Whodunit? Counterinsurgency and police violence in Zapatista territory

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Justin Podur's The Demands of the Dead: A novel is a political murder mystery novel, set in Chiapas, Mexico, dealing with themes of counterinsurgency, the drug war and police violence. In the novel, an investigator from the U.S. is sent to solve two murders with potential international implications, in
Zapatista territory.

The novel is a welcomed addition to this genre as not only does it showcase Podur's superb writing, but, as Megan Kinch notes in her review for Two Row Times, it "transcends the genre" and moves the work into a place where it actually examines the political context and possible solutions, as opposed to those novels which just cater to the status quo. 

Interested? I thought so! Read on and enjoy this excerpt from The Demands of the Dead.


We got to Hatuey at sunset. The clueless American couple (us), rather than continue to their planned destination of las montanas an hour up the road where the amber shopping was rumoured to be exquisite, suddenly saw some interesting buildings they wanted to check out, and asked to be let out. The driver stopped the van without skipping a beat and let us off, poker faced and silent. I wondered how many times he had done this. We watched the van drive away.

I looked down at the community of Hatuey, named for an Indian who fought the Spanish on the island of Hispaniola, who, when caught and told that he would go to heaven if he converted to Christianity before they burned him to death, told them he would rather go to hell.

Mexico's highway engineers had carved the highway right into a hill. A wooden house with a corrugated metal roof faced us as we looked down. Specifically, a picture of Che Guevara painted in brilliant colours on one side, and a picture of a skull with a cowboy hat (Zapata?) on the other. Above both, like a poster title, it said, in plain red block letters: 'Hatuey. Community in Rebellion.'

Evelyn threw her backpack over her shoulders and picked up her handbag.

We went down. Zapata the Skeleton and Che adorned what turned out to be the community's store, featuring mostly bare shelves and very basic wares, two plastic tables and four matching plastic lawn chairs, and a TV/VCR combination hanging from a wall hooked up to some improvised electric work.

A serious-faced Zapatista, maybe 25, about 5'9'', built like a small tank, with short hair and no facial hair, a grey tank top, black jeans, and the ubiquitous knee-high rubber boots, met us but didn't bother to introduce himself, just set about checking our credentials and searching our bags. I showed him my letter from Raul.

"Someone will talk to you later." I knew Mexico well enough to know that was a firm commitment. "Walk down the road, and you'll get to your camp." Dismissed.

A single central roadway defined the community. We walked past the church, the clinic, the school, and latrines. The families made their homes just off the main road, in alleyways cris-crossed with clothes lines, big plastic buckets for bathing children, and tiny gardens. At the end of the main road, we arrived at a very heavily painted corrugated metal shack: more revolutionary skeletons, more global icons (Zapata, Villa, Che, Gandhi, Martin Luther King). We'd arrived at the observer house.

Three people came around the side of the house. An indigenous girl, probably nine or 10 years old, wearing traditional skirt and blouse and ponytail, her mother, also in traditional dress, following, and last, a thin, young, modern Mexican woman: tank top with a buttoned shirt open over it, khakis, mountain hiking boots -- clothes you would expect on an American tourist, but fitting closely in a way that you mostly saw on Latin girls. Pretty enough to not be easily forgotten, especially for someone who had seen her the day before.

Susana Mendez, university student, Zapatista supporter, part-time waitress at the Cafe Historia, person of interest in the shootings of two police officers -- at least to Seguridad Publica and the American Embassy. For her to be here already meant she must have left San Cristobal yesterday, probably immediately after I saw her at the chess game at Cafe Historia. What she was wearing suggested she had been out walking recently -- her camp outfit would at least include sandals or flip flops.

She whispered to the little girl "Vaya, mi amor. Nos vemos manana." and the girl and her mother left, the mother nodding greetings at us, the girl appraising Evelyn frankly and me, suspiciously, as she walked past.

"Hola," I said to the girl.

"She hasn't spoken in a while," Susana said, as the girl and her mother continued up the road.

"Like, about a week?"

"About a week, that's right."

Kids go mute sometimes when they witness, or suffer, traumatic events. A kid of her size was in the woods around the same time the killer came on to the main trail, and ran back to this village. She was the right size and and had gone mute at the right time. I looked at her back and her mother's back.

That was probably my little witness, walking up the hill.

What to do about it -- whether I could find a way to get the kid to identify the killer without risking her life, in this place -- I would decide later, when I had more information.

I thought I saw Susana and Evelyn hesitate for a beat, maybe wondering whether to pretend not to know each other, maybe remembering I'd seen them together at the chess game, then embrace. Susana shook my hand and took us into the camp house. We quickly and mostly silently unpacked our stores on the shelves along the wall, working around the accumulated dry goods of previous campers, the fire-blackened pots and pans, and Susana's supplies. I rolled my sleeping bag out on a wooden bed in the corner, and Evelyn immediately rolled hers out on the bed next to mine -- Susana was set up in a hammock on the same side of the room, her flip flops sitting quietly underneath it. A large picnic-style table in the centre of the room dominated the house, and on the other side of it, a fireplace with a grill whose half-burned logs told me that Susana had spent last night here.

Susana, who seemed completely allergic to small talk, wanted to start a fire and get dinner together. We hadn't eaten, so we relied on stuff she'd bought from the store -- avocado, tomato, eggs, onions, oil. She had a big pot of bean soup left from yesterday, and rice with it.

We had unreliable electric lighting and a large bucket of water which we could fill at a tap outside, sufficient to wash dishes. By the time the dishes were clean, the night -- and the cold -- had fallen, but it was not that late. We sat outside the camp on hammocks, looking at the stars and watching swarms of moths play with the outside light bulb, when the no-nonsense, nameless Zapatista from the store came walking down the road.

"I don't know if you want to watch a video at the store," he said, the gentle words out of sync with a tone that demanded we accept.

There were five other people from the community, two other white people I didn't know, and the three of us. The video had already started when we got to store, where all lights were off. We found a bench to crowd together, and Evelyn leaned into me, probably unnecessarily, as we watched.

The video had been edited from one or two hand held cameras. Hundreds of unarmed Zapatistas hurrying somewhere together in the countryside. It was a hot afternoon and they were sweating already, walking, sometimes jogging, on a road. Half were men, in pants and shirts or t-shirts. Half were women, all in traditional dress, white blouses and long blue skirts. Everyone was masked, either with bandanas or balaclavas.

They rushed along, over hills, veering off the road on to a trail, until they came to a clearing with a bunker where a line of Mexican Army troops, fully armed and ready to fight, waited. The Zapatistas surrounded the building.

It wasn't the Hatuey base. I could tell by the topography.

"Where is this, Susana?"

"Somewhere in the Altos, I think." The Altos was the area around San Cristobal.

The Zapatistas didn't hesitate. They charged the troops. The troops didn't move. The Zapatistas got to the line. Each one lined up in front of a soldier - and started talking. The camera moved up and down, getting in close enough to hear the rebels talking.

"Get rid of the gun, let's face each other as equals."

"What are you doing here?"

"Are you here to fight farmers?"

"We're Mexicans, we're farmers, who are you here to fight?"

The soldiers looked off into the distance, most of them very uncomfortably. I didn't envy them, felt relief about never having to put on riot gear and work these kinds of situations again.

This went on for a long time. Ten, fifteen minutes. Reading the soldiers, reading the body language, I didn't think things would immediately get violent. The soldiers on the line looked uncomfortable, embarrassed even, but not scared or contemptuous, which would have meant real danger.

An army commander that I didn't recognize, but whose rank was probably at least Captain, strode out of the bunker. Some rebels broke off and started to talk to him. They told him they didn't want to be out in the sun all day and could he please pack up the base and leave, they didn't need his protection and there was no one here for the army to fight. He told them he had orders to stay. They suggested his orders were incorrect, since there was no one here for the army to fight, he should ask for new orders. He said he would. They said could he please get on the phone to his headquarters and get new orders so he could pack up and leave. The commander looked quite apologetic, afraid even, but he looked too often at the cameras. He was playing to them.

The negotiations went on, like that, with the Zapatistas chanting in the background. I got up, three pairs of eyes on me -- Susana's, Evelyn's, and the nameless Zapatista from the store.

Outside the store, I stood alone for a minute, accompanied only by the sounds of cicadas and crickets competing with Zapatistas and soldiers on video.

Whether deliberately or not, the message I was supposed to get was this: the Zapatistas had a political strategy for fighting the occupation. They were going to use publicity. Lining up and harassing soldiers for the cameras. Camping out in front of the military base. Making the army look like fools, and monsters. Themselves like innocent peasants.

Shooting those police was a military move. If that was the rebels, if it was really them, that meant they'd changed their whole strategy, from one they could win to one they couldn't.

If not them, then who?


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