Régis Debray, one-time comrade of Che Guevara, goes to Chiapas to meet Sub-Commandante Marcos, who speaks for the Zapatistas.footnote

An indistinct trumpet from faraway in the middle of the night. This is how news spread from one hamlet to another, from valley to valley, by long sounds on the horn. Marcos and the mayor Moisés, ever cunning, sitting under a silk-cotton tree, look at each other, inquiring. Although only a metre away, I cannot distinguish their eyes. A second sounding. Then, the bell of La Realidad starts to ring. It is the village-camp tojolabal, where we chat nostalgically, under the huge tree. Electric lanterns light up here and there, sounds of motors, beacons to the side of the reten—the post of control, at: the entrance to the hamlet. The Indian commander, anxious, gets up, the small escort of insurgents huddles into a semi-circle. An incursion, art unexpected attack?

Two minutes later, Moisés returns. False alarm. It was only a Red Cross jeep bringing back the corpse of a young boy, a victim of anaemia. He was called Francisco, and was nine years old. Three days ago his family had taken him to the dispensary which is ten kilometres away, at the edge of the Zapatista zone. He will be buried here. Corn is increasingly scarce. Malnutrition is spreading throughout communities. A child died this morning. What does it matter since he was never really born? Among the indigenous people of Chiapas, who lack civil status, since a birth certificate is never issued, there is never a death certificate. Burials take place simply. Routinely.

Why then this sudden disturbance and this clinking of arms in the esplanades fringed by smart sheds with thatched or zinc roofs where chickens and dogs roam? In the last few weeks, the village security force has detected one or two attempts at infiltration by armed civilians. It is not now certain whether the government wants to add the martyr to the myth. It considers that to surround them and let them rot is less damaging to it than to exterminate. Still, the guardias blancas, the right-hand men of the big landowners, remain. One suspects that these landowners would pay dearly for Marcos’s skin. Abstractly, it would in fact be the most economical solution, which would be disguised as a settling of scores between rival leaders, or as a grim story of narcos.

Of the Zapatistas’ Chiapas, one thing must first be said: the guest goes there to meet the Sub-Commandante and, surprise, he finds indigenous people. Tzotzils, Chols, Tzeltals, Tojolabals, Zoques, ancient zombies become complete citizens, with or without their faces covered with red scarves. Anonymous rebels, organized in whole communities, over an area of many tens of thousands of square kilometres, from the cold high lands of the Ocosingo, which recall the landscape of the Auvergne, to the suffocating thickness of the Lacandona jungle, which is reminiscent of the humid Amazon. A territory which is half Switzerland, half tropical. A population, with its administration, its army, its safe-conducts, its regulations. Its municipios, its ejidos (communal territories), its milapas (corn fields or family parcels), its wooden amphitheatres built under the open sky for large gatherings, nicknamed Aguascalientes (warm waters), after the revolutionary convention of 1914. Its farmyards, its horses and cows. Expecting a band of guerrillas, one runs into a community—or, in this case, a mosaic of communities.

From New York, Paris and even ‘Mexico City’, one only sees the sons of Zapata through the keyhole of the camera: a Zorro with a black balaclava helmet, a cap with three stars, a brown jersey, crossed cartridge belts, a rucksack, a Che-like pipe—why these torn boots, this badly repaired cap, I ask Marcos. ‘Its more picturesque’, he answers with a wink. In such photographs, the foundation is lacking: the world of the Mayas, with its memories, its languages, its traditions, its ceremonies. With its wounds, its hunger, its new hopes. And this foundation changes everything. ‘Marcos’ is the interface. The media, that necessarily personalizes issues, sees only the Occidental ‘exterior’, as the symbolic star gains in force, and certainly his style, his fables and his personalities, which issue, however, from an Oriental and hidden ‘interior’.

Guérrillero or superstar? Neither one nor the other. A creative activist. The ezln (Zapatista Army for National Liberation) is not—anymore or yet—a guerrilla movement (despite having started as one ten years ago after the elitist model of foco, the armed vanguard). It has become the organization of self-defence for some tens of thousands of excluded people—of three million inhabitants, Chiapas has a million indigenous people. And the ‘Sub’ uses publicity, not as an aim, but a means. For him media action is Clausewitz’s war applied to newspapers: the political extended by other means. He has dealt some blows to the establishment, which returns them in full measure. As is natural.