With an enigmatic statement, the iconic leader of Mexico’s National Zapatista Liberation Army (EZLN) announced over the weekend that he no longer speaks for the movement.
The pipe-smoking, balaclava-masked leader of the revolutionary leftist guerrilla group that has fought for indigenous people’s rights since a 1994 rebellion in the southern state of Chiapas, said that his persona is being retired.
But it is not so clear whether the leader is actually stepping down, or whether this is one of his latest attempts to reinvent his role at the helm of the movement.
'Marcos the character is no longer necessary.'
The Zapatista leader gave his last speech as "Marcos" in the autonomous community of La Realidad, in Chiapas, early on Sunday, hours after another spokesman for the movement announced his retirement as a public face of the Zapatistas. The recording of Marcos' full statement — called "between light and shadow" — is below.
But in the statement, the subcommander — whose nom de guerre “Marcos” is believed to mask the identity of Rafael Guillén Vicente, a university instructor — seemed to suggest he might just be changing names and his persona.
"We are warriors and as such we know our role and our time," the ambiguously worded statement said. "Marcos, the character is no longer necessary… His character was created and now his creators, the Zapatistas, are destroying him."
“My name is Galeano. Rebel Subcomandante Galeano,” he signed off — reportedly in reference to a comrade killed on May 2 by rival militants. It would not be the first time the mysterious leader has reinvented himself. In 2006, after years away from the spotlight, he reintroduced himself as "Delegate Zero," an alternative non-candidate in Mexico's presidential election.
Galeano is the new identity of a leader who still wields much symbolic power and yet according to some is also struggling to stay politically relevant.
"If we read Marcos’ last communiqué — and the first of Galeano — we will see that the change is not only one of names. It is also one of strategy and content," Leonidas Oikonomakis, a scholar and political activist, wrote in a blog post about the transition. "The catapulting forward of Marcos actually produced a boomerang effect: the movement became personalized in the persona of Marcos, and the biggest achievement of Zapatismo as such — the autonomous, leaderless communities — remained in the shadow."
"The EZLN realized that 'the movement became Marcos' and 'Marcos became the movement,'" he added, "and they have long been trying to find a way to tackle that — to the extent that they even deliberately fueled rumors of Marcos’ serious illness that circulated for the past few years."
“Marcos” made the latest announcement in a speech, a day after his first public appearance in more than five years, as he showed up at a memorial for his fallen comrade — on a horse, sporting his trademark pipe and an eye patch.
In his speech — a partial transcription of which was circulated on Sunday on a well-known Zapatista site — the commander dismissed rumors that his health was failing and said instead that his public persona had become a “distraction.”
"I declare that the one known as Insurgent Subcomandante Marcos no longer exists," he said. "The voice of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) will no longer come from my voice."
The media-savvy leader called the figure of Marcos a "hologram."
"The handover of command is not due to illness or death, not to an internal shift, purge or purification," he said. “Those who loved and hated Subcomandante Marcos now know that they hated and loved a hologram.”
The Zapatista movement — named after the Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata — celebrated its 20th anniversary earlier this year. The group was revealed to the public on January 1, 1994 — the same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement, that the Zapatistas protested, came into effect.
The Zapatistas have been at war with the Mexican state for the past two decades, and after a failed peace with authorities they embarked on a campaign of civil resistance and established autonomous health, education, and justice systems. But these autonomous communities have increasingly come under attack — leading to a recent international campaign in solidarity with the Zapatistas.
The subcommander's long-winded speeches have often been enigmatic and heavy on allegory. It is also not clear how much of a leadership role he still holds within the movement — although his symbolic one remains powerful.
Marcos — who has often been referred to as "Mexico's own Che Guevara" or a "modern-day Zorro" — has been critical in the past of the cult around his persona, especially as a fair-skinned, non-indigenous Mexican he is hardly a representative face of the movement.
"Rebellion is not exclusive to the Neo-Zapatistas," the leader also said recently, on the movement's 20th anniversary in January. "It is for all of humanity. And that’s something to celebrate. Everywhere, every day and every hour. For rebellion is also a celebration."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi