Book Reviews

Autonomous Mexico

What happened when some indigenous people took their lands back from the state


I first heard about the autonomous movements in Mexico from my anarcho-communist college buddies in the early 1990s. They loved the idea of indigenous people taking up arms and seizing control of their communities—and of the lucrative natural resources upon which those communities sat—from exploitative corporations and their government enforcers. The Zapatistas of the southern state of Chiapas, with their brazen armed seizures of corporate land holdings, served as the most inspiring example, and their dashing postmodernist leader Subcomandante Marcos became the Che Guevara of Gen X leftists.

Three decades later, I started hearing glowing reports about new autonomous indigenous movements in the central Mexican states of Guerrero and Michoacán from a different political crowd: attendees at the Anarchapulco conference, an annual festival of drug- and cryptocurrency-loving anarcho-libertarians held in a resort city that had also become the center of wars between rival cartels and thus the murder capital of Mexico.

Both my proto-antifa college friends and the Acapulco ancaps seemed romantically attached to the concept of conquered indigenous peoples taking direct and violent action to reclaim their land from corrupt and ruthless institutions: governments at the local, state, and federal level; the large mining, logging, agricultural, and ranching conglomerates to whom those governments had effectively granted legal sovereignty over the land inhabited by much of Mexico's 25 million indigenous people; and the globally infamous drug cartels that had begun to seize natural resources through extortion, intimidation, and mass murder, often in partnership with government and corporate actors.

Though it is an incomplete and sometimes unsophisticated study, Luis Hernández Navarro's recently translated Self-Defense in Mexico: Indigenous Community Policing and the New Dirty Wars provides enough detail about the autonomous movements to give us a less rose-colored view of a complex and often contradictory political phenomenon.

On a fundamental level, the story of the Zapatistas, the autodefensas of Michoacán and Guerrero, and the community-policed autonomous towns that have sprung up all over the country is a story of anti-imperialism and self-determination, two principles that will excite fans of both Ron Paul and Naomi Klein. The indigenous people at the center of this remarkable recent history are the descendants of people who successfully resisted the Spanish invaders' attempts to assimilate and thoroughly conquer them. Roughly half of the indigenous population of Mexico speak one of the 89 native languages rather than the language of the conquistadors. The Purépecha people of current-day Michoacán, who in recent years have waged some of the most courageous and successful battles for independence from the government and cartels, are descended from a tribe that was never conquered by either the Spanish or the rabidly imperialist Aztecs before  them.

By throwing their enemies off their land and out of their towns and providing for their own defense and security, the autonomous movements have also been one of very few political movements in the world to hand defeat to the worst and most violent form of corporatism: an alliance between government officials, the military, big business, and organized crime. For anarchists of either persuasion, few things could seem sweeter than poor and dispossessed people—often armed with stolen guns and possessing no heavy military equipment—usurping the state's monopoly on socially legitimized violence.

What neither of my sets of anarcho-friends acknowledged was the problems social movements encounter when they seize power and become a new state, a new boss, and a new set of cops.

Much of the world was electrified in January 1994, when an estimated 3,000 Zapatista fighters, who had been organizing as a military force for years, seized towns and cities across Chiapas. They freed the prisoners in the jail of San Cristobal de las Casas and set fire to several police buildings and military barracks in the state. The Mexican military counterattacked immediately, inflicting heavy casualties on the rebels, who retreated into the surrounding jungle.

Over the next two and half decades, the Zapatista militia's war with the Mexican army and the paramilitaries employed by local ranchers ebbed and flowed, with pitched battles punctuated by peace deals that were eventually abrogated. In 2001, the relatively accommodating Vicente Fox was elected president of Mexico; after he pulled much of the military out of Chiapas, the Zapatistas began to consolidate control over the southern state.

Today the Zapatistas are the government in much of Chiapas. But to achieve and maintain that power, they have had to continuously operate as a semi-criminal, semi-military organization. The group's leaders wear the uniforms of guerrilla warriors, and Marcos has never been seen without his trademark black ski mask. They have enforced a strict and often puritanical discipline among their citizens, as any internal weakness or division could doom the still impoverished region to another conquest by forces from the government, the cartels, or the displaced ranchers who have waged many armed attempts to take back their property. Chiapas is now one of the leading states in Mexico for outmigration to the United States.

The Zapatista uprising inspired and created a model for the many indigenous communities in Guerrero and Michoacán who faced the three-headed monster of the state, big business, and the drug cartels. The most famous of these communities—the one my friends in Acapulco were most excited about—is Cherán, a town of some 16,000 residents situated in the dense tropical forests of central Michoacán. Much of the community's economic livelihood, as well as its water and other natural resources, are derived from the surrounding forest. When local cartels began poaching trees in large numbers and then murdering residents who protested, the government turned a blind eye. So the largely Purépecha population began to organize an armed response.

On April 15, 2011, a group of mostly Purépecha women attacked the cartel's loggers, beating them with sticks and poles and setting their vehicles on fire. Many of the loggers were taken into custody in a newly established people's jail. Soon after the uprising, the townspeople built roadblock checkpoints at each of Cherán's two entrances. They announced that they sought not to secede from Mexico but to establish political and economic autonomy.

Since then, the only people who have not been allowed to enter the town are members of any political party or of a cartel. As Hernández Navarro writes, "the people armed themselves with sticks, stones, machetes, hoes, shovels, and everything they could get their hands on. They stood up to the armed criminals who had devastated the community forests for three years in collusion with cartel groups and elements within the government."

The government, citing articles in the Mexican constitution granting the right of self-rule to the indigenous population—but more likely unwilling to commit the necessary military resources to retake a small town with little economic importance—acceded to the insurgents' demands.

Autonomy may have many virtues to freedom-loving anarchists but, in Cherán as in Chiapas, individual liberty isn't always one of them. The checkpoints are a constant reminder that Cherán is somewhat like Israel: It is a small jurisdiction surrounded by much larger enemies, prompting universal conscription (in both Cherán and Israel) and creating a pervasive culture of wartime. Meanwhile, both the Zapatistas and the community leaders of Cherán instituted a direct democracy, which may be a decentralized alternative to violent rule by elites but can still encroach on people's lives. Mass meetings to set town policies are frequent, lengthy, often inconclusive, and, to my eyes, absolutely exhausting.

Stories about struggles for autonomy always stir the blood and elicit dreams of voluntary, cooperative, and stateless societies. But what some of us value the most—our freedom to do what we want as individuals apart from any community—might be one thing these movements cannot deliver.

Self-Defense in Mexico: Indigenous Community Policing and the New Dirty Wars, by Luis Hernández Navarro, University of North Carolina Press, 278 pages, $29.95