Zapatismo and Autonomous Development

Zapatista members in an autonomous Zapatista community – Source: Dorset Chiapas Solidarity

Once a guerrilla army, and today a long standing social movement in Chiapas, Mexico, the Zapatistas may be the last place one may look for examples of development. A predominantly indigenous movement, the Zapatistas choose community autonomy over state support. This means Zapatistas refuse any funds from the Mexican state, an odd concept for some when trying to envision groups of people seeking to improve their material conditions. So what is it about this curious case that makes the Zapatistas relevant to development? The concept of autonomy, and thus self determination, are unique to Zapatista communities and provide an example of development which diverges, and in some was exists externally, from contemporary practices informed by neoliberal ideology.

But first a little background. The Zapatistas flew onto the world scene when seizing the city San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas on January 1, 1994 – the same day NAFTA passed. Twelve days of fighting ensued between the Mexican military and the Zapatistas, until the guerrillas chose to enter into dialogue with the government. Arms haven’t been taken up since. January first was chosen as a symbolic day to say “ya basta” (enough!) to the economic policies passed by “bad governments” on behalf of corporations and the ruling elite. For years, 500 to be exact, the indigenous people who make up the Zapatista movement have been struggling against colonial governments and policies which degrade indigenous life. Zapatismo, and the struggle against globalization, is just a new form of this long struggle. (El Kilombo Intergalático 2007).

The concept of Zapatista autonomy is founded upon two basic principles: resistance and self determination. First, resistance to global capitalism is central to Zapatista organizing, as is the creation of a world which exists externally from neoliberal globalization. As stated in the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, resistance is necessary to stop a system which “destroys what exists in [countries conquered by neoliberalism], it destroys their culture, their language, thier economic system, their political system, and it also destroys the ways in which those who live in that country relate to each other. So everything that makes a country a country is left destroyed” (EZLN 2005). Secondly, the concept of self determination emphasizes democracy and the right to determines one’s future. The latter is a right often stripped from indigenous groups in a colonized world. Both concepts of self determination and autonomy reject any aid or participation from the Mexican state. This is the view that, “the politics of the politicians is a sphere that functions through the simulation of public opinion… to administer the interests of transnational capital,” and thus, the state itself cannot divorce itself from the interests of business (El Kilombo Intergalático 2007, 7). Therefore, the Zapatistas can in no way align themselves with the “bad government”. It must also be noted that historically, the Mexican state has used aid projects in the Chiapas to buy off segments of poor and indigenous populations for political motivates, while leaving other sections destitute and without access to services (Harvey 2005).

But what does autonomy mean in a material sense, beyond the ideology? And how is it related to development?

Autonomous villages exist throughout the state of Chiapas, all of which have their own form of governance, laws, and right to the land. Each autonomous community organizes itself through a form of direct direct democracy, where all of the Zapatista villagers participate and serve on the governing council, Junta de Buen Gobierno (Good Governance Council). Decision making power then extends to a council of all autonomous villages which also has rotating representation. Decision are often made through discussion which flow from autonomous communities to the regional council and back down until consensus is reached. It is through the democratic structures that communities can set development goals which exclude business interests and are instead on behalf of the whole community.

The projects enacted by autonomous communities include the creation of hospitals, health promoter training programs, cooperative agricultural and goods production, potable water systems, autonomous elementary and middle schools, community-run transportation, and non-extractive banking practices (Forbis 2014). Autonomy allows community members to choose how each of these programs is implemented and decision making power is exercised over the composition of each program. For example, hospitals practice both Western medicine, as well as “traditional healing and herbal medicine.” The curriculum in Zapatista schools is designed by the community to promote collective living, women’s rights, and indigenous history.  And the judicial policies enacted by Zapatista communities emphasize restorative justice and the health of the community, in lieu of punitive “justice”.  All of these programs are meant to proportionately benefit each autonomous community, a goal which can only be achieved through direct democratic control by all community members (Forbis 2014).

Although the Zapatista case is unique, autonomous community practices point towards alternatives to development implemented by foreign, undemocratic NGOs, or top down economic policies forced upon state by the International Finance Institutions. It seems difficult to imagine Zapatista style autonomy popping up around the world, but that is not to say it does not currently exist, or cannot exist in the future. International solidarity plays a central part in Zapatista success. The countless numbers of organizations internationally donating funds and time to support the Zapatistas helps enable the continuation of the autonomous project. If solidarity is extended to other communities globally which fight for autonomy and democracy, we may be able to see other projects similar to the Zapatistas. Additionally, development agencies can also learn from the Zapatista’s democratic practices. Reforming NGO and development agency structure to emphasize direct democracy and community autonomy enables greater project success via wider community participation, while also emphasizing the right of developing countries and communities to choose their own development path. Democratic, self-determined development enables a world of many worlds to exist, not just the world of global neoliberal capitalism.


El Kilombo Intergalático. 2007. “Zapatismo: A Brief Manual on How to Change the World.” In Beyond Resistance: Everything. Durham: PaperBoat, 1-16.

Forbis, Melissa interviewed by Johanna Brenner. 2014. “The Zapatistas at 20: Building Autonomous Community.” Against the Current, March 23.

Harvey, Neil. 2005. The Chiapas Rebellion: The Struggle for Land and Democracy. Durham: Duke University Press.

Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). 2005. “Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle.” In Beyond Resistance: Everything. 2007. Durham: PaperBoat, 62-86.

From Development to Deviance: Sexual Exploitation in Tenancingo, Tlaxcala, Mexico


Tlaxcala-Puebla Metropolitan Area

(“Puebla-Tlaxcala (Metropolitan Area, Metropolitan Areas)”)

In extending conversations on Reproductive Health to discuss realities affecting girls and women around the world, it is important to discuss sexual exploitation, especially in the context of development. Sexual exploitation — or, more specifically, commercial sexual exploitation, or prostitution — is a practice that occurs across the world: from New York City, to Tlaxcala, Mexico, to Worcester, Massachusetts. In applying a gender lens, sexual exploitation as a whole disproportionally affects women. While it certainly not only women that contribute to the estimated statistic of 20.9 million sexually exploited persons per year (“Global Sex Trafficking Sheet” 1), girls and women make up 98% of sexually exploited individuals (“Global Sex Trafficking Sheet” 1).

But before discussing how this manifests in Tenancinco, I want to introduce some contemporary discourse around sexual exploitation. Recently, Amnesty International has been known for its call to decriminalize all aspects of “sex work” (Murphy 1).While the organization has firmly stated that it does not ally with “sex work that … involve[s] coersion, sexual exploitation, or abuse” (Murphy 1), the article “Sex Workers’ Rights are Human Rights” features very little discussion on the fundamental power differences involved in sexual exploitation in the vast majority of instances. That is, victims of exploitation are subject to abuse or an unfulfilling lifestyle, in which they are led to believe that prostitution is their only choice. In some cases, people are physically enslaved; held captive to the sex trade industry. Other times, “pimps” will inflict emotional and verbal abuse, leading the victimized person to believe that they do not have any viable options if they were to exit “the life” of prostitution. In any case, sexually exploited individuals are reminded that there will always be a demand for sex each time they are purchased — a moral discussion that Amnesty International directly avoids.

What I want to make very clear is that, while there may be an argument to be made for people who make the informed, enthusiastic choice to engage in “sex work”, the majority of the time, people do not choose to exploited.

Coming back to the theme of the blog, sexual exploitation is worsened with the pressures of development and globalization. A prime example of this takes place in Tenancinco: a small city within the state of Tlaxcala, Mexico — about eighty miles southeast of  Mexico City (Pearson 1). Otherwise surrounded by mountainous areas (“Puebla-Tlaxcala”) consisting of poorer, rural populations (Lakhini 1), Tenancinco is near the metropolitan area of Puebla-Tlaxcala; an area that has been industrialized in the past half-century. The state of Tlaxcala is a major producer of “textiles, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, machinery, automotive parts, handicrafts and other goods” (“Puebla-Tlaxcala”).

However, the conditions in Tenancinco worsened as factory jobs throughout the Tlaxcala region proved to be undesirable (OECD). As time went on, more and more of the town’s economy was sustained by sex trade (Pearson 1): first throughout Mexico, and now in New York as well. Today, there are generations of boys that grow up “aspiring to be traffickers” (Pearson 1). The Guardian writes: “This improbable crime story began in the 1950s after industrialisation, when working-age men returned home from neighbouring states to find few opportunities beyond badly paid factory jobs. Pimping and trafficking, which they had seen while working away, was a way to get ahead, and many set up small, family-run sexual exploitation rings” (Pearson 1).

As mentioned before, Tenancinco is surrounded by impoverished regions, extending into Southern Mexico and Guatemala (WBUR). Many of the people in these areas identify as  indigenous; a facet that is not indicative of privilege in Mexico (Lakhini 1). A common practice is for a family of traffickers to send a young man to these neighboring communities, particularly, a man that is trained to entice young women with promises of a better life: more money, a better lifestyle, and love (Lakhini 1). The young women are then brought to Tenancinco, where they are sexually exploited, while physically and emotionally enslaved (Lakhini 1).

Prostitution is so embedded into the culture of Tenancinco, traffickers seem to have no problem with visibility. Across the landscape of modest, working-class dwellings, families of traffickers will have built extravagant properties, adorned with excess decoration, some say in order to block the windows (Moreno-Taxman 20). Additionally, on highways leading out of Tenancinco, “nighclubs and motels” are conveniently placed as areas for “motorists” to solicit sex (Lakhini 1). Even public celebrations will feature “revelers as caped pimps”, that outwardly “parade their prostitutes” (Pearson 1). While Mexico has attempted to take legal action, the culture of sexual exploitation is so prevalent, it has become fairly accepted (Pearson 1).

Recently, sexually exploited individuals have been trafficked into the United States: particularly to the neighborhood of Queens in New York City (WBUR). Since then, United States law enforcement has been involved in the criminalization of families in Tenancinco (Lakhini 1). But once again — is the United States doing the right thing? After all, it is because of powers in the United States that communities in the Pueblo-Tlaxcala area cannot find desirable and sustaining work. While I believe that any trafficker should be criminalized, it is important to look at the societal implications of sexual exploitation.

What would happen if industrialization was never implemented in Mexico? How many girls and women would be saved from sexual exploitation?

Works Cited

“Global Sex Trafficking Sheet”. Equality Now. Equality Now, n.d. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.

Murphy, Catherine.”Sex Workers’ Rights are Human Rights”. Amnesty International. Amnesty International, 14 Aug. 2015. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.

Lakhani, Nina. “Tenancingo: The small town at the heart of Mexico’s sex-slave trade”. The Guardian. The Guardian, 4 Apr. 2015. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.

Moreno-Taxman, Karlene. “Human Trafficking Mexico: International Human Trafficking Victims from Mexico to Your Community”. Eastern District of Wisconsin. United States Department of Justice, n.d. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.

OECD. OECD Territorial Reviews: Puebla-Tlaxcala, Mexico 2013. OECD Publishing, 2013. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.

Pearson, Erica. “Small Mexican town of Tenancingo is major part of sex trafficking pipeline to New York”. New York Daily News. Daily News, 3 Jun. 2012. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.

“Prostitution Pipeline To U.S. Begins in Tenancingo, Mexico”. Here & Now with Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson. WBUR, 30 Jun. 2014. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.

“Puebla-Tlaxcala (Metropolitan Area, Metropolitan Areas)”.  Instituto Nacional de Estadística Geografía e Informática, Mexico. City Population Data, n.d. Web. 1 Apr. 2016.