Subcomandante Marcos’ disappearing act

    The public face of the Zapatista movement issued his final words in what has been perhaps his most discussed and least understood (by the mainstream media) act yet.
    The man formerly known as Subcomandante Marcos arrives in the main square of La Realidad before issuing his final communique. In his greeting to the crowd, he raised a middle finger to the audience — one of the multiple tricks and jokes that he played on the crowd throughout the ceremony. (WNV/Marta Molina)

    On a rainy day in late May in the middle of the Lacandon jungle of southeastern Mexico, thousands of people listened to the final speech of the figure known as Subcomandante Marcos, once the spokesperson for the Zapatista movement.

    “My name is Galeano,” he said. “Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano. Is anyone else named Galeano?” he asked.

    Suddenly, all members of the command of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, known as the EZLN, responded: “I am named Galeano… We are all Galeano,” they answered.

    “Ah, that’s why they told me that when I was re-born, I’d be born collectively,” Marcos replied.

    This communiqué, which lasted nearly one hour, was both the last speech of the figure who has been the public face of the Zapatista movement since 1994 and a final act of commemoration for Galeano, a Zapatista compañero who was murdered in May in La Realidad, the jungle region of Chiapas, Mexico. It was also — at least as far as mainstream media is concerned — one of Marcos’ least understood poetic acts.

    The Zapatistas refused to permit any mainstream or corporate media to attend the event, which left only a small number of independent, free and autonomous journalists at the commemoration. The result was that outlets such as BBC quickly announced that Marcos was “stepping down” due to “‘internal changes’ within the 20-year-old, far-left guerrilla group.”

    Yet, as is often the case with the Zapatistas, the complexities of the movement and its vision are far removed from the way it appears in the corporate press. “If anyone else is interested in knowing what happened on this day, they’ll have to look to the free media,” said Subcomandante Marcos, before beginning to read the key points of the last communiqué.


    The main square of La Realidad, one of the five Zapatistas’ autonomous and self-governed regions known as caracoles, began filling up quickly on the morning of the May 24 as more than 2,000 people from the Zapatista grassroots communities arrived. These participants of the movement who live in the autonomous Zapatista municipalities are known as the bases de apoyo, which means “bases of support.” Another approximately one thousand people from across Mexico arrived in solidarity caravans to hug the family of Galeano, a Zaptista who was recently murdered by members of the Independent Center for Agricultural Workers and Historic Peasants, which is a group of paramilitary forces in this area of Chiapas.

    The day was far from a traditional commemoration for a murdered comrade. Instead, the Zapatistas insisted that they did not come to bury Galeano, but rather to unearth and give life to him for all of the paramilitary attacks he received, for being a teacher in the zone, and for being a candidate to the Council of Good Government, known as the Junta de Buen Gobierno, for 2014 to 2018. He was also a guardian during the Zapatista Little School.

    Around midday, Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos arrived on a horse, wearing an eye patch on his right eye, like all the Zapatista insurgents and commanders that day. (This, I couldn’t help think, must be to see the world from the left.) As Marcos explained, his whole spokesperson character had been a performance, which he characterized as “a terrible and marvelous magic trick.” In Marcos mind, this character was an elaborate act of creative resistance. “Indigenous wisdom challenged modernity in one of its own bastions: in the media,” he explained.

    Throughout the years, Marcos has been notorious for playing tricks on the mainstream media, in part to create distractions in order to give the movement time and space to grow. In one of his most recent stunts, Marcos faked terminal illness, which sent rumors through the media for years. But the trick wasn’t only on the corporate-owned media; it was also on many of the movement’s supporters. In Marcos’ words, “They had hated and loved a hologram. Their loves have then been useless, sterile, vacuous, empty.”

    Justice, not vengeance

    The day was also an opportunity for Subcomandante Insurgente Moisés, who became the group’s new spokesperson in 2013, to brief the community about the ongoing attacks by paramilitaries and the progress being made in the investigation of Galeano’s assassination. Moisés told the crowd that a woman “hit him with a machete across the mouth” and another woman “dragged the body” of the murdered Zapatista. Despite the violence, Moisés also reiterated the movement’s decision to respond to this violence by asking for justice, without vengeance or deaths. “As warriors, we understand that we will die either due to sickness or in this war,” said Moisés. “But they will never be able to destroy our autonomy or our struggle for freedom… We will use our anger against the capitalist system.”

    Moisés warned the crowd that the Zapatistas anticipate further government-sponsored violence. “We have to prepare to defend ourselves because this will not be the last paramilitary attack,” said Moisés, who explained that the assaults would likely come from paramilitaries belonging to Manuel Velasco Coello, the conservative Green Party governor of the state of Chiapas, and “the ultimate paramilitary” President Enrique Peña Nieto. “In light of this plan,” Moisés warned, “we should resist provocations from organizations controlled by those bad governments … and those who sate their ambitions accepting large quantities of money.”

    Despite the threat, Marcos’ final communiqué also spoke to the group’s decision to pour energy into creation, rather than destruction.

    “Rather than dedicating ourselves to training guerrillas, soldiers and squadrons, we developed education and health promoters, who went about building the foundations of autonomy that today amaze the world,” he said. “Instead of constructing barracks, improving our weapons, and building walls and trenches, we built schools, hospitals and health centers; improving our living conditions. We chose to construct life. All this in the midst of a war that was no less lethal because it was silent.”

    The final act

    By the time night fell amidst the rain, Marcos executed his biggest trick of all: the disappearing act. For years, this figure who wears a disguise and a public face has been a useful “distraction” so that the organization could continue to be clandestine as the Zapatistas built their own schools, houses, autonomous hospitals and justice system, and as they cultivated their land and their liberty, which is to say, their autonomy.

    “The EZLN will no longer speak through my voice,” Marcos said, explaining that Moisés will assume the role of spokesperson. “Cheers and until never,” he said. “Or until always — whoever understood will know that this no longer matters, and it never has.”

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