“They Were Not Conventional Guerrillas”
When the Zapatistas rose up against the government on the turn of the New Year in 1994, the Mexican government was caught on the back foot. The initial response of President Salinas was to crush the rebels, and the army was sent to Chiapas to quell the uprising. But this was much more than a military conflict confined to the south-east of Mexico. It looked set to spark an internal political crisis, bring the government into disrepute, and even lead to foreign military intervention.
The presidential offices were a pressure cooker. There were people out for blood, including figures like media mogul and Televisa owner Emilio Azcárraga. The government worried about other rebel groups in the country joining the uprising and creating a national revolt. Also, with NAFTA simultaneously entering into effect, the establishment had to consider the US response. Would the Americans support Salinas in a mass repression of rebels? Would they invade to protect their economic interests?
Manuel Camacho Solís, then the PRI’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs and now a PRD senator, played a significant role in the government’s change in strategy in the early days of the uprising. From the off, he told Salinas to “seek a political solution” but, in that moment, “there was no willingness on his part” to do such a thing. Images of soldiers and dead Zapatistas, however, soon spread on the internet and the world’s media channels. Stocks also plummeted as energy towers were attacked throughout the country.
Camacho spoke to Salinas again, telling him that “the government was rapidly losing its prestige” and that, without a change in strategy, more people would die. Such a situation, he told the president, “would be terrible for the State”. Salinas listened more attentively. While the army could easily crush the EZLN, Salinas now understood that the nation’s political climate and its relationship with the USA could change significantly if violent repression continued. At the same time, the Americans were monitoring the situation, and human rights organisations claimed there were US soldiers and undercover agents in the Lacandona Jungle keeping the EZLN under surveillance (in an area with no Mexican military presence).
Throughout the early days of the uprising, there was a lot of tension within the ranks of the governing PRI. Salinas was under pressure to keep up the military offensive on the EZLN, but Camacho emphasised that such actions would lead to “serious social and political consequences”. The president was reluctant to adapt his approach, saying that it would not be an easy change to make, but Camacho made it clear that he would step down as Secretary of Foreign Affairs if the government did not seek a peaceful political solution to the rebellion.
One of the differences between 1994’s uprising and previous guerrilla insurrections was that, due to the increasing presence of the media, information about the Zapatistas “instantly spread throughout the world”. Such media commotion, along with voices like that of Camacho Solís, finally forced Salinas to change his tactics and, on January 10th 1994, there was a cabinet reshuffle to move opponents of a political solution out of the higher ranks of the government. Camacho was named as the Commissioner for Peace in Chiapas.
Camacho soon met with Julio Scherer, founder of the magazine Proceso, who had been approached by the EZLN to be a mediator in the peace process. The Commissioner saw, in the “very well written” letter sent to Scherer, that “Marcos was not a military man… but a politician” and that he had “very clear intentions”. It was evident that another key difference between the Zapatistas and other guerrilla groups was “not in its military strength” but in its form of communicating. He realised that, in spite of the EZLN’s military weaknesses, “impressive acts of propaganda” had taken place. The State was clearly facing more than just another armed uprising.
Having dealt with protests against the electoral fraud of 1988, and those led by the CEU* and the CNTE**, Camacho had previous experience with political negotiations. However, his abilities, and his appointment as Commissioner for Peace, meant that he gained a lot of attention, all of which worried the PRI’s chosen presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio. To increase Colosio’s fears of Camacho running for president, the Commissioner assumed his role on January 10th, the same day that Colosio launched his presidential campaign. As a result of events in Chiapas, Colosio’s campaign received very little media attention, and Camacho received a lot of the limelight.
The king of the Mexican media machine, Televisa’s Emilio Azcárraga, invited Camacho to breakfast to complain about his role in Chiapas, citing his alleged intentions to derail Colosio’s electoral campaign. Revealing his anger, he “tried to intimidate” the Commissioner. A couple of months later, however, Camacho made it clear to the presidential hopeful that what interested him was “resolving the Chiapas question properly”, not obtaining a post in a future government. He told Colosio that the only thing that would satisfy him would be to “bring about a true democratic transition in Mexico”. On March 22nd, he officially put the rumours to rest by confirming he would not run for president. His role in the peace process, however, would be short lived.
Camacho says that he soon gained the trust of the Zapatistas, and considered Marcos “an exceptionally intelligent man” who didn’t hide anything but, at the same time, stood as firm as a rock regarding the Zapatistas’ claims. But on March 23rd, Colosio was murdered in Tijuana, and Camacho was recalled to Mexico City. The preparations for a peace agreement, which were nearing their final stages, were forgotten about. Camacho’s replacements would never meet with Marcos, and what followed in years to come would be a series of government betrayals of the peace process.
*CEU = Consejo Estudiantil Universitario – a student organisation of the UNAM founded in 1986 to oppose to neoliberal educational ‘reforms’
**CNTE = Teacher’s union focussed on democratising and fighting corruption in the SNTE union, and standing up to gradual privatisation of Mexico’s education system
Translated and adapted by Oso Sabio from the article “They Were Not Conventional Guerrillas” by José Gil Olmos, found between pages 8 and 13 in Proceso’s Special Edition Number 43 – “20 Years Later: The Zapatista Uprising”