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Mexico’s Burning

Marco Antonio Cruz, the director of Imagen Latina, an independent photo agency based in Mexico City, spent a few weeks in December of last year, 1993, taking portraits of blind people in the mountains of Chiapas.
October 1, 2009, 12:00am

interview by bernardo loyola

The EZLN opens the doors of the IMSS supermarket to the people.

Marco Antonio Cruz, the director of Imagen Latina, an independent photo agency based in Mexico City, spent a few weeks in December of last year, 1993, taking portraits of blind people in the mountains of Chiapas, the southernmost and poorest state in Mexico, for an ongoing project he had been working on. Right before Christmas, he went home to Mexico City to spend the holidays with his family. After partying on New Year’s Eve into 1994, he went to bed only to be woken up at 7 AM by one of his photographer friends, who told him that in Chiapas, right where he’d been just a few days before, a guerrilla group had declared war on the Mexican government early that morning—the same day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) started. He immediately packed his bags and headed to the airport.


Vice: What was your first reaction to the fact that an army of indigenous people wearing ski masks had declared war on the Mexican government?

Marco Antonio Cruz:

I was incredibly surprised when I heard how the Zapatista Army of National Liberation [EZLN] had taken a few of the municipalities, both in the rain forest and in the mountain regions of the state. Everybody was surprised. It was one of the most important moments for the government of Carlos Salinas de Gortari because NAFTA was starting that day. According to him, the country was about to enter a new economic phase.

Yeah, we were about to leave the third world to enter the club of the developed nations. Salinas was at the beach partying with a glass of champagne when he heard the news about the Zapatistas.

It was a huge hit for the president. The government and the army were taken by surprise. I was in Chiapas just a week before the uprising and I didn’t hear anything about it! It was incredible how secretive they were. I have lots of journalist friends in Chiapas and they didn’t know anything about it either.

You were one of the first journalists to cover the uprising. When did you get there?

As soon as I heard about what was going on, I went straight to the airport. The only airline that flies from Mexico City to Chiapas had canceled all the flights for security reasons, because nobody really know how bad things were down there. A bunch of journalists from the national daily newspapers ended up gathering at the airport, and we put pressure on the airline to open one flight to take us there. Finally they did, and I flew with a group of about 12 Mexican journalists, mostly photographers, to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of Chiapas. We rented cars and immediately took off to San Cristóbal de las Casas, where the first actions by the guerrillas happened. By the time we were on the road, it was already dark and the road was blocked by trees. A bunch of us had worked as photojournalists covering the guerrillas in El Salvador and Nicaragua, and from our experience we knew it wasn’t safe to keep going in darkness, so we went back to Tuxtla and then drove back at sunrise. We found an alternative route and we finally got to San Cristóbal. By the time we got there, the Zapatista Army had already left. We took photographs of the offices in the government building. They were completely ransacked. The Zapatistas had opened a small supermarket, and people were taking everything they could. There was also a lot of graffiti on the walls around town.


What did the graffiti say?

They left messages saying that they had left San Cristóbal to attack the Rancho Nuevo army base, so we headed over there. The base was a few miles outside San Cristóbal on the way to Ocosingo. Before getting to the base, we saw a white VW Beetle driving in reverse toward us. The driver, who we later learned was a local journalist, told us to stay away, because there was an insane shoot-out going on over there. When he said, “Don’t go there,” we took it as an invitation! We were very lucky not to get hit when we arrived. The army base is right on the side of the road, and we saw the soldiers in the trenches, crouching and telling us to move away. They could have shot us.

What kind of weapons were they using against the Zapatistas?

Machine guns.

And the Zapatistas?

We couldn’t really see the Zapatistas because they were hiding in the forest, behind the trees. We saw an army car get shot and I took photos of a helicopter and a Hummer coming to get the wounded soldiers. It was the first time in my life that I took photos of the Mexican Army firing guns.

We rarely see the Mexican Army in action.

It was something unheard-of. Our generation of photojournalists was too young to cover the Mexican guerrillas of the 70s like La Liga Comunista 23 de Septiembre. All we knew was that back then, the army attacked with all they had and annihilated the guerrillas. That was our only reference for what we were witnessing, but we never thought we would see something like it in Mexico again.

Zapatista soldier with his makeshift weapon.

Did you see any more combat?


The next day we drove to Altamirano, a town in an area taken by the Zapatistas. On the way there, we saw how they had taken the highways and set up checkpoints. I took a bunch of photos of that. In Altamirano, I also took photos of the Zapatistas destroying the municipal government building with their own hands. The situation escalated day by day. We would hear about planes and helicopters shooting at the guerrillas, so every time we saw a helicopter, we were constantly afraid we were going to get shot. We were the only journalists there at that point.

We also witnessed a group of Zapatistas getting ambushed by the army on the highway. There were about 21 people, and they were all killed. We heard the shots and we ran toward them. We were the first people to get there. The bodies stayed there for 15 days. We drove by that place every day and saw the corpses. It was insane. We also saw planes bombing the area around Altamirano, the Patiwitz Mountain, and a region known as El Corralito. It was very tense. To protect ourselves we wrote on our cars, with tape, the words “PRESS” and “TV,” and we put white flags on them. I think that helped a lot.

I saw your photos published during that first week. How did you manage to send them so quickly?

The other photographers and I worked out a system to send our films and slides. We hired a person who would drive to the airport in Tuxtla every day. From there, he would convince random people who were traveling to Mexico City to take the film rolls with them. The system worked out, and my photos would arrive every day to Imagen Latina, where they would print them and distribute them to different outlets, including



magazine, who published the first photos of the first days of combat. My photos also made it to many newspapers abroad.

It’s too bad nobody has invented a way to develop and send photos instantly yet. Imagine, like an all-digital photo that you could then, I don’t know, send via phone lines. That would be amazing. But anyway, when did the international press start coming in?

Around the fifth day of combat, say January 5, journalists from all over the world started to show up. That’s when the National Army started to decrease the severity of their attacks. The first five days were definitely the most intense. On the 12th day, the cease-fire was called and both the Zapatista Army and the National Army took their positions. Since then, there hasn’t been a single shot fired.

It seems like it was all chaos and confusion during the first days over there. What did you and the other journalists you were with think was going on?

In the beginning we were just surprised and confused, but then we felt sympathetic for the Zapatistas. They were ill equipped and poorly armed, their rifles were super old, and they were up against a national army, trained and well equipped, that went against them with all they had, even tanks and planes. But it was their attitude of rebellion and their will to show the world the situation they were living in that were very impressive. As journalists, we admired that. I think what they did to take the municipal government buildings on January 1 will go down in history as something really impressive. I think the Mexican people also started feeling sympathetic to their cause.


Why did all this happen, anyway?

I think that what the Zapatista Army did was a consequence of the state of oblivion, discrimination, and social inequality in which the indigenous people live in Chiapas. Chiapas is a state where people die of curable sicknesses. If you think about it, it was actually logical that something like this would happen.

After spending a couple weeks photographing the conflict, what do you think will happen? What will come out of it?

I think that, so far, all this represents a small victory on the side of the Zapatistas because they shined a light on the situation by saying, “We are here and we won’t take this anymore.” I think it’s an important moment now that the Zapatistas and the government are at the negotiating table. I really hope the Mexican government reacts positively.

On the other hand, extreme poverty exists in many other parts of the country, like in the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca—and the list goes on. So what happened in Chiapas could happen anywhere else at any time.

On our way to Altamirano, we were stopped at a Zapatista checkpoint.

Municipal cops as prisoners of war.

Gender equality is one of the foremost concerns of the Zapatistas, and in fact, several of their main generals are women. Here, two female soldiers carry weapons made of wood and nails in the streets of Altamirano.

As a symbolic act, Zapatistas destroyed the municipal government building in Altamirano with picks and mallets.

A group of Zapatistas on a public bus was ambushed by the army. The dead bodies remained in the same spot for more than ten days.