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Paramilitaries Are Still Murdering Zapatistas in Mexico

Galeano, a Zapatista teacher, was killed in an attack on May 2. His death has caused a wave of anger, solidarity, and calls for justice.
Photo by Andalusia Knoll

The phrases "You are not alone" and "Long live Galeano" have been circulating on social networks across the globe recently. They refer to the recently assassinated Zapatista teacher José Luis Solís López.

Solis, known by the Zapatistas as Galeano, was murdered in paramilitary attack on May 2 in Chiapas, Mexico. He died from both gunshots and machete wounds.

Galeano's death has sparked an outcry of solidarity in the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) who denounced the attack as part of a government-led counter-insurgency strategy aimed at dismantling their autonomous self-governed communities.


Since the Zapatistas rose up on January 1, 1994, to fight for their right to land, liberty, and inclusion, they have received strong support from national and international social movements. After successfully recuperating thousands of acres of land, the EZLN has, for the most part, now laid down its arms. It now focuses its energy on operating its autonomous government from five bases known as caracoles — organized divisions of the Zapatista community.

All photos by Andalucía Knoll.

However, Galeano's death shows that while the Zapatistas are no longer focused on being armed guerrillas, past wars rage on and continue to take lives. Members of the Zapatista Good Government Council (JBG) — which is comprised of representatives from each caracol — met with the Historical Independent Center of Agricultural Workers and Peasants (CIOAC-H) on May 2 to discuss recent conflicts between the organizations.

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As the dialogue took place in La Realidad Caracol in the Lacandon jungle, in Chiapas, members of the farmers' group allegedly ambushed the caracol, destroyed a school and health clinic, injured over a dozen Zapatistas, and brutally murdered Galeano. Two observers with the human rights center Fray Bartolome de las Casas were present during the ambush. They issued a communiqué denouncing the participation of members of the Green Party of Chiapas, who are currently in power, the National Action Party (PAN), which is the political party of former Mexican president Felipe Calderón, and the CIOAC-H militants.


The majority of mainstream media outlets have portrayed the attack as a violent confrontation between Zapatistas and the militant organization CIOAC-H, but an EZLN spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos, disputes this claim. "If you asked me to summarize our laborious journey in a few words, they would be: our efforts are for peace, their efforts are for war," said Marcos in a recent statement.

The Zapatistas have called off three large public events they were planning to host in Chiapas at the end of May and beginning of June out of concern about further paramilitary attacks.

The governor of Chiapas, Manuel Velasco Coello, confirmed the CIOAC-H's involvement in the attack, and added in his own defense: "We are not part of, nor would allow these kinds of acts to occur against any community or organization."

At least four men were initially detained by the government after Galeano's assassination, but they were later released.

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Federico Ovalle Vaquera, the secretary general of the CIOAC-H refuted all claims that they are paramilitaries. "The Zapatistas — as we have always said and will reiterate now — are not our enemies. Our common enemy is the political system that we suffer from and the model of exclusive development," added Ovalle.

On January 30, Zapatistas in central Chiapas were violently threatened by 300 people — many reportedly belonging to CIOAC-H — who arrived in 18 pickup trucks armed with machetes, rocks, sticks, and clubs. Various Zapatistas were injured in the attack and required hospitalization.


This type of aggression dates much farther back than the start of this year, however. In December 1997 paramilitaries massacred 45 Tzotzil indigenous people, largely women and children, as they prayed in a church in the community of Acteal. The victims were Zapatista sympathizers and there have been accusations that government–issued guns were used against them.

Subcomandante Marcos, responding to the media coverage of Galeano's murder wrote: "Now they are saying that up above they are re-invoking the model that they called 'the Acteal model': 'it was an intercommunity conflict over a sand bank.'… Then the militarization follows, the hysterical voices of the domesticated press, the simulations, the lies, and the persecution."

The International Service for Peace has denounced the attacks as part of a larger counterinsurgency strategy in Chiapas. Marina Pages, the organization's coordinator in Mexico, spoke to VICE News about what is at stake in this economically impoverished but resource-rich southern state. Chiapas contains between 50 and 80 percent of Mexico's biodiversity, water reserves, and mineral resources, which have drawn the gaze of various multinational corporations. "These kind of attacks don't just focus on evicting Zapatistas from their land but more importantly on diminishing their political power in a region where they have had a strong presence since 1994," Pages said.


Last year, Galeano worked as a teacher in the Zapatista's "Little school," where thousands of students from all over the world spent a week living with a rebel family and learning about their autonomous ways of life. The EZLN has invited the school's students and other supporters to join them on May 24 to pay homage to Galeano at the Caracol La Realidad.

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Various leftist intellectuals and writers including Alice Walker, Angela Davis and Junot Díaz have heeded the call for solidarity with the Zapatistas under the banner "An Attack On Us All." Various actions are planned across the US.

In pondering their next steps the Zapatistas stated: "We want to be clear, if we were not Zapatistas we would already have taken revenge and it would have led to a massacre, because we are filled with rage about what they did to our compañero Galeano. But we are Zapatistas and we don't seek revenge, but rather justice."

This upcoming Saturday in San Cristóbal de las Casas, members of the EZLN and sympathizers with their cause will pay homage to Galeano.

Follow Andalusia Knoll on Twitter: @andalalucha