LA REALIDAD, MEXICO — At sunset, we rolled into this village of rank-and-file Zapatistas six miles from the Guatemalan border, our nerves raw after a close brush with a convoy of armored personnel carriers, each straddled by a Mexican soldier videotaping our VW van.
At the immigration checkpoint two hours earlier, I and one of nine students traveling with me were stamped "dudosos" (suspect) and cited for interrogation in San Cristobal de las Casas. The student's mislaid visa and my naturalization certificate in lieu of a passport--I'd become a U.S. citizen only the week before--provided the excuse for the harassment foreigners are routinely subjected to when they visit the Zapatista outpost in the Lacandon rain forest. (In San Cristobal, we were advised that we had violated the terms of our tourist visa and were given five days to leave Mexico.)
More than two years after the Zapatista National Liberation Army seized San Cristobal and other Chiapas towns on the day Mexico ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement, the military phase of the rebellion has given way to negotiations between the Zapatistas and the Mexican government. Last February, the two sides signed a preliminary accord on indigenous rights and autonomy. As the indigenous comandantes take charge of the talks in San Cristobal, the "maximo lider" Subcomandante Marcos, whom the government claims to have unmasked as Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente, keeps the Mexican army at bay by hosting one international conference after another in his jungle outpost of La Realidad.
We arrived in the village 48 hours behind Oliver Stone, who got through with an entourage to stage an encounter with El Sup, as Marcos is familiarly known. We had an appointment to interview the Zapatista leader ourselves, for a planned magazine feature. Photographs of Marcos and Stone on horseback wearing identical ski masks had been splashed all over the Mexican press, as they reportedly negotiated "Marcos," the movie deal. Stone was a hard act to follow, but we were relieved to find that none of the Zapatista villagers who greeted us had the faintest idea who the filmmaker is. The explanation was close at hand: The Tojolabal Mayan village of La Realidad (Reality) is dirt poor, and no one here owns a television, much less a film projector.
We presented our letters of introduction to the village headman, who promised to deliver them to Marcos by courier. The headman, Maximiliano, sent news of our arrival by two-way radio, but since Marcos' hide-out is several hours' distance by foot, our letters would not reach him until the following day. The radio response was not encouraging, but we were invited to spend the night in a schoolhouse, where we could await further word. As we unrolled our sleeping bags, a marimba next door struck up a rousing ranchera and our apprehension melted away in the warmth of the villagers' spontaneous welcome.
Our first 48 hours in Chiapas had proved so productive that we had become cocky and interviewed everyone in sight. We sat in on the last sessions of the "dialogue on democracy and justice," sponsored by a Zapatista support group in San Cristobal and the nearby village of San Andres Larrainzar. In the conference halls and meeting rooms, we met with the chief players in the Zapatista drama, among them, the activist priest Pablo Romo, who heads the diocese's human-rights center. The thin, wiry Romo is the Zapatistas' electronic connection, and some suspect him of being the "real" Marcos because of his wizardry in publicizing their cause on the Internet. Another key figure is the maverick publisher and Zapatista-endorsed "rebel governor" of Chiapas, Amado Avendano, who lost a fraud-tainted election to the candidate of the ruling government party. Avendano publishes El Tiempo, the anti-establishment newspaper that ran Marcos' famous "declarations from the jungle." These manifestos, by turns poetic, witty and bombastic, spell out the Zapatista agenda and lay the foundation for their new Mexican constitution.
Twenty-four ski-masked Zapatista comandantes, most of them in colorful Mayan dress, attended the sessions on justice and democracy, and we met with them all. They bitterly denounced the government for sending a low-level delegation to monitor the proceedings rather than participate in the dialogue. But they had no answer to my question as to why President Ernesto Zedillo, hobbled by an ailing economy and murderous divisions within his ruling party, would trouble to send negotiators to an event whose stated goal was his removal from office and replacement by a popular democracy.