Mexico's Other Campaign

By John Gibler

Obtilia Eugenio Manuel, a 30-year-old Me’phaa indigenous woman, stands in the hollowed concrete frame of a two-room schoolhouse, its walls peppered with bullet holes. She holds a microphone a few inches from her face as she addresses the 200 people huddled under the hot coastal sun. Beside her, subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) squints and looks down at the dry earth.

“We know that the government is against us,” she says, “and wants to do away with us as indigenous people. So we must build power from below, in our homes, in our families and in our communities.” Those present keep listening, taking notes, clicking photographs. Yet it is impossible to measure the defiance behind her words. She gives no clue that she is risking her life by speaking.

Since 2003 Obtilia Eugenio has received both written and verbal death threats for her activism against militarization in the indigenous villages of the Costa Chica, the mountainous region just south of Acapulco in Guerrero State in Mexico. She has confronted—unarmed—squadrons of soldiers trying to enter her village; she co-founded an organization to promote indigenous rights and fight military abuses; and she has served as an interpreter for monolingual indigenous women raped by the soldiers that haunt the area and accuse anyone who stands up or speaks out of being a guerrilla fighter.

Despite the danger and the fear—“What hurts most are the threats against my family,” she told me—she has come to add her voice and testimony to the EZLN’s Other Campaign at a meeting in the remote Na Savi village of El Charco. It was here, outside the schoolhouse, where the Mexican Army massacred ten indigenous villagers and one university student on June 7, 1998.

This is the geography traced by the Other Campaign, the terrain of the Mexican underclass where the visitor finds no paved roads, no water projects, no universities, but instead hundreds of bullet holes in the walls of a two-room schoolhouse. The Other Campaign, with its motley crew of followers from across the country and across the left side of the political spectrum, all piled into a makeshift caravan, lumbered up the steep dirt roads for hours to gather at El Charco and heard from survivors of the massacre, regional indigenous rights groups, and people like Obtilia Eugenio.

The Sexta

In June 2005 the EZLN sent out a Red Alert, calling an emergency session with the army’s commanders. After a month of discussions, the EZLN released the Sixth Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle (La sexta declaracion de la selva Lacandona). The Sexta, something like a Zapatista Declaration of Independence from capitalism, lays out the Zapatistas’ analysis of the social ills in Mexico and abroad and what they plan to do about them.

The analysis in the Sexta is simple: capitalism treats people and nature as sheer merchandise, objects without rights, to be used and discarded at the whim of stock markets and speculators. Democracy within a capitalist system is nothing more than window dressing, reiterated false promises, and government aid programs that stifle autonomy, foster dependence, and ultimately conquer social movements fighting for social transformation. There is no way to overthrow capitalism from within the electoral system; something entirely “other” must be built without the corrupting influence of the capitalist political class.

Early in the morning on January 1, 2006, Marcos set out on his 6-month journey across all 31 states in Mexico as the EZLN’s Delegate Zero. His assignment was to listen to the indigenous communities, workers, social movements, nongovernmental organizations, students, and individuals who make up the underdogs (los de abajo) of the Mexican left. The Other Campaign’s ultimate goal: to pull all these people together and, with them, overthrow the government, uproot capitalism, exile business and political elites, and change the country and the world.

Hence the first phase of the Other Campaign: a journey across the country to listen. The EZLN does not want to tell their fellow underdogs of the left how to organize or what to do, but first to ask them what they have been doing and how to bridge their efforts and create a national movement. The listening sessions are long and arduous, stretching for hours, several times a day, seven days a week. Most meetings are held either in box-like concrete rooms in union offices and public halls or outdoors, sometimes with and sometimes without thatched roofs or tarps to provide shade from the sun. When the agenda is tight, meeting organizers set a time limit for each participant, but most often there is no limit. While no one ever screens for content, there are two topics that are explicitly unwelcome: speaking in favor of either capitalism or political parties.

The July Elections

The Zapatistas’ running their campaign parallel to the 2006 presidential campaigns alienated some Zapatista sympathizers, mostly urban middle class intellectuals and activists within the Party of the Democratic Revolution (Partido de la Revolucion Democratica, PRD). The PRD candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, ran neck-andneck against Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party (Partido de Accion Nacional, PAN)—a right-winger with formidable support from the Mexican ruling class.

The July 2 vote was immediately mired in anomalies as the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), the body charged with conducting the elections and tallying the vote, withheld early estimated results, then selectively released results from areas won by Calderon while leaving out millions of votes from areas won by Lopez Obrador. As the days passed, the PRD amassed a several thousand-page complaint that they filed before the federal electoral court, formally challenging the IFE’s pronouncement that Calderon won the election by less than 1 percentage point and demanding a vote-by-vote recount. Lopez Obrador subsequently held two massive marches and protests in Mexico City, drawing half a million to the first and over a million to the second. The PAN and the PRD continued to launch accusations back and forth, inundating the television news hour and the first ten pages of the national papers with post-electoral intrigue.

The Mexican elections came just as left—or in some cases, at least not totally right—candidates are winning elections across Latin America. Some, like Mexico City-based intellectuals Enrique Dussel and Guillermo Almeyra, argued that the Other Campaign’s harsh criticisms of the PRD and Lopez Obrador led to abstentions on election day that aided the right-wing candidate. Too much was at stake, they said, to let the right win the elections.

The participants in the Other Campaign are undeterred by such logic. Too much has been at stake for too long and nothing has changed. Vote or not, still nothing will change after Election Day, they say. Marcos has been careful with his words as well, never calling for abstention, but rather urging his listeners to participate in building a national, non-violent, grassroots rebellion through the Other Campaign, whose slogan is “Vote or don’t vote: organize.”

The abstention argument is not shared by the PRD rank and file. At Lopez Obrador’s closing campaign events, as well as his electoral fraud protests, I asked attendants what they thought of the Other Campaign, expecting to hear criticisms similar to those of the middle class intelligentsia. But most people didn’t see a contradiction between voting for Lopez Obrador, supporting the Other Campaign, and demanding a vote-by-vote recount. “The Other Campaign? We also support the Other Campaign, but we came here to defend our vote,” one marcher told me.

Relatively few beyond those directly involved, however, have paid much attention to the Other Campaign. The Mexican and international mainstream media’s scant coverage and fickle treatment of the campaign comes as no surprise. What is surprising is the lack of coverage in much of the left press. The left has made the same mistake as the right: they reduced the entire Other Campaign to Marcos and left out the participation of thousands of Mexicans.

The Crackdown

The Other Campaign did not quite go as planned. On May 3—while the Other Campaign was visiting the site of the 1968 military massacre of over 100 student protesters in Tlatelolco Plaza—local and state police unleashed a violent operation to repress a tiny march of flower vendors in Texcoco, about 20 miles outside of Mexico City. When residents of the neighboring town of San Salvador Atenco, members of the rural farmers’ movement known as the People’s Front in the Defense of Land, blocked the highway to demand the immediate release of those taken prisoner in Texcoco, the government responded by sending over 800 federal and state riot police. National television networks filmed from helicopters the resulting clashes between the People’s Front and the police—protesters kicking an unconscious police officer in the groin, groups of officers huddled around fallen protesters raining blows with their police batons—repeating over and over again the scene of the police officer being kicked and trumpeting the need for a stronger crackdown to “finish these people off.”

That crackdown came the following day when over 3,500 federal, state, and local police surrounded and invaded San Salvador Atenco. Hundreds of members of the Other Campaign had traveled throughout the night to stand in solidarity with the people of Atenco. Most of these people, however, were caught off guard when the church bells rang in warning at 6:00 AM. People scrambled to defend the entrances to the town, but were overwhelmed by the number of police firing tear-gas grenades. Within the first few minutes, police shot 20-year-old economy student Ollin Alexis Benhumea in the head. He fell, was immediately taken to a house close by where, surrounded by the police, he was unable to get medical attention. Ollin Alexis went into a coma and died a month later.

The police pummeled all those caught in the streets. Jorge Salinas Jardon, a telephone union worker, was beaten, on camera, so badly that both of his arms were broken and he no longer has bones in several fingers in each hand as the bones were pulverized and had to be replaced with metal rods. But the beatings in the streets were just the beginning. Once the police had taken control of the town, masked locals led them house to house to beat and arrest known participants in the People’s Front and the Other Campaign members who had sought refuge in people’s homes.

The police violence was indiscriminate. Arnulfo Pacheco, who has been confined to a wheelchair for years, was pulled from his bed, beaten, and then ordered to get up and walk. When he did not comply, he was beaten unconscious. Police then piled bleeding bodies into empty buses and pick-up trucks and drove out into the countryside for further beatings. During the six-hour drive, police systematically attacked women prisoners with sexual violence, including rape. The riot police had included condoms in their gear.

By the end of two days of violence, over 200 people had been severely beaten and imprisoned. Marcos called a Red Alert in Zapatista communities and, after leading a march of several thousand people to Atenco on May 5, announced that the Other Campaign’s journey would be suspended in order to demand the release of all those taken prisoner in Texcoco and Atenco. Other Campaign members set up camp outside the maximum security prison near Mexico City and organized several large marches, culminating in a rally in the central plaza on July 2—election day. Within the first month, over 170 people were released from prison.

Since July 2, the Other Campaign and the continued daily struggle to attain liberty for the 30 people still in prison has been mostly lost in the national outcry over the electoral irregularities and the demand for a vote-by-vote recount. At an assembly meeting in Atenco on July 23, Marcos announced that a delegation of commanders from the Zapatista Army of National Liberation would soon leave the Lacandon jungle to help in the struggle. Rumors have it that the commanders will take over the helm of the Other Campaign’s nationwide listening tour, continuing north while Marcos stays in Mexico City to organize Atenco solidarity actions.

Teachers’ Tent City

An inspiring example of patient grassroots organizing is in Oaxaca. Local Section 22 of the National Education Workers Union—with 26 years of non-stop struggle under its belt—took over downtown Oaxaca setting up a tent city in the colonial town center. They also blocked access to state government buildings and the major tourist industry festival—the Guelaguetza—and organized their own free, alternative festival, which over 20,000 people attended. The union has some 70,000 members in Oaxaca and most of those are actively participating in resistance actions, creating a force that local police are unable to bully.

Nevertheless, on June 14 over 1,000 state and local police attempted to lift the teachers’ tent city in a dawn raid that involved helicopters launching tear gas grenades and hundreds of police stomping and clubbing sleeping teachers. The police took control of Central Americathe town square, but lost that control later in the afternoon when tens of thousands of teachers and local supporters returned to set their tents back up. The attempted violent dislodging of the teachers galvanized the community. Tens of thousands of residents not affiliated with any political organization created an umbrella organization called the Popular Assembly of Oaxaca (APPO), which has since organized hundreds of thousands into marches and civil disobedience demanding the removal of the governor, Ulises Ruiz.

The teachers have suspended their initial demands for an increased federal and state budget for education in Oaxaca, to add their strength to the APPO’s call for the governor’s removal. “We have been building political alliances for some time, it is a matter of survival. We don’t have any alternative,” Alejandro Cruz Lopez told me. Cruz is a lawyer with the Indigenous Organization for Human Rights in Oaxaca, a member of the Other Campaign in Oaxaca, and a long-time activist for indigenous rights in the state. He is now actively participating in the APPO, which he says is, in the spirit of the Other Campaign, looking to build a different way of doing politics where, “You don’t just struggle for your health clinic, you don’t just struggle for potable water, but you struggle for structural change in social and economic policies.”
John Gibler reports from Mexico for ZNet, KPFA, KPFK, Left Turn, and other independent media. He is a Global Exchange human rights fellow.