below, Hermann Bellinghausen recalls La Jornada’s response to the Zapatista Uprising.

By: Hermann Bellinghausen

The days of January 1994 that followed the indigenous insurrection on New Year’s Eve in Chiapas, were days that moved the world. The country’s political axis shifted; new coordinates, new interpretations, new words, new priorities. The burst was political, intellectual and media. Spontaneous masses demonstrated in the streets. The global outcry was huge. The self-satisfied government of Carlos Salinas de Gortari faced its worst nightmare on the opening night of its Free Trade Agreement with North America. Additionally, the international left woke up from the knockout in which the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union had left it.

A media bombshell! The most important newspapers and television stations in America and Europe were allowed to come, all the agencies, top-level observers. For La Jornada, directed by Carlos Payán Velver, it was a crucial hour: he turned it into a unique journalistic experience in the world. With globalization on the rise and the Internet emerging, Payán turned the newspaper into covering the uprising of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) with visionary clarity, commitment and a lot of audacity.

On Sunday, January 2, we woke up with the front page about the Uprising in Chiapas, with a devastating photo by Carlos Cisneros of the indigenous people in possession of the municipal palace of San Cristóbal de las Casas. The first day the reporters Rosa Rojas and Matilde Pérez and the photographer had traveled to Chiapas they interviewed Subcomandante Marcos and collaborated with Amado Avendaño, director of the local newspaper Tiempo, in giving a first-hand account of the unusual indigenous challenge.

Zapatistas in possession of the Municipal Palace. Photo: Carlos Cisneros, La Jornada.

The initial reaction of La Jornada, between embarrassment, admiration and rejection of the violent, tried to conjure, in its first editorial of the year, the ghost of Lucio Cabañas. And from the first minute he covered the news very well, which he did not agree to accompany the day before, since only three media directors were notified by the insurgents: Julio Scherer, from Proceso, Amado Avendaño, from Tiempo, and Carlos Payán, from La Jornada . Only the latter did not send an envoy to the uprising. The correspondent, Elio Henríquez Tobar, who by the way months before had given the world premiere of a guerrilla camp in Ocosingo and of some combat with the federal Army, was on vacation.

Events developed very quickly and for its edition on Monday the 3rd, La Jornada had taken a turn in favor of the uprisings, which would deepen in a few days. Payán made use of the entire newspaper and by the 4th he already had about 15 people there: photographers, reporters, chroniclers, correspondents, and all the house columnists on the subject. The pages that were needed.

The outburst and caution on the day 2 corrected, La Jornada immediately reached a high note in terms of coverage, discussion and documentation of the matter. It was the only major newspaper in the world that fully committed itself to the indigenous rebellion and placed the irreversible rise of indigenous peoples on its future path.

Friends and relatives say goodbye to Carlos Payán. Photo: José Carlo González.

The position of Payán, director of the orchestra, a communist for life, founded this historical turn. He understood that he did not need to understand everything to know that it had great significance. Only in the first two weeks of that January did it attract the most lucid or influential writers: Carlos Montemayor in the forefront, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Carlos Monsiváis (via For my mother, Bohemians), Fernando Benítez, Enrique Florescano, Luis Villoro, Antonio García de León, Luis Javier Garrido, Eraclio Zepeda, Elena Poniatowska, Homero Aridjis, Adolfo Gilly, Víctor Flores Olea, Arturo Warman, as well as the Spaniards Manuel Vázquez Montalbán and Manuel Vicent.

It’s easy to say that no one else proposed or achieved coverage like this, which would also be maintained and deepened informatively in the months and years to come. Not that we were very buoyant, but no paper was spared to also include the entire communiqués of the indigenous commanders and the long and widely read political-literary disquisitions of Subcomandante Marcos.

La Jornada won readers around the world, it became indispensable. It challenged the federal government and the armed forces head-on by giving voice and follow-up to the rebels and all the indigenous issues that gained prominence. Payán remained incorruptible, unyielding, enduring and a visionary, shoulder to shoulder with Deputy Director Carmen Lira and all the workers.

Newspaper materials were reproduced and translated halfway around the world. The explosive spread of the Internet found us sharp. Another success of Payán was to make electronic access to our pages free, unlike other media. Because, whatever, Chiapas was the issue. The assassinations of the presidential candidate and the national leader of the PRI would soon emerge. A convulsive year that projected La Jornada and its contents formidably.


Aware of the journalistic prowess of the newspaper he directed, Payán led the edition of a book, unavailable today, that brings together what was published only in the first 17 days of January: Chiapas. The uprising (La Jornada Ediciones, September 1994), with a prologue by Carlos Montemayor.

Over time, already a Senator of the Republic, Payán was a constant presence in Chiapas, as a member of the mediation commission between the treacherous government of Ernesto Zedillo and the rebels; He played a fundamental role in maintaining the truce between the parties, with open sympathy for the Zapatistas, who called him a teacher. He put his body in favor of peace.

Thanks to Captain Payán, our ship collectively achieved an exemplary work of modern journalism. He knew the risks. We are priority targets for military intelligence, he warned me at some point. He had to face tremendous pressures from power. No fear stopped him. Freedom of expression had scored somewhat formidable thanks to the lucidity, commitment and moral authority of Carlos Payán.

Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada, Monday, March 20, 2023, and 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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: