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Home > English > Website archives > Globalization, resistance, immigration > The Fire and the Word


The Fire and the Word

Tuesday 12 February 2008, by Subcomandante Marcos

The following text is a transcript of an audio message by Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos for a book launch event in Mexico City celebrating the publication of the original Mexican edition, EZLN: 20 y 10, el fuego y la palabra which is being published in English for the first time by City Lights Books.

We’re here to begin celebrating a history and to present a book that tells a good part of that history. Contrary to what one might think, the history we’re celebrating and telling is not that of the twenty and ten years of the EZLN. I mean, not only that. Many people will feel a part of those twenty and those ten. And I’m not referring only to the thousands of indigenous peoples in rebellion, but also to thousands of men, women, children, and elders in Mexico and the world. The history that we begin celebrating today is also their history.

These words are directed to all of those people who, without belonging to the EZLN, share, live, and struggle with us for an idea: to build a world in which many worlds fit. Or to put it another way, we want to have a birthday that celebrates many birthdays.

So we begin our celebration the same way all birthday parties used to start in the mountains of the Mexican southeast twenty years ago-telling stories.

According to our calendar, the history of the EZLN prior to the beginning of the war had seven stages.

The first was when those who would be part of the EZLN were chosen. This was around 1982. One- or two-month training sessions were organized in the jungle, where the participants were evaluated to see who qualified. The second stage was what we called "implantation;" in other words, the actual founding of the EZLN.

Today is November 10, 2003.

I ask you to imagine that on a day like today, but twenty years ago, in 1983, a group of people in some clandestine house were preparing the tools they would take to the mountains of southeast Mexico. Perhaps twenty years ago today the day was spent checking equipment, gathering information about the roads, alternative routes, the weather, and specifying itineraries, orders, arrangements. Perhaps twenty years ago today, at this time of day, the group was boarding a vehicle and starting their trip to Chiapas. If we could be there now, perhaps we would ask those people what they were up to. And they would have undoubtedly answered: "We’re going to found the Zapatista Army of National Liberation." They had waited fifteen years to say those words.

Let us suppose, then, that they begin their trip on November 10, 1983. Some days later they reached the end of a dirt road, picked up their equipment, said goodbye to the driver, put on their backpacks, and began climbing one of the mountains that, facing westward, traverse the Lacandon Jungle. After walking many hours, carrying fifty-five pounds on their backs, they set up their first camp up in the sierra. Yes, it’s quite possible that it was cold that day, and perhaps it even rained.

Twenty years ago, night came early under the large trees and the men and women turned on their flashlights, set up plastic roofs held up with ropes, hung their hammocks, looked for dry firewood, and made a bonfire by lighting a plastic bag. Lit by the bonfire, the leader of the group wrote in his campaign diary something like:

"November 17, 1983. So many feet above sea level. Rainy. We set up camp. No news."

On the upper left hand of the sheet he wrote the name that they gave to this first stop on a voyage that everyone knew would be very long. There was no special ceremony, but on that day and at that time the Zapatista Army of National Liberation was founded.

Someone probably proposed a name for that camp, we don’t know for sure. What we do know is that the group was made up of six people, the first six insurgents-five men and one woman. Of those six, three were mestizo and three were indigenous. The ratio of 50 percent mestizo and 50 percent indigenous members has never been seen again in these twenty years of the EZLN. Neither has the proportion of women (less than 20 percent in those early years). Today, twenty years after that November 17, the percentage is probably 98.9 percent indigenous and 1 percent mestizo. The proportion of women is close to 45 percent.

What was the name of the first camp of the EZLN? Those first six insurgents can’t agree about it. As I learned later, camp names were chosen without any particular logic and in a very natural way, avoiding apocalyptic or prophetic names. None of them, for example, was called "January 1, 1994."

According to those first six, one day they sent an insurgent to explore an area to see if it was suitable for camping. The insurgent returned saying that the place "was a dream." The compañeros marched in that direction and when they got there they found a swamp. They told the compañero: "This isn’t a dream, it’s a nightmare." Ergo, the camp was named "The Nightmare." It must have been in the early months of 1984. The name of that insurgent was Pedro. Later, he would become sub-lieutenant, lieutenant, second captain, first captain, and subcomandante. With that degree, and acting as Chief of the General Staff of the EZLN, he fell in combat ten years later, on January 1, 1994, during the offensive on Las Margaritas, Chiapas, Mexico.

The third stage prior to the uprising began when we applied ourselves to the tasks of survival: hunting, fishing, collecting wild fruits and plants. During this time we studied the terrain through orientations, walking, topography. And during this period we also studied military strategies and tactics in the manuals of the U.S. and Mexican armies, as well as handling and maintenance of various sorts of weapons, and the so-called martial arts. We also studied Mexican history and, in fact, we led a very active cultural life.

I arrived at the Lacandon Jungle during this third stage, around August or September 1984, some nine months after the arrival of the first group. I got there together with two other compañeros: an indigenous Chol compañera and an indigenous Tzotzil compañero. If I remember correctly, when I arrived the EZLN had seven stable members and two more that "went up and down" to the city with messages and for supplies. They passed through the villages at night, disguised as engineers.

The camps at that time were relatively simple. They had an administrative area or a kitchen, a sleeping area, an area for exercising, surveillance points, the area for twenty five and fifty, and the security areas for the defense of the camp. Perhaps some of my listeners might be wondering what in the world is "the area for twenty-five and fifty." Well, it turns out that, in order to take care of "primary" needs, one had to go a certain distance away from the camp. In order to urinate, one had to walk a distance of twenty-five meters; to defecate, it was fifty meters, in addition to making a hole with one’s machete and then covering the "product." Of course, these rules applied when we were just a handful of men and women; that is, when we were fewer than ten. Some time later, we built latrines located further away, but the terms "twenty-five" and "fifty" stuck.

There was a camp called "The Wood Stove," because it was the first place where we built a rustic wood stove. Before that, we made our bonfires on the ground and we hung two pots-one for beans and another one for whatever animal we may have hunted or fished-on a crossbar with reeds. Afterwards, when there were more of us, we entered the "wood-stove age." In those days the EZLN had twelve combatants.

Sometime later, at a camp called "Recruits," we entered the "wheel age." It was there that new combatants were trained, and that we used a machete to carve a wooden wheel and built a wheelbarrow to carry stone for the trenches. It must have been the times, because the wheel was pretty square and we ended up carrying the stones on our backs.

Another camp was called "Baby Doc" in honor of the man who, with the United States’ approval, ravaged Haiti. It turns out that, with a column of recruits, we were on our way to set up camp near a village. On the way we ran across a pack of boars. In other words, a shitload of wild pigs. The guerrilla column positioned itself with great discipline and ability. The combatant in the vanguard shouted "pigs!" and, with panic as an engine and fuel, he climbed a tree with extraordinary skillfullnes and we didn’t see him again. Others ran valiantly… but in the opposite direction toward the enemy, that is, the wild boars. Others aimed and shot two of them. During the enemy’s retreat-that is, when the wild boars ran off-a little pig was left behind, barely the size of a domestic cat. We adopted him and we named him "Baby Doc" because it was around that time that Papa Doc Duvalier died and passed the carnage on to his son. We camped there to prepare the meat and eat. The little pig took a liking to us, I think because of the smell.

Another camp during those years was called "Of the Youth," because it was there that we formed the first group of insurgent young people, which was called the "Young Rebels of the South." Once a week the young insurgents would get together to sing, dance, read, practice sports, and participate in contests.

Nineteen years ago, on November 17, 1984, was the first time we celebrated the EZLN’s anniversary. There were nine of us. I think it was at a camp called "Margaret Thatcher," because we had caught a little monkey that, I swear, was a clone of the "Iron Lady."

A year later, in 1985, we celebrated at a camp called "Watapil," which is the name of a plant whose leaves we used to build a shed for food.

I was second captain, when we were at the so-called "Almond Sierra," and the main column had stayed behind. I was in command of three insurgents. If my math is correct, that made four of us at that camp. We celebrated with tostadas, coffee, pinole with sugar and a cójola (pheasant) we killed that morning. There were songs and poetry. One of us would sing or declaim and the others would clap with a boredom worthy of a better cause. When it was my turn, I gave a solemn speech and I told them, with no more arguments than the mosquitoes and the solitude that surrounded us, that one day we would be thousands and that our word would travel the world. The other three agreed that the tostada was probably moldy and that I must have gotten sick and that the illness most likely explained why I was delirious. I remember it rained that night.

During the fourth stage, we made our first contact with people living in the region. First we would talk to one of them, and that person would talk with his or her family. From the family we moved on to the village. From the village to the region. And so, little by little, our presence became a well-known secret and a widespread conspiracy. At this stage the EZLN was no longer what we had conceived when we arrived. By then we had been defeated by the indigenous communities, and as a product of that defeat, the EZLN started to grow exponentially and to become "very otherly." In other words, the wheel kept on wearing down the edges until, finally, it was round and could do what wheels do-roll.

The fifth stage was the period of explosive growth for the EZLN. Political and social conditions led us to grow beyond the Lacandon Jungle and we reached the Los Altos region and the north of Chiapas. The sixth stage was when we voted on the war and prepared for it, including the so-called Battle of Corralchén in May 1993 when we had our first combats with the Mexican Federal Army.

Two years ago, in some of the places we went through during the March for Indigenous Dignity, I saw a sort of fat bottle, like a pot with a narrow mouth. I think it was made of clay and it was covered with little pieces of mirrors. When it reflected the light, each little mirror of the pot gave forth a particular image. Everything around it found in it a singular reflection and, at the same time, the whole resembled a rainbow of images. It was as if many small histories came together to compose a larger history, but without losing their own distinct self. I thought that, perhaps, the history of the EZLN could be told, looked at, and analyzed like that mirrored pot.

Today, November 10, 2003, twenty years after the beginning of that voyage by the founders of our organization, a campaign starts, as an initiative of the magazine Rebeldía, to celebrate the twentieth birthday of the EZLN, the tenth anniversary of the start of the war against oblivion, and this book by Gloria Muñoz. If I could synthesize this book in an image, I could think of nothing better than the pot covered in little pieces of mirror.

In one of the book’s parts Gloria gathers the testimonies of some of the compañeros from the bases of support, committee members, and insurgents, who speak their little piece of mirror during the last five stages previous to the uprising; that is, stages three, four, five, six, and seven. This is the first time that compañeros who have been struggling as Zapatistas for over nineteen years open their hearts and their memories of those years of silence. Thus, Gloria manages to turn those pieces of mirror into crystal pieces that allow us to gaze a little at those first ten years of the EZLN.

We can thus catch a glimpse of another history, one very different to the one created by the governments of Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Ernesto Zedillo with lies, altered police reports, and the complicity of intellectuals that, under the cover of supposedly "serious" research, disguised the check and the caresses they got from Power to exercise their "scientific objectivity."

With the pieces of mirrors and crystals that Gloria put together, the reader will realize that he or she is looking at only small parts of a giant puzzle. A puzzle whose key piece is the first day of 1994, when Mexico entered the North American Free Trade Agreement, when it entered the "First World."

The days before that January 1 were the seventh stage of the EZLN.

I remember that on the night of December 30, 1993, I was traveling on the highway between Ocosingo and San Cristóbal de las Casas. That day I had been at the positions we held around Ocosingo. I had checked via radio the situation of our troops, which were concentrating at various points along the highway, in the canyons of Patiwitz, Monte Líbano and Las Tazas. These troops belonged to the Third Infantry Regiment. They were around 1,500 combatants. The Third Regiment’s mission was to take Ocosingo. But on the way there they were to take the large ranches of the region and gather the weapons of the ranchers’ private, paramilitary guards-guardias blancas. I was informed that a helicopter of the Federal Army had been flying over the town of San Miguel, probably in response to the many vehicles that were gathering there. Since the early morning of December 29, no vehicle that entered the canyons was allowed to leave; all of them had been "borrowed" to transport the troops of the Third Regiment. The Third Regiment was entirely made up of indigenous Tzeltal combatants.

On my way, I had checked the positions of the Eighth Battalion, which formed part of the Fifth Regiment. The Eighth Battalion was in charge of taking the municipal seat of Altamirano as its first action. Afterwards, as it moved on, it would take Chanal, Oxchuc, and Huixtán, before participating in the attack on the Rancho Nuevo military base, on the outskirts of San Cristóbal. The Eighth was a reinforced battalion. Six hundred combatants took part in the attach on Altamirano, some of whom would remain there once the city was taken. As the battalion advanced, it would incorporate more compañeros, in order to reach Rancho Nuevo with about 500 troops. The Eighth Battalion was mainly composed of indigenous Tzeltal combatants.

Along the highway I stopped at one of the highest areas and I contacted via radio the Twenty-Fourth Battalion (also part of the Fifth Regiment), whose mission was to take the municipal seat of San Cristóbal de las Casas and participate in the joint attack (together with the Eighth Battalion) of the Rancho Nuevo military base. The Twenty-Fourth was also a reinforced battalion. It had almost 1,000 combatants, almost all of them indigenous Tzotzils from the Los Altos region.

When I arrived in San Cristóbal, I went around the city and headed to the place that housed the General Headquarters of the EZLN’s High Command. From there I communicated via radio with the head of the First Regiment, Subcomandante Insurgente Pedro, Chief of the Zapatista General Staff and second in command of the EZLN. His mission was to take the municipal seat of Las Margaritas and then advance to attack the military base at Comitán. With 1,200 combatants, the First Regiment was composed mostly of indigenous Tojolabal men and women.

In addition, in the so-called second strategic reserve there was another battalion composed of indigenous Chol combatants, and deep in our home bases there were three battalions in the Tzeltal, Tojolabal, Tzotzil, and Chol regions, making up the so-called "first strategic reserve."

Yes, the EZLN came to public light with over 4,500 combatants in the first line of fire, the so-called Twenty-First Zapatista Infantry Division, and with around 2,000 combatants who remained as reserves.

On the early morning of December 31, 1993, I confirmed the order to attack, the date, and the time. In sum: the EZLN would simultaneously attack four municipal seats and three others "on the way." It would defeat the police and military forces in those places, and it would then march to attack two large military bases of the Federal Army. The date: 31 December 1993. The time: 24:00.

The morning of December 31, 1993, was spent clearing the urban positions we held at several places. At around 14:00 the various regiments confirmed via radio to the General Command that they were ready. At 17:00 we started the countdown: That time was referred to as "minus 7." At that point, all communication was cut off with the regiments. The next radio contact was planned for "plus 7," at 07:00 on January 1, 1994… with those who survived.

What happened then, if you don’t already know, you can read about in this book; if you do know, you can remember it. In this book the bottle-pot becomes a giant tapestry whose general outline has fortunately already been drawn by Gloria, and filled with those little pieces of mirrors and crystals that make up the various moments of the EZLN in the last ten years, that is, the period between January 1, 1994, and August 1, 2003. I’m sure that many will find the mirror and the crystal that belongs to them….

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