san cristobal de las casas, Mexico -- It is nearing a year now since Subcomandante Marcos, the silver-tongued spokesperson of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) lapsed into stony silence. Letters to the Subcomandante go unanswered, and visitors to La Realidad, the Zapatistas' once-public outpost in the Lacandon jungle, below the mountains where the comandantes are believed to be encamped, leave that tiny hamlet disappointed.
Whereas in past years Marcos has been quick to respond to national and international events, the Zapatistas have refrained from commenting on such earth-shakers as the 9/11 terrorist attac. George Bush's so-called "war on terrorism" hasn't done much to boost the political stock of the EZLN, which some U.S. security agencies list as a terrorist organization.
Other perceived threats to the EZLN's well-being -- like President Fox's development plan for southern Mexico, the Plan Puebla Panama and the invasion of U.S. transgenic corn -- have gone unchallenged. Still, the rebels' zone of influence in southeastern Chiapas seethes with resentment and resistance that threatens to explode in generalized violence.
Despite Fox's shutdown of a handful of military bases, there has been no net reduction in Mexican army troop strength in the area, with some 36,000 (the military claims the number is half that) concentrated in large bases in the jungles and highlands. And if the military presence has not grown, the number of federal police sent to the region, which borders Guatemala, purportedly to prevent possible terrorist incursions in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, is increasing daily.
A more immediate cause of tensions in the Zapatista zone is the political realignment in Chiapas that has been ongoing since Pablo Salazar, the first opposition candidate to win the governor's seat, assumed office in January 2001. In assembling a 10-party coalition, he cut deals with some bad bedfellows, including the notorious paramilitary group that hides behind the unlikely name of "Paz y Justicia" (Peace and Justice).
Paz y Justicia broke apart into factions using the same name, several of which continue to threaten Zapatista base communities. One splinter group is besieging the Zapatista community centre on the Roberto Barrios ejido (common) just south of Palenque. Here, the bone of contention has been a pristine set of jungle waterfalls that Peace and Justice supporters want to lease to developers for a tourist resort and golf course.
But this spring, traditionally a tense time of year in Chiapas, the most immediate flashpoint has been in the deep-jungle Montes Azules biosphere reserve, where authorities threaten the eviction of 49 settlements, about half of them EZLN supporters. The rebels have always played a role in defending Indian communities there from government-ordered eviction, a process that began in 1972 when 66 Lacandon Indian families were given exclusive possession of the Montes Azules wilderness and all other Mayan communities were excluded.
Zapatista autonomous municipalities such as Ricardo Flores Magon, which extends into the north side of the reserve, fear that the designation of the Lacandones as forest guardians signals the start-up of yet another paramilitary formation.
The Lacandones served Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) presidents Carlos Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo as scabs against the EZLN: they encouraged the Mexican army to crush the rebels in 1994, opposed the San Andres Accords on Indian Rights and Culture in 1996 and applauded last year's mutilation of the Indian rights law.
But all this low-intensity conflict wouldn't by itself explain Zapatista silence. Long-time observers speculate that the aggrieved rebels feel nothing is to be gained by speaking out until a legitimate Indian rights law is passed.
The immediate cause of the break-off in communication last May 1 was the congressional rejection of a landmark Indian rights law, for which the EZLN had battled these past six years.
In Congress the once-ruling PRI party, which held power for 71 years, still retains a majority. In January 2001 the legislative body stripped the law of its most crucial elements -- indigenous autonomy, territoriality and control over the exploitation of natural resources -- and incurred the EZLN's wrath.
The EZLN has held two national referendums and marched four times to Mexico City to demand that the Mexican government keep its word to the nation's 10 to 20 million indigenous people. Last April 30, after both houses of the legislature voted to gut the law, the EZLN general command, under Marcos's signature, broke off all contact with the Fox government.
Indigenous groups promptly filed hundreds of appeals to the Supreme Court to prevent the law from taking effect. To date, the court has accepted 331 appeals, 279 of them filed by majority Indian municipalities.
The Supreme Court has now set hearings on the first three appeals for the first week in June, and the National Indigenous Congress, representing most of the nation's 57 Indian peoples, is encouraging its constituents to camp out in Mexico City while the case is being heard.
Because of the idiosyncrasies of the Mexican judicial system, each appeal must be judged individually, so the 331 filings have created a monumental log-jam for the 11 Supreme Court justices, who normally issue between 40 and 80 opinions a year. The key legal issue raised by the appellants is the exclusion of indigenous autonomy and territoriality from the legislation. Under International Organization of Labor (OIT) Resolution 169, the international benchmark for defining an indigenous people, both elements are declared indispensable guarantees.
The scheduled hearings constitute a milestone in this torturous process, but an actual finding may be many months or even years away. The pace of the legal manoeuvring is so glacial that some Indian activists, like director of the National Coordinating Body of the Indian Peoples Jenero Dominguez, joke that there will be no more Indians by the time the court's judgment is handed down.
Despite its loss of public visibility, the EZLN seems resolved not to break its silence until the court delivers its decision. "Silence is an Indian weapon," Subcomandante Marcos once wrote.
In fact, even if the corrupted Indian rights law is declared unconstitutional, Congress could simply vote in a reformulated version of it all over again -- which is to say that if the EZLN is really waiting for a bonafide Indian rights law to be passed before they break their silence, the world may never hear from them again.