Dylan Fitzwater, Autonomy is in Our Hearts:
Zapatista Autonomous Government Through the Lens of the Tsotsil Language

The following selections contained footnotes that are not included, with a couple of exceptions in parentheses. The work is being revised for publication by PM Press.

(Excerpt 1) The Zapatista Form of Liberation (1.8K)

Both the statutes of the FLN and the Revolutionary Laws of the EZLN have the same basic goal of describing the processes of governance that give form to an armed organization as it struggles for national liberation. Both define the decision-making processes of the organization as well as the forms of governance that will be instituted in territory liberated by the organization in the course of the armed struggle. However, the similarities stop there. Each document outlines a fundamentally different form of decision-making and governance. Both express the desire to redistribute land and institute a system of fair wages, to create equality, justice and dignity; however, they each describe entirely different processes for instituting these aspirations and entirely different actors who would have the power to decide what is fair, what is just and what is equal.
In the case of the FLN, Article Six of the statutes, titled “long range goals,” outlines the forms of governance that will be instituted through the triumph of the revolution. Point A of this article states that the first goal of the FLN is to “defeat the bourgeoisie politically and militarily in order to liberate definitively our country from imperialist domination.” Points B through D outline the form of governance that would be instituted to replace the old system of domination. The goals of the FLN after the triumph of the revolutionary armed forces are:
b) To install a socialist system that, through social ownership of the means of production, will suppress the exploitation of the workers and distribute among the population the wealth that it creates, according to the principle, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his work,” transferring land to the peasants and factories to the workers.
c) To integrate a popular government with representatives of the revolutionary organizations that have participated in an outstanding and intransigent way on the various fronts of struggle (military, political, ideological) against the governing oppressor, in order to exercise the dictatorship of the proletariat, so establishing a workers’ state, which will attend to the interests of the majority of the population, and in which work will be obligatory.
d) To form a single political party based on the principles of Marxism-Leninism.
The final point E of Article Six lists the resources that will be expropriated by the workers’ state including big factories and agricultural estates, credit institutions, means of communication and transportation, private schools, hospitals, recreational facilities and large private residences. It also lists the abolition of the army and obligatory military service to be replaced by the formation of a “People’s Army,” and closes with the general promise to expropriate “the bourgeoisie’s goods for the full benefit of the people” and “to stop the plunder of our wealth in natural resources.”
This list of long term goals should be familiar to anyone with a basic knowledge of the Cuban revolution or with other similar Latin American guerrilla movements. The overarching assumption of these goals is that the agent of post-revolutionary change is a centralized socialist state organized into a single unified party made up of the triumphant forces of the revolution. All the concrete actions of post-revolutionary change such as the expropriation of lands and factories, the creation of fair working conditions, and the obligation to work, are enacted through the action of a central state power. The revolutionary state is vested with the responsibility for the creation of justice and equality and the power to ensure the realization of this responsibility. The aspirations of good governance in this document follow a model in which the desires of the people are submitted to the revolutionary state, which is conceived as their single legitimate representative as the embodiment of their collective revolutionary achievement. In turn, the revolutionary state enacts the desires of the people, for redistribution of resources and the means of production, which are seen as the material conditions for a dignified life. The statutes of the FLN lay out a future form of good government organized like the spokes of a wheel: the desires of all the different peoples and places of the nation radiate toward a central axle whose rotation is the motor force that moves them all down the road toward justice, equality and a dignified life. It is a vision in which the peoples and places of the nation have the freedom to fully and equally make use of the means of production, but do not directly participate in the process of administering their redistribution nor the process of governance over these means of production. This implicit model of power in the revolutionary form of good governance would be fundamentally altered in the revolutionary laws of the EZLN.
The revolutionary laws were first published in early January 1994 in the EZLN’s underground newspaper in Mexico City El Despertador Mexicano [The Mexican Alarm Clock]24 after being approved by all the Zapatista communities in March of 1993 as part of the collective decision to go to war. However, many of their tenets arose from practices that were already in place clandestinely in the organized Zapatista communities. The revolutionary laws lay out many of the same material aspirations of the FLN statutes regarding redistribution of land and the means of production. The revolutionary laws are much more specific and concrete regarding agrarian reform, prohibiting individual ownership of good quality land exceeding 50 hectares (nearly 125 acres) and poor quality land exceeding 100 hectares (nearly 250 acres). However, the most striking difference is the process for implementing and administering these reforms and expropriations. The first place where this difference is strikingly apparent is in the process of administering “war taxes” in territory under the control of the EZLN. The Law of War Taxes states that “The LAW OF WAR TAXES is obligatory for all those civilians who live from the exploitation of the labor power of others or who obtain some form of profit from the people in their activities.”
These taxes would consist of 7% of monthly income for small businesses and landlords and 10% of monthly income for professionals as long as these taxes did not affect the means or materials of production of these individuals. Medium landlords would be charged 15% of monthly income and large capitalists would be charged 20%. In both cases their property would be affected by the respective revolutionary law of expropriation.27 Under the Law of War Taxes, funds collected through taxation would not go to a national revolutionary government, nor would they go to the forces of the EZLN but rather to democratically elected authorities in each locale. As the Law of War Taxes makes clear:
All war taxes collected by the revolutionary armed forces or by the organized people will become collective property of the respective populations and will be administered according to the popular will of the democratically elected civil authorities, giving to the EZLN only what is necessary to aid the material necessities of the regular troops and to continue the liberation movement according to the LAW OF RIGHTS AND OBLIGATIONS OF THE PEOPLES IN STRUGGLE”.28
This law states that all taxes, and thus all funds other than those which arise through expropriation, will be under the sole authority of democratically elected civilian authorities specific to each population. This form of administration is indicative of a unifying theme consistent throughout all ten of the revolutionary laws: the source of authority for all significant economic and political decisions are democratically elected civilian authorities specific to each of the places and peoples in struggle, there is no law defining a national revolutionary government29 and the military power of the EZLN is explicitly forbidden from having any influence on civilian authority.
This civilian authority is described in The Law of Rights and Obligations of the Peoples in Struggle. According to this document all the peoples in struggle, irregardless of political affiliation, religion or race, are guaranteed the following rights:
a) To elect, freely and democratically, their own authorities in whatever way they consider to be best and to demand that they are respected.
b) To demand that the revolutionary armed forces not intervene in matters of civilian authority or in the expropriation of agricultural, commercial, financial and industrial capital, which is the exclusive power of the freely and democratically elected civilian authorities.Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional.
The heart of revolutionary authority and governance is the “free and democratic” election of civilian authorities with final authority over each place and people liberated by the revolutionary armed forces. These authorities not only have the right to levy war taxes, but also have the “exclusive power” to carry out expropriations of land and other forms of capital. They have final authority in administering the two fundamental economic aspirations of the revolution, namely levying taxes and expropriation of resources, that enact redistribution and ultimately begin to build a more equal society. And these are just two of the broadest economic powers vested in these civilian authorities. According to the Law of Urban Reform “The civilian authorities will name neighborhood committees that decide on requests [for housing] and distribute rights to housing according to necessity and available resources.”31Additionally, the civilian authorities along with “trabajadores, colonos, patrones, [y] comerciantes [workers, residents, employers, [and] merchants]” are given the power to form a “comisión local de precios y salarios [local commission of prices and salaries]” with the power to determine the prices of basic products,32 set wages for Mexican businesses33 and determine how much they will increase each month,34 and mandate that all retired persons receive a pension equal to the minimum wage set by the local commission.35 The local civilian authorities control all basic aspects of economic life. They have authority over taxes, appropriation and redistribution of land, housing and
capital, and have the power to determine wages and prices.

(Excerpt 2) The Tsotsil Understanding of Collective Heart (O’on) and Potentiality (Ch’ulel) (2.1K)

The heart is central to Tsotsil and Tzeltal ideas of knowledge, feelings and understandings of what it means to live in the world. In these languages all “thoughts/feelings” are understood to reside in the heart and are seen as the realizations of the inherent potentialities of the heart. In Tsotsil and Tzeltal the name of this potentiality that gives rise to certain feelings is ch’ulel, often translated as soul or spirit, while the location of these potentialities is o’on or o’onton50 in Tsotsil and o’tan in Tzeltal which translate to heart.51 O’on and o’tan are relatively easy to translate into English because our understanding of the heart as a location in the body where feelings reside is very similar in meaning, though certainly less linguistically and culturally important. However, ch’ulel does not align whatsoever with the English or Spanish understanding of soul, spirit or heart and is much more difficult to translate. In an ethnography of the Tzeltal municipality of Cancuc based on fieldwork conducted between 1989 and 1994 Pedro Pitarch lays out one possible translation of ch’ulel:
In Cancuc, a person is composed of a body (bak’etal), made up of flesh and blood, and a group of “souls” (ch’ulel; plural ch’uleltik) residing within the heart of each individual. The term soul is used here for the sake of convenience. The conventional understanding of the words root (ch’ul) in both Tzeltal and Tzotzil is “holy” or “sacred.” However, in a strict sense, ch’ul denotes a thing’s radical “other.” Thus, it is a purely relative concept, and when applied to the notion of personhood, ch’ulel may be defined as “the body’s other.”
Towards the end of his book Pitarch further defines this translation of ch’ul:
The ch’ul state is not so much another place but rather another sort of reality or form of existence —perhaps we could call it “virtual”—that develops in a time and space distinct from ordinary understandings of these dimensions…This world must be carved out of the sacred dimensions, which constitutes the definitive underlying plan, the state on which existence is based.
Although Pitarch does not make this connection explicit, given his extensive reliance on the work of Gilles Deleuze to frame his theoretical work, I believe he means “virtual” in the Deleuzian sense of a reality that is is not separate or distinct from the world but is rather a means of describing the inherent or immanent potentialities of an entity that may not be materially realized but which nonetheless exist and define this entity’s place in the world.54 In both the Deleuzian virtual and in Pitarch’s interpretation of the ch’ul aspect of reality, these potentialities constitute the “underlying plan” because they define the possible changes and developments in the world and thus the shape, form and directions of the dynamic relationships that compose reality.
However, while Pitarch largely defines ch’ulel in terms of an individual body’s “other,” or its manifestation of virtual potentiality, every Tsotsil or Tzeltal person I have talked to about ch’ulel has framed it in terms of multiple relationships and the creation of a collective potentiality. As Xuno López Intzin, a contemporary Tzeltal intellectual and political activist, writes:
That which all existing beings share is Ch’ulel. From this understanding of the Ch’ulel in everything, the human being establishes relations with all that exists, in other words the human being interacts with their environment and the environment with the human being in a material and immaterial plane. From this plane or universe of Ch’ulel existence is ordered, and social relations are ordered with all that exists.
For López, ch’ulel is inherently tied to interaction and the creation of relationships, a view that was echoed in my Tsotsil lessons from the Zapatista education promoters. In this understanding, every entity in the world has ch’ulel that defines its potentials and shapes its relationships with other entities.
For example, fire’s ch’ulel includes the potential to give warmth among its characteristics, human ch’ulel includes the capacity to cultivate the land, and the ch’ulel of land includes the capacity to nourish and give birth to plants. There are already relationships apparent even in these few potentials: the warmth of the fire sustains the ch’ulel of human beings through cold but relies on the capacity of their ch’ulel to care for and sustain fire, the capacity of the earth’s ch’ulel to grow certain plants, for example the corn plant, relies on the human ch’ulel’s capacity for cultivation while humans rely on the earth for cultivation and thus for sustenance. However, it is important to emphasize that these are not capacities that describe characteristics of an entity, rather these capacities themselves inhabit the hearts
of humans, fires, earth and every other entity in existence.
Keeping this idea of the potentiality (ch’ulel) that inhabits and arises from all hearts (o’on) we can come to more precise and nuanced understanding of the Zapatistas’ description of their coming together in collectivity through their process of organization. Most Tsotsil and Tzeltal phrases that describe anything involving human will, thought, feeling, emotion, or intention are formed either through reference to the heart as a container of potentiality, or to some force that inhabits the heart. For example, a Zapatista education promoter told me that when a community consumes alcohol the Zapatistas say in Tsotsil: Ch-cha’y ta yo’onik svokolik which literally translates as “their sadness (svokolik) mistakes itself (ch-cha’y) in their heart (yo’onik),” meaning that their sadness mistakes itself in the sense of being obscured or imperceptible and thus they do not see the sadness that inhabits their heart. There are two important insights that can be drawn from this sentence. First, heart is not pluralized; the phrase uses heart (o’on) rather than hearts (o’onetik) implying that there is a single shared collective heart. Second, sadness is the subject that reflexively mistakes itself, it is an agent or force (an aspect of ch’ulel) that inhabits and acts in the heart rather than a characteristic of the heart. I interpret this phrase as illustrative of the close connection between shared emotions or potentialities and the creation of a collective heart. Again, ch’ulel and o’on are not easily separable concepts. Thus,
when a shared ch’ulel aspect such as a specific sadness enters the hearts of many people this immediately ties them together in a shared ch’ulel and thus a shared or collective heart (o’on). Heart (o’on) is not an individual container but relative to the particular ch’ulel aspect being described, o’on describes the space inhabited by a certain ch’ulel, in this case it is a ch’ulel that traverses an entire community and thus brings them together into the shared space of a single heart.
We can now see the EZLN’s description of their process of first coming together in a new light through this understanding of sadness as ch’ulel that inhabits the heart (o’on) and enlarges the heart through its growth and spreading to others. Thus, the passage is not a metaphorical description of individuals coming together, it is a fairly literal description of the ending of sadness (vokol) mistaking itself (cha’yel) and of the growth of a shared sadness and thus of a collective heart. The first sentence “En nuestro corazón había tanto dolor, tanta era nuestra muerte y pena, que no cabía ya [There was so much pain in our heart, our sadness and death were so much, that they no longer fit.]” is significant both because it uses “heart” in the singular, implying a collective shared heart, and in its portrayal of
sadness as a force (ch’ulel) that grows until it no longer “fits,” until it can no longer be obscured (cha’yel) and thus begins to overflow. The second sentence describes how sadness overflowed the “heart of a few” (again using heart in the singular collective sense) and filled the hearts, not just of other people, but of animals plants and stones, until it filled the heart of every entity in the world. This is not a metaphorical description meant to emphasize the intensity of human sadness, it is the literal description of every entity’s heart (o’on) being filled with the force (ch’ulel) of pain and sadness. Lastly, given the previous insight that shared sadness implies a shared heart, this process of the overflowing of sadness also implies the growth of a collective heart. This insight would be directly stated in a Tsotsil translation of the final phrase “conocimos que hay esperanza todavía en nuestros pechos.” In Tsotsil Smuk’ul ko’ontik means “we have hope,”57 but it literally translates as our heart (ko’ontik) is big (muk’).58 Thus, this final arrival of hope in the heart is not a reversal or negation of shared sadness, but rather the direct result of sadness overflowing the heart of a few and thus bringing many entities together in a big (muk’) heart.
In Tsotsil expressions involving a heart (o’on) that is large or whole has several specific positive connotations while a heart that is small or fragmented has several specific negative connotations. These expressions often apply equally to the heart of an individual and to the collective heart of a community or people and are central in Tsotsil understandings of emotion, happiness, and ultimately what it means to live a good and dignified life. The wholeness or fragmentation of the heart is a constant everyday concern in Tsotsil. For example, a very common way of saying “how are you?” is to ask k’usi javo’on, which literally means what is the state of (K’usi) your (the prefix jav-) heart (o’on). The two general responses to this question are jun ko’on that literally means one (jun) my (the prefix k-) heart (o’on) or my heart is one and describes a positive state, and chkat ko’on that literally means I am counting (1st
person transitive conjugation in present periphrastic of the verb atel to count) my (the prefix k-) heart (o’on) giving the sense of a fragmented heart or a heart broken in pieces and communicating a negative state. These answers can both be used for an individual heart (my heart, ko’on) and a collective heart (our heart, ko’ontik). In Tsotsil the wholeness or fragmentation of the heart describes the positive or negative emotional, physical and spiritual state of a collective or an individual. Again, it is important to remember that heart (o’on) and potentiality (ch’ulel) are closely tied almost reciprocal concepts. Saying that the heart is one means that the ch’ulel is inhabiting the heart and is fully present, and saying that the heart is fragmented means that the ch’ulel is partially lost, hidden or blocked in some way.
Furthermore, ch’ulel, though it is a force and spirit in itself, is also closely tied to relationships that allow the realization of its potentiality as in the example of a community uncovering the potentiality (ch’ulel) of the earth to give food through cultivation. Thus, the wholeness of the heart implies both that the heart is big (muk’),59 since it is inhabited by the full realization of its ch’ulel, and also that it is in relations that allow the full realization of ch’ulel. This is especially relevant in the case of a collective heart where fragmentation directly equates to a splintering of the collectivity, a loss of relationship, an obscuring or loss of ch’ulel and thus the loss of the potentialities that made the
collective heart one. It is not that the fragmentation of the heart causes the loss of ch’ulel, or that the loss of ch’ulel causes the splintering of the heart, but rather that there is a single process of losing relationships, harmony, potentiality and cohesion.
Thus, creating collectivity in Tsotsil is understood as the reciprocal process of the growth of the heart (o’on) and of potentiality (ch’ulel). The education promoters of Caracol II Oventik have described this process to me using the phrase ichbail ta muk’ which means to bring (ichil) one another (ba) to largeness or greatness (ta muk’)60 and implies the coming together of a big collective heart. I have also seen this phrase translated simply as “democracy.”61 Furthermore, this process of bringing one another to greatness (ichbail ta muk’) is understood by the promoters as the creation of lekil kuxlejal, which literally means the life that is good for everyone,62 but which is usually translated as autonomy or dignified life. For the Zapatistas, dignity, autonomy, and democracy for each people, as well as the
creation of this people as a collectivity, arises through the growth of the heart, through bringing one another into one collective heart, through ichbail ta muk’.

(Excerpt 3) Mandar Obediciendo: the Creation of the Autonomous Government (3.3K)
One of the most significant obstacles to the creation of Zapatista autonomous government has been the EZLN itself. Despite the promise of the revolutionary laws to maintain a strict separation between the EZLN military and the local democratic authorities, the strength and legitimacy of the EZLN military organization in the communities has always threatened to subsume the independence of Zapatista democratic authorities. Although the political-military organization of the EZLN was made through the mutual agreement of all the Zapatista communities during the clandestine period, once it was organized it remained a military structure. Although the high command received directions on important decisions like the declaration of war or the content of the revolutionary laws from the
democratic decision of the communities, the day to day decision-making structure was still that of a military organization: the “mando [superior officer]” always had the final say. As Subcomandante Marcos wrote in 2003 in the announcement of the formation of the Caracoles:
Self-government…is not an invention or contribution of the EZLN. It comes from further back and, when the EZLN was born, it had already been functioning for quite some time, although only at the level of each community. As a result of the explosive growth of the EZLN,…this practice passed from the local to the regional level. It functioned with responsables at the local (these are those with responsibility in each community), regional (a group of communities), and zone (a group of regions)….Although here, given that it was a political-military organization, the superior officer made the final decision. What I want to say with this is that the military structure of the EZLN in some way “contaminated” a tradition of democracy and self-government. The EZLN was, so to speak, one of the “antidemocratic” elements in a relationship of direct communitarian democracy..89
Although the EZLN grew in the indigenous communities of Chiapas through the process of ichbil ta muk’, the resulting organization had anti-democratic tendencies imposed by the necessity of fast wartime decision-making through a set chain of command. Despite the promises of the revolutionary laws, the political context after 1994 gave the EZLN’s military structure even more influence over civilian government in the communities. Many of the clandestine forms of organization that existed in the communities before 1994 were weakened with the outbreak of war. The organization confronted a new social reality after 1994 with new problems and new possibilities such as the
continuous counter-insurgency violence perpetrated by the government, the interaction with national and international civil society, and the difficulties involved in transforming from a clandestine military organization to the form of democracy outlined by the revolutionary laws. All of these issues tended to shift power to the EZLN command structure and away from the local democratic authorities of the Zapatista communities.
The declaration of the autonomous municipalities was a first step towards addressing these problems. For example Lorena, a promoter of herbalism, midwifery, and bone medicine90 from the autonomous municipality of San Pedro de Michoacán in the zone of Caracol I La Realidad described the creation of the autonomous municipalities in her zone:
Before 1994, in the clandestine period, some compañeros and compañeras who had been working were also already participating in trabajos colectivos since that time, in different trabajos that we were doing, but at that time no one thought that was autonomy….[W]hen we declared the war in 1994, we kept doing the trabajos, we gave them more effort to be able to continue working, to continue participating in the different spaces where we were organized….[B]ut because we were at war we were losing the authorities in the community, we were losing the local authorities, the agents of the community, it was as if they were uncontrolled in the communities. The commanders also realized how we were working at this time, that we were losing that structure we had before the war. They saw that we could not continue like this, they took on the work of controlling those from civil society who were arriving because we didn’t have any idea how to be able to control them in each community, in each community where we are….[B]ut, they saw that they were not the ones who needed to do this work, so that was when they told us that we had to prepare ourselves more to be able to see for ourselves how we have to work. They found other compañeros to analyze this problem, it was not the role of the commanders. They called the people together and spoke about all these tasks that they were doing but that it was not their role to do….These compañeros had a discussion, they saw that we had to form groups, to organize ourselves, and that is when the creation of the 38 autonomous municipalities was declared in December of 1994. Then the local and municipal authorities began seeing to the work, they had a responsibility to be able attend to the people, to be able to organize more, to be able to continue working better, to control in what form we are going to continue.
The new realities after the 1994 uprising weakened the internal organization of the communities and also put a previously clandestine organization into contact with national and international civil society, not to mention global media and the counterinsurgency strategies of the Mexican government. The EZLN command was more prepared to deal with these issues and as a result had increasing control over general political decision-making as well as some aspects of economic reality in the communities.
The EZLN command’s responsibility for relating with national and international civil society gave them disproportionate power over defining the political relationships and messages of the movement. It also gave them control over solidarity funding and projects that affected many aspects of daily life in the communities ranging from access to electricity and drinking water to the development of the Zapatista health and education systems. These projects should have been controlled solely by the communities in keeping with the principle of mandar obediciendo and the tenets of the revolutionary laws. With the declaration of the autonomous municipalities the EZLN attempted to remedy this problem and allow the autonomous municipalities to directly control solidarity projects and funding.
However, according to Lorena, the autonomous municipalities were not formed through a unilateral decision by the EZLN command, but rather through a process of several groups of Zapatista communities coming together and reaching an agreement. This agreement was made in democratic assemblies organized by the EZLN command but in which they had no voice. Although breaking out of the military blockade would not have been possible without the coordination of the EZLN military structure, the decision to form an autonomous municipality was ultimately in the hands of the communities. Thus, there were three processes that brought about the formation of the autonomous municipalities: An organizational structure, in this case the EZLN, saw a problem with how the agreements of the organization were functioning and made a proposal to the Zapatista communities; the Zapatista communities then agreed on a new form of organization that would address the problem in a democratic assembly free from coercion by the larger organizational structure of the EZLN; and finally the organizational structure of the EZLN coordinated the implementation of the communities’ agreement, in this case by coordinating the non-violent military offensive that founded the autonomous municipalities.
However, the creation of the autonomous municipalities did not solve the problem completely and themselves gave rise to new problems that would eventually be addressed through the formation of the Caracoles and the Good Government Councils. The autonomous municipalities are distributed throughout the state of Chiapas. Some are in areas closer to major cities or near highways and some are very remote and include communities that can only be reached by walking for many hours. These geographical factors, combined with the limited capacity of many civil society groups, led to an unequal distribution of resources and ultimately an unequal process of development among the autonomous municipalities. Furthermore, there were also problems between the autonomous municipalities and civil society groups. In some cases this relationship looked more like charity and less like solidarity. Some groups would do projects in the communities regardless of whether this was what the community actually wanted or needed. As Subcomandante Marcos writes:
…[S]ome NGO’s and international organizations…decided what the communities needed and, without even consulting them, not only imposed particular projects, but also the timeframes and forms of their implementation. Imagine the despair of a community that needs potable water and end up with a library, that requests a school for children and they give them a course on herbal medicine. This was not only useless for the communities, it was also contrary to the core of the Zapatista struggle which always places autonomy, self-government and dignity above material development. As Marcos points out, “If the Zapatista communities wanted it, they would have the highest standard of living in all of Latin America. Imagine how much the government would be willing to invest to secure our surrender and take a lot of photos…while the country falls apart in their hands..”
The Zapatistas have never struggled for handouts, they fought and died for dignity and democracy, for lekil
kuxlejal and ichbail ta muk’ for all the peoples of Mexico. The second problem was one of internal coordination among the autonomous municipalities. In the beginning of 1996 the EZLN created five centers called “aguascalientes” in honor of the place where the radical forces of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa formed an alliance during the 1910 Mexican revolution. Although these physical spaces would later become the Caracoles they were not initially intended to be centers of autonomous government but were rather spaces for gatherings of civil
society in Zapatista territory.95 There was no civilian government structure that coordinated between autonomous municipalities and as a result the EZLN military structure fulfilled this need. This coordination on a larger geographic scale was central in combating the governments counterinsurgency strategy of military intimidation and the formation of indigenous paramilitary groups in Zapatista territory. The EZLN command fulfilled the role of mediating between Human Rights groups committed to stopping the violence of the governments counter-insurgency strategy, the autonomous municipalities and official municipal authorities aligned with the government.
This lack of coordination also produced a different form of unequal development among the municipalities where some advanced faster in organizing a functioning autonomous municipal government while others were much slower. Gerónimo, a former member of the Good Government Council from the autonomous municipality Lucio Cabañas in the Zone of Caracol IV Morelia, described the experience of creating autonomous municipal authorities in his zone:
When the autonomous municipalities were declared many of us didn’t have experience with how to be an authority, some did have it but others didn’t, some had been authorities of official communities but others hadn’t. When it was that we need to work on autonomy, what did we do? What was done was to call a meeting of all the communities so that they can discuss it, first the name, what to name the municipality, and afterward so that they can name authorities, the different roles of the authorities, the council….Each municipality call an assembly of all the base, then they directly chose this group of compañeros to do the work of autonomy. What work will these compañeros do? Because we practically didn’t know how, maybe some did, but the majority didn’t know, what are we going to do. We are going to work on autonomy, we are going to self-govern ourselves, the how is the question that arose, what is it that we are going to do? Since no one knew the answer but time was still passing, once these authorities were there, then the problems came up. Really, there were problems in every one of our communities, in our municipalities…in that time the principal problem that was confronted was alcoholism, familial problems, problems between neighbors and some agrarian problems….[I]n around 1997, there were municipalities that were the first to be declared, that had already advanced, one of those is the municipality 17 de Noviembre, which is a municipality that had already started to do more work while the other municipalities were still lagging behind.”
Although there is a long tradition of community democracy in the indigenous communities of Chiapas, this knowledge did not necessarily mean that members of Zapatista communities were prepared to address all the problems that can arise in a municipality made up of scores of different communities with different histories and customs, who sometimes even speak different indigenous languages, and who are also in the process of defending and redistributing vast tracts of land reclaimed in the 1994 uprising. Although everyone in each autonomous municipality participated in the creation of the municipality, local circumstances allowed some to better organize a functioning municipal government structure able to address the many problems in their territory.
In answer to all these problems the Zapatistas announced the transformation of the Aguascalientes into the Caracoles and the creation of the five Good Government Councils on August 8, 2003. However, just as with the formation of the autonomous municipalities, the EZLN did not make this decision unilaterally. Subcomandante Marcos made clear in his announcement of the Caracoles and Good Government Councils that their formation was not a decision of the EZLN command, but rather that he had only been chosen by the communities to communicate their agreement to the rest of the world.98 The EZLN command identified many of the problems with the autonomous municipalities but they did not make the decision on how to address them. In fact, the testimonies from Caracol IV
Morelia, Caracol I La Realidad and Caracol III La Garrucha in the escuelita textbooks describe processes that were already being developed in these zones to fulfill the need for more coordination between their municipalities. Gerónimo states that in 1997 when they begin to see that some of the municipalities had not advanced very far in developing their systems of autonomous government all the municipal authorities in the zone of Caracol IV Morelia started having regular meetings to coordinate their efforts. As a result Gerónimo states that:
…all the municipalities were strengthened, all the municipalities formally named their authorities, named their
autonomous councils. Once all the municipalities had their autonomous councils and the whole body that makes up the council then there started to be other work, then they started to work more in other commissions, then they didn’t just dedicate themselves to addressing problems but rather worked more for the development of the municipalities. The .99 Gerónimo makes clear that this process of coming together to coordinate their work not only helped advance those municipalities that were still have trouble governing well but also allowed all the municipalities in the zone to better organize their development.
Lorena describes a similar process of organization in the zone of Caracol I La Realidad:
…the compañeros of the political and military command realized that there was an imbalance among the communities, that things weren’t equal, they realized that both [solidarity] support as well as the trabajos colectivos that were being organized in every municipality were not equal. This was why they initiated a meeting of the municipal councils, they started to have their assemblies to begin to see how each municipality was doing, what [solidarity] support they had, what trabajos they are doing, what trabajos they were organizing to reinforce their resistance. They started to have a lot of meetings and around 1997, after several meetings, they named the assembly of municipal councils the Association of Autonomous Municipalities, this is what they called the meetings the municipal councils were having. Months and years passed and this is how they were working in organization. During this time of the association of municipalities they started to look at the tasks, the trabajos of health, education and commerce….Arriving in 2002, the compañeros of the association of municipalities decided to name a group of compañeros that would be responsible for coordinating these trabajos of health, education and commerce. They named 7 compañeros and 1 compañera…they called this group of compañeros the Administration of the Association of Autonomous Municipalities….We continued working until we arrived to 2003, with the formation of the good government councils…but in our zone we didn’t know if the members of the administration of the association of municipalities would someday be authorities and government. In 2003, when the good government councils were created, the people and the association of municipalities decided that these 8 compañeros, the members of the administration of the association of municipalities, would become the authorities of the Good Government Council.
Coordination among autonomous municipalities also began as early as 1997 in the Zone of La Realidad and directly transformed into the work of the Good Government Council in 2003. Both the formation of the Association of Autonomous Municipalities and the decision that the Directorio [Administration] would take on the role of Good Government Council were made in assemblies of the Zapatista communities convened by the EZLN command but where the decision remained in the hands of the communities. Similarly, Artemio, a former member of the autonomous municipal consejo101 [101 “Consejo” can best be translated as “council” in English. However, I have chosen to leave it untranslated because “Junta” can also only be translated as “Council.” There are two distinct words in Spanish while there is only one in
English. Thus, in order to avoid confusion where testimonies make reference both to consejos and juntas, with the
former clearly referencing the autonomous authorities at the municipal level and the later the autonomous authorities at the level of the zone, I have chosen to maintain this distinction by leaving consejo untranslated. In my descriptions of Zapatista autonomous authorities in this chapter “Council” always refers to the Good Government Council, while
“consejo” always refers to the autonomous municipal authorities.] of Ricardo Flores Magón in the Zone of Caracol III La Garrucha, says that before the formation of the Good Government Council they had periodic assemblies of the four autonomous municipalities in their zone to coordinate projects involving all four municipalities, although he doesn’t mention when these assemblies were first organized and doesn’t discuss what these projects were or how they were coordinated.102
The seeds that would eventually mature into the Caracoles were already being developed in three of the five zones of Zapatista territory. The growth of these seeds were encouraged by the EZLN command, for example by calling on the municipalities of Caracol I La Realidad to address the problem of inequality among municipalities, but every decision and organizational agreement was made in assemblies of the Zapatista communities. Although the testimonies in the escuelita textbooks from Caracol II Oventik and Caracol V Roberto Barrios do not mention any governing structures that foreshadowed the creation of the Caracoles, they also make clear that the communities in their zones decided to form their Good Government Councils and determined how they would function without
coercion from the EZLN command.103 Even though it remained a hierarchical military structure, the EZLN military organization has always sought to follow the tenets of the revolutionary laws that place all authority in the democratic decisions of the communities. Throughout more than 20 years of creating autonomous government the Zapatista communities have sought to develop structures that function according to the principle of mandar obediciendo or the principle that any decision must be made through the mutual and reciprocal agreement (ichbail ta muk’) of the communities.

(Excerpt 4) Governance (A’mtel) (4.2K)
By the time the Zapatistas announced the escuelita in 2013, the Good Government Councils had ten years of experience of self-government in their zones. The escuelita textbooks describe all the problems, setbacks and advances that occurred in each zone over these ten years. They tell a story in the multiple voices of numerous current and former authorities from all five zones. It is a story defined
by constant setbacks, re-examinations and reinventions of governing systems and practices in each zone. However, even though there are many differences between the five zones, there is a common commitment to the seven principles of mandar obediciendo that create a general shared form of governance present throughout the ten years since the announcement of the Caracoles. It is the same form that created the Caracoles themselves: an assembly where the communities of the zone come together to reach an agreement, where their different collective hearts (ko’onkutik) agree upon a unified collective heart (ko’ontik).
The assembly is the heart of the Zapatista form of autonomous government. It is the process by which collective decisions are made and more importantly, by which the functioning of the autonomous government itself is constantly defined and re-defined. The Zapatista form of autonomous government is not a rigidly defined model, rather it is an orientation towards the multiple diverse voices of the communities that aims to produce numerous governing structures where these voices can speak, be heard and come intro agreement. This chapter describes the practice of this assembly form of government as well as the work of Zapatista governing authorities within this system. The Zapatistas understand governance as a particular form of work in service to the community rather than as the exercise of power through administration or rule. Zapatista authorities make proposals to the communities, they do not make decisions. This circumscribed role further emphasizes the importance of the assembly as the central mechanism of autonomous government.
In practice, this assembly form of governance does not require that every single decision be made with the participation of every individual Zapatista. Rather, the principle of mandar obediciendo guides the decisions of those who are chosen by the communities to carry out and sustain their collective agreement. This principle dictates that those who are chosen as authorities by the communities must always obey the agreement of the communities. If any problems develop that undermine or complicate the agreement the authorities cannot alter the agreement based on their own judgment, rather they must convene the communities who then can decide on a new agreement. In other words they must always be aware of the multiple smaller collectives (ko’onkutik) that make up their collective heart (ko’ontik), and when these collectives (ko’onkutik) come into disagreement and imbalance the answer is never to force them back into the existing agreement (ko’ontik). In such a case, the government would really be imposing their own perspective on all the collectives that granted them their responsibility, which would mean the breaking of mutual respect and ultimately the fragmentation of the collective heart (ko’ontik). When there is disagreement, the only possible answer is to call for a new agreement, to convene all the smaller collectives (ko’onkutik) in an assembly so that each can speak and be heard until all can create a new agreement (ko’ontik) through mutual recognition and
respect (ichbail ta muk’). Despite the many differences between the histories and contemporary practices of autonomous government in the five zones of Zapatista territory, they are united by their shared goal of creating a system where all aspects of governance are created through the collective agreement of every Zapatista community in the zone.
In the recent gathering of intellectuals from civil society convoked by the Zapatistas in May, 2015 called “El Pensamiento Crítico Frente a la Hidra Capitalista [Critical Thought Confronting the Capitalist Hydra]” Subcomandante Moisés described how this system of governance functions in practice:
What our authorities do is they call a meeting, for example an Autonomous Rebellious Municipality, which can be 15, 20 compañeros and compañeras, they are there with the [compañeros and compañeras from the] areas of trabajo, health, education, agriculture, commerce and these things, then this compañero, compañera, the one that has the cargo has to say ‘I have this problem,’ she says to the collective of authorities, or it might be that the others that have cargos in the areas tell them ‘I have this problem.’ Then they start to have a discussion among authorities, for this reason we say that it is government in collective, this is where they come up with ideas, proposals, but then they don’t just apply them according to the perspective reached by the compañeros. They can’t, they have to go to the municipal assembly of authorities, which is made up of [local authorities:] the comisariadas, the agentas, comisariados and agentes, then these compañeros throw out a proposal to address a problem, then the authorities, the assembly, the authorities of the communities, they are guided by our Zapatista law,…because there they will see ‘if this has already been discussed, we already know that this is permitted, our communities already are permitting us and therefore we can say here that yes we will go forward with this proposal,’ that is when the compañeros comisariados, comisariadas give approval. The authorities know ‘we can’t say here if we are in agreement, we have to go consult with out compañeros and compañeras in the communities..”
The core of the practice of autonomous government is an assembly of all the local authorities (“comisariadas” and “agentas” are the titles of Zapatista authorities at the local level) from each community in the zone. The responsibility of the authorities of the autonomous municipalities and of the zone are to watch over the initiatives and agreements that are currently functioning in their territory, and if they see a problem to bring it to this assembly of local authorities. Then, the assembly as a whole discusses whether the already existing agreements of the Zapatista communities, or the “Zapatsta law,” permits them to do what needs to be done to solve the problem or if the communities must reach a new agreement to address the problem. If a new agreement must be reached then all the local authorities in the assembly go back to their communities and discuss the problem and come back with proposals until all the communities can agree on how best to solve the problem. As Moisés makes clear, [T]he autonomous authorities aren’t alone in what they do, their work…is laid out by the compas from the communities.
They don’t make their own policy,…rather it must be approved by the people.” This process of direct community approval of all decisions requires constant movement to and from assemblies at the different levels of autonomous government. The practice of autonomous government requires numerous hours long car rides over dirt roads and long strenuous hikes on mountain paths to remote communities, all in order to ensure that all voices are heard and respected. This incessant movement connects the multiple communities of the Zapatista organization, it is the thread that weaves their multiple collective hearts (ko’onkutik) into one (ko’ontik).
If the principle of mandar obedeciendo calls all authorities to follow the agreements of the communities rather than their personal judgment, then what do these authorities do when they see a problem with how an agreement is functioning? As authorities that have been given the responsibility to coordinate and administer the agreements of the communities they have to do something, but their actions must take the form of a proposal to the communities that they then decide in assembly, rather than an imposition that is decided by the authorities alone. The principle of “proponer y no imponer [propose, don’t impose]” guides the processes of proposing and creating new agreements, projects and initiatives in each of the five Caracoles. The assembly of all the communities of the Zone should be the
final authority for all decisions of the autonomous government. All new agreements, projects and governing structures that affect the entire zone must emerge from this assembly.
This sense of responsibility to watch over and serve the agreements of the communities defines the role of all Zapatista autonomous authorities. The work of autonomous government is not to make decisions, although they do still participate and give their perspective in the assemblies. Their work always serves the collective agreement of the communities. This conception of work can best be understood through another concept in the Tsotsil language. In the predominantly Tsotsil speaking Caracol II Oventik the Good Government Council’s Office is painted with a mural in both Tsotsil and Spanish (See Figure 4). Part of the Tsotsil text of the mural reads: Snail tzobombail yu’un lekil
j’amteletik which is translated in Spanish as “Casa de la Junta de Buen Gobierno (House of the Good Government Council).” While this translation is correct, the exact connotations of the Tsotsil phrase are very different than those of the Spanish. The first word is the noun na meaning house with the third person relational or “possessive” prefix s- and the suffix -il that in this case means that the house is not in relation with a single person or individual. In this case the house is in relation with the tzobombail, a construction of the verb tzobel meaning to come together or to meet, the affix -ba- that, as we have already seen in translating ichbail ta muk’, denotes a process that is mutual and reciprocal and the suffix -il that gives the verb a general infinitive sense. Tzobombail can be fairly directly translated as “junta”
in Spanish or “council” in English. However, the use of the suffix -ba- in the Tsotsil places special emphasis on the reciprocity and mutuality of this coming together to form a collective body or council.
So far snail tzobombail has essentially the same connotations as “casa de la junta” or “house of the council,” with the additional connotations of the suffix -ba- that communicates that this council is defined by and works according to reciprocity and mutuality. However, the translation becomes much more complicated with the rest of the phrase “yu’un lekil j’amteletik” which has a much broader meaning than that which is communicated by “de buen gobierno” and “of good government.” Yu’un translates directly as “de” or “of,” but a literal translation that communicates the full meaning of lekil j’amteletik would be something like the following: “la ocupación de hacer trabajos que son buenos para todos” or “the occupation of doing works that are good for everyone.” As we have already seen in the translation of lekil kuxlejal (literally the life that is good for everyone, or dignified life), lek means good but when modified by the suffix -il it means something that is good for everyone. J’amteletik is a construction of the verb a’mtel meaning to work, the prefix j- that in this case transforms a verb into a noun meaning the occupation or activity of doing that verb and the pluralizing suffix -etik.
However, a’mtel is a very particular kind of work specific to the indigenous communities of Chiapas. It is a form of work that is done for the community or for the collective that is closely related to the long tradition of community cargos or “roles of responsibility in the community” in Mayan indigenous communities. This system defines the concrete practice of direct communitarian democracy that existed long before the birth of the EZLN. In essence, it consists of the following: the community gives a certain person a set of responsibilities, sometimes regardless of whether this person volunteers for them or even particularly wants to do them, and then they must work to carry them out to the best of their abilities. For example, they might have the cargo of fulfilling a certain role in one of the community festivals and would be required to provide food and perform part of the rituals in the festival. Or, in the case of a Zapatista community, a person might have the cargo of being an education promoter and be responsible for teaching classes at the autonomous school in their community, or someone might have the cargo of being an authority in the municipality and watching over the agreements of the communities and attending to anyone who brings them a problem that needs to be addressed. In general, when the Zaptistas speak about trabajos colectivos108 [There is no good translation of the Zapatista idea of trabajos collectivos in English. The meaning of trabajo in this context is a combination of the English verb “to work,” and the noun “works” and also contains connotations similar to those of “project” or “initiative.” All of these words could provide adequate translations in different contexts. However, this would create a false separation, and ultimately a bad translation, since the nification of all these connotations in the Zapatista “trabajos collectivos” is essential to the meaning of the phrase. This phrase encompasses various forms of work and projects in the communities as well as the processes of collective decision-making that go along with them as a cohesive activity. This cohesion would be lost if I were to translate trabajos colectivos using multiple English words. I have chosen to leave it untranslated and have left trabajo untranslated as well when it is clearly meant to refer to the work of the trabajos colectivos.] such as their health and education systems or autonomous government, all these activities could be described using the Tsotsil verb a’mtel, or more precisely j’amteletik meaning the occupation of fulfilling these various responsibilities.
Thus, the “government” of the good government councils has a very different set of connotations than the usual understanding of the English word “government.” The primary role of this form of government is not to exercise authority or make decisions, it is the occupation of a’mtel: to work for the collective and to fulfill certain responsibilities that are defined by the communities. Furthermore, it shows that there is not a strict separation between the work of the Zapatista trabajos colectivos, for example in health and education, and the work of the autonomous government. It is not entirely true to say that the good government council “administers” or even “coordinates” the trabajos
colectivos in the sense of controlling how they function or exercising unilateral authority over them. Rather, both are different forms of a’mtel, one that is more focused on working in a particular trabajo colectivo and the other that is more focused on coordinating among trabajos colectivos and watching over them to make sure they have the resources and support they need in order to function.
The Tsotsil idea of a’mtel, together with the idea of the assembly understood through the two forms of collective heart in Tsotsil (ko’onkutik and ko’ontik), provide a useful framework for understanding the contemporary practices of autonomous government in the Caracoles. These ideas are the two threads that weave together the current structures of autonomous government as well as the aspirations to improve these structure in each Caracol. Again, these ideas are meaningless without their realization in the practices of the communities. I will now turn to these practices in the Five Caracoles as they are described in the escuelita textbooks.
Creation and Re-Creation of a Collective Heart: The Assembly of the Zone
The constant creation and re-creation of a collective heart, or the passage from ko’onkutik to ko’ontik, defines decision-making processes in the five Caracoles. This process is practiced in the assemblies and consultation processes that exist in each zone. Fanny, a member of the Good Government Council of Caracol I La Realidad, gives an overview of the process of creating new agreements that is currently in place in her zone:
The initiatives, in many cases, come up within the Good Government Council where they see necessities arising from the different areas of trabajo. If there is a necessity to make an agreement or a trabajo collectively as a zone, or any trabajo colectivo in a municipality that isn’t moving forward, or to make an agreement on how the trabajos can best function, what is done is that they convene regular assemblies, which we normally do every three months in the zone, where the municipal councils and all the authorities and also all the areas of trabajo plan, analyze, discuss, and propose how the trabajos can best function. These assemblies are where everyone reaches agreements on how they will work. Often everything can’t be decided there in the assembly itself because the communities, the bases, are there behind us. So proposals are created and brought for consultations with the communities and in the next assembly the answer will arrive, if it is good or if the communities proposed something else. This is how everything gets determined, whether they are regulations or plans for work that needs to be done in a zone. This relationship is also present when there is, for example, a trabajo or a project in a municipality, there the relationship is with the [municipal] consejo who see how the trabajo is going, the reports on how the trabajo is working, if it is working or if it isn’t working….When there are cases of emergency the Good Government Council also convenes special assemblies. When there is something urgent to do, an agreement or a work plan, they convene special assemblies.
Every three months Caracol I la Realidad holds an assembly of all the local, municipal and zonal authorities that have been chosen to represent every Zapatista community in their territory. This assembly is the only governing body that can create proposals for new agreements and projects or for modifications of existing ones. However, this assembly does not decide whether to approve these proposals. Once they have developed a proposal in detail each authority goes back to their community and discusses the proposal with all the Zapatistas who live there. They can either approve the proposal or make modifications. If all the communities approve the proposal then when all the authorities come back to the next assembly of the zone and see that all the communities are in agreement the proposal
becomes an agreement of the zone and whichever authority is responsible for coordinating the agreement begins to work on implementing it. However, if some communities make modifications to the proposal then when the authorities come back to the assembly of the zone they have to work to synthesize these proposals and then take the new proposal back to their communities who can again either agree or make modifications.
The authorities from Caracoles III, IV and V describe a similar form of decision-making through an assembly of the zone. However, the particularities of how each assembly actually functions are very different in each of these three Caracoles. Ceferino, a former member of the Good Government Council from Caracol III La Garrucha, says that their Caracol has a regular assembly of all local and municipal authorities every six months and additional assemblies whenever the Good Government Council sees a problem that requires a new agreement. He also makes clear that the communities have the final say. For example, he said that during his time as an authority whenever
there was a land dispute that needed solving, …[I]t was always done with the people who helped us a lot in providing a solution, because they were the ones doing the analysis, we simply made proposals and they would discuss it, analyze it, and come back to put it together in the zone and then the plan of how we were going to do the work would come together..”
Similarly, Johana and Fermin, former members of the Good Government Council of Caracol IV Morelia, say that their Caracol holds regular assemblies of all municipal, regional (Caracol IV has the additional regional level of autonomous government between municipal and local), and local authorities every two months and that they also convoke additional special assemblies of the zone when there is an urgent problem or initiative. Again, Johana makes clear that the role of the authorities is to make proposals, not decisions, “The communities have to know about any plan or agreement of the zone; the regional and municipal consejos are responsible for bringing it to the communities, the community has the final say, here the people decide and the government obeys. As Good Government Council, municipal and regional authorities we can’t make any plan or agreement if the people don’t agree, this is why we first ask the communities before making any plan or agreement.”
Caracol V Roberto Barrios also makes decisions through an assembly of the Zone convoked every month. However, while all the other Caracoles hold their assemblies of the zone in the Caracol itself, Roberto Barrios alternates every month between holding it in the Caracol (located in the eastern part of the zone) and in the autonomous municipality Acabalná (located to the west near the border with the state of Tabasco) to make it easier for the authorities in the western part of the zone to attend. An unnamed authority from Roberto Barrios underlines the purpose of these monthly assemblies, We know well that the Council can’t unilaterally decide, as we say, if we want to do a trabajo we always have to consult with the communities, among men and women.” All four of these Caracoles have developed their own particular ways of convening assemblies of the zone. They all share relatively similar decision-making structures that bring the principle of mandar obedeciendo into practice.
However, in the Zapatista practice of autonomy every commonality usually has an exception. In this case the exception is Caracol II Oventik. Abraham, a current member of the Good Government Council of Oventik in 2013 at the time of the escuelita, states:
One of our duties as Good Government Council is to organize meetings and assemblies, but we haven’t carried it out, the only thing we have done are gatherings of base communities throughout the zone when there is an anniversary, where they have cultural events, sports and where we give our [political] message. We have not convoked a general assembly with the bases to address special issues, on the other hand the municipal authorities do convoke general assemblies of the base communities of their municipalities, when they give their reports, when they choose new authorities and there are times when they convoke assemblies through the autonomous agentes when they see the necessity for urgent work…The communities and regions that haven’t been able to form their autonomous municipalities have their gatherings when, by internal agreement, some communities have named their autonomous agente, autonomous comisariado, autonomous judge. These authorities convoke assemblies of the base communities, together with the regional and local [responsables of the EZLN] and they are the ones who intervene to solve the problems in these communities.
As of 2013, the Good Government Council of Oventik had not been able to convene an assembly of all
the authorities of their zone. The process of assembly decision-making where the autonomous authorities make proposals and take them to the communities for approval was only operating at the municipal level as of 2013. However, as Abraham makes clear, organizing an assembly of the zone is a clearly defined goal of the Good Government Council and it is possible that they have been able to organize one during the three years since the first grade of the escuelita. A brief look at the map of Zapatista autonomous government might begin to explain why organizing an assembly of the zone is so difficult in Oventik. It is by far the largest Caracol covering a geographical area almost as large as the other four Caracoles combined. This area includes some of the most populous areas of Chiapas and many regions with Zapatista communities that have not been able to organize themselves in an
autonomous municipality. However, this does not mean that the autonomous authorities in the zone have unilateral authority over initiatives such as the education or health systems. These are still controlled by assemblies at the municipal level and initiatives at the level of the zone such as the secondary school or central hospital are still run by promoters who are assigned this cargo by the communities and who are accountable to them.
Although it is not true that every Caracol makes decisions through an assembly of the whole zone, all the authorities in the escuelita textbooks agree that the organization and coordination of this decision-making process is one of the central responsibilities of the Good Government Councils.
Furthermore, the numerous differences in how this responsibility is realized points to a foundational aspect of Zapatista governance: there is no single model or blueprint, rather every governing structure is determined by the communities that compose that structure. It is up to the communities in each zone to create a form of democratic decision-making in an assembly that works in their own contexts. The collectivity of the communities have the sole power and responsibility to create their governing structures.

(Excerpt 5) Challenges in the Work of Collective Governance (A’mtel): Circumscribing Power, Creating Accountability and Women’s Participation (8.1K)
It is one thing to aspire to create a system of government where the work of governing authorities functions according to the logic of a’mtel, and quite another to come up with concrete structures that ensure this aspiration is realized in practice. Governing according to a’mtel means always placing the voices of the communities above your own individual voice and their desires above your individual desires. Zapatista authorities should always serve these voices and desires and never seek to accumulate wealth, power or prestige. However, Zapatista authorities are far from perfect and wealth, power and prestige are all very powerful temptations. Thus, the challenge of autonomous
government is to create concrete practices that mitigate these temptations and which ensure that Zapatista authorities remain closely bound by the agreements of the communities.
The Zapatista autonomous government has had to develop structures and practices that actively prevent the concentration of economic, political and gendered forms of power. The challenges of autonomous government are to prevent Zapatista authorities from becoming corrupt and stealing the money of the communities, becoming authoritarian and using their position to gain power and influence, and from perpetuating gendered forms of oppression that place economic and political power in the hands of men and exclude women from full participation and self-determination in the Zapatista organization. This chapter examines the intricacies of these three challenges, the solutions that have been developed to address them, and the relative successes of these solutions throughout the five Caracoles. However, before we can address these challenges, we first have to lay out the most basic mechanism that makes the autonomous government function and ensures that Zapatista authorities are accountable to their communities: the process of democratic elections in the assembly.
Elections Through the Assembly
How do the communities choose people to fulfill the responsibilities of autonomous government? This process is very different in each of the five Caracoles; however, there is a common logic that unites all their diverse practices. Some of the most in depth descriptions of the process of choosing authorities are given in the testimonies from Caracol IV Morelia. Manuel, a former member of the consejo of the autonomous municipality 17 de Noviembre, describes the process of choosing authorities at the three levels of autonomous government:
The way that we choose our authorities in Caracol IV is through the assembly. If in the communities they are going to choose a local authority, it could be a comisariado, comisariada, agenta, agente, consejo de vigilancia or conseja de vigilancia or some other local authority, we do it by means of a local general assembly, there they choose from among the compañeras and compañeros, they name two or three compañeros and propose them as authorities, once there is this proposal a vote is carried out, the assembly will defend who they would like to be their authority. When the proposed compañero or compañera is named, everyone raises their hand, if it is a majority they become an authority, this is how it is done in the community, in the ejidos. Once the local authorities are named, the comisariada or comisariado, the agenta or the agente, or the cargo that each person has received, this compañero or compañera has to go and present themselves to the autonomous municipality to go and bring the information, the work they are going to share with the Autonomous Consejo; this is their work. Choosing a municipal authority is done in the same way. Everyone is gathered, a municipal assembly is convoked, all the authorities gather so that they can make proposals to choose an authority. For example, if we are naming the Municipal Consejo they make proposals in the same way, three, four or five compas, then the majority of the assembly choose who will be the president, who will be consejo, like that until all the commissions are filled. Some compañeros that are present in the municipal assembly are chosen, but there are also some compañeros that aren’t in the municipal assembly, who are working in their community without knowing that they are now named as an authority. When this happens the comisariado or the comisariada, the responsable, goes to the community of this compañero or compañera and informs them that they were named in the municipality as an authority.
So this compañero or compañera wasn’t at their naming but they do accept the cargo because it is clear where it is coming from and what is their duty as a member of the organization. In the zone they also have municipal assemblies, each municipality carries out their responsibility of naming their delegate for the Good Government Council. When a compañero or compañera is chosen it depends on their discipline, their behavior, this is what we have done in our zone when we choose the three levels of government…This is how the work is done, the government at the three levels, when the authority…is in their cargo we respect them because they are an authority that we chose.
Every authority at all levels of autonomous government is chosen through assemblies. The assembly proposes the compañeros who they think are disciplined enough to fulfill the responsibilities of each cargo and then the whole assembly votes to choose from among the candidates. Other caracoles do things similarly. The testimonies in the escuelita textbooks from La Realidad, Oventik, La Garrucha and Roberto Barrios all describe choosing authorities using a similar assembly process.186
Those who are chosen as Zapatista authorities have a duty as members of the Zapatista organization to accept their cargo and carry out its responsibilities as best they can. The autonomous authorities do not ask the people to elect them and certainly do not run election campaigns. Rosa Isabel, a member of one of the communities in the municipality 17 de Noviembre in Caracol IV Morelia, emphasizes the difference between elections in the autonomous government and the official government:
Compared with the official government…we see that they spend many millions of pesos to do their campaigns, the worst is that they offer many things at the time of their campaign and when they are the government they don’t fulfill them. So the difference is that the compañeros who are part of our autonomous governments are in their cargo because the people offered it to them, not because they offered themselves to do it, they were chosen and so they have to accept the work that our communities need.
Elections in the autonomous government are the opposite of those in the official government. Rather than candidates trying to convince the people to elect them, the people elect their autonomous authorities regardless of whether that authority wants to be elected or not. It is then that person’s responsibility to fulfill the responsibilities of their cargo. In fact, Caracol IV Morelia has its own agreement defining what to do if someone doesn’t fulfill their cargo. For example, if someone is named as a member of the Good Government Council and they don’t show up in the Caracol for their turn, a member of their municipality’s consejo has to fill in for them. Furthermore, an unnamed authority form Morelia says that they also receive the following sanctions according to the agreement of the zone:
First they get a warning, they always get three chances. If the compañero didn’t show up they go and ask why he or she didn’t show up, what problems they have. If it is because of sickness it is justified that they didn’t show up, if it is because they didn’t want to show up, they got lazy, they have to receive a warning for the first time. The second time maybe they have to pay, but first we have to really see what their reason is, what is the problem. As it is problems do come up, if someone didn’t want to do the work maybe it is because they don’t want to do the work, but maybe also because their ideas and heart aren’t in it, sometimes it has come out like that.
If someone doesn’t want to show up to fulfill their responsibilities as a member of the Good Government Council, the other authorities are responsible for figuring out why that person isn’t doing the work and for convincing them that they need to fulfill their responsibilities. These testimonies reflect a sharp contrast between the Mexican state’s understanding of governance and that of the indigenous Zapatista communities. For the Zapatistas, governing is not a way to seek power or prestige, it is a duty assigned by the democratic will of the communities. Furthermore, the existence of sanctions for those who don’t show up to carry out their duties implies that a cargo in autonomous government can be so onerous that many people, far from running election campaigns, do their best to avoid
fulfilling their cargo. The work of governing is the obligation of everyone in the Zapatista organization, it is a duty rather than a privilege and it requires a significant amount of work.
As with many things in Zapatismo, this understanding of government as obligation arises from long traditions of indigenous government that have also been significantly altered by the new political possibilities of the Zapatista movement. The escuelita textbooks give one example that strikingly illustrates this process of continuity and change. The testimonies from Caracol II Oventik describe how in the municipality of San Andrés Sakamchen de los Pobres for many years they used a traditional form of choosing authorities that did not involve the democratic process of an assembly. The testimonies are somewhat unclear but they paint a general picture of this traditional form of choosing new authorities.
In San Andrés the municipal authorities are split between one consejo that attends to the work of autonomous government and another called the “traditional authorities” who are responsible for organizing the religious rituals and festivals in the community. Until about a year before the escuelita, these traditional authorities would directly choose their replacements. The testimonies from Oventik describe how they would try to surprise their replacement in his or her home, because if the replacement saw the traditional authority coming to his or her house, he or she would hide and pretend no one was home so they wouldn’t get chosen to fulfill the cargo. The traditional authorities would use tricks, like sending someone else to the house and then following them once they got invited in, so they could pass on their cargo.
However, around a year before the escuelita the municipality has decided to change and now chooses all their authorities in an assembly of all the communities. An unnamed authority from Oventik reflected on this decision, “…[N]ow they changed it [the way they name authorities in San Andrés], because we are understanding what democracy is…[T]here are traditional things that are good, that we shouldn’t ever lose and there are traditional things that we should, we have to understand that now they don’t work for us. The understanding of the work of an authority as a fairly undesirable community obligation comes from a long tradition in San Andrés; however, the assembly as the sole form of carrying out elections is a new practice that has resulted from the political possibilities created by Zapatismo. As the authority from Oventik implies: Zapatismo has allowed San Andrés to critically reflect on their traditions and transform them in accordance with shared democratic principles. They are slowly transforming their understanding of the cargo of an authority from an onerous traditional obligation to a duty shared by all members of the Zapatista organization that is assigned through the democratic process of an assembly.
The testimonies from La Realidad also mention a recent change in their process of choosing authorities. For may years each community in the zone had to take turns filling the cargos of the Good Government Council. They would rotate among the communities and when it was a certain community’s turn they would have to choose someone that lived there to be one of the members of the Good Government Council. However, they recently changed this process and now choose the members of the Good Government Council from among all the communities in the zone so that they can find the people who will be the most committed to the work. This case illustrates a potential problem implicit in an understanding of governance in which everyone has an obligation to carry out the work of government: the work of governing is difficult and not everyone is adequately prepared to carry it out.
These difficulties encompass very real practical obstacles such as not knowing how to read or not having basic math skills. This lack of preparation is very pervasive in the older Zapatista generations who grew up before the revolution and often did not have access to formal education. However, these older generations often have a great wealth of life experience and wisdom that is lacking in the younger generations who have learned reading and math in the Zapatista education system. Subcomandante Moisés says that there were many autonomous municipalities that elected only 18 or 19 year-olds to their consejos because they were the only ones who knew how to read, but this immediately brought on many other problems because these young people didn’t have any previous experience carrying responsibilities in the organization and had difficult doing the work of governing.
The authorities in La Realidad have taken concrete steps to address this issue and ensure that whoever is chosen to serve in autonomous government will be prepared to do the work. They have organized trainings in the communities that help prepare people to become new members of the Good Government Council and be able to fulfill their responsibilities. As an unnamed authority from La Realidad states:
What we saw…is that we had to have trainings, that is to say, that the compañeros and compañeras that were already members of the Good Government Council now have the experience of what it was like when they were working, what problems they encountered or what they did so that things would work well, now they can share with the rest of the compañeros. We’ve already given a first training for all the authorities, where the compañeros and compañeras who were already members of the Council shared their experience. These compañeros who are authorities go to to the communities and also explain to them how things function within the Good Government Council, how to write a denouncement, everything that is done there. These steps are being taken, they are in process, because what we want is that afterward those that come to be members of the Council won’t say “I don’t know, I’m not trained for this.” For this reason they are being trained now, when they come to be there and they need to address an issue, if they need to make a denunciation if they need to perform a service, to call for someones testimony, now they won’t say that they don’t know how to do it because now they are prepared. They will know what work they need to do in health, in education, in transit, in justice. At this point this is the plan that we have to continue with this training, and this is for everyone, we aren’t only going to train the authorities, because since we say we are democratic and the people are who decide who will be an authority, they won’t choose someone just because they are trained. When the people choose a compañero or compañera it will be because they decided to do so, but they will know that this compañera is prepared, this is why the training will be for everyone. This is what we are doing so that the future generations will have ideas and experience for when they are an authority, whether as Good Government Council or as municipal consejo, or also as a local authority in their community.
The Good Government Council hopes that one day, everyone in the zone will not only know how the autonomous government functions, but also be prepared to do the day to day work of a member of the Good Government Council. This is a pragmatic aspiration with deep political implications. It aims to make it easier for members of the Zapatista communities to work in the autonomous government when they are chosen as authorities, and also aspires to a form of political existence in which there is no separation between the autonomous government and the communities, where everyone participates in governance and is prepared to take a turn in a governing body in the Caracol, municipality and community and where this knowledge will be passed on and grow in the future generations of the Zapatista movement. It reflects the Zapatista understanding of the work of governance: it is an
obligation that is democratically assigned by the communities but which is also shared by everyone in the communities.
The Zapatista process of electing authorities reflects their understanding of work in the autonomous government: it is a democratically assigned duty that is shared by all members of the Zapatista organization, not a source of personal power or prestige. However, this system confronts two problems: first, the problem of pre-existing forms of choosing community authorities that do not follow the democratic principals of the Zapatista organization; and second, the problem of Zapatistas who don’t want to fulfill their duty because they lack the necessary skills to carry out the work or simply because they do not feel motivated to do the work. The process of creating the autonomous government system necessitates the creation of functioning democratic structures that may alter traditional structures of decision-making in order to redefine the role of an authority as a democratically assigned
duty to the Zapatista organization. Furthermore, this duty and the commitment to the organization it implies is the only motivating members of the communities to carry out the work of autonomous government. Those who work as Zapatista authorities cannot be motivated by a desire for power in their communities or personal material gain because the system is designed to place all power and resources under the direct democratic control of the communities, not under the control of their authorities. As we have already seen, the role of authorities are to make proposals to the communities, not to decide for them.
There is no other motivation to carry out the difficult work of a cargo in the autonomous other than a sense of duty to the communities and the organization, and sometimes this motivation is not enough to sustain an authority through the difficulties of their day to day work. The Zapatistas’ answer to this problem has been to attempt to integrate the work of governance into the daily life of the communities by training them in the work of governing, but also, as we shall see, by finding ways to make it easier for Zapatista authorities to fulfill their cargos while still preventing them from accumulating forms of economic or political power.
Preventing the Formation of Political and Economic Elites
The structure of the autonomous government itself is designed to prevent the work of governing from transforming from a somewhat onerous obligation into a desirable privilege and source of power. Inherent in any administrative system is the danger of creating a separate class of administrators who have privileged access to power and who are always in danger of becoming corrupt. As Raul Zibechi has argued using the example of Aymara forms of governance in Bolivia, the task of social movements that aspire to communitarian democracy is to come up with governance systems that both recognize the inherent dangers that could create a governing elite and that include mechanisms that minimize or eliminate these dangers. In a Zapatista context, the problem is to create structures that insure that the work of governance remains work for the collective or a’mtel and never becomes work for money and
personal gain or kanal.
Those who work in autonomous government could accumulate two forms of power: economic and political. Due to their hard work outside of their community they could be compensated with a salary that would give them more access to monetary resources than the other people in their community. But even more significantly, since they are responsible for watching over the funds and resources of the zone, they could easily embezzle funds for their own personal gain. These are the two potential sources of economic power. These two dangers combine with the possibility of accumulating political power through personal connections and relationships, for example with outside NGOs or even with other communities, that increase political influence and could result in forms of corruption
and bribery. We have already seen an example of the concrete benefits of this accumulation of political power in the case of the Zapatista who worked with the NGO SHOXEL building dry latrines. He received a salary from the NGO making him one of richest people in his community and also made sure that his relatives were the first to receive the dry latrines.
The first step that Zapatista autonomous government has taken to prevent the accumulation of economic power is to eliminate monetary compensation for those who govern. Zapatista authorities are not paid for their work, rather the food and funds that sustain them during their work as authorities comes from the trabajos colectivos of the communities. Doroteo, a former member of the Good Government Council of La Realidad, describes how they have supported Good Government Council members in their zone:
When [the Good Government Council] was starting our work, the communities and the municipalities started to discuss how to support this group of compañeros, because they are doing their work full time. They started to organize and the communities decided to give a contribution of 10 pesos each, 10 pesos per member in the zone, to give these compañeros the support of 30 pesos per day while they were taking their turn. We did it like this for a few months, each compañero who covered a turn had to receive 30 pesos per day, these were the agreements of the communities, but a few months later, one of the military commanders, together with the political commanders explained to us the advantages and disadvantages of this form of support. Analyzing the advantages and disadvantages that they explained to us, as members of the Good Government Council we decided to suspend this support and informed the people why we decided to suspend it. We thought that is was not a viable path for us to become accustomed to working in that way, so we informed the people and each community, each region, each municipality discussed another type of support, some were supported in one way, some in another, but now it wasn’t with money…[S]ome receive support from their community in work, in staple grains, different forms of support according to how the community comes to agreement, but never money and this is how we have been working these nine years in the Good Government Council.
The other Caracoles have similar agreements. For example, the fund of the zone in Caracol II Oventik
covers the costs of transportation to the Caracol and the cost of purchasing rice, beans and salt. However, the Good Government Council members do not receive any monetary payment and are responsible for bringing their own tostadas—the central staple of their diet during their time in the Caracol. The Good Government Council is not the only part of the Zapatista organization that functions according to this form of voluntary work, the testimonies in the escuelita textbooks from all five Caracoles mention in several places that all cargos in the Zapatisa organization never receive a salary for their work. They are often supported a little in their travel costs or some of their food by the
trabajos colectivos in their community, municipality or zone, through small donations from the compañeros that they serve, or through agreements in their community, for example to work their land while they are away fulfilling their cargo.
These forms of support only go towards feeding and sustaining them during the work of their cargo. Fanny, a current member of the Good Government Council of La Realidad at the time of the escuelita, makes clear that the work of autonomous government is always done as a service to the people and never in the interest of making money:
In the autonomous government, in the work of being a local, municipal and Good Government Council authority, you
do the work from your consciousness. In the autonomous government we are working thanks to our consciousness and without any interest in making a salary, because everyone needs to participate for the autonomous government to work well. Service to the people is done with the consciousness that we each have, it is not done for money, it is not in the interest of making a salary, but rather of serving our people, with support or without support we are doing the work to build autonomy.
The autonomous government functions thanks to the strong commitment to the Zapatista organization of every authority, and every community that supports them, in all the zones. Although the resources generated by trabajos colectivos are very important in supporting the work of autonomous government, what truly sustains their work is their commitment to the Zapatista organization. For example, the testimonies from La Realidad mention that some members of the Good Government Council are not supported at all by their communities because they could not reach an agreement but they still fulfill their cargo as best they can,196 while the testimonies from La Garrucha describe how during the early years of the autonomous municipalities their was no money to pay for transportation and food for the municipal consejos and so they had to walk for hours and sometimes days carrying their food in order to arrive at the municipal center and fulfill their cargo.
This is the work of a’mtel. It is a constant process of collective decision-making in which different tasks and responsibilities are divided among the people of the communities, where everyone fulfills different roles in order to sustain the collective heart of the organization and never for their own personal gain, their own kanal. These people work to sustain the Zapatista organization and are in turn sustained by the work of the other cargos and trabajos colectivos at the different levels of the organization.
The Government and Communities are One and the Same: Rotation Systems in the Five
However, even a group of people who do their work through the strength of their commitment rather than for money could transform into a new form of revolutionary governing elite with disproportionate influence and power. In fact, this was exactly the danger inherent in the military structure of the EZLN that threatened to subsume the democratic processes of the communities due to its intense political legitimacy after the 1994 revolution. The Caracoles have sought to combat this danger by developing complex rotation systems for the members of the Good Government Councils in which part of the council will do the work of governing in the Caracol while the rest are home in their communities. These systems ensure that no one is governing long enough to develop disproportionate
power and influence and also for the very pragmatic reason that since members aren’t paid, they have to go home periodically to work their fields in order to survive. In his analysis of similar rotation systems in Aymara community governance, Zibechi argues that such rotation systems constitute “…[a] social machinery that prevents the concentration of power or, similarly, prevents the emergence of a separate power from that of the community gathered in assembly.” In a very literal sense rotating systems of governance ensure that the government and the communities remain part of the same social body.
Those who are chosen from the communities for cargos in the Zapatista autonomous government are
never away long enough to become separate from life in their communities. The work of governance remains as one of the many communal obligations of a’mtel in each community rather than a privilege that launches those who attain it into a different social sphere of power and influence. But, how do these rotation systems actually function in practice in the five Caracoles and what unforeseen problems have they had to address?
The Good Government Council of Morelia is made up of a total of 60 members, but they do not all work in the Caracol at the same time. They are divided into five teams of twelve members each that take turns fulfilling the responsibilities of the Good Government Council in the Caracol. For example, one of these teams of twelve has to work in the Caracol for one out of every five weeks and returns to their communities to work their fields and be with their families for the remaining four weeks. Each team’s turn overlaps with the next by a day so that they can inform the next team about what work they have been doing and what still needs to be addressed. All the members of the Good Government Council, as well as the authorities at the other levels of autonomous government in Morelia, are elected for three year terms. Each of the regions in the zone elects at least one member of the Good Government Council in each period although some of the larger municipalities elect more than six so that that each region’s representation on the Council will be proportional to its population.
The other four Caracoles also function according to similar rotation systems. The Good Government Council that was operating in La Realidad at the time of the escuelita had 24 members divided into two teams of twelve that would each spend fifteen days per month working in the Caracol. Members of the Good Government Council are also elected for three year periods in La Realidad, although their elections are staggered so that at the end of the second year of every period four new members will be chosen whose three year term will overlap with the first two years of the next period.
They started staggering their elections like this because they saw that it was difficult for the Council members to learn how to do their work when they arrived at the start of their period. By staggering their elections they made sure that four people would have a whole year to learn how the Good Government Council functioned. These four members could then teach the new members of the next period how to do the work. In the first three year period there were eight members on the Council, in the second there was twelve, while the third that was operating at the time of the escuelita had 24. They increased the number of members each period because they realized that there was too much work for a small team of people to accomplish.
The Good Government Council of Caracol II Oventik is made up of 28 members divided into two teams of nine and one team of ten who each take a one week turn working in the Caracol. Each of Oventik’s seven municipalities is responsible for electing four members. They also are elected for three year terms and have staggered elections so that there will be numerous members with experience who can teach the new authorities. Every year eight members leave from two municipalities and are replaced by eight new members from these same municipalities (presumably since they have 7 municipalities, every three years three municipalities switch out rather than two) so that every new period will still have 20 members who have experience. The Good Government Council of Caracol III La Garrucha has 24 members divided into three teams of eight who each take a ten day turn in the Caracol. They are also elected for three year periods, but the escuelita textbooks don’t mention whether their elections are staggered or not.
The Good Government Council of Caracol V Roberto Barrios had gone through many recent changes at the time of the escuelita in 2013. At first, the Good Government Council was made up of members of the nine municipal consejos in the zone. In 2008 the zone agreed that each municipality would provide three Council members for a total of 27 members who were divided in teams of between five and seven people who would each take a four month turn in the Caracol. These members only served on the Good Government Council and did not have to fulfill the double responsibility of working as a municipal consejo. Every four month turn overlapped by one month so that the next turn could be prepared to continue the work. However, in 2010 the zone altered the agreement to make every turn only last two months. They reached this decision to make the work easier for the Council members because many members had been abandoning their cargo, but even after they reduced each turn to two months Council members were still abandoning the work. They tried to create another solution by making sure that there were some more experienced members in each turn that could teach the newer members how to do the work. This agreement had just been made at the time of escuelita and the testimonies do not mention whether it solved the problem or not.
The most common problem with the rotation systems in the five Caracoles is providing enough continuity between rotations. There are many problems, for example a complex land dispute, that take longer than one or two weeks to address. There must be some way of adequately preparing the next rotation to continue with the work. Most Caracoles address this issue by having their rotations overlap by at least a day so that they will have enough time to smoothly pass along the work to the new team of members. However, the more difficult problem has been providing continuity between three year terms.
In the course of three years working on the Good Government Council, members inevitably develop some specialized knowledge that helps them with their work. For example, they know how the trabajos colectivos at the level of the zone function, they know how to investigate an agrarian dispute or what to do if there is paramilitary or government aggression. The Caracoles have addressed this problem by overlapping these three-year terms, and also through other means mentioned above such as La Realidad’s initiative to train everyone in the zone in the skills and knowledge needed to work on the Good Government Council.
The elimination of a political class does come at the expense of the elimination of the specialized knowledge of this class. However, this isn’t a cause for concern since a separate political class tends to use this specialized more for its own benefit than for those they are supposedly there to serve. Ultimately, it is more important to the Zapatistas to prevent the concentration of political and economic power than to maximize the efficiency of the autonomous government. The guiding principle of mandar obediciendo aims to create a system of governance that has numerous concrete practices, such as the rotation systems and lack of monetary compensation, that prevent the separation of the
governing authorities from the people. If the realization of this principle means that decisions take longer to make or problems take longer to solve, then everyone will have to be patient. The Zapatistas never sacrifice their fundamental principles of good government in the name of efficiency.
Watching Over the Autonomous Governments: Accountability Structures in the Five Caracoles
Even if the members of the Good Government Councils only spend a limited amount of time in the Caracol, they are still governing far away from their home community and there is a lot of time between assemblies of the zone during which they could stray from the agreements of the communities. Who watches over the Good Government Council to make sure they remain true to the communities’ agreements and the principles of mandar obediciendo? Every Caracol has a separate body called the “comisión de vigilancia”204 whose sole purpose is to watch over the Good Government Council, and especially to monitor all the money handled by the Council, to make sure they are not corrupt or disobeying the agreements of the communities. The testimonies in the escuelita textbooks also mention
that the CCRI in each zone, who are sometimes called the “comisión de información [commission of information],” also serve as an additional accountability structure that watches over the work of the Good Government Council, provides ideas and advice, and makes sure the that they are following the agreements of the communities. However, the CCRI are part of the EZLN military structure and as such do not have any defined responsibilities or powers in the autonomous government beyond giving recommendations and advice. Although the comisiónes de vigilancia in the five zones all have the same general purpose, in practice they work very differently in each of the five Caracoles.
In Caracol II Oventik the comisión de vigilancia has been in place since the formation of the Caracol in 2003. It is made up of teams of five people from all the communities in the zone who take one-week turns in the Caracol. They are responsible for taking down the information of everyone that enters the Caracol and record every donation received by the Good Government Council. Furthermore, they have an additional commission called the “comisión general de vigilancia” that was formed in 2012 and is made up of 18 people. Some of the members are people from the communities, others are local authorities and there are some that are part of the “núcleo de resistencia [nucleus of resistance]” that is not fully explained in the escuelita textbooks but seems to be a group of young people who receive training, including education in math and accounting, from the CCRI.205 The comisión general de vigilancia checks all the accounts of the Good Government Council, the municipal consejos and the different trabajos colectivos like health, education, agriculture and the artisan and coffee cooperatives to make sure there aren’t any instances of corruption. They also send regular reports to all the communities in the zone informing them how autonomous government and trabajos colectivos are functioning.
The comisión de vigilancia in Caracol V Roberto Barrios works in a similar way to that of Caracol II Oventik. The commission is made up of three people from each of the nine municipalities in the zone who serve for three years and are divided into teams that take one month turns working in the Caracol. They are also responsible for writing down the information of everyone who enters the Caracol, and monitoring donations and expenditures. The testimonies in the escuelita textbooks say that a member of the comisión de vigilancia physically accompanies the members of the Good Government Council whenever they have to leave the Caracol to make a purchase using the funds of the zone. They are also responsible for making sure that the accounts add up and if any money is missing the comisión de vigilancia, the Good Government Council and the CCRI have to make up the difference out of their own pockets.
In Caracol III La Garrucha the comisión de vigilancia is made up of people from all the communities in the zone who take turns working in the Caracol. The testimonies from La Garrucha make clear that their comisión de vigilancia is not just responsible for overseeing finances, but is always present and part of the conversation, together with the CCRI, when the Good Government Council is deliberating on any issue that arises in their work. As Cornelio, a former member of the Good Government Council, states, “If there is a problem, if there is a trabajo of another area like health or education, we have to consult with the offices of vigilancia and information [the CCRI], the Good Government Council can’t decide on its own, because it is watched over by the people, this is why the vigilancia is there, they watch to make sure that we are respecting the agreement that we have in the zone..”208 At the time of the escuelita Caracol II La Garrucha had recently agreed to form an additional comisión de vigilancia made up of two young people from the núcleo de resistencia in each municipality who take ten day turns in the Caracol. It is their job to check all the Good Government Council’s accounts and control the fund of the zone. If the good Government Council needs to make a purchase they ask this commission and they give them the amount needed for the purchase. Since they are the ones who control this fund, if any money goes missing these people from the núcleo de resistencia are responsible for making up the difference from their own pockets.
Caracol I La Realidad did not have any functioning comisión de vigilancia until around the time of the escuelita. For the ten years since the formation of the Caracol the Good Government Council would send reports of their income and expenditures to all the communities and the CCRI but no authorities or communities fully checked these reports to make sure they were correct. The testimonies from La Realidad state that they had recently organized a group of compañeros and compañeras called “el filtro [the filter].” This group had only been functioning for a month and was made up of former members of the Good Government Council and municipal consejos as well as other people with cargos in the organization. “The filter” works in collaboration with the CCRI and checks
all the finance reports to make sure everything adds up and is correct.
In Caracol IV Morelia the role of the comisión de vigilancia is also to check all the accounts of the Good Government Council and keep track of how much money is coming in, how much is being spent and how much is currently in their fund. From 2003 to 2008 the comisión de vigilancia was a long-term cargo of three years just like the Good Government Council, but they saw that this didn’t work because people would often abandon the cargo. In 2008 the zone agreed that the comisión de vigilancia would be made up of one person from each of the regions in the zone who would serve for a three month period in the Caracol. They also were made responsible for giving a report on their work every six months in one of the assemblies of the zone. This new agreement solved the previous problem and the commission was working well at the time of the escuelita.
Caracol IV Morelia also has an additional unique accountability structure called the “comisión de ancianos [commission of elders]”. This commission is made up of the elders of each municipality whose central responsibility is to preside over the changing of authorities in the municipalities and the zone and to tell the new authorities to respect the people and take their responsibilities seriously. Manuel, a former member of the municipal consejo of 17 de Noviembre, describes the role of the commission of elders:
Once the levels of government are named, for example in the municipality, they use our customs so that the new authorities go into effect. The elders, the new authorities and the authorities that are going to leave use their traditional clothing. The elders make their presentation, they council the new authorities so that they will govern well for their three years, they also say goodbye to the authorities that are leaving and tell those that are entering to take care of their people. The elders use that which is their custom with their incense, their regional music and all that; since in our zone and in our municipalities there are tojolobal and tzeltal customs, all the elders come together at the municipal level to do their work.
Rosa Isabel, a member of one of the communities in the municipality 17 de Noviembre, further
elaborates on this ceremony:
…[T]he elders that are now very old, start to counsel the new authorities, at times they speak so that they will do their work well because being an authority is not a game, the elders know because they have also been authorities before, they served in their municipalities. The elders give us their counsel, as is our culture, because we have to take being an authority seriously, the elders counsel us to be responsible. After they give counsel, the elders line up and give a blessing to the new authorities. The work of the elders is like this, we respect it very much…When the old authorities are going to leave their cargo and the new ones are going to receive it, the compañeros, men and women, from the base communities are present because they are the ones who will give their trust, they are the ones who will give legality to this change of authorities. Once everyone has received their cargo all this finishes, then all the base communities that are in the assembly go over to the new authorities, there is a gathering where we eat together. Once the gathering is finished sometimes we have a cultural event, we have a party and dance. This is how we change authorities in our municipalities, also in the zone it is done like this.
This ceremony provides a form of cultural accountability in the autonomous government structure of
Caracol IV Morelia. The role of the commission of elders is to remind the authorities of who they are, that they are carrying the trust and responsibility of the people and that they should always respect this trust by doing their best work as an authority.
The accountability structures in Zapatista autonomous government such as the comisiones de vigilancia in the five Caracoles and Morelia’s commission of elders provide an additional bridge between the communities and their authorities. These structures bring people from the communities into the Caracol and allow them to watch over their authorities in a very literal sense. In all the Caracoles, someone from the communities is present when the authorities are coming up with proposals, addressing problems and most importantly when they are handling the funds of the
autonomous government. The organization of these accountability structures serve a dual purpose.
First, they recognize the very real temptations of corruption for anyone working as a Zapatista authority and take concrete steps discourage it. And second, as Rosa Isabel points out, they are the means by which the base communities “dar fe [give their trust]” to their government. The rotations of the comisiones de vigilancia both insure that the autonomous authorities do not become corrupt, but also bring the assurance that these authorities are in fact honest back to the communities so that the people will trust their authorities, respect their work and ultimately have faith that their system of autonomous government is fairly and justly serving the people.
The work of autonomous government functions according to the logic of a’mtel: it is never a means of gaining wealth, power or prestige. Instead, it is a responsibility that is assigned by the collective of all the Zapatista communities. It is a duty and commitment to the Zapatista organization and struggle with certain defined responsibilities that come with each particular cargo. Just as with all cargos in Zapatista communities, it is a position that fulfills a certain set of responsibilities that do not remove or separate those who fulfill them from the collective heart of the people. There are numerous concrete practices, such as the lack of a salary, the constant rotations of Good Government Council members, and the additional structures of accountability such as the comisión vigilancia, the CCRI, or the commission of elders, that ensure that the work of autonomous government does not create a separate class of administrators that governs rather than obeys. The logic of a’mtel defines government as a temporary responsibility that is shared by everyone and done in the service of everyone. The goal of autonomous government is that everyone can participate in every decision and share in the work of governing. This goal defines the structure of the Zapatista Caracoles.