Excerpt from Ocosingo War Diary: Voices from Chiapas


(I was born in Ocosingo’s first valley, when my village was still gateway to the jungle, and the jungle was still worthy of its name. In that atmosphere of pain and wonder you could plumb the depths of nature and human nature. In that smithy my soul was forged. There, in the old family house, the war took us by surprise. I kept a hasty record of what I saw and heard during those first 12 fateful days. The very valley that gave rise to my verse has also generated the snapshots which, in brushstrokes of stuttering prose, I transcribe below.)


It’s 8:57 on January 1, 1994.

My father wakes me with the news: “The town is taken over. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation has declared war on Salinas.”


I stand up.

Get dressed.

My wife turns on the radio: nothing, except the local station converted to Radio Zapata, where a man with a Central American accent reads the Declaration of War upon the Mexican Army.

Total silence blankets the town.

My father affirms that the guerilla fighters already passed through the street “armed with high quality submachine guns.”

The Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle continues to be heard.

I don’t believe what I’m hearing.

I’m still not fully awake.

What’s this.

The final “l” trills long on the palate of this revolutionary radio announcer when he says: Ejército Zapatista de Liberación National-l-l-l….

9:12  We’re in a second-floor bedroom.

We’ve slept here during our vacation.

We go to the terrace overlooking the street and see, with the binoculars, a man in blue on the roof of the municipal building.

The Internationale is heard over the radio in an unrecognizable language.[2]


The short station breaks are full of the guerrilla muzak we suffered through during the ’70s.

9:17  My niece Teté (9 years old) runs upstairs and tells me an armed group is coming by Aristides’ house, on the corner.

I go out the clinic door and see a small group coming down the street, 10 or 12, and another group on the corner.

The shooting starts around the town hall building.

Isolated bursts of machine-gun fire and gun shots.

The War Tax Act begins to be heard.

My initial belief about the taking of the town as a harmless blow begins crumbling to pieces: an image comes to mind of the university “islands” of ’71; fiery speeches, ultra-leftist thugs, the University President’s fall, radical activists like Falcón, Castro Bustos, and Raúl León de la Selva, sound systems at full blast electrifying the air with firecrackers.[3]

War Tax Act.

“They’re repeating it over and over again,” says my brother-in-law Genner.

More gunshots….

A man in a little black hat, with a high-caliber weapon and impressive radio equipment, opens with a burst of machine-gun fire from the corner.

What’s he shooting at?

They’re barricaded on the corner down the street, outside my cousin Lety’s house.

There’re about seven of them.

Seems they’re on both sides of the street.

Something explodes and makes smoke near the school.

Of course: that’s what they’re shooting at.

They’re the State Judicial Police offices.[4]

How quiet it is.

9:21  A little smoke from the explosion gets through. It burns the nostrils and makes your eyes water.

9:23  There’re three radios on in the house, and yet in the rest of town the silence is striking.

This was the silence I used to hear as a child.

Severe watering of the eyes.

I look out from the garden terrace.

The odor and watering of the eyes increase.

I run downstairs.

My wife shows how to give the children cloths soaked in water and vinegar so they can cover their noses.

There’re eight children in the house.

They’re all blinking with watery and startled eyes.

9:30  Now I lean out from the terrace overlooking the street: there’s still a small group, but the man with the antenna’s no longer there. Two shots.

9:32  A new burst of smoke near the church. Naturally:  the boys in blue from Public Safety, State Judicial Police, are protecting town hall.

They’re the ones firing tear gas.

9:36 Ten more shots. The shooting continues. Five now. Now around 15, from different parts of town.

9:45  Just what we needed: Jose de Molina on the radio in Ocosingo.[5] I never thought that in this air so pure….

“That background music’s gonna lose them the war,” slips in my wife Pilla, whispering.[6]

“It’s one of two things: either the bad taste of all wars or their most potent weapon for scaring off the enemy,” I respond.

Why’ve we been whispering?

9:47  Another burst of machine-gun fire.

Suddenly, a truck appears from up the street.

It’s coming from the highway.

It tries to enter.

Onlookers gathered at the street entrance shout:

“What’re you doing over there, man?! Don’t even think about coming in! There’s a shoot-out!”

The truck stops, the driver speaks with people.

He backs up and heads toward the Yajalón exit.

9:57  You can already see some civilians venturing out into the street, as if taking their first steps.

My cousins Mario and Ovidio arrive.

They signal us from the corner.

They come with their backs against the wall.

We open the entry gate for them and they quickly dart through.

They say there’re more than a thousand guerilla fighters in town.

That they’ve already burned down Pemex’s Geophysical installation and destroyed three small planes.[7]

My cousins live near the airfield, in the low-lying part of town, towards the big river or Virgin River, which surrounds and delimits the town to the east.

(The river runs north to south and merges with the Jataté River, some seven and a half miles from town.)

10:00  We chit-chat at the upper gate, which is the entrance to the palm-lined patio: full of cars during this vacation season in which all our brothers and sisters came to spend the holidays with my parents.

At the rear of the patio is the area for removing pulp from the coffee beans, and the orchard with limes, orange trees, coffee trees, and pacaya palms.

Goose, duck, turkey, and hen country.

And seven roosters for the holidays.

My father’s glad: “Those Zapatistas are some tough turkeys, alright,” is his catch phrase lately.

There’re four guerillas on the corner.

No: six.


Seems there’s more, but I can only see those.

Heavily armed.

Another individual with a radio arrives.

Many arrive: cross the street quickly.

Now I get it: their objectives are the municipal building and the State Judicial Police offices.

They’re going after them from every part of town, judging by the gunshots.

“Yep,” my cousin Mario confirms, “all the shots are aimed at town hall. It’s a sea of green down there with all the guerillas.” They invited Mario and Ovidio to join them.

“They’re inviting everybody.”

“Against rich people.”

“Don’t worry about weapons, we’ll give them to you.”

I see boots, green pants, sweaters, or brown jackets.

Red bandanas around their necks.

Some are wearing black pants.

“Those who join will receive weapons immediately, but if you already have them, even better, a guy who talks like a Salvadoran told us,” Ovidio says. My cousins came all the way from their house to the other side of town to see how we were, and to wish us Happy New Year.

Happy New Year?

The man with the little black hat and the huge antenna reappears at the corner.

Pants and jacket: all black from head to toe.

And a red bandana around his neck.

People lean out from balconies, from doors, from windows.

I already scouted all the look-out posts inside the house, and already looked out from the sidewalk.

Everybody’s going around taking baby steps to reclaim his or her space, to once again mark a territory abruptly circumscribed to the house by the presence of arms. A block up the street, on the highway, there’s a throng of spectators, 30 or 40, standing in the middle of the street or sitting on the sidewalk. They’re truck owners, or truck drivers, or passengers who’d be traveling to San Cristóbal or to Palenque.

Our House is on Central Avenue.

A block and a half down is Cuauhtémoc Federal Elementary School, my old school.

A block further away, the municipal building bordering, to the east, our civic center (central park and the battered colonial plaza).

On the other side of the plaza, and delimiting its eastern boundary, the vast church of San Jacinto de Polonia, which the Dominican brothers of Friar Pedro Laurencio built in the 16th century.

Given the location of our house, at the higher elevations of the populated area, I have a bird’s-eye view of the theater of operations.

I’ve been looking out from the big gate above, from the door of my brother Edgar’s clinic, from the little coffee patio gate and from the second-floor balconies.

Mario says they did serious damage to don Enrique Solórzano’s house.

I watch a drunk pass by the corner, staggering, with his white cowboy hat on, shaking his head as if in disapproval.

He passes between the guerilla fighters as if it were nothing.

He crosses the street, then comes back and continues up the street, in the direction of the school.

Now a gunfight breaks out.

Shots fired on town hall.

But it’s not the ones on the corner who fired.

We don’t budge from our observation post.

10:15  More tear gas near the State Judicial Police offices.

The drunk turns around at the school.

Three guerrillas come running to the corner.

They talk with the group that’s been there.


I watch the man at town hall, a policeman in blue, in sniper position on the roof, underneath some satellite dishes.

He aims toward the park.

“There’re several of them,” says my sister Aura.

“There they are, look,” and she passes me the binoculars.

“They’re dragging themselves along the ground.”

“Yeah, there they are; they’re aiming toward the park: they have no weapons; they can only fire tear gas.”

A guerilla group appears at the corner of the school.

They take cover.

They’re approaching town hall.

There they are now, a block away.

The war manifestos continue over the radio.

Throughout the hours we’ve heard a justification for the armed uprising, a war tax act, a series of petitions that international organizations like the Red Cross monitor combat developments, contribute to the care of the wounded and the burial of the dead. The declaration of war has been heard several times, as well as instructions for EZLN members, a series of rights and obligations of peoples in conflict in the “liberated” territories, and a series of rights and obligations for EZLN soldiers.

Respect for civilian populations is spoken of.

They invoke the Geneva Convention as to the conduct of war.

There shall be summary trials of policemen and soldiers who’ve received training abroad, charging them with treason against the Homeland.

EZLN members who rob, kill, or rape civilians shall be punished.

And the litany of revolutionary jargon goes on and on.

The echo of words like “summary trials,” “executions,” “battles,” “war,” “enemies of the revolution,” “dead and wounded,” produce an atmosphere of frigid silence.

10:22  Another group on the corner.

All very young, in their 20s or less.

These seem like college students: they all look completely ladino.[8]

There’s one with a patchy little beard.

The ones from a while ago were clearly indigenous.

I no longer see the men on the roof at town hall.

10:24 They call me to eat breakfast.

The kitchen activities haven’t been interrupted.

Every day of the year, very early, around seven o’clock, we drink coffee; then we work the yards and the orchard.

At 9 o’clock, we formally eat breakfast, at 2:30 we have lunch, and dinner is at 8:30 or 9.

The kitchen is in constant activity under my mother’s vigilance.

I go down to eat breakfast and drink coffee but without letting go of my little notebook: this beautiful notebook, bound in amate paper, that the young poet Leonardo Cruz Parcero made.[9]

He wanted me to have that first product of his hands.

Thanks: I’ll make these war diary entries here.

One of last night’s turkeys was left almost whole.

Not bad for wartime: stuffed turkey with a flower in its beak.

Mini tostadas, salsas, coffee home-grown from our ranch, and bread from San Cristóbal.

Let “rationing” be ever thus.

Yesterday and the day before rumors were running around: that armed men would come; “the Indians are going to take over the town”; “five Guatemalan planes came”; “the Indians are already ready in Monte Líbano.”


“It’ll be just like October 12th; nothing’s going to happen.”[10]

And a mock toast: “In case the guerrillas chop our heads off tomorrow.”

To chop off somebody’s head is a habitual turn of phrase in these valleys where the machete is both tool and weapon; the most useful, the first that one learns how to wield.

We all, as children, used to have the machete corresponding to our age and would use it for everything: for splitting pine wood, for chopping firewood, to make sticks out of and for making play pens, for making toy bows and arrows, for making wooden kite frames, for making stick-figure wooden horses, for chopping and stripping sugar cane.

I look at the machetes those guerrillas carry: small, with craftwork sheathes, toy-like, very uniform.

“They carry them like field knives,” says my cousin Pablo, who’s attracted to military life.

To chop someone’s head off.

To chop someone’s head off.

To chop someone’s head off.

No longer has the same ring to it as yesterday.

As if the words, now, had a sharp edge.

My aunt Maga proposes organizing medical brigades with the inhabitants of this house.

“Because it seems this is getting serious.”

An expert in public health, recently retired from the IMSS, she now sells medical supplies.[11]

My brother Edgar, the youngest of the brothers, is this town’s beloved doctor.

Our house has good mojo when it comes to medicine: my mother cured, always following the tradition my great grandmother inaugurated in the century’s second decade, since the last war in this valley: the Pinedist revolt against Carranza.

My mother’s oldest brother, uncle Ovidio, was, until his death, the most highly esteemed physician in San Cristóbal.

He used to come to Ocosingo twice a year, back when there was no highway.

And we would have long lines of patients stretching out to the street, sometimes all the way to the corner.

Rosario and Domingo, my sister Mapi’s children, are studying medicine.

10:43 Four young drunks pass through the street, with their bottle of Jaguar, a sugar cane liquor bottled in plastic and costing a dollar per liter.

Those drunks are part of a team of bricklayers famous for being “hard drinkers and hard workers.”

“That one is el Pato,” says my sister Aura, an architect; she knows them well.

“The other one is el Caracol, the one with his shirt open.”

They were with the spectators up the street, and took off from there.

They arrive chatting.


Take a swig from the bottle.

Pass it around.

Say something to one another.

Unexpectedly, after taking a swig and passing the bottle, the one with his shirt open turns toward the guerillas on the corner and shouts at the top of his lungs: “Assholes! Kill me dead, p-r-r-r-p-tow-tata-tow!; sons a fuckin’ bitches! Think we’re scared of you?!”

El Pato wants to run off.

The rest stop him.

The armed rebels ignore the shouting.

Those young people, with a bit of pressure, could join in on the violence of either side.

They go up, now, toward the house of don Amado, the old carpenter. (When, as children, we would hear hammering at night, we knew that someone had died.)

There the drunks are now, lurching, with lost looks on their faces.

They talk.

Stick out their chests.

One lights a cigarette.

They’re, really, very drunk: New Year’s.

Three walk down again.

One stays back.

They call him: “Come on, dickhead.”

Sporadic shots have been heard from the direction of the park. The exchange of gunfire now grows more intense.

One of the drunks, a curly-haired guy I don’t know, screams, as if responding to the shoot-out: “Ow!, ow, owww…! “Life makes me laugh as long as passion lasts!”

They all light cigarettes.

Pluck up courage.

It surprises me, this almost animal posture of defiance that consists of sticking out their chests and walking, as straight as they can, in the midst of their drunkenness.

And there they go, back down.

The defiant ones.

There’s a strange tension scorching the air of the street because of those youths whose only weapon is their bottle of Jaguar.

“Let’s see what they do,” says Genner.

They continue determined, down the street…

But at the corner they turn around.

“You’re never too drunk to eat your own shit,” adds my brother-in-law.

10:47 Fresh tear gas through the park.

We try calling Mexico City, and the call is cut off.

Rumor’s been running around that the telephone lines are tapped by the guerrillas.

Has it come to that?

Jaime passes through the street, with his yellow baseball cap on.

He takes care of the plot where we’re building my house in Fortín del Chorro, in the eastern part of town.

That place was indeed one of four forts, during the siege of Ocosingo in the Pinedist war (from 1916 to 1920).

It’s a privileged place for contemplating the valley.

“Jaime’s happy now, thinking he’s gonna get your house,” says my sister Dora, smiling.

The drunken youths return, back up the street, once again.

They’ve never passed beyond the corner.

El Caracol knows he’s being observed: has spectators from the store across the street, onlookers from the highway, and us, who see him from the terrace.

He turns around and shouts again from the corner at the armed rebels: “Put a bullet in me right here, see!”

And he violently thumps his hard bare chest.

“Suck my dick…” he adds softly.

The spectators smile or titter.

Now it’s the curly-haired guy who’s carrying the bottle.

They have more trouble walking.

Continue up the street.

All of them.

The guerrillas aren’t on the corner now.

Not visible at least.

Another drunk appears over there, alone.

Crosses the street.

Happy New Year!

11:02 Carmelino is the owner of “El Cubanito,” the store across the street. With the curtains closed, he’s selling to the few people who come bearing fresh news.

He tells us the guerrillas have don Enrique Solórzano tied up.

His family, too.

“Poor Olga,” my mother says, “what possible harm can Enrique have done them?”

“Bastards!” says aunt Maga.

“Weren’t they going to respect civilians?” Dora adds.

They took their stuff and burned some of it.

They turned the prisoners loose.

They already killed three policemen from Public Safety.

They have the Solórzanos tied up and stripped down to their underwear.

“Looks like they’re gonna kill ’em…”

11:12 Over the radio they repeat the Red Cross instructions.

Someone says it seems like a movie.

“Yes, but they’re very slow; we want more action,” says Oswaldo, an 11-year-old nephew.

11:29 Comments in the store:

“Nothing’s known about the Mexican Army.”

“Didn’t there used to be a military detachment here?”

“We’re so far from everything.”

“It’s an invasion.”

“There’re a lot of Central Americans.”

“A lot of them don’t talk.”

“They’re like Salvadorans.”

“They’re Guatemalans.”

“They’re Nicaraguans.”

“But there’re a lot of Indians from around here.”

“From here?”

“Sure, the rubber boots are from here, they’re speaking Tzeltal.”

“Some are carrying wooden rifles.”

“There are women.”

“We’re so far from everything.”

It’s true.

11:36 Past the corner a group of armed, masked men passes.

Mario said a while ago that there were at lot like that, down there.

They’re the first we’ve seen around here with their faces covered.

Ski masks or balaclavas.

A woman is among them.

“Look how she walks.”

“It’s a guy!”

“No, it’s a woman, look at her hair…”

Yes…seems to be a woman.

11:39  Silence.

Short burst of machine-gun fire.

Isolated shots.

11:40  Mexico City television broadcasts the news.

They don’t say a thing about the shooting that’s continued non-stop all these hours, albeit sporadic.

Minimal news: “A group of peasants armed with clubs is taking over San Cristóbal city hall.”

They know nothing.

The sun burns, despite the cloudy day.

Birds’ song accompanies the shooting.

Whistling close by, a bullet.

Where from?

11:55  Another brief burst of machine-gun fire.

11:58  Two girls pass by the corner, between the armed men.

People get used to everything.

A kind of calm has descended.

Inside the houses I can manage to see, with the naked eye or with binoculars, people doing laundry, preparing food, some sweeping.

I watch the group of armed men on the school corner.

Big red stains of bandana against the light-colored wall.

I see the group on Lety’s corner.

“Today we say, ‘Enough’!”

So begins the Declaration of War against the “dictator.”

At times the voice of the man who reads changes.

How many are there, I wonder?

Again, I see the men in blue on the roof of town hall.

Two Zapatistas cross the street, at the corner: one a girl with her face uncovered; the other, a male, ski-masked.

12:32  We’re on the terrace overlooking the street.

My sister Aura, my wife, my cousin Pablo, my brother-in-law Luis.

We see the group from the corner and the one from the school.

Aura says: “Look…now they’ve climbed up on the school roof!”


“There, near the big heap of roofing tiles!”

Yes, there they are.

There, up top, the guerrilla commando has in his sights the men in blue guarding the municipal building.

From rooftop to rooftop, but the police have their backs turned, looking towards the park.

We see the policeman in blue under the satellite dishes.

“They’ve got a potshot from the front,” says Luis.

“They’ve got a potshot from the back,” someone says.

“They’re aiming at him!”

“They’re gonna shoot him!”



Shot rings out.

Man in blue slumps beneath the satellite dish.


Did you see that?

We’ve seen it so many times on TV; and now, faced with the real thing, we’re trembling.

We look at one another, incredulous.

We’re behind the walls under construction.

What time did we hole ourselves up in here?

We were on the terrace looking toward the street unprotected.

They made us feel like crying out when they aimed.

“But if you scream they shoot at you, for sure.”

We took shelter in the part under construction, behind the terrace, without realizing it.

From here I watch and write, protected by a wall.

The blues move swiftly on town hall’s rooftop.

As if they were climbing down on some side or other.

12:38  The commandos now have the State Judicial Police between a rock and a hard place.

We see them from the clinic door.

The group barricaded on Lety’s corner fires in an orderly fashion: the first in line takes position with a knee to the ground, aims, fires, and goes to the rear.

The second does the same.

And so on, until they all go through. The ones from the school do the same.

“And those State Judicial Police, they’re some tough hombres, aren’t they?” my father says, instigating.

“Come on out now and fight instead of holing up in there! Or let them remember when they kicked el Martín to death.”

El Martín came to Ocosingo at the age of about 9.

He’d fled from his house near Tenango and came to live in town doing errands and working as a porter, a shoe shine boy, a chewing-gum street vendor.

When the highway arrived and the Lacandonia buses entered town, in 1971, young el Martín became a freight loader.

One time a crate of tomatoes fell on him and severely injured his spine.

For a long time, he couldn’t walk, and the townspeople made him a wagon in which he went around followed by a throng of working kids whom he commanded with surprising leadership ability.

Here’s one scene:

“We’re gonna climb the steep hill, you bastards! Everybody’s gonna pull?” el Martín asked.

“Yay-ah…!” shouted the gaggle of kids.

“Well alright, then, sons of bitches! Some in front and the others in back! On the count of three, push and pull! Fuck whoever doesn’t pull, and mother-fuck whoever doesn’t push!”

And the wagon quickly climbed the steep ascent of Central Avenue amidst yo momma jokes, shouts, and guffaws.

The kids used to bring him food, run errands for him, light his cigarettes, get his bottle of booze.

He started to walk again, but the injury to his spine deformed him.

From then on, new generations knew him as el Martín the Hunchback.

My children, still young, met him on one of the streets in town: perfectly drunk and dancing El zancudito loco.

One of the those travels about town they gave me the news: because of a robbery somewhere, the State Judicial Police detained el Martín.

They beat him so severely that they killed him.

They left him lying near the highway, wrapped up in an old blanket.

“Yeah, but those were some other guys…they ran them off a long time ago,” my mother responds.

“No, those goddamned people are all alike,” my father counter-attacks.

12:43  People get used to everything: the group on the corner has grown.

They hide when the guerrillas fire, and peer out when they cease fire.

What’s that all about?

When this round of firing stops, three boys appear, who run to collect the shell casings.

Same thing at the school: two boys gather up shells and seem to be hugely enjoying themselves.

13:00  A group of five comes to join the guerrillas on the corner: heavier weapons.

One with a ski mask.

They fire at the State Judicial Police.

You can hear the shattering of broken glass after the shots.

Heavy gunfire.

Another round starts.

Everybody fires.

Afterwards, they leave.

The previous group stays.

Again, the boys pounce on the casings.

And the onlookers.

Long silence.

13:25  Seems they left.

People gather on the corner.

First, the boys who run collecting shells, then the grown-ups.

A blue Volkswagen arrives, and the driver talks to people.

Now everybody runs.

Armed men return.

They pass through, running toward the town creek.

From Chacashib mountain range, in the east, innumerable waters spring.

Three streams run through the towns before merging into the Virgin River.

The one in the middle is the town’s creek, and lies two blocks away from the house.

We learned to swim there.

My childhood was reflected in its crystal-clear waters.

In La Cidra pond.

In the pool of El Chorro, with its powerful waterfall.

In the multiple small pools where we used to catch crabs and small shrimp.

The men are running in that direction now.

13:28  A red truck passes by, toward the center of town.

Two more pass by.

“Eleuterio is transporting them,” they say in the store.

13:29  Calm.

Vast Silence.

Roosters crowing at midday.

There’re no motors, nor radio, nor scandal.

You can hear everything, like in the Good Old Days.

“This is old Samuel’s doing,” says my aunt.

“It’s a mockery,” says Luis.

“Many do-nothing bureaucrats as there are in Government and somehow the guerillas managed to insert themselves everywhere, even in San Cristóbal,” says my father.

Phone call from San Cristóbal: the Army is doing a flyover above the city.

The Army is already on its way here.

Same old song on the radio: “Advancing toward the nation’s capital conquering the Mexican Army.”

And the rebel announcer enunciates each letter, defiant, proud.

The town is theirs.

There are flashes of brilliance and moments of naïveté in that speech.

I think about CCH East or about the touching “socialism” of the public preparatory schools that had some overexcited students shouting: “Give me free prep or give me death!”[12]

I remember my surprise on arriving in the valley in recent years.

On entering town and finding graffiti like “Proletarian Line Traitors” on one of the walls of Pancho Vásquez’ house.

Or “Free Dr. Felipe Sorano,” in Temó, Chiapas.[13]

Or simply “Procup.”

And those people?, I wondered, what are they doing so far from home?

And wondering and wondering, one gets drunk on a cocktail of acronyms: PROCUP[14]; PDLP[15]; GPP[16]; CIOAC[17]; OCEZ[18]; ACIEZ[19], ANCIEZ[20], UNORCA[21], ARIC[22], CNC[23], ETC…

And everybody knows bits and pieces of the story.

There’re even formal studies, some quite lengthy, about the political organizations working the jungle.

I remember one serious study about Las Cañadas that the ICHC[24], a state government institution, published some two or three years ago, it must be.[25]

It talks about the work of the Liberation Theology catechists and their diligent labor to establish “the rein of God” in Lacandonia.

It talks about PROCUP and its party line of Prolongued Popular War.

It talks about the Poor People’s Party.

The townspeople still remember engineer Cardel, who lived in Ocosingo for many years, and was detained by the FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional), who used to have a training camp in El Diamante, Chiapas.

It’s known that Maoist groups like “Política Popular,” the Proletarian Line, the Mass Line, and the Leading Ideological Organization were here 20 years ago.


My wife explains to me that Política Popular split off into the Mass Line and the Proletarian Line, due to who knows what disagreements among the leadership, when they were working in the north.

“OID used to be part of the same group, though I don’t remember what the fuss was all about.[26] The ones from Mass Line were organizing the government telephone company workers when Josie[27] and I got there to work with the women,” adds my wife, remembering the Good Old Days.

“What’re you writing, rabble-rouser?” she asks, divining something in my smile.

Anyway, it’s widely known that the political activists and the catechists were working together.[28]

“If they’re not one and the same, they have something to do with each other.”

“Each goes his separate way, but hand in hand,” says my brother Rodulfo.

13:41  Two men go swiftly toward the stream; one has camouflage pants on, the other one, black.

13:43  The group from the school reappears.

Don Pablo, aunt Maga’s husband, says they held up the Serfín bank in San Cristóbal.

13:54  A gunshot in the direction of the park.

14:00  Television news: 24 Horas.

They completely downplay the extent of the problem.

Or they don’t know.

Nothing about the Declaration of War.

They talk about an armed indigenous group.

They’re referring to San Cristóbal.

A telephone call comes in to give more accurate information, but about San Cristóbal.

They know nothing about what’s going on here.

14:25  A man on a motorcycle passes by.

He’s coming from the park.

He seems to get along well with the guerrillas, although he wears a T-shirt and short pants.

He passes calmly among the armed men from the school.

He stops his motorcycle and shouts: “Set that shit on fire once and for all, buddy boy! There’s the gasoline!”

And he laughs.

He’s referring to a pick-up truck parked opposite the State Judicial Police building, right across the street, on the sidewalk of Dora “Cashcarita.” The one on the bike comes up our street.

“That guy lives up here, and has been going around helping them since this morning,” they say in the store.

“Well, isn’t that Eleuterio’s son?”

“They say his wife’s a Salvadoran he brought home from the jungle.”

“Oh, God, Ocosingo’s full of Salvadorans…especially in this neighborhood up here, San Rafael.”

14:40  Paca, another niece, comes running to the dining room.

“Uncle, now they set the truck on fire.”

I go out quickly.

Flames underneath the truck.

Explosion: the tires.

The flames spread.

Thick black smoke.

You can see people moving inside the house.

They go out the second-floor corridor.

They scream, panic-stricken: women and children.

Now you can see them around the corridor.

There’re several of them.

We watch them get out, climb down, run, but within the house.

They walk along a concrete wall.


Now they reappear and begin to take the small children out by means of the concrete wall attached to my cousin Toño’s house.

Cries for help.

Some onlookers from the corner run to help.

The armed men, unmoved.

The house could burn down, with the flames leaping so high.

If the car blows up, the house’ll burn down.

The onlookers take the little children into their arms across the concrete wall.

The women, men jump over.

More screams.

The last woman leaves.

They go up the sidewalk toward don Beto Ruiz’s house, here on the corner.

No effort to fight the fire.

There’s nothing can be done.

There’re no firemen in town.

Besides, there’s no water.

That was the biggest problem till yesterday: a town surrounded by water, criss-crossed by three creeks, has no water because the municipal administration changed chiefs; and the new man in charge, a civil engineer who “to make matters worse isn’t even from here,” caused the valves to blow and ruined the hydraulic system. Right in the middle of the New Year’s holidays.

The mayor “was in Tuxtla” or, for some reason, didn’t show up.

The knot of onlookers, above, has grown to about 100 people.

Around the corner below, my uncle Jose Arcadio passes by, shouting: “Let’s do something! We’re helpless! We can’t just be spectators!”

And we all want to do something.

But we don’t know what.

We don’t even have water to put out the car fire.

Nor have we made a decision to pass by the armed men to extinguish what they started and now, smiling, are watching burn.

14:58  Pancho and Marco, Toño’s sons, come over asking us to keep their truck here.

“Just in case the fire spreads.”

Sure you can.

15:05  I open the gate.

I watch Toño take out his truck and bring it up here.

He comes in.

We greet each other.

We chit-chat.

Last night, after 1 o’clock in the morning, we went to wish them Happy New Year.

After dinner, they come over here or we go over there.

Before, we used to have holiday dinner together: aunt Flor’s family and my mother’s family.

Now there’re so many of us in each family that we no longer get together except to wish each other Happy New Year.

Last night we did it at about one in the morning.

The town was already being invaded.

We didn’t realize.

15:15  A shower of shattering glass in the burning house.

15:22  More gunshots.

The flames from the pick-up truck die down.

Seems the house is saved now, despite the blackened walls.

The gunshots continue.

Toño tells me that they took Chibeto and his whole family out of their house.

That they needed the house as an observation point.

That they didn’t hurt them much.

They’re in his sister-in-law Estela’s house now.

More shooting.

More tear gas.

From the inner terrace, puffs of smoke are seen after the shots.

The guerrillas are firing at town hall, and they’re responding with tear gas from there.

15:41  Movement in the upper stories of town hall.

Screaming and shouting.

White flags being waved in peace.

Lots of white flags.

15:43  The screaming and shouting spreads.

Public Safety surrendered!

People peek out.

Rumor, at the top of its lungs, scorches the street: “They surrendered! They gave up!

An immense roar is heard all over town.

“Now what?”

The vanquished police must be coming out and the rebels are cheering.

15:57  The guerrillas run down from the school protecting themselves in doorways and covering each other, military style.

Radio Villahermosa reports that 500 soldiers are coming from Palenque.

I go out the clinic door.

A lot of people appear at the corner, cautiously.

They venture out a bit more.

Now they come out, a yard or two, leaning over, looking toward the park.

A compact little pile of onlookers.

A man arrives, from the back, stealthy.

Suddenly he shouts, “Boom!”

Everybody flinches.

First laughs in a long time.

More and more people pile up.

I go to the corner.

Rumors: that they dynamited the La Florida bridge (the one coming from San Cristóbal) and the Virgin River bridge (the one leading to Palenque).

I don’t think so: we’d have heard it.

The latter is very close by.

That they burned down San Cristóbal city hall.

That they burned down the cattle-breeders’ association buildings here.

But we can’t see any smoke in that direction.

16:13  Three men on the corner.


Small machetes.

Red bandanas.

Another group breaks open the State Judicial Police door with their rifles.

Those on the corner look out for them.

Over there, next to the ones breaking open the door, a large group watching.

16:18  They open up the offices and take a man with a white shirt on.

They take things, search the room and little patio.

Apparently, the commanding officer was the only one left.

The other State Judicial Police had already escaped since morning.

A group of guerrillas takes the man in the white shirt toward the park.

16:21  A pelibuey sheep goes b-a-a-a amid the multitude looking over the offices of the State Judicial Police or counting the bullet holes in doors and walls.

The sheep continues bleating up to the corner.

A vivid image of forlorn abandonment.

That’s how many of us are now: a lost flock.

16:37  The radio: “Attention, people of Mexico. At this time, Radio Zapata reports: As of this moment they inform us that Public Safety forces on this front have surrendered to EZLN forces.”

16:58  A rumor on the corner: “They killed the State Judicial Police commander.”

“‘Good afternoon,’ he came out saying, with his hands in the air.”

“Some broad let him have it, right here at the gates.”

“That big black one, the one that looks like a man, a captain or who knows what, put a gun to his head and shot him: everybody was frightened.”

“Surrendered my foot! They put a hole in his head! He was lying right there, at the gates of town hall.”

17:03  Dora and Genner will go down to the park.

Rodulfo and my wife will go down there, too.

17:05  Ovidio and Mario come back.

More news: they have hostages at the cattle-breeders’ association.

Don Enrique, Luis Pascasio, Dr. Talango, Rolando Pascasio, and another of Don Enrique’s sons-in-law.

17:33  My wife comes back.


The dead lying in pools of blood.

Red handprints on the columns of the municipal building.

They have 40 policemen tied up, with no shirts on, sitting on the floor.

“With their hands tied behind their backs.”

“There they are, their faces dumbstruck and full of fear.”

“They’re gonna use them to negotiate Salinas’ ouster.”

I look out at the splendid afternoon.

The blue sky.

There are dense white clouds over the eastern hills, as if rent by an orange sun.

A call comes in from Tijuana: it’s my mother-in-law.

Everybody in the States already knows the news.

Calls come in, but aren’t going out.

17:44  “The Mexican Wake-Up Call” is the EZLN’s organ of print communication.

On Radio Zapata they say that in their latest issue they’re publishing the Declaration of War on the government and on the Mexican Army.

There’s no water in town.

Shadows start to fall.

The clouds above the hills are growing denser.

17:52  A hymn on the radio: “Glory be to God./Glory be to the lord of our land, El Salvador./I shall be reunited with my people in the Cathedral/ to celebrate our great Patron Saint’s day./And let there be life and liberty/in our land, El Salvador.” That rings a bell.

18:00  Radio Zapata broadcasts a catchy little ditty in octosyllabic verse accompanied by percussion.

Very talented for the most part, though the chorus is awful.

The rest is entertaining.

The verselets are broadcasting no less than–a formula for making explosives!

18:10  My brother Rodulfo is gonna go sleep at his house.

He and Conchita, his wife, have been here all day.

My mother doesn’t want them to go, but Rodulfo insists.

I remember now that Mario said the insurgents dug trenches to render the runway useless, and that there were guerrillas positioned along the length of the landing strip to hinder any descent.

“The men are out there in the weeds, covered by the undergrowth.”

It’s cold.

Night has fallen.

The lights have been turned on.

A group of six guerrillas have been on guard at the corner all afternoon.

On every corner there are similar security details.

18:46  News from San Cristóbal.

That there are five lookouts on every corner.

That cars with bullhorns are passing by, instructing people not to leave their houses.

On the radio they’re saying they won’t allow the EZLN to be discredited as a group of narco-traffickers, narco-guerrillas, or a bandit group.

I’m tired.

I haven’t eaten much, but am not hungry.

Haven’t stopped writing.

We wanted news, but the only thing on TV is Don Francisco, on one channel, and American football on the other.

“If only the Zapatistas could liberate us from this junk,” I say to my wife.

“And what if they give us José de Molina instead?” she retorts and leaves me speechless.

Over the radio I hear, for the umpteenth time, that the insurgents’ flag bears the colors red and black.

They call upon us to join them in armed struggle.

Demand that Congress depose the “dictator.”

Urge their troops to continue on in their campaign to advance upon the capital of the republic.

They will permit the “liberated” peoples freely to choose their own administrative authorities.

Will respect the lives of prisoners.

There shall be summary trials and executions of members of the police and Army who’ve received foreign training or advisement.

They stand accused from this moment forward, of treason against the Homeland.

But they will respect those who submit to their authority.

They will demand the enemy Army’s surrender before every battle.

20:15  Chatter in the dining room.

Aunt Maga: Where’s the damned bishop gone off to…?

I: I don’t think he has anything to do with it: the church says it doesn’t sanction bringing about change through force, that it rejects violence. If the bishop hadn’t been here, the uprising would’ve happened long before.

Dora: Well, maybe you and the bishop can say mass, but…

20:20  My children call, from Mexico City.

We explain the situation to them and calm them down as much as possible.

I ask them to keep calling every day at this same time.

20:34  A shot.

21:15  A call from Mexico City, Josie.

She says that Radio Mil was reporting and interviewing people.

Talks about a conceited leader speaking English with tourists in San Cristóbal.

Confirms that this is a large-scale, joint operation, that she and Edgar have been monitoring the situation but can’t see where it’s coming from.

21:57  I’ve had a slight headache all day.

Since the first tear gas canister, I think.

22:22  Josie calls again.

Saying that Patrocinio González is already in Chiapas.[29]

That they interviewed guerrillas in San Cristóbal: they want the president and his entire cabinet to resign.

Channel 2 airs “the best of ’93.”

A little while ago, “Candid Camera.”

While tension hangs over the town, national TV is broadcasting this garbage.

How isolated we feel.

What helplessness.

A phrase overheard this morning comes to me: we’re so far from everything.

Or so we believed…

01:35 Images from San Cristóbal on the news.

Statements from the Federal and State governments.

They interview two guerilla fighters.

Everything seems different there: neither Central Americans, nor bossy people, nor violence, nor hostages, nor attacks on civilians, nor dead bodies.

And the guerillas being interviewed are clearly indigenous.

Because of tourism and the San Cristóbal press?

Image control?

But 24 Horas censors the Declaration of War.

They pass it all off as indigenous or peasant demands of minor importance.

The government offers dialogue.

They declare the Army will not intervene.

The images show access points to the city blocked by huge pine trees that have been cut down.

The news goes off.

A feeling of unease: everything seems so strange.

I lean out from the terrace overlooking the street, from the part under construction.

The rebels guarding the corner sleep, curled up in a ball, on the sidewalk.

I think I see one sitting on the doorstep of don Beto Ruiz’ house.

I’m making this last entry at 2:39 a.m.

It’s already another day.

My wife’s waiting for me in the warm bed.

A thought occurs to me: reality is always right.

Come what may.

[1] At midnight Saturday, 1 January 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect.  Simultaneously, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), a theretofore unheard-of rebel group claiming to fight for the desperately poor Maya Indians of Southern Mexico in their struggle for better living conditions, sprang from the Lacandón Jungle. Well aware that Chiapas was an isolated area with a fragile infrastructure, poor transportation network and rugged terrain, they stormed Ocosingo (pop. 20,000) and three other towns.

They overpowered a Mexican Petroleum Corporation (PEMEX) facility, capturing 1.5 tons of dynamite, more than 10,000 detonators as well as a heavy truck. They killed two policemen, occupied the town, and took over the municipal buildings.

[2] A widely sung left-wing anthem. It has been one of the most recognizable and popular songs of the socialist movement since the late 19th century, when the Second International (now the Socialist International) adopted it as its official anthem.

[3] Falcón, Castro Bustos and Raul Leon de la Selva and other porros were “gangs of political thugs and provocateurs supported by politicians of Mexico’s powerful PRI party in its heyday.” Alberto Ulloa Bornemann: Surviving Mexico’s Dirty War: A Political Prisoner’s Memoir.

[4] Author’s note: la Policía Judicial del Estado, que pertenece a la Procuraduría General de Justicia del Estado de Chiapas.

[5] Jose de Jesús Núñez Molina, Mexican singer-songwriter of protest songs. Born Hermosillo, Sonora, in 1938. Creator of populist songs such as “Obreros y Patrones” and “Ayeres,” among others.

[6] Throughout the book, the author’s wife, photographer Guadalupe Belmontes Stringel, is affectionately referred to by various nicknames: Pilla; Pillis; Pillita; Pita; Pía; and Pi.

[7] Compañía Mexicana de Geofísica employed over 1,000 people in Chiapas, one of the poorest states in Mexico.

[8] Ladinos are a socio-ethnic category of Mestizo or Hispanicized people in Mexico and Central America. The demonym “ladino” came into use during the colonial era to refer to the Spanish-speaking population that did not belong to the colonial elite of PENINSULARES or CRIOLLOS, nor to the indigenous peoples.

[9] Amate is a form of paper that has been manufactured in Mexico since pre-Hispanic times. It was extensively produced and used for both communication, records, and ritual during the Aztec Empire; however, after the Spanish conquest, its production was mostly banned and replaced by European paper.

[10] October 12, 1993.

[11] Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social=Mexican Social Security Institute.

[12] Author’s note: «El Colegio de Ciencias y Humanidades (CCH), es uno de los tres sistemas que ofrece la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico en educación nivel media superior, Siendo los otros las esceulas Nacional Preparatoria y B@UNAM» EL CCH ORIENTE ERA UNO DE LOS PLANTELES MÁS RADICALES Y AGUERRIDOS DE IZQUIERDA.

[13] Author’s note: director of PROCUP and later chancellor of the University of Oaxaca.

[14] Partido Revolucionario Obrero Clandestino-Union del Pueblo=Revolutionary Worker Clandestine Union of the People Party

[15] Partido de los Pobres=Poor People’s Party

[16] Guerra Popular Prolongada=Prolongued Popular War

[17] Center of Agricultural Workers and Campesinos

[18] Emiliano Zapata Campesino Organization

[19] Peasant Alliance “Emiliano Zapata”

[20] Alianza Nacional Campesina Independiente Emiliano Zapata

[21] Unión Nacional de Organizaciones Regionales Campesinas Autónomas

[22] Asociación Rural de Interés Colectivo

[23] National Peasant Confederation

[24] Instituto Chiapaneco de Cultura

[25] To understand the Chiapas revolt, we have to understand what was peculiar about the region where it broke out, the Las Cañadas region of the Lacandón jungle (selva). This was an area colonized by peasants moving in from the Central Highlands of Chiapas. These peasants came from a variety of different ethnic groups, but what they had in common was a past history of semi-slavery on plantations owned by non-Indians (ladinos). This helped to promote solidarity among people of diverse ethnic origins as they settled down together in the new communities in the jungle: the plantation owners were the common enemy, and their migration was seen as a kind of “exodus” in the biblical sense: the catechists worked on this metaphor as they taught them the ideas of Liberation Theology. The people of the Selva were granted ejidos under the land reform legislation, and different ejidos joined together in unions to try to get more help from the government to improve production and increase their access to markets.


[27] Guadalupe’s closest friend.

[28] When the Zapatista uprising surprised the world in January 1994, the initial response of the Mexican government was to claim that it was the work of outside agitators–either Marxist guerrillas inspired by the Cubans or (equally left-wing) priests following the line of Liberation Theory. The bishop of Chiapas, Samuel Ruíz, was indeed an early convert to Liberation Theology, and the lay catechists his diocese recruited in the area where the Zapatista rebellion broke out sympathized with the emerging armed movement. Author’s note: Las Fuerzas de Liberación Nacional, origen del EZLN, era un grupo marxista, foquista, guevarista.

[29] Jose Patrocinio González Blanco Garrido, ex-Governor of Chiapas (1988-1993); afterwards, Secretary of State for the Interior (1993-1994).


Efraín Bartolomé

Efraín Bartolomé (b. 1950 in Ocosingo, State of Chiapas, Mexico) is a nationally recognized poet and prize-winning environmental activist. His verses have been collected in the following volumes: Agua lustral (Holy Water: Poems, 1982-1987) (Col. Lecturas Mexicanas, Conaculta, 1994), Oficio: arder (Poet Afire: Poems, 1982-1997) (UNAM, 1999), and El ser que somos (Being Who We Are) (Col. Antologías, Editorial Renacimiento, Sevilla, 2006). He's been awarded the Mexico City Prize, the Aguascalientes National Poetry Award (1984), the Carlos Pellicer Prize for published work (1992), the Gilberto Owen National Literary Prize (1993), the Jaime Sabines International Poetry Prize (1996), the  National Forest and Wildlife Merit Prize from the Mexican government, the Chiapas Arts Prize (1998), and the International Latino Arts Award in the United States (2001). He is a member of the National Council of Creative Artists. His poems have been translated into English, French, Portuguese, Italian, German, Arabic, Galician, Nahuatl, Peninsular Mayan, and Esperanto. He works as a psychotherapist in Mexico City.

Kevin Brown

Kevin Brown (b. 1960) is a biographer and essayist, and is the author of Malcolm X: His Life and Legacy (1995). He studied under translator Gregory Rabassa at Queens College, City University of New York. Brown's interview with Rabassa was published in the December 2006 issue (Vol.7, No.2) of the University of Delaware's Review of Latin American Studies. Excerpts from his ongoing translation of Efraín Bartolomé's Ocosingo War Diary have appeared in Asymptote, Exchanges, and Metamorphoses. Calypso Editions will publish the complete translation in the Fall of 2014.

Ocosingo War Diary: Voices from Chiapas. Copyright (c) Joaquín Mortiz Publishers, 1995. English translation copyright (c) Kevin Brown, 2012.