‘The Zapatistas a the best. Because they eat snake. They eat lion, and birds, like that one,’ whispered the little girl. She had come running up with a fistful of woven bracelets, the minute we’d edged past our first soldiers into the square at San Cristóbal. Night had just fallen, and it was almost empty. The ‘problems’, as everyone called the war, were hurting the crafts lifeline of the Chamula Indians as well as the tourist industry: mass cancellations meant that when the last of the reporters had left, the town would he bankrupt. We bought our first bracelets, and asked the child which army she preferred. She squirmed before saying ‘soldiers’ and laughing at us.

‘There is Only One Army, the Mexican Army,’ warned a big notice in national red and green on a white wall where the city overlaps uncertainly, and now fearfully, with the country. Manuel Camacho Solís, the Peace Commissioner hurriedly appointed after the days of slaughter, has made a point of referring to the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) as an army: most of the media still use President Salinas de Gortari’s early rhetoric of ‘aggressors,’ ‘transgressors’ and ‘professionals of violence’ – as opposed to ‘our Mexican troops’. Quite a few people will tell you that the official Goliath itself engineered the insurrection in order to gain a more dignified profile by smashing it. Other popular theories, all contradictory and probably all containing a speck of truth, blame the Guatemalan underground/government/refugees; the CIA; the narks; the old guard of the Seventies radicals; the even older guard of the Mexican Revolution; the Catholic Church.

The current favourite is the Government, with some unspeakable reason of its own for courting international discredit. Seventy years of the Institutional Revolutionary Party – a cross between an octopus and a chameleon – have taught a dull kind of cynicism. ‘Wake up, stop being naive. Who else can be behind it?’ I’ve heard this over and over again from all kinds of people, unable to explain the armed uprising of thousands of peasants as anything other than a consequence of squabbles within the PRI.

Physically, the Army still held sway in San Cristóbal as the three-day-old ceasefire was shuffled rancorously into place. While Camacho, managing to sound both casual and weighty, begged the press not to make too much of continued military excesses in the villages, green padded soldiers with half-hidden, Indian faces marked the street corners like pillars. Under their vigilant eyes, the shops and New Age cafés were reopening; people walked more jauntily about their business, waving at the government helicopters, while Chamula women, small blobs of black, turquoise and indigo, squatted on the thresholds in their own ancient disguise.

The chorus from a euphoric Left has denounced all conspiracy theories as the racism that can’t conceive of dumb Indians organising their own rebellion, both systematic and passionate, against five hundred years of outrage. It was useless, though, to seek enlightening opinions on this in San Cristóbal. Prosperous mestizos, still recovering from the shock of the uprising, were eloquent about foreign agitators, and sorry for the Indians whom they had tricked. Our hotelier (not a nice man) made a wry face as he felt under the counter, producing a broken old rifle butt as if it were a scalp. A reporter, he said, had removed it from a corpse. Jagged and rotten as driftwood, it lay beneath a poster for Culturally Responsible Trips to Indian Villages.

In the markets and alleys, the objects of tourist interest were amiably ignorant of the debate raging in their name, and agreed with everything we said. I was beginning, reluctantly, to believe in the hidden hand of Guatemalan revolutionaries, or of some hoary urban guerrilla or two. I was also getting a sense of the power of discretion. This skill perfected over centuries by indigenous and campesino peoples, now came into its own, implying unmeasurable non-combatant support for this movement, a social complicity which distinguishes it from the cadre guerrilla culture of the past thirty years.

The EZLN doesn’t fit any patterns. It is too large – anywhere between three and twenty-five thousand – for a classic guerrilla force. It has been organising in the Lacandon jungle, almost undetected and certainly underestimated, for ten years, providing a military training that is unprecedented in the tragic history of Indian uprisings in Mexico. The demand for land, on the other hand, is a traditional feature of such uprisings. Others are utopianism (the promised march on Mexico City to depose the dictator Salinas) and atavism: those eight hopeless EZLN assaults on Military Zone 31 in the first few days of January make more sense when one knows that the barracks violate a Tzotzil burial ground. EZLN language is lumpy with the residue of the ideology of struggle, updated by a critique of neo-liberalism and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The EZLN Directive Committee is under wraps, and speculation surrounds its envoy, Comandante Marcos, disparaged as a whitey polyglot by the same people – the Minister of the Interior, for example – who sneered at a force of ‘200 monolinguals’. On New Year’s Day in San Cristóbal he was the only non-Indian invader. What with his big, tired green eyes, worldly demeanour, uncompromising talk and unlit pipe protruding from the slit in his balaclava, Comandante (later mysteriously demoted to Sub-Comandante) Marcos must be the first lefty pin-up in decades, and sad to say, his whiteness helps. After posing with adoring tourists in the square, he pulled his men out and hasn’t been seen since. However, he writes regularly to the press – in a blend of poetry, politics and jokes. His last letter, an emotional essay about the meaning of the proposed amnesty when no offence had been committed, ended typically: ‘Good health and a hug, for in this cold both are to be welcomed (I think), even if they come from a “professional of violence”.’

San Cristóbal was becoming oppressive. Human rights groups elbowed through the camps, forcing exhausted refugees to repeat their story in exchange for another unlikely promise of justice and restitution. Among those who came to view the mess were Ovide Mercredi, chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Canada; Joe Kennedy, son of Robert (we were promised Ted), and Rigoberta Menchú, who never turned up on schedule. An air of conspiracy descended on the press room. Grizzled pros talked out of the sides of their mouths, and diagrams were furtively copied. As the ceasefire went on, the EZLN, possibly bored, had been facilitating a spate of pieces filed from ‘Somewhere in the Lacandon Jungle’.

So one morning, four of us slipped quietly out of town in a rented Beetle in the hope of understanding a little more from the horse’s mouth. At the last checkpoint before the secret turn-off, we found ourselves joining a string of press teams feeding various tall stories to the indifferent government troops. The convoy swept noisily into Zapatista territory, which you could say began where a police van stood, with open doors and riddled windscreen. My white face towel was jammed in the window, where it flapped in the cold wind, and the photographer fastened his seatbelt. Here the Indian culture of silence had the land on its side. The patchily stripped hills were more desolate than wild. We passed a shuttered adobe village; it had been drained of colour when the people vanished, adopting the rusty camouflage of the earth road. A donkey was curled up in the schoolyard. Soon the brand-new power lines – part of last year’s potlatch on the party of the government to forestall what had been, after all, an uprising foretold – turned into bare cement poles, and stopped.

After an hour we reached the third fork. Eight men in thin jackets and rubber boots were dealing with a muddy taxi marked ‘TV’ coming the other way. I wrote our names and media on a piece of paper. We all got out, and the spokesman, a sallow youth with a widow’s peak like a werewolf, softly explained that we were welcome to press on, but the Zapatistas (always ‘they’) were no longer where they had been. Badgered by a plump hack in a pony tail, he looked away and almost laughed.

‘I don’t know, I tell you. What information do you want? Write that the Zapatistas have nothing against civilians. Have you seen the Declaration of War?’

A neat copy of this was suddenly in his hand. No one took it. I asked whether the people of this area were loyal to the EZLN. ‘No,’ said a boy beside me, at the same time as the leader said: ‘Yes, millions.’ The photographer raised his Nikon and a militiaman stared in warning. In the end, the others ploughed on into the thickening reticence of the forest; unsure what to believe, we turned back.

After this, the town of Ocosingo, where the regular army now prevailed, seemed solidified into signs and presences. We ducked into the bright blue space of a family eatery as night and rain fell. Alejandro, a flirtatious eight-year-old, told how his parrot had hidden in a plant pot all through the gun battle. Inside a glass cabinet, he had some plastic First World War soldiers set among garish Red Indians. Which side would win, we asked?

‘Maybe both! Or maybe one will lose. The soldiers have the biggest weapons. Look, the others don’t have any.’

The story of Ocosingo starts the same way as that of San Cristóbal. Alejandro’s mother, Eloina, heard that the Indians were coming as she staggered from a New Year’s party: ‘“Let them come!” I said in my cups. I didn’t realise. But the truth is, they never hurt us. They wanted us to join, but I don’t think anyone did. Most of them were just kids. There was an amazing woman. The way she held herself, a real soldier!’

The EZLN shot the police chief and threw the filing cabinets out of the window. They raided the bank, but there was no money. They opened the jail and let everyone out; they opened the state store, and let everyone in. But on 2 January, as their comrades prudently withdrew from San Cristóbal, they went off to eat in the market. This is where the Army cornered them. At least a hundred and fifty Zapatistas died; total casualties are unknown.

‘The soldiers removed their dead the moment they fell. The poor guerrillas were there for days,’ said Eloina, putting a hand to her nose. ‘There was no one to lift them up.’

After the Army took over, Ocosingo locked itself in. Three days passed without food, water or light. Those who ventured out were shot. Others were dragged from their homes: anyone with Indian features was suspect. There was a smell of burning bodies. The generalised small-town dread of a Zapatista return is, above all, dread of the Army.

The streets were shiny and deserted when we finished talking. Its was only eight o’clock. ‘Back Soon – EZLN’ was written in red on one of the walls. With no one to ask, we drove around desperately before finding the market.

There was an open space, then three rows of roofed stalls and the wall of the market proper, pitted with holes that made pale craters in the dark. Stuck to the side of one stall was a PRI poster with a motto from Emiliano Zapata: ‘Campesinos of America Unite.’ On the back wall, half shot to pieces, another official leaflet showed Zapata’s humid gaze and the tip of his moustache. We were deep in morbid reverie when a shout came from the upper edge of the market precinct. I called back, ‘Journalists,’ and held up my pass. Suddenly a group of soldiers was slipping through the gloom between the tables, semi automatics audibly cocked. As the officer apologised, the men went on swaying nervously behind the points of their barrels. At last they broke for the corner, bunched moment, and flowed through an archway out of sight.

We went to see Jesús Morales at the Chiapan Institute of Culture. ‘Chiapas,’ he said, ‘is the poorest state in Mexico, but it’s simply not true that land reform never arrived. That’s the handwringing of Forties anthropology.’ Morales is a novelist and anthropologist who has lived for years in what they call, with a mythic shiver, the Jungle. He started painting a picture of Lacandon society that brought to mind one of Mexico City’s busy immigrant shanties, rather than the extremes of rural despair I had imagined. He said that the PRI may have given the peasants land but they have provided no infrastructure. It’s a pioneering society left to its own devices, a cacophony of religions, languages and ideologies from all over Chiapas and, indeed, the Republic. Divided, pugnacious and ambitious, lacking the conservative influence of the elders’ councils and shielded from government: what a place to nurture revolution!

This society of settlers must have responded to the cosmopolitan arguments one of the many organisations operating criss-crossing levels throughout the jungle, and handed over their children. (It is uncomfortable to compare the avowed preparation period – ten years – with the age of the fighters, which averages twenty.) The Lacandonians don’t so much need land for themselves; in Morales’s experience, phrases like ‘we are hungry’ are Lacandon code for ‘we are restless, we are dissatisfied.’ The underlying demand is for respect, participation, a redesign of land ownership and a rethinking of its productive use, so that Nafta doesn’t turn out to be the ‘death sentence’ of Comandante Marcos’s speech.

The EZLN’s hybrid discourse reflects both its mongrel roots, and the tension between the different periods Mexico inhabits. There unanimous repudiation of its methods, but its goals have shamed a country almost anaesthetised by the prospect of becoming North American, in painless armchair emigration. Along with the shock has come a kind of nationwide relief – that of coming down to earth.

I only saw one definite Zapatista. He was in a miniature holiday village, among the colourful houses and castles of San Cristóbal cemetery. Not knowing (they said) who had brought him in, they’d laid him out on a metal table in an abandoned mausoleum, filled with his smell. Through the broken frosted glass we saw a tiny figure packaged in bright green plastic, tied with yellow and pink string. He looked like the Mummy or Frankenstein’s monster, about to be regalvanised. The trademark red Kerchief protruded from under him, and a magazine belt lay on a corner of the floor. On the windowsill behind his head stood a dusty Coke bottle, and a picture of the virgin of Guadalupe.

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