The Zapatista Caracoles and Good Governments: The Long Walk to Autonomy

By Paul Chatterton
April 25, 2007

Outside the old school hut in centre of the Caracol, we waited while the Good Government Junta prepared itself for our visit. ‘Sorry we are so few today’ one of three men said as they showed us in to the office, ‘but two of our compañeros aren’t here at the moment. They’ve had to attend business in their villages’. We sat down around a cluttered table in the Caracol ‘the Whirlwind of our world’, home of the office of the Good Government Junta of the Morelia zone, named ‘The Hope of Our Rainbow’. Handshakes, smiles and emphatic greetings precede these encounters – ‘It’s a pleasure to greet visitors form overseas. We are very happy to meet you. Sorry if we seem disorganised but we are fairly new here and just learning the system’. Lying on the table in front of us is a book in German about the Zapatista struggle left by the last international visitors to the Caracol, and several solidarity posters and calendars in Catalan and Italian adorn the walls. ‘What’s your request?’ the president of the good government said, taking out a pen from his shirt pocket and finding a new page in his note pad.

And so goes a typical encounter between the Zapatista’s year old autonomous good governments and the outside world. This is the latest development of their long walk towards autonomy which took place on 8 August 2003 when the Zapatistas officially declared the death of the old zone centres, the ‘Aguascalientes’, and the birth of the ‘Caracoles’ and ‘las Juntas del Buen Gobierno’, the Good Government Juntas, or JBG for short. In what follows, we explain a bit more about what these latest developments mean.

The Caracoles and Good Government Juntas

The Good Government Juntas represent both the poetic, populist and the practical nature of the Zapatista struggle to build workable alternatives of autonomy locally, link present politics to traditional ways of organising life in indigenous communities, and contrast with the ‘bad government’ of official representational politics in Mexico City. The Caracoles, meaning conch shell, refer to the Mayan legend of the upholders of the sky. According to this legend, the gods who made the world did a good job on the earth but didn’t have time to finish the sky. So, four gods returned and placed themselves at the four corners of the world to hold the sky in place. However, they often became distracted in their work and so one god held watch, never sleeping and carrying a caracol to waken the others if evil fell on the earth. The upholder subsequently taught men and women how to use the caracol to alert others to evil in the world.

These new structures are natural extensions of the Zapatista struggle for a number of reasons. First, they extend the autonomous infrastructure of schools, clinics, production workshops and shops which the Zapatistas have been building over the last ten years. Second, they are a response to frustrations and disappointments with attempts to secure indigenous rights in the national constituion. Here, the Zapatistas have attempted to work with civil society to change the country’s indigenous law. This process started back in 1996 with the signing of the San Andres Accords and ended in 2001 when Congress opted for a watered down version of it which omitted the rights of indigenous groups to control their land and resources. 330 complaints against the inadequacy of this law were thrown out by the Supreme Court in September 2002, signalling the end of the last hope for a negotiated solution. Enter the Caracoles and the Juntas and the blossoming of structures of autonomous government and the fulfilment of their demands for indigenous rights, whether sanctioned by the government of not.

As Subcommandante Marcos, the movement’s Mestizo military leader, commented: ‘With the creation of the Caracoles and the Good Government Juntas, the Zapatistas decided to put the San Andre’s Accords into practice and to demonstrate, in action, that we wanted to be part of Mexico. It also reflects that the struggle has become as political as military. It’s long been recognised that it is in the area of self organising and improving the quality of life on the ground, and not in armed struggle, where the Zapatistas have had great successes.’

So how does this new system work? The Caracoles are the physical spaces – a bit like the seats of government or the parliaments of each zone. As Marcos explains, ‘they will be like doors for going into the communities and for the communities to leave. Like windows for seeing us and for us to look out. Like speakers for taking our word far, and for listening to what is far away. But, most especially, for reminding us that we should stay awake and be alert to the righteousness of the worlds’. The Caracoles choose their own names and identify themselves by the ethnic groups they represent and speak for. The five Caracoles which represent the five Zapatista zones of the north, highlands, jungle, border and mountain are as follows:

• Zone La Realidad of the Tojolabales, Tzotziles, Mames and Tzeltales – Los Caracoles del Mar de nuestros suenos (The Caracol of the sea of our dreams)

• Zone Morelia of the Tojolabales, Tzotziles and Tzeltales – Torbellino de nuestras palabras (Whirlind of our words)

• Zone La Garrucha of Tzeltales – Resistencia hacia un nuevo amanecer (Resistance for a new dawn)

• Zone Roberto Barrios of Choles, Zoques and Tzeltales – El Caracol que habla para todos (The Caracol that speaks for all)

• Zone Oventik of Tzotziles and Tzeltales – Resistencia y rebeldia por la humanidad (Resistance and rebellion for humanity)

Each Junta has a ‘house’ in the Caracol which is clearly identifiable. Each Junta also has equally poetic names. The Junta in the Morelia zone for example is called ‘The Hope of Our Rainbow’ (La Esperanza de Nuestra Arcoiris).

Each Junta represents a number of the Rebel Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities, or MARZ for short. These are like an autonomous version of county councils in the UK and each zone consists of about five or six of them. Each autonomous municipality is run by an autonomous council, ‘consejo autonoma’, and people are nominated onto them for about two or three years. Where these autonomous councils are located, and how civil society can contact them, has become much clearer. Visiting Zapatista communities one is now aware that attached to the door of a prominent building, perhaps an old church, ranch house or government school, will be a sign stating that it is the office of the autonomous municipality where you can visit the autonomous council.

The Juntas refer to teams made up of delegates from the various autonomous councils of the zone which form something like a rotating cabinet. There are usually about 5 teams made up of one or two delegates from each of the autonomous councils, who take it in turn to form the Junta at the Caracol. With five teams, each is able to have one week on and four weeks off duty from the Junta.

The key innovation is that this system of government is rotational. Hence it is not the people or personalities that endure but the functions they fulfil and pass on to others. It is also cumulative and collective as the delegates have to learn how to govern and pass on the collective knowledge and information to the next team. All and any agreements reached by the team currently running the Junta, then, must be respected by all other incoming teams. At the heart of the Juntas is the Zapatista idea of ‘governing by obeying’ – that governing is about listening and responding not dictating. At first, due to such rapid changes, the system seemed chaotic and unworkable. But it is seems to have brought a number of advantages.

Ensuring Balanced Fair, Development

So what do the Juntas do? Their main function is to counteract unbalanced development and mediate conflicts between the autonomous municipalities and communities. They do this in a number of ways. They provide a mechanism to deal with denouncements and protests against them, to monitor if common laws are being fulfilled. They allow a way to deal with, evenly distribute and monitor the increasing number of external requests for visits, projects and research from civil society which the Zapatistas are facing. In the Oventic Caracol alone, in one year they had dealt with 2,921 persons from other countries and with 1,537 from Mexico. They register all Zapatista based co-operatives, associations and producers to reduce the growing number of people posing as Zapatistas, and in the face of increasing numbers of people impersonating Zapatistas to illegally extract funds from civil society, they act as a contact point to verify who is, and is not, a member of a Zapatista community.

Each Junta also levies a ‘brother tax’ of 10% of the total costs of all projects undertaken in their zone. This is levied mainly due to the uneven distribution of funds received across Zapatista communities. For example, in 2004 the five Caracoles had an income of $12.5 million Mexican pesos (about US$1 million), but most went to the most well-known and accessible (Oventik and La Realidad). Hence any autonomous municipality or community receiving money has to pay 10% to the Junta which it then earmarks to another place which hasn’t received any funding. This tax, then, balances the external money which the Zapatistas receive and helps pay for the expenses of the Junta. Finally, the Juntas organise rotas of volunteer interns to run the zone hospitals, schools and workshops. People are keen to do it to benefit the wider community. The Juntas supports them with food, travel, shoes and clothes but are not paid a wage or given money.

The Juntas have not replaced other pre-existing structures. Above the Juntas still sits the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee (CCRI) which overseas them to prevent corruption, intolerance and injustice. And below them the autonomous municipalities still keep control over most daily affairs including justice, health, education, housing, land, work, food, commerce and culture.

Good and Bad Governments, Living Side by Side

There is strong sense of political worlds living side by side in the mountains of southeast of Mexico. This is evident as one drives round the torturous roads of mountainous Chiapas. Signs erected by the Chiapas State Government stand at most corners declaring ‘we are working for the future’ outlining programmes of work for education, health and water. Evidently, presidential elections are soon. By the side of the road other signs can also be seen, with a very different, if not more poetic, type of government propaganda. One sign reads: ‘Welcome to Zapatista territory’. There’s always bread for everyone, to light up the table. Education to feed thoughts. Health to startle the dead. Land to sow the future. Roofs to shelter hope and work to dignify our hands. The Zapatista Rebellious Autonomous Municipalities’. Territory, as well as hearts and minds, are being carved up. But who to believe and listen to? The answer is in the results on the ground.

Because the Zapatistas recognise they share land, resources and communities with non-Zapatistas, the Juntas are also a way of mediating between autonomous and government communities. (The non Zapatistas are usually called Pri-sters, Panistas or Peredistas to refer to supporters of Mexico’s main political parties, the PRI, PAN and PRD). As Marcos said: “The Juntas were created in order to attend to everyone, to Zapatistas, to non-Zapatistas and even to anti-Zapatistas. They were created in order to mediate between the authorities and the citizens, and between authorities and different areas and hierarchies.” These links are crucial in a place like Chiapas. Strong social bonds are the hallmark of the indigenous communities there, dating to the pre-Hispanic era. These continue today. Even if a community is divided into Zapatistas and non-Zapatistas, it will often share the same school, church and religious festivals.

Rather than emphasising differences then, the Zapatistas have created a system of government which treats everyone as equal. The Juntas say that what they offer which is different to the state government is resolution through dialogue. They seek to resolve and not simply punish crimes. This recourse to dialogue through the Juntas seems to have helped reduce conflicts between different groups. A recent commentary in the Rebeldia magazine in Mexico called the Juntas a way to reconstruct the social fabric which had been devastated by war and attacks on the poor by the rich. The Juntas are literally at war against the war all around us. They suggest that thousands of people are involved in an intense process of collective learning, of building the future in the present.

Many goods and services are used by Zapatista and non-Zapatista communities alike. For example, many of the autonomous clinics are heavily used by government supporters, mainly because they are simply cheaper, often the only facility in remote areas, and the only places where the health promoters talk the local language, such as Tojolabal or Tzeltal, rather than just Spanish. Many indigenous people are also reluctant to go to government hospitals as they are expensive, are poorly treated or subject to racism. Many of the Juntas also undertake mediation in legal disputes, land registration, marriages, births or deaths. They do this cheaper and without the usual bribery, corruption and bureaucracy which is the lifeblood of local government in Mexico. In many communities, it is the Juntas who are seen as the most useful and neutral organisation to turn to. They also try to be balanced, hence not granting impunity to their own while punishing others. Between the state and federal governments and the Juntas, then, there seems to be a growing mutual respect and recognition of their respective jurisdictions.

Advancing towards the Future, in Silence

In many ways the Zapatista struggle started 500 years ago with the arrival of the Spanish. It also started in 1910 when Emiliano Zapata led his peasant army of Morelos into the civil war, in 1968 during the massacre of 600 students at Tlatlolco in Mexico City, in 1983 when the EZLN was formed deep in the Chiapas jungle, and in 1994 when they rose up capturing six towns and occupying lands throughout the state. Maybe we can never judge when it really started, but we can see that the struggle for autonomy and self-government is constantly being reinvented.

Compared to the warfare and outrage ten years ago, the Zapatistas continue to advance slowly and silently. Civil society moves on to other struggles in Palestine, Iraq, Venezuela, Sudan. But Chiapas continues to offer us a model of good government which works and can be clearly differentiated from the distant, corrupt and bureaucratic workings of state and federal government. Apparently living in silence inside their conch shells, the autonomous municipalities continue to grow internally, providing lessons of autonomy and self management. This fragile experiment continues to be the patient work of thousands of hands.

In many ways a dual power structure is emerging, which could bring it into conflict with the state, military and corporations. But this is not their aim. For many, the creation of parallel structures of government by the Zapatistas is part of the wider disintegration of Mexico as a nation which has been happening for many years. The Zapatistas are keen to point out that rather than promoting this disintegration, they are part of its reconstruction. The Zapatistas are keen to tell us that ‘asking we walk’, that there are no blueprints for this journey. That it might be a long hard journey, but at least it is the one they chose.

Amongst all this ambiguity and uncertainty of what the future holds for the Caracoles and the Good Governments, its worth giving Marcos the last word as he watched them being built: ‘It has suddenly occurred to me that these men and women do not appear to be building a few houses. It seems as if it is a new world which is being built in the middle of all this bustle. Perhaps not… but perhaps yes…’

This article is written by XXX and Paul Chatterton from the Kiptik Collective (see who have been working with Zapatista communities since 2000 in water, health and art.

Dr Paul Chatterton lectures at the School of Geography, University of Leeds. His research interests include urban culture (focusing on youth cultures of resistance, and regeneration policies), protest and social movements, and sustainable and international development (with a focus on the Argentinian popular rebellion and the Zapatista uprising in Mexico).