By Kent Paterson
In a visit replete with ironies, symbolisms and stirring messages, Subcomandante Marcos of Mexico’s Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) came to Ciudad Juarez on the eve of the annual Days of the Dead celebrations. Arriving as part of the EZLN’S “Other Campaign”, Marcos, who is also going by the name of Delegate Zero, met with local non-governmental organizations, indigenous groups, campesinos, students and US supporters of the Other Campaign, some of whom traveled all the way from New York to show the legendary EZLN spokesman a video about the struggles of migrant workers in the Big Apple.
Launched in the months following the publication of the EZLN’s Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, the Other Campaign is one step of an effort to unite Mexico’s indigenous and popular movements into a big anti-capitalist left and transform the nation without recourse to arms or political parties.
After an initial round of meetings with farmer, neighborhood and urban indigenous groups, Marcos participated in a November 1 protest at the Stanton Street Bridge between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas. Temporarily shutting down the crossing with a symbolic barricade of fertilizer sacks and a small coffin, the demonstration expressed solidarity with the Popular Assembly of the Oaxacan People (APPO)-led movement against the state government of Oaxaca Gov. Ulises Ruiz, as well as protesting the 700 miles of new border fences planned by the Bush Administration.
“It’s only a wall to kill our people, just like the wall of the river and the desert that assaults them...,” Marcos charged. “Our friends cross only to work and not to do harm. In order to cross and work in the US, they’re treated like they are terrorists.” Quickly picking up on another theme, Marcos blasted the continued impunity surrounding the serial rape-murders of women in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua state. “We’ve also seen that there’s no justice here in Ciudad Juarez. Young women are murdered without no one ever knowing who the guilty ones were.”
As Marcos was speaking, a US Customs and Border Protection agency helicopter flashing a big Department of Homeland Security insignia swooped low over the crowd, snapping pictures and stirring up dust in protestor’s faces. Briefly drowning out the Zapatista subcomandante’s words, Marcos responded with defiant words that challenged the legitimacy of the border as well as the US and Mexican governments. The occupants of the White House and Los Pinos will fall “one by one” predicted Marcos. As Delegate Zero was delivering his speech, fellow Zapatistas in Chiapas were shutting down state highways in support of the APPO.
Outfitted in his usual military uniform and mask, Marcos shared the microphone with retired teacher Ernesto On-tiveros, a member of the International Association Relatives and Friends of Disappeared Persons and the father of a missing soldier. Marcos, who led EZLN fighters into battle against Mexican soldiers during the 1994 indigenous Maya uprising in southern Chiapas state, spoke after Ontiveros told the story of his son, Lt. Victor Hugo Ontiveros, who has been missing for 10 years.
Eyewitnesses have told Ontiveros that his son was kidnapped by an armed commando and whisked away in Ciudad Juarez on September 2, 1996, never to return home. The young Ontiveros’ disappearance was one of the first of the thousands of “levan-tones,” or forced disappearances, and murders tied to organized crime that have shaken Ciudad Juarez in recent years. Showing no let-up, in the week surrounding Marcos’ visits alone, more than a dozen new kidnappings or gangland-style executions were reported in the local press.
Almost three presidents, numerous special prosecutors and wads of promises later, On-tiveros said he still has no peace of mind about what happened to his son. Grinning sarcastically, Ontiveros told Frontera NorteSur that the three most common words he keeps hearing from law enforcement officials are: “we’re getting close.”
After Marcos’ short speech, hundreds of demonstrators marched through downtown Juarez, passing by camper unit 666 of the municipal police force. Marchers followed the Rio Bravo to the gates of the Alta Vista High School, where a second, impromptu protest was staged.
Halted at the school’s entrance, some demonstrators, members of the press and even high school students trying to enter the school grounds were told by a security team headed by a tattooed, shade-wearing man that they could not pass without an official Other Campaign badge, even though participants were told before the march that no credentials were necessary unless video footage was going to be recorded.
Fresh from a protest against walls and eager to hear Marcos, shouts of “fascist” and “they’re putting a wall between us and Marcos” emanated from the increasingly agitated crowd.
“This is a public school, you can’t impede access,” yelled Cipriana Jurado, the director of Ciudad Juarez’s Center for Research and Worker Solidarity group. After a round of chanting, the security men finally relented and let the people onto the school grounds, proving that the mass protest tactics promoted by Marcos and the Zapatistas do indeed work.
Located about 30 feet from the Mexico-US border, Alta Vista High School was an appropriate choice for the Other Campaign’s meeting. Seeking shade from the rising fall sun, several students waiting to hear Marcos remarked how they liked the school because of its liberal arts orientation, emphasis on critical thinking and free-style dress code. But Alta Vista’s student body has had a rough time this semester, according to the students. Hit by the past summer’s floods, the school lost computers and thousands of books. Freudian, Marxian and literary classics were all destroyed, they reported. Starting classes several days late, students said they’ve had to cope without books and in-school access to computers.
Government pledges to replace the lost materials have yet to materialize, and low-income students must choose between eating lunch or spending 20 or 30 pesos in an Internet cafe to keep with assignments, said student Alejo La Rosa. “It’s expensive. You don’t eat that day,” La Rosa quipped.
La Rosa said he and another student dipped into their own pockets in order to purchase a computer to brighten up the school atmosphere with music that’s run out of the small in-house radio station operated by students. “This is our expression of gratitude to our school,” he said. “We want this to be the best school. It’s our school and we have to support it.”
Inside the school, Marcos met privately with representatives of various non-governmental organizations from Mexico and the US, and he later heard a series of public presentations in the courtyard outside. Displayed in front of the meeting area were old black and white photos of young men and women, supposed “subversives” from Chihuahua state, who were picked up by Mexican security men during the 1970s Dirty War and whisked away into official oblivion, much like Lt. Victor Hugo Ontiveros was 20 years later.
Carefully taking notes while puffing away on his pipe, Marcos, a prolific poet and writer, heard emotional presentations from two women who recounted how they were victims of rape; a message appealing for action against femicide in Mexico from the imprisoned Colonel Aurora, or Gloria Arenas, of the Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People (ERPI); denunciations of attempts to evict residents of the Lomas de Poleo colonia on Ciudad Juarez’s outskirts, and the importance of culture in the “rebirth” of the border city.
Representing a rainbow of causes and sub-cultures, campesinos, colorfully-dressed indigenous Raramui women, dread-locked drummers, Chicano movement veteranos, academics, feminists, humble nuns, camera-heavy reporters, old braceros and young students all gathered around the Sup, as he is nicknamed.
Leftist literature sellers were present, and long-haired vendors hawking EZLN t-shirts not unlike the tie-dye merchants who used to follow around the Grateful Dead on concert tours did a respectable business. A new magazine, Ala Siniestra, put out by the University Left Committee of the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juarez was among the items available. Meanwhile, outside the school, agents from the Federal Preventive Police and other government agencies dutifully eyed the scene.
After the public meeting, Veronica Levya, the Ciudad Juarez representative of the Mexico Solidarity Network, commented that while it’s still too early to assess the impact of events like the Other Campaign and the recently-held Border Social Forum, mass gatherings of the type have the benefit of bringing together disparate groups which are often too absorbed in their own day-to-day struggles.
Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico