<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="65001"%> RVers Guide to Chiapas
NOTE: While this is designated as an ARCHIVE FILE, it is retained despite the date of first publication because it offers information of continuing current interest and/or for its historical perspective. Please be guided accordingly.



RVers Thumbnail Guide To The Troubles In Chiapas (02/04)

Whole volumes have been written about the anthropological, political, and economic situation in Mexico's most southerly state. Ever since New Years Day 1994 buzzwords such as "Zapatista Rebel" and "Subcommandante Marcos" have flavored many newspaper articles in the USA. Then came other lurid events such as the "Acteal Massacre", mass migration of native indians, which has left the state of Chiapas with much the same reputation as Afghanistan, or The Gaza Strip. Regardless of the sensational headlines, the state of Chiapas remains as one of the most coveted travel destinations in Mexico. You can sit home and bite your nails or hit-the-road to Chiapas using some common sense, and planning. The choice is yours. Hopefully the article below will help to simplify your understanding of just how much or how little danger, travel to Chiapas presents.

A large majority of the population in the state of Chiapas is pure blood non-spanish-speaking indians. Not only are there numerous tribes, they are split politically into numerous factions. Then to top that off, everyone there seems to be splintered into religious factions. Decended from the Maya Indians, some of the factions do not see themselves as being part of Mexico (or Guatemala for that matter) and insist on wandering at will between the two countries. Chiapas is mountainous and crop land is at a premium. Ancient claims to specific land and water rights leads to frequent squabbling between families, tribes, factions and even towns. The Maya culture reputedly has forever been soaked in bloodletting and modern day Maya are certainly no less cranky than their ancestors.

Into this historicically turbulent cauldron arrived a cadre of disillusioned Marxist students fresh from Mexico's more northerly universities. Subcommandante Marcos and Company managed to convince a sizeble number of frustrated indians that the only way to achieve a form of autonomy and independence from (the meddling of) Mexico City, was to form (you guessed it) An Army Of Liberation, and sieze a multitude of county seats and administrative centers throughout Chiapas. Marcos time this event to coincide exactly with the date of Mexico's entry into NAFTA. On January 1, 1994, the indians took control of several civic centers, and the Mexican Army responded. It was a one-sided battle and the indians soon had to retreat deep into the Lancandon Forest.

The plot gets thicker. The Archbishop of "San Cristobal de Las Casa" Samuel Ruiz was a noted sympathizer of left wing driven causes. He put forth pressure to dissuade the Mexican government from hunting down and slaughtering the rebels.

Suddenly the eye of the word was upon Chiapas. Communists and Socialists from around the world heralded the uprising as a manifest destiny with regard to capitalistic NAFTA and it's "evil-capitalist-running-dog masters". Lost in the whirlwind of course was the fact that a large majority of Chiapas Indians were and still are against the Zapatista movement. But this anti-zapatista attitude did nothing to heal the hundreds of tribal and political splintering that divides rural Chiapas. A frenzied climax of frustration occurred in 1997, when armed indians attacked a group of Zapatista women and children and killed forty-five. The "Acteal Massacre" was misrepresented in the US press to "infer" that government supporters (ie non-indians) did the deed. In fact, it was indian versus indian, and had nothing at all to do with the Mexican Army or police.

So the indians of Chiapas are cranky. So were their ancestors the Maya a thousand years ago, with blood-letting staining the soaring steps of the pyramids all over southern Mexico. Would we instead prefer to see something more docile and domesticated? The indians of Chiapas are sought out by travelers because they are -The Real Thing- They dress in traditional clothing which is woven on backstrap looms. They worship a mixture of Christian symbols, pagan dieties, and nature. Some even require the use of Coca-Cola in their ceremonies! Travelers must take time in Chiapan Cities to learn and find out what kind of dress and behavior is and is not appropriate when visiting indian villages. Only a dunderhead would forage ahead without reading printed advisories, or better yet attending an escorted tour where customs and behavior are explained. Many indian villages have extremely strict rules regarding when and where photography is permitted. If you should violate the rules, expect to be chased down, your camera siezed and smashed and then be escorted to the city limits by a shower of sticks and stones. It doesn't take an oija board to tell you what's right or wrong -- most of the more popular villages have signs in English telling you point by point what you should not do. Every morning in the plaza principal in San Cristobal de Las Casas you will find van or walking tours led by licensed guides.

There is a large presence of the Mexican Army in Chiapas and I for one am glad for it. No I am not anti-indian, or anti-zapatista, but I am anti-highway-robber. When the Army and the Zapatistas were clashing and maneuvering, voids were filled by nefarious crooks who could care less about politics or patriotism; their goal was to set up their own rustic toll booth on lonely stretches of highway and determine the amount of "toll" by what passing motorists happen to have in their wallet. Many of these highwaymen were siezed by the government, but areas of Chiapas can be rather untame during the evening hours when RV'ers should be happily dozing. Some folks have accused the Zapatistas of operating some of the roadblocks, but in any case the overwhelming occurrance of incidents have taken place between the hours of dusk and dawn. The sanctity of organized RV parks has not been broken, and tourists have not been accosted on tours or "in town" for that matter. I wouldn't want to tour backroad Chiapas on a bicycle on the other hand.

Here are some preparations that I shall make while camped in an RV park in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas (the capitol):

1. Buy a cheap wallet and fill it with non-essential but official looking plastic, like supermarket cards and my spare Costco card. I will insert about twenty dollars worth of Pesos into the wallet.

2. I will fill my tanks with fuel for the two hour drive up to San Cristobal, and then take cash, credit cards, and other paper valuables and insert them into a zip lock bag which I shall securely tape to the underside of my rig's toilet bowl in an area next to the wall where it will remain unseen.

3. Digital and video camcorders are buried deep inside suitcases. I'll put large kitchen knives in a lower drawer.

4. Highway robbers work fast. They have an understandable mortal fear of the Mexican Army who would have no qualms about gunning them down at the least sign of resistance. If by some miracle I am accosted I will hand them my wallet, pretend I speak not a word of Spanish and would clutch my heart and grimmace if someone should not be satisfied with the contents of my dummy wallet. Even the dumbest of crooks knows that if a tourist suffers a fatal heart attack while being robbed, it's the same thing as murder (The phoney heart attack ploy is less effective if you look young). So far women have not been accosted in the extremely infrequent reports of highway incidents.

5. If I am robbed my twenty dollars worth of pesos (and a half quart of sweat), will buy a story of a lifetime:

"So these guys (no, make them Zapatistas!) step out of the woods and they level a .45 (strike that, machine guns!) at me and the leader (yeah, that's right, the guy with the mask and corn cob pipe!) barks "Plata o Plomo!" (Silver! or Lead!) Then he goes on to say that if I don't contribute "to the cause", that he's going to kidnap me to Cuba, and turn my Winnebago into a machine gun nest (so help me!)

In actuality, I am looking forward to the magical city of San Cristobal de Las Casas, the smiling indians (can't be grumpy all the time, you know), their superb weavings, and pottery, and a native marketplace that will just knock my socks off.

Perhaps once ensconced, I can humbly submit an addendum to this article which describes events current to March of 2004.

On The Road To San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas,

David Eidell