Zapatistas Denied Access to Water

Somewhat secluded in the green central highlands of Chiapas is a small community named Jechvo, where being a Zapatista means that the water that you drink must fall from the sky. Jechvo is one of four communities in the municipio, or county, of Zinacantan, along with Elambo Alto, Elambo Bajo and La Paz, where a decision was made last December to deny a small portion of their residents, namely those which identify themselves as Zapatistas, all access to the town’s communal water source. The decision to do this was made under extreme pressure exerted over non-Zapatistas by behind-the-scenes advocates of two powerful political parties, the PAN and the PRD. The people who affiliate with these two parties were told that they had to “deal to the Zapatistas” and that an assault on their water source would be a good way to discourage “unpopular” political beliefs.

On my way to Jechvo to be an International Human Rights Observer for two weeks, I noticed signs and posters throughout Zinacantan about the recent alliance between these two parties. This obviously political maneuver didn’t strike me as particularly fair, but its real implications didn’t sink in until after I arrived. During my first day in Jechvo I learned that in this community of at least a 150 adult non-Zapatistas, there are a mere 41 Zapatista adults (about 30 families) left. Compare this to what it must have looked like 6 or 7 years ago, after the ë94 uprising, when practically every person in Jechvo was a Zapatista. The steady and, unfortunately, steep decline that followed is directly the result of cutbacks, threats and unfair economic policies posed by other political parties deliberately designed to undermine Zapatismo. From the way I heard the story told by people in Jechvo, most families didn’t have the nerve or the perseverance to continue in the struggle to the present day; but it was largely because they feared that they wouldn’t be able to make it economically, or that they would be putting themselves and their families in danger, not because they didn’t want to. Now the remaining few are collecting rainwater in large plastic rotoplas as their only method of survival, their children aren’t allowed to go to school, and if you don’t think that’s bad enough, after April 10th of this year it got a lot worse.

Being a Zapatista in Jechvo means making a lot of sacrifices. They live surrounded by enemies who were once their friends. But being a Zapatista also means that when a situation goes down, like the one in Jechvo.Öyou are never alone. When it became clear that this conflict wasn’t going to be resolved easily, the Junta de Buen Gobierno (Good Government Committee) in the regional headquarters or Caracol of Oventik, organized a march on April 10th to San Cristobal to protest and make public the blatant inhumanity of people trying to parch their own neighbors into submission, as if thirst alone could make them stop living for what they believe in. But luckily, water falls from the sky, and so do Zapatistas. Three thousand people marched that day, they came home exhausted but it wasn’t time to rest yet. They came home exhilarated but it wasn’t time for celebration. Nothing happened when the marchers passed Zinacantan, nor the neighboring Pastel, but there were rumors, and when the march entered Jechvo, literally hundreds of “enemies who were once friends” from Jechvo, Pastel and other local communities, were waiting to attack them. The people of the PRD/PANista alliance blocked the road so that the marchers could not enter, then they threw loud and dangerous fireworks at their feet to frighten and disperse the crowd. The aggressors were armed and ready to “acabar (put an end to) los pinche Zapatistas.”

The result was 36 wounded, and 446 Zapatistas had to flee immediately to the mountains to hide out. A young man of 12 that I got to know during my time in Jechvo told me that at the time of the attack his leg was still hurt from falling off a horse months before and his uncle and his father had to take turns carrying him the whole way. No one had time to bring food, blankets or any provisions and many of the wounded went without care. They waited for 3 to 4 days “under the trees” before other Zapatistas could find them. Then 11 more days followed, in and surrounding an abandoned shack, doing the best that they could to make tortillas on the cold, impassive rocks.

I asked my friend’s father if he didn’t sometimes think about taking the bribes and cutbacks that the corrupt political parties had to offer, if he didn’t ever think about giving into the pressure, the danger and alienation and joining the majority in his community. I asked him how his wife, who spoke no Spanish and could not answer me herself, felt about it. He said that they would never give up the fight, that he warned his wife long ago that it would be hard, but that they were never going back to their old ways (as Pristas). “My youngest sons have been Zapatistas all of their lives,” he said, “they are very proud.”

The local elections are coming to Zinacantan in October, the PRD and the PAN have high hopes that their joint candidate will win. During winter months in the U.S. it is dry and hot in the highlands of Chiapas. The people in Jechvo and the surrounding communities aren’t sure what they will do when their water runs out. This, coupled with a state-wide decrease of “peace campers,” as some like to call us, over the last couple of years, is making a lot of Zapatistas in Zinacantan pretty anxious. The Junta de Buen Gobierno (Good Government Council) in the local Caracol has promised that when the rains stop, there is no way these Zapatistas are going to be forgotten; but specifics as to how water relief is going to be brought to these communities have not yet been disclosed.

At the end of the 15 days in the mountains, when the 446 refugees returned to their homes, they were greeted by much destruction. They were also greeted by reporters from all over the world eager to hear their story, by members of civil society (including six peace campers) as diverse in color and form as the corn that they themselves grow. The people of Jechvo feel safe because they know they are not alone, that the future that they struggle to obtain may not be “popular” amongst those that seek to destroy it, but that it is popular nonetheless to people all over the world who share similar struggles and will not fail to turn their heads in the direction of Zinacantan when there is trouble in the air.

Please contact the Chiapas Support Committee if you are interested in traveling to Chiapas in the form of an International Human Rights Observer. We have been offering trainings and certifying people since 1998. Email us: or call 510-654-9687.