The Milagro Weed Field Wars
La cucaracha, la cucaracha,Ya no puede caminar,Porque no tiene, porque le falta,Marijuana que fumar!
Marching Song of “La Cucaracha”(a.k.a. Pancho Villa’s army)
Aldama, Chiapas, Mexico
Out at Rancho Nuevo, Mexico’s U.S.-sponsored War on Drugs was gearing up. At the military base south of San Cristóbal de las Casas, which has so often been in the eye of the Zapatista hurricane, the press had been summoned to accompany an impressive detachment of Mexican troops: two generals, eight operation chiefs, forty-two officers, 451 combat-ready soldiers, forty military police officers and elements of the crack GAFE unit that trains at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. We’re all set for a late-night foray into Los Altos – the surrounding highlands where the rebel Zapatista Army of National Liberation has its greatest influence. The object of this midnight mission: the destruction of fifty-eight scraggly marijuana plants scattered alongside a dirt road between the Tzotzil Indian villages of Aldama and Santa Marta.
Suddenly, as the thirty-seven vehicle convoy navigates the narrow switchbacks down to Aldama, E.Z.L.N. sympathizers from neighboring communities appear in the high beams, lined up across the road in angry knots. “Go home you sons of Satan!” scream Tzotzil women at the bewildered drug warriors. One man, masked by a red bandanna and identifying himself only as “Jacinto,” plants himself in the middle of the road and accuses the military of wanting to establish a military base in Aldama. “You only bring us problems. Go away! You are frightening our children,” he shouts up at General Jorge Isaac Jiménez (codename: Taurus), Chief of Operations of Zona Militar 31.
“We have come to destroy the enervantes that are bad for your children,” insists the General, a machine gun slung across his chest. The word “enervantes,” a government euphemism for drugs, seems to confuse Jacinto, until the military man explains.
“We’re not eating these plants. We’re against them,” the rebel finally responds. “We will cut them down ourselves.”
But General Jimínez is adamant: “We cannot go away – it is our duty to combat drugs.” Even as a furious old Indian woman confronts the general, pounding on his chest, he gives the order to advance. Military police lock their electronic shields together, emitting a spooky shower of sparks in the dark, whip out canisters of tear gas, and push forward to open the road.
Stumbling around blindly in the acrid fog, the Indians succeed in regrouping in the center of the small town, hurling stones and dirt and clumps of grass at the determined troops. At length the second battle of Aldama ends in a handshake between Jacinto and General Jiménez, who gives his word as an officer and a gentleman to rip out the plants and leave without arresting anyone. But the confrontation is the most serious clash between the Zapatistas and security forces since ten were killed at El Bosque during the attempted dismantlement of an E.Z.L.N. “autonomous municipality” last spring. It’s also a forceful reminder that, despite the intense politicization of events in Chiapas, this dispute is still essentially a conflict between the Mexican military and a rebellious civil population.
Despite broad evidence that the fifty-eight, twenty-foot-tall marijuana plants allegedly spotted during overflights and subsequently cut down and burned by the soldiers were being cultivated by farmers affiliated with PRI (the Institutional Revolutionary Party that has controlled the Mexican government for seventy years), the government, and its supporters in the press leveled an accusing finger at the E.Z.L.N. The official report filed on the incident accused the Zapatistas of having delayed the convoy long enough to allow the escape of “the narco-traffickers or narco-planters.”
Emilio Rabasa, President Ernesto Zedillo’s lonely peace coordinator in Chiapas who has yet to meet with the Zapatistas, lost little time in calling a no-questions-allowed press conference to demand the E.Z.L.N.’s return to the negotiating table to avoid future confrontations during drug raids. And TV Azteca and Televisa ratcheted up public indignation at the “narco-Zapatistas.”
As in most big-lie campaigns orchestrated by the government and its paid-for press, the opposite of what was being said was closer to the truth. Rather than being willing dupes of the narco-lords – or narco-lords themselves – the E.Z.L.N. fights its own diligent War on Drugs.
In a January 17 communiqué from the E.Z.L.N.’s Clandestine Indigenous Revolutionary Committee (C.C.R.I.), the rebel ruling council reminded the press that Zapatista base communities “by their own decision” do not permit the cultivation, trafficking, or consumption of drugs – a position made abundantly clear by banners outside rebel villages, warning violators of the consequences of drug use. Visitors to such communities are similarly warned and searched for arms and drugs (even prescription drugs have been confiscated.)
Intelligence agencies have attempted to associate the E.Z.L.N. with drug trafficking for several years. Auditing citizen band broadcasts in the Lacandón jungle in 1992 and 1993, Mexican military intelligence and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency claim that they thought they were intercepting transmissions between traffickers. Even the narco gangs who sold the E.Z.L.N. a small arsenal thought they were narcos. Subcomandante Marcos, the E.Z.L.N.’s quixotic spokesperson, complained to La Jornada’s Blanche Petrich in his first-ever public interview in 1994. Marcos also revealed that the E.Z.L.N.’s surprise capture of seven Chiapas county seats that same year was designed to pre-empt a military offensive against the guerrilleros – under government’s “Permanent Campaign Against Narco-Traffic.”
In response to these early associations with the drug trade, the E.Z.L.N. has actively campaigned against drug and alcohol use in its communities – evils they associate with the type of military encampments Jacinto suspected the army was preparing to establish in Aldama. Embarrassed by a resolution supporting the legalization of soft drugs passed at a Zapatista-convoked conclave against neo-liberalism, held in the Lacandón jungle in 1996, Marcos sheepishly told the press that drug use “is not acceptable in our communities.”
A month after the January 13 confrontation in Aldama, no one up in these craggy mountains seems to remember the event very clearly. “I was asleep when the soldiers came,” one young man explained as he watched a basketball scrimmage between members of Aldama’s Vigilance Council. Down the road, Pedro Hernández Santis, clad in a Virgin of Guadalupe tee-shirt, hoisted a can of beer and insisted, “We grow corn and coffee here … we do not know this “mala yerba” (literally, bad herb) – then adding, like a War on Drugs poster boy: “They say it kills.”
Municipal agent Juan Méndez knows nothing either. Typing a document with fifty or so colleagues just back from a PRI assembly looking on, he refuses to speculate on who grew the dreaded dope. But when a U.S. reporter ventures that he has heard stories of how soldiers come and give seeds to PRI farmers, nervous laughter ripples through the room – which is about as close to affirmation as a reporter ever gets in these taciturn mountains.
People have good reason for silence here. Aldama is a few scant miles as the crow flies from Acteal, where in December of 1997, paramilitaries associated with the PRI slaughtered forty-six Tzotzil Indian supporters of the E.Z.L.N. Before the killings, just down the road from Aldama, in Santa Marta, the wives of men who had joined a PRI paramilitary brigade complained to La Jornada correspondent Hermann Bellinghausen that their husbands never slept with them anymore and were watching pornographic movies and smoking marijuana. In Mexican marijuana lore, as extravagantly hysterical as U.S. reefer madness, La Mota is believed to transform the user into a cold-blooded homicidal zombie, capable of murder without remorse – rather than the doughnut-munching couch-potato profile that fits most weed smokers.
As has often been the case in the drug war here, the siege of Aldama was more a photo op than a telling blow against traders in estupificantes (another government euphemism for drugs). Indeed, the discovery of the plants in plain sight of a well-traveled path between two towns rather than in the vast green hills above excites suspicions – at least those of a veteran reporter who covered the northern California drug wars of the seventies. Not a few Zapatista supporters suggest the dope was sown there as a pretext for military incursion.
In response to accusations of complicity with the narco trade, the Zapatistas of Aldama respond that, though they are vehemently opposed to the cultivation of marijuana, they did not chop down the stalks because they were afraid of retaliation from the PRI paramilitaries. Down the valley in Cotzilman, one Zapatista sympathizer, who destroyed several stray mota bushes he says were grown by local PRIistas, had fifty of his tomato plants chopped down in revenge.
The cultivation of marijuana in the conflict zone has its own history. Aldama abuts San Andrés, once the site of peace talks between the E.Z.L.N. and the government, which has always enjoyed a certain notoriety as a concentration point for the herb. In the highlands, poverty pushes the poor into planting the mota – coffee fetches four pesos a kilo and marijuana twenty-five. Rumored to be warehoused in the crime-ridden La Hormiga colonia in San Cristóbal (the commercial nexus of Los Altos) the drugs are sold to tourists at $500 a kilo.
As is often the case, it is the little guys who are prosecuted; Indian campesinos are often arrested for cultivation or transportation. Hundreds of Chiapas Indians are behind bars at the state’s maximum lock-up, Cerro Hueco, for “crimes against health” (still another euphemism for drug trafficking). Reportedly, marijuana is plentiful inside Cerro Hueco.
Drugs have always been a sub-text to the conflict in Chiapas. Cocaine from Central America crosses into this southernmost border state at the boomtown of Tapachula on the Pacific coast; and deep in the eastern jungle, where small planes are said to bombard outlying villages with sacks of the powdery drug. It is then smuggled, along with precious hardwoods, through the Tabasco cities of Palenque and Villahermosa, and north to the U.S.
And while native drug crops (marijuana and opium poppy) are grown in the extreme west of the state in the Chimilapas and in the central valleys, drug cropping here in the highlands and the jungle is a recent phenomenon. According to anthropologist Andres Aubry, plantation-size drug cropping was an open secret in the eighties, under Governor Absalon Castellanos, a military general who allowed large landowners to close off sections of the state to public view and use pistoleros to enforce silence. But as the U.S.-sponsored War on Drugs zeroed in on southern Mexico, diversification became a more secure strategy, and cropping was farmed out to distant collective ejidos and small property owners. Pistol-waving “White Guards” handed out the seed and the fertilizer and supervised production. But, maintains Aubry, a French-born researcher who for years has worked in San Cristóbal, the Zapatista rebellion challenged the village dope plots and shut down many operations.
“Provocation” is the word many use to describe the January 13 confrontation at Aldama. “It was a provocation,” declares municipal agent Méndez, although he does not say who was provoking whom. Zapatista supporters contend the incursion was provocation designed to taint the E.Z.L.N. as it prepares to send thousands of representatives from jungle and highland communities into municipalities across the land, to campaign for a national Zapatista referendum on indigenous autonomy. Meanwhile, peace coordinator Rabasa has promised new raids, a poppy patch was destroyed in early February near San Miguel Xiptic, a Zapatista jungle enclave, and the military now flies new “Permanent Campaign Against Narco-Traffic” banners in the highlands.
Recently, a U.S. reporter was stopped at a military checkpoint outside San Andrés for a routine credentials check. While his documents were being meticulously inspected, the reporter pointed to one of the new banners and joked to an idle soldier that the sign ought to read “the Permanent Campaign Against Marcos Traffic” – as that was its real intention.
The soldier did not smile.
John Ross is traveling in the U.S. in March, promoting his novel Tonatiuh’s People.