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Screwing the Screwfly in Chiapas

A Zapatista in Oaxaca. He and the rest of his delegation had marched for several days to get here. They spent a few days resting and holding "informes" (informational talks) with the local folks. Their destination was Mexico City, where Commandante Ramona addressed the legislature and was then hospitalized for a serious illness, from which she recovered. The respect and affection with which they were treated by the local folks reflected the great popularity of their cause within Mexico.[Photo by Diana Ricci]

[San Cristobal in April 1994 looked a lot like the rear command area in any bush war: lots of army, government officials, reporters, human rights observers, and tourists like me. A year after writing this article, I found out that there really is such a thing as a screw fly, so who knows...]

Many people say that San Cristobal de las Casas looks a lot like old Santa Fe, and the Hotel Santa Clara does nothing to mar the image. Whitewashed mission stucco with red tiles; blackened wooden beams and trim; fireplaces; trees in the courtyards and creeping vines with purple flowers; three giant red parrots in a cage; and a spook. Not a ghost. A real live secret agent!

Jack -- we'll call him that because that's the name he is using -- says that he is One Of Ours; a real live Rush Limbaugh lovin' knee-slappin' love-it-or-leave-it 100% patriotic red blooded A-merrikan, complete with bottled-blond hair, Florida tan, and a cover story that not even his mother would believe. It is April, 1994. Insurrection and intrigue are in the air.

It seems that Jack is in Mexico as a consultant for a company ("You never heard of it") operating under contract with the Department of State. The objective: eradicate the Screw Fly worm. The what? ("Now there you go, you see? All your lib-er-al education, and you don't even know about one of the most insidious and scurrilous infestations ever known to mankind!") The screw fly worm...

The screw fly, we are told, lays its eggs on the skin of animals, and when they hatch, the pupa (worm) burrows inward to feed. We have managed to live our lives in blissful ignorance of this menace to man and beast because ("All kiddin' aside now, you folks are pretty good sports") Jack and his colleagues have eliminated this scourge from North America. Except for Chiapas.

Chiapas has proved to be a very sticky problem, indeed. There is a turf war going on. The Chiapas state bureaucracy, with the backing of corrupt United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) officials, is doing battle with a newly-created federal commission, over who gets to skim the funding. Jack works with the Federales, and the USDA bunch recently tried to get him out of the way by staging an auto accident and attempting to have him arrested. Things are so out of hand that "at this very minute" (9:30 p.m. CST on a Tuesday) unnamed U.S. Senators are slugging it out in secret session. Jack's fate (and that of the screw fly) hangs in the balance.

If we do not think this a vital issue, then we should think on India, which has rejected the program. There, the screw flies have gotten so bold that they are laying their eggs in women's vaginas and men's rectums. ("Talk about painful! Whooee !")

Jack spends about an hour and a half clowning around with us. On his feet. Pretending to be drunk in order to explain his "indiscretions". Revealing contradictory "facts" about himself, he is engaging us in a game of catch-me-if-you-can. If one of us makes a statement, such as "you're CIA, right?" he responds "you're close; you're very close", his finger extended and pointing at us, just like in Charades.

Being unable to be candid with anyone makes for a very lonely life. No doubt Jack thinks of himself as involved in "history", and it must be frustrating not being able to talk about it. I interrupt his act to tell him that I've been there in my way, and know the feeling. He squints at me and says "Dope?". I point my finger at him. "You're close, Jack, you're very close." We all enjoy a good laugh over that one.

So what's he REALLY doing here? Who knows? Does he? Is he who he pretends to be, or is he the person he pretends to be hiding from us? Is he an actor, hired by the two retired Hollywood producers with whom I am sharing a table? Are they the real spooks? Am I? Things get fuzzy when political tremors jiggle the fault lines in the interpersonal grid...

Next day, I get into a conversation with Justo, a real live land owner. Justo is about 35, and wears alligator cowboy boots with silver tips and spurs. He calls himself a Coleto. "Coleto" is a putdown name that the cowboys have co-opted as a term of belonging, much as the Cajuns in Louisiana have done with "coon-ass". Coletos are the little braided tails sported by otherwise short-haired Hispanic men, particularly in the barrios and prisons of the U.S. Coletos are macho, a power sign originating with the deserters from the Conquistador armies who wore them. Thus coletos are both a sign of defiance of authority and a declaration of power. Even though few cowboys actually wear coletos (Justo does not), the term carries a strong identity.

Justo is soft-spoken, pleasant, reasonable. He wants me to understand how trivial this temporary misunderstanding between fellow Chiapanecos really is. After all, this is not the Wild West. There is democracy here, and a legal system. Eventually, these conflicting claims over what is after all only a small number of hectares will be resolved. What the foreign press fails to understand is that they are not saving any campesinos' lives by being here, since no one has any intention of killing the "squatters". Rather, a lawless few have been falsely encouraged to believe that they can use the foreign presence in Chiapas as protection for their illegal appropriation of land.

"What about the land that the courts ordered turned over to the campesinos 20 years ago, that has not been returned?" It is difficult, because there are no records, no deeds, no surveys. Once the technicalities have been resolved, certainly those parcels that are "appropriate" will be returned to "deserving" claimants.

Justo looks at his watch. Apologetically, he must take his leave. An appointment. We stand and shake hands. "Mucho Gusto". Much pleasure. He puts on his Detroit Lions baseball cap and clanks out. Curious, I follow at a distance. He walks down the block and gets into a new Jeep Wagoneer. Just as he starts to pull out, he gets flagged down -- by Jack. Jack climbs in, and off they go. No doubt, spurs are an important tool in the fight against the screw fly worm.
(April, 1994)

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