In the following account, a CrimethInc. agent describes a series of adventures on the road to the 2024 Zapatista Encuentro, a gathering celebrating thirty years since the uprising that established an autonomous zone in Chiapas.
Tomorrow, we will follow up with more reporting from the encuentro itself.
The banner in the above photograph welcomes people to the Zapatista encuentro, reading, “Land belonging to no one. Land belonging to all. Here we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the armed uprising against forgetting, against death, against destruction.”
“It would be safest if you went with the caravan.”
“The caravans always fall apart.”
We were asking about how to get to the Zapatistas’ New Year’s encuentro. Whether we asked at the anarchist social center, around the autonomous Panchos1 neighborhood in Mexico City, or by emailing the contacts listed on the Zapatista website, we always received one—or both—of these replies.
A gathering in rebel territory is always something special, but this year marked the 30th anniversary of the debut of the EZLN [Zapatista Army of National Liberation] in an armed uprising against NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994] and, more broadly, against capitalism itself.
Much has changed for the Zapatistas since those days. The charismatic Subcomandante Marcos has stepped away from both lens and pens. While they still defend their territorial autonomy, the armed aspect of the EZLN’s military operations has been outshined by the construction of schools, clinics, and a new politics for their people.2 In November, to the shock and dismay of radicals worldwide, the Zapatistas announced the dissolution of their autonomous municipalities, leading many to speculate that narco-capitalism and paramilitaries have become as much of an obstacle for the Zapatista project as the Mexican government and neoliberal megaprojects. However, one thing has not changed: their welcoming internationalism towards those in solidarity with their struggle for the land to be held in common by all who work it.
The GPS routes me through Mexico City’s glorietas and bulevards to what I’m told is the office from which the caravan will leave.
Except it’s not exactly an office. It’s not really a social center, either. Wait—I remember you! The Convergence Center? Is it really you??? It has to be—the snack station at the front, the registration tables for the buses, “Comrade, where’s the bathroom?” I knew it was you! It’s just been a minute. How long has it been? Since Seattle? Prague? Genoa? Cancún? J18, A16, J20? Too long, that’s for sure.
And you’re still full of backpacks. Look at all those backpacks! A recently landed extraterrestrial—this is an intergalactic encuentro, after all—here to register her UFO in the caravan might easily misunderstand the Zapatistas as a movement of 40-liter hiking packs that use humans as their workhorses.
Oh, I remember this part, too—my affinity group’s weird plan doesn’t fit in with the public-facing structure. That’s okay. Time to do what I always do: step into the densest mass of comrades standing around and shout my question into the void: “Is anyone else taking their own car?”
“…so we can, uh, coordinate?”
Even the alien knows what this means: it’s just me and the tour buses. Like a giddy, oblivious puppy in a parade of elephants.
“So, like, how often will the buses be stopping for gas?”
“Gas? We filled up. We won’t need to stop for gas.”
“But like, bathroom breaks?”
“There are bathrooms on the bus…”
The trip is 14 hours long. Mostly highway. I will need to stop for gas, and for relief. Will I lose the caravan?
“…but there is a truck stop where we will regroup because the caravans always fall apart. After that point, the highway can get a little hairy, so it would be safest if you went with the caravan. I’ll text you the name. They’re open 24 hours and have tamales and coffee.”
I gather the affinities and we’re off. I’ve never thought of the van as fast, but between our head start and the sloth with which the massive buses grind into gear, I figure we’ll make up for our refills and rest stops.
Besides spewing the road with all of my fancy LucasOil additive because I neglected to tighten down the oil pan screw, the first leg of the drive is fairly uneventful.
There are five of us from four different countries, so there’s a lot to talk about, whether up front with the pilot and the jam box or in the back lounging on the bed. The stories about revolts that have reached us across national borders. Secrets, traditions, and magic from our respective territories. This song, that movie. It’s a road trip.
There’s silence, too. The silence is good for a cigarette. And after the smoke, “There’s this other thing I don’t know if you know about…”
It’s 2 am, truck stop o’clock. About half of the tour buses pull in right after us. The other half are stuck behind an accident a hundred kilometers away, so we wait.
After a couple more hours, the sun is rising and I’ve drunk way too much coffee.
We’re still here.
They’re still stuck behind that accident.
“The caravans always fall apart.”
“I think we should just go on ahead. It’s light now, and I know somebody we can crash with in San Cristobal de las Casas. Who knows how long we’ll be stuck here waiting?” says an affinity who knows the route. Now the plan is to go to the registration site outside of San Cris on our own and wait for the caravan there.
On my phone:
“Hey, I’m with the human rights observers at Puente Chiapas. When you cross the bridge, stop and say what’s up. I’ve got some information for you.”
In the harsh light of day, our chatterboxes have wound down. It’s not unfriendly, but there’s a lot more grunting. We’ve been on the road for twelve hours now. The lack of conversation is offset by the gorgeous tropical wetlands, rivers, and majestic vistas that we zoom through while rounding the hills and valleys of Veracruz and Chiapas. Foggy clouds stretch over the canopies like the hammocks of God.
Will we make it to a gas station before we run out of fuel? There hasn’t been anything but road and jungle for a long time.
“Oh shit, look, it’s Puente Chiapas.”
“Nah, that’s not the bridge your friend meant,” says the affinity who knows the route.
“What do you mean? It says Puente Chiapas right there.”
“Yeah, but there’s another Puente Chiapas, closer to San Cris.”
It’s easy to convince me to give up looking for the human rights observation team and let my gaze wander back to the lush islands in the middle of the river crossed by the bridge. An hour later, my phone signal kicks in and I get a message from an hour earlier:
“Dude, I just saw your van cross the bridge. Why didn’t you stop?”
It was that Puente Chiapas. Opa.
Now it’s noon. We’ve been driving for 16 hours. Originally, we were supposed to arrive two hours ago, but instead, there are still a few hours left before we get to San Cris.
When we finally arrive, we spill out of the van and zombie crawl, each in a different direction: food, cigarettes, pharmacy. I take advantage of the solitude to siesta in the back of the van. My phone vibrates and I’m back:
“Hey, can you fit my two friends from Mexicali? The buses just left Puente Chiapas. The Mexicalis know where the buses are meeting up in San Cris.”
It’s time for an affinity group meeting.
“Can we fit two more in the back?”
“Shouldn’t we go crash at my friend’s? You’ve been driving forever.”
“Comrades, I too can drive. We should at least see what the buses’ plan is, because from here on, it’s small, rural roads and it would be safest if we went with the caravan.”
“If you can drive, then I’m OK cramming in the back with two more punks. I can also make another seat up front out of the jam box.”
“But the jam box!”
“OK, I can make it out of the snack crate.”
”But the snacks!!!”
We pick up the additional passengers and they tell us where to park. As soon as we pull in, the tour buses start arriving. Hundreds of backpacks trot out atop their human steeds. Out come the tortillas, the bagged beans, the queso and avocados and oranges. People pass around tobacco and ibuprofen along with the details of the sternly hashed-out meeting between the coordinators and the drivers.
“They’re waiting for one more bus to arrive.”
“The drive is only four hours, so we’d get there by 10.”
“They don’t know if it’s safe because there were reports of shooting between two communities on either side of the road we’d be taking.”
“It’s either drive up tonight or find somewhere for everyone on the buses to sleep. That’s a lot of people.”
“Is that even fair to the drivers? They’ve been at it for almost 24 hours now.”
In our group, we reach a consensus. We’re exhausted—but if the buses go, we go.
The last bus arrives and we’re off.
Right away, at the first turn off of the road out of town, a Mexican military checkpoint photographs each vehicle in the caravan, including our out-of-place eyesore of a van. This happens again twice over the following hour. The sun is setting and as we hit the 24-hour mark from the time of our departure, we’re smack in the middle of the buses at a steady 10 miles an hour. Lento, pero avanzamos.
We pass through tiny remote villages on roads with potholes big enough to be hot tubs. It’s poor here, really poor, and I try to wrap my head around what kind of profit margin could possibly make it worth the gas, let alone the wear on the vehicle, to deliver basic goods to these sparsely populated distant reaches. These areas are clearly not served by capitalism. As I’m calculating gas prices and soda sales for villages of a hundred, a crisp, clean sign with balloons attached to it catches my eye. But it’s no birthday party—it’s a meeting for someone’s Herbalife club, the food supplement pyramid scheme.
“Oh yeah, those are everywhere in Mexico.” One of the affinities tells me, responding to my audible gasp.
But this isn’t just Mexico. We’ve already passed signs for one Zapatista caracol: “Territory in rebellion against the Mexican government.” And Herbalife isn’t the same as Pokemon, BTS, or whatever the latest capitalist consumer fad may be—it’s a pyramid scheme that turns the exploited and desperate into agents extending the profit-driven logic of their own exploitation. Sure, there are countless capitalist evils you could plug into this equation. But we are talking about the juxtaposition of one of humanity’s longest-standing current examples of anti-capitalist struggle with an industrial supplement scheme that rewards whoever can most effectively prey on those around them by recruiting them to be salespeople—here on the very land that the Zapatistas fight to hold in common and whose lush, bountiful, organic harvest sustains their autonomy from the capitalist marketplace. I know which side of that conflict I’m on, and my allegiance is anything but casual.
As the contrast between the half-finished cinderblock buildings and the cheery Herbalife promotional materials recedes out of sight, I vow my own private war on Herbalife. I am a Vandal, and Herbalife is my Roman Empire.
It’s midnight. 28 hours since we departed Mexico City. We must be close, right?
“We were supposed to be there two hours ago. Que pedo guey.” Under her breath, barely louder than a whisper.
“Oh good, another checkpoint.” I grunt.
This time, the soldiers are caught off guard, scrambling to get out the cameras and stop the buses. They must have been napping.
The soldiers take one look at our little van and urge us to get out of their way so they can document the caravan, which they assume consists of buses alone. Why would there be a single van in the midst of a convoy of buses, anyway?
I cackle deliriously. Fine then! Hasta la vista, baby!
We pull over down the road and wait for the buses to get through whatever bullshit the military is subjecting them to.
After the buses pull up and park, it’s time for another meeting.
“So, how far are we now?”
I debate in my head whether to double the four hours to eight or to add fourteen to four, making it eighteen, since our supposedly fourteen-hour trip has already taken twenty-eight hours. I split the difference and figure that we’re thirteen hours out.
“There’s a caracol just outside of town that can host us. We’ll keep going in the morning.”
“OK, we’ll follow you.”
“It’s only 20 minutes away.”
It takes an hour, but that’s all right. I’m on my fourth wind from the euphoria of evading the military control and I’m fully saddled in the seat of time’s curves. Giddy-up.
As we pull into the caracol, signs inform us that we are entering rebel territory in defiance of Mexico’s bad government. Murals of masked guerrillas welcome us, declaring “it is preferable to die with honor than to live with the shame of having your life dictated by tyrants.” The residents spring into action, barely even wiping the sleep out of their eyes, opening up the bathrooms, dormitories, and the collective store known as “the seed of the rainbow.” One of our hosts recommends the very parking spot under a tree that I was eyeballing when we pulled in. I like it here.
Apparently, a tumultuous storm followed the aforementioned events. Everyone is talking about it in the morning, but I seem to have slept right through it. In a shadowy, muddy shack, a team of women are cooking up the tastiest coffee I’ve ever had in the largest cauldron I’ve ever seen. It’s free.
We pull out with the buses and bounce over four more hours of speed bumps before pulling in through lines of Zapatista soldiers standing at attention on either side of the road. Each soldier is suited in boots, green cargo pants, a brown long-sleeve shirt, a red bandana, a black balaclava, and a green cap. This goes on for at least a kilometer—either an impressive welcome or a sophisticated security system to deal with unwanted arrivals. For the final few hundred meters, we’re surrounded by bright, colorful murals on either side of the road, depicting Zapatista life, history, and values.
We pull in near the entrance of the caracol and park the van.
I exhale. We made it.
The first thing we have to do is register. At the registration table, they ask what collective I am with. The compas in charge of registration have heard of CrimethInc.; they ask if I am there to provide counterinfo coverage of the event. I’ve thought about it, even discussed it with the podcast collective, but after they told me I would have to attend an orientation, the 36 hours of driving caught up with me. “No, that’s alright.”
Next, we have to find a place to park and rest. We are told that the internationals have dormitories in another caracol, 20 minutes away… “20 minutes.” I have not come all this way to go on driving. We snag a parking spot between the buses and Zapatista family camping. Over the following days, soldiers in balaclavas will guard my van every night. It doesn’t need guarding, but it’s a generous gesture. Thank you!
The caracol hosting the encuentro is relatively new—only three years old. But in only three years, the compas have made a lot of progress. The caracol has ten kitchens—again, with the largest pots you’ve ever seen—that stay busy cooking beans and rice over wood fires. There is an autonomous healthcare building, dormitories with bunk beds, all the showers you could possibly hope for, and bathrooms. I don’t remember ever waiting in line for the bathroom at any point during the whole encuentro.
The land is on a hilltop nestled among other Lacandon peaks. In the morning, mist settles into the trees like cotton candy strung between your fingers. It is green everywhere, and at night the sky glitters with stars. The center of the festivities is a field, about the size of four football fields side by side in a row. The field is surrounded by benches and hundreds of brand new bicycles under tarps. On one end of the field, there are basketball and volleyball courts, and on the other end of the field, a stage.
In front of the stage, there is a memorial for martyrs who died in struggle. It’s adorned with branches, flowers, candles, and messages. To the side of the stage is an area for musicians, with a 1970s-Jamaican-style gaggle of speakers frankensteined together by Chiapas’ most brilliant and resourceful sonidista. During the day, the field is filled with theater—mostly morality plays conveying warnings about selling the land to speculators, the honor of rebellion against the bad Mexican government, and stories about the legacy of resisting colonialism and capitalism. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen theater performed on a stage that is so many times larger than the area for the audience. The scale alone gives pause.
Toward sunset, there are speeches from the stage and military formations on the field. The soldiers are not displaying firearms, however—each is equipped with two batons and a machete.
The largest military ceremony takes place on January 1, marking thirty years to the day since the EZLN launched their first military operation, seizing San Cristobal de las Casas, proclaiming territorial autonomy and declaring war on the Mexican government. After the military ceremonies, there is music! Cumbias, rancheras, mariachis. The soldiers dance all night long, a sea of bobbing green caps.
I only saw one EZLN soldier partially raise his balaclava to smoke a cigarette. Most smoked through their masks.
As the encuentro proceeds, I hear more and more Mayan spoken. The speeches and theater pieces are in Spanish, but all the conversation around me is in Maya. It drives home that the anniversary encuentro isn’t just a commemorative event. The caracoles and Zapatistas communities may all be located within the same state of Chiapas, but, as our journey showed me, they are in remote pockets of the mountains that are difficult to reach. The encuentro is a rare chance for the participants in the Zapatista project to gather as a whole—to share, to encounter each other, to commune.
Afterwards, someone tells me that the Mexican media focused on how small the gathering was in comparison with previous years. Perhaps this is a result of waiting to publish the invitation until just a week before New Year’s. On the other hand, by any measure, it was a huge event. Thousands of people from dozens of countries attended. Worried speculation surrounds the recent Zapatista communiqués about their civil-political reorganization. I can’t shed any light on what this process will bring—I promised that my conversations in Chiapas would stay in Chiapas.
But I can tell you this: the Zapatista project is far from over, and a new year has just begun.
Los Panchos (Francisco Villa (Pancho Villa) Popular Fronta, FPFV) is a sort of urban corollary to the Zapatistas. Named after the other famous Mexican revolutionary, the Panchos also launched their project in 1994, taking over land on the outskirts of Mexico City and establishing territorial autonomy in which police are excluded, collective economics comprise a significant part of life, and people practice horizontal politics. While not anarchists, they have shown solidarity to anarchists in heightened episodes of struggle, like the 2006 siege on autonomously held Atenco. For more information about Los Panchos in English, you could start here. ↩
The Sixth Declaration of the Selva Lacandona summarizes the events via which the Zapatistas burst onto the world stage: “We grew tired of exploitation by the powerful, and then we organized in order to defend ourselves and to fight for justice. In the beginning there were not many of us, just a few, going this way and that, talking with and listening to other people like us. We did that for many years, and we did it in secret, without making a stir. In other words, we joined forces in silence. We remained like that for about 10 years, and then we had grown, and then we were many thousands. We trained ourselves quite well in politics and weapons, and, suddenly, when the rich were throwing their New Year’s Eve parties, we fell upon their cities and just took them over. And we left a message to everyone that here we are, that they have to take notice of us. And then the rich took off and sent their great armies to do away with us, just like they always do when the exploited rebel—they order them all to be done away with. But we were not done away with at all, because we had prepared ourselves quite well prior to the war, and we made ourselves strong in our mountains. And there were the armies, looking for us and shooting their bombs and bullets at us, and then they were making plans to kill off all the indigenous at one time, because they did not know who was a Zapatista and who was not. And we were running and fighting, fighting and running, just like our ancestors had done. Without giving up, without surrendering, without being defeated.” ↩