SANTO TOMAS RESISTS
Twentyfive years guerrilla in Chiapas
Text, photos and video by Roberto Di Matteo
Photo editing by Marco Negri

Santo Tomas Resists

On 1 January 1994, NAFTA, the free trade agreement signed between the United States, Canada and Mexico, officially entered into force. That same day, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation occupied seven towns in the state of Chiapas, Mexico. From the town hall of San Cristobal de las Casas, Subcomandante Marcos issued the famous “Primera declaracion de la Selva Lacandona,” formally declaring war on Mexico’s central government and promising freedom, justice and democracy to all oppressed indigenous peoples.

America, Santo Tomas, Mexico 2018. An indigenous man sits infront of the red star: the logo of the Zapatista army.

Throughout 12 days the guerrillas, their faces covered with scarfs and balaclavas, fought the regular army, leaving a hundred dead on the field. In the end, then Mexican president Carlos Salinas had to come to terms with the insurgents.

America, Santo Tomas, Mexico 2018. Every male member of the community becomes a guerrilla as soon as he is able to use a rifle. Underneath the balaclava, there are often young teenagers, who know nothing but their own village.

There were no social networks in those days. All the same, the message of that armed, clandestine, anti-capitalist movement standing in defence of the poorest and the oppressed went viral.

The myth of the peasant rebelling against the multinational corporations, unbridled neoliberalism, exploitation and corruption spread like wildfire around the world. Work, land, housing, food, health, education, independence but above all freedom, democracy and justice became recurrent slogans and the Zapatista army became a symbol.

America, Santo Tomas, Mexico 2018. Indigenous children in the Zapatista communities do not go to school and many of them are unable to speak Spanish.

This year, exactly 25 years since the movement began, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) has changed profoundly. In Chiapas the five great caracoles (Zapatista self-ruled areas) are now acknowledged self-governing districts, though poorly tolerated.

America, Santo Tomas, Mexico 2018. The children of the Zapatista communities grow up with the knowledge that soon it will be their duty to carry on the fight for their land.

The Indigenous Government Council (CIG), although without resolving the problem of indigenous communities, has managed to gain widespread recognition and concessions to protect the ethnic minorities of Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Zoque, Tojolabal and Chol, of Maya origin.

 

America, Santo Tomas, Mexico 2018. In the house of a Chiapan campesino there are few objects of daily use and nothing else.

Every year, during the meetings of the “CIG Support Networks”, Chiapas is invaded by tourists and sympathisers from around the world to take part in “Zapatours”, radical-chic jaunts into the heart of the movement, complete with souvenirs and selfies in balaclavas..

America, Santo Tomas, Mexico 2018. The balaclava is the symbol of the Zapatista army. At the beginning it was used to hide one’s identity, but today it is simply a costume.

And what was founded as a no-global movement has ended up being globalised, becoming media-friendly and touristic. While the balaclavas and red scarves are no longer used to hide their identity, the campesinos continue to use them to claim membership in the movement.

America, Santo Tomas, Mexico 2018. The "chimneys" in oak wood are covered with soil and they slowly burn for weeks, releasing an acrid and pungent smell into the air.

It might almost seem that the revolutionaries have achieved their goal by conquering their corner of paradise in one of the most beautiful places in the world. But the reality is different. Outside the five large strongly militarised caracoles, there are about 2,000 other indigenous-occupied enclaves where everyday life takes place in a state of permanent guerrilla warfare, fighting for a piece of land or a watercourse in extreme poverty.

 

America, Santo Tomas, Mexico 2018. Whilst some women are working, one “mother” is in charge of taking care of all the children in the central hut.

This is the case of the Comunidad de Santo Tomas, a Tzeltal enclave settled on 200 hectares of untilled land 60 kilometers from San Cristobal. InsideOver ventured into the Lacandona Jungle, also known as the Selva Negra, to learn about the living conditions of this small indigenous community of some 500 people.

 

America, Santo Tomas, Mexico 2018. Every morning, the community life begins at dawn with a meeting in which the daily agenda is discussed; the President listens to anyone with a question while the secretary takes notes.

Here the days begin early and slowly. In the first light of dawn the men gather in the central square where the men keeping guard have kept a fire burning all night long. Before starting each activity, the assembly plans the day. It assigns the land to be cleared and cultivated, indicates the oak trees that will be turned into charcoal by each family, decides who will carry out special tasks, collects money for the cash fund and organises the collective expenditure.

America, Santo Tomas, Mexico 2018. This river is the main point of contention with the near cities. The survival of the community depends entirely on this watercourse, and the people are ready to defend it with their life.

There are no schools here. The children speak broken Spanish and their perception of the world is limited to the 200 hectares of land on which they live. There is a church, but it is almost always closed, since its officiant, the highly respected Juan Perez de La Cruz, was murdered in an ambush just a year ago. “His widow,” recount the guerrillas, “was forced to move with her children to the city where she lives by begging. But we’ve kept her hut. Because when we conquer this land, she will be entitled to a piece of it.”

 

America, Santo Tomas, Mexico 2018. On fields covered with rocks and dirt, local communities play basketball and organise tournaments with the other tribes.

This land, for which so much blood has been shed, in actual fact offers nothing. It is dry and stony, with a small stream trickling through it. The indigenous people cultivate corn and frijoles (corn and beans, Ed.). But every year the harvest is hardly enough to feed the community.

America, Santo Tomas, Mexico 2018. Corn, together with beans, is the main nourishment of the Indigenous populations in Chiapas

Some extra income comes from making charcoal in keeping with ancient Mayan rituals. But after a month’s work an average family is unable to bring home more than 1000 pesos, about 50 Euros, barely enough to buy sugar, coffee, soap and other bare necessities.

 

America, Santo Tomas, Mexico 2018. Little Juan had never seen a bearded man, nor had he seen a camera, or even heard a language different from Tzeltal.

Since it was founded, Santo Tomas has been attacked several times by the government military. On several occasions, they have tried in vain to completely evacuate the area. The former “gringo” owners (as the Americans are called here) also tried to evict the people by hiring mercenary commandos. The men tell of a two-day battle that forced women and children to fall back into the forest, won only thanks to faith in God.

 

America, Santo Tomas, Mexico 2018. Women take their babies with them while working during the entire period of breastfeeding. It is not unusual to see a Tzeltal woman holding a machete and carrying a baby on her back.

 

And the people’s living conditions are made even more difficult by the inhabitants and the authorities of the neighbouring municipalities, who harbour a deep hatred for them. Every now and then the police show up and demand protection money to leave them in peace. At the same time, ambushes by unidentified assailants are frequent.

America, Santo Tomas, Mexico 2018. The red scarf worn by many is also a Zapatista symbol.

The last unpunished murder dates back to 23 January of this year and brought mourning to Santo Tomas. The victim, Estelina López Gómez, was shot dead while leaving the community with her husband.

America, Santo Tomas, Mexico 2018. Santo Tomas territory is full of caves and ravines, where the indigenous people go to pray and offer food to Mother Earth.

Life here is incredibly hard but these guerrillas have no alternative. For them, giving up the struggle would mean death. There is no space in modern society for an indigenous people that lives by its ancient codes and rituals. Further, being part of an organized structure like the Zapatista Army helps them to believe in a cause and enables them to move forward with a faint hope for the future.

 

Text, photos and video by Roberto Di Matteo
Photo editing by Marco Negri