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State Building and Roads in Postrevolutionary Chiapas and at the Turn of the 21st Century

Summary and Keywords

Throughout the 20th century, the Mexican government used road building to incorporate the country’s disparate regions within the national economy and to enhance the visibility of remote populations. Since Independence, one of Mexico’s most economically and politically marginal states has been Chiapas. Yet, road building and state building efforts here have been inconsistent and contested since the 1920s. As seen in the case of Chiapas, the Mexican government made efforts to use road building as a state building tool and the limits to such work. Road-building efforts in the periods of 1924–1940 and 1990–2015 embodied the specific political, economic, and social elements of the time, and shedding light on the uneven nature of state building during each period. Roads—one promise of the 1910 Revolution—were slow to arrive in Chiapas in the 1920s and 1930s as fighting waned, due to government neglect and to the influence of local elites who were skeptical of integration with the country. It was not until the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940) that the Federal Government began to invest in road building in the state. Yet, such efforts were limited, and Chiapas remained economically and politically marginalized until the 1990s. Following the 1994 Zapatista uprising, the Federal Government began to invest in infrastructure development so as to facilitate economic expansion and ensure national security. Government officials felt that, by expanding the state’s agricultural export and tourism industries, they would be able to co-opt Zapatista sympathizers to work in support of the state’s vision for the country. In 2009 and again in 2014, the government began construction on the San Cristobal-Palenque Highway project, which was designed to achieve these goals. Nevertheless, both times the project faced strong opposition leading to its cancellation and demonstrating, again, the limits of state building efforts in Chiapas.

Keywords: Chiapas, roads, state building, Lázaro Cárdenas, Zapatistas, opposition, Mexican Revolution

Governments across Latin America have used infrastructure development as an important state building tool. This is particularly true in Mexico where successive administrations turned to road building to incorporate the country’s disparate regions more fully within the national economy and to enhance the visibility of remote populations following the 1910 Revolution. Yet, while road building was successfully achieved in states like Veracruz during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, it was only sporadically pursued in one of the country’s most isolated states, Chiapas. This article uses road building as a lens for examining the limits of building projects in the state by focusing on two time periods: 1924–1940 and 1990–2015. It shows how road building efforts in each period embodied the specific political and economic goals of the time, and highlights the ways in which government neglect, the concerns of local political elites, and resistance from rural Mayan and non-indigenous communities constrained state building efforts in each moment. Such limits illustrate the incoherence of the Mexican state during these time periods and the challenges it has faced in establishing and maintaining sovereignty across the country’s territory.

The first time period, 1924–1940, has been described as central to the development of a post-Revolutionary Mexican political and social culture, featuring the implementation of infrastructure initiatives and educational programs and the emergence of patriotic festivals commemorating various moments of the country’s revolutionary history.1 Road building during this time provided successive administrations with a means for assembling the infrastructure of the new country, and connected people to one another by providing enhanced mobility.2 Yet, while over 9,927 kilometers of national highways were built during this time, such efforts were not evenly pursued across the space of the national territory—a point that is illustrated by the fact that Chiapas did not receive such promises of the Revolution and their integrative effects until limited road building arrived in the 1930s.3

In the 1990s, road building continued to be used by federal and state governments as a state building tool. During this time, government officials, who were motivated by the country’s neoliberal transition that had begun in the 1980s and by the 1994 Zapatista uprising, pursued such efforts in Chiapas to a much greater extent than their predecessors.4 Under the banner of rural development, road building was sold as a means for expanding the state’s agricultural export and tourist industries, but it was also used as a strategy for co-opting Zapatistas to work in the expanded market economy rather than in support of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN)—the military branch of the Zapatista organization.

State-led infrastructure development in Chiapas steadily expanded at the turn of the 21st century, although it too met its limits as a state building tool. Unlike the period ranging from 1924–1940, where the limits were self-imposed by successive federal administrations who were disinterested in investing in the region or by the resistance of local political elites, the limitations faced at the turn of the 21st century emerged as a result of strong opposition to such efforts among poor farming communities. This opposition was rooted in the concerns of Zapatista and non-Zapatista communities that road building would only lead to environmental destruction and social division. By protesting highway development, Zapatista and non-Zapatista communities revealed alternate visions for the country that contrasted sharply with those of the Mexican Federal and Chiapas State Governments.

1924–1940: The Limits of Post-Revolutionary Roadway-Led State Building in Chiapas

As fighting from the Revolution subsided in the early to mid-1920s, state building became a key concern of the administration of Plutarco Elías Calles (1924–1928), including the period known as the Maximato (1928–1934) during which Calles continued to serve as the country’s de facto leader behind three successive presidents, and Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940). They were faced with the challenge of rebuilding a state apparatus and a domestic infrastructure that had been destroyed during the war.5 In fact, over 4,000 kilometers of roads that connected the capital with the rest of central Mexico had been destroyed in the violence, and only 28,000 kilometers of roads existed across the entire 2 million square-kilometer national territory, most of which could not be traversed by automobile.6 These post-revolutionary administrations centered many of their efforts on advancing communications infrastructure so as to integrate disparate regions whose political and economic isolation since Independence in 1821 had been exacerbated by the war. Road building was effective, in many cases, in achieving this objective, providing people with the opportunity to feel newly connected to fellow citizens across the country and to the capital in Mexico City.7

Like education, labor, and land reform, roads were one of the promises of the Revolution, although they were not encoded in the 1917 Constitution as such (unlike the first three). The work of the Calles administration, in particular, to build roads across the country, allowed for a popular participation in the state building process.8 Mexican engineers, for instance, were given the opportunity to assist in building the new post-Revolutionary Mexico through their work in designing an expanded road network.9 Moreover, people contributed to road building efforts in their own communities by providing financial support and by volunteering their time and unskilled labor. Waters, referencing Benedict Anderson, argues that popular participation in the road building process ultimately allowed people to begin to conceive of themselves as part of an interconnected “Mexican ‘imagined community.’”10

Road building during the Calles and Cárdenas presidencies was steeped in a strong sense of national pride, and captured the imagination of technocrats who saw it as a purveyor of progress capable of bringing the modern revolutionary Mexican state to fruition and drawing the country’s disparate regions within the fold of an integrated post-Revolutionary nation.11 They saw it as providing the opportunity to diffuse a sense of revolutionary nationalism across the country.12 Epitomizing this perspective was President Calles who’s newly established National Road Commission, which facilitated the successful construction of roads in Veracruz, where they were seen as an integral part of the newly formed national experience.13 Waters points out that roads were often discussed here using national revolutionary rhetoric as “embody[ing] ‘the pure principles of the revolution.’”14 Yet, road building as a “principle of the revolution” was slow to arrive in Chiapas in the 1920s and 1930s, as the state remained relatively isolated from the rest of the country.

Chiapas’ marginalization can be traced back to its piecemeal annexation by Mexico, which did not occur until 1824, three years after independence had been attained. Even after the appropriation of the Provincia de Chiapas—as it was then known—the state’s southwestern Soconusco region (see figure 1) did not officially join the Mexican Republic until 1842, and elites in the city of Tapachula resisted recognizing their membership in the new country until 1844.15 Regional disputes such as these defined politics across the state through the 1870s, thus preventing the formation of a stable and influential state government.16 Furthermore, it was a strong impediment to greater incorporation with the rest of the country after Independence, as local elites feared that integration would potentially lead to the dissolution of their long-standing positions of privilege and influence within the state. Such inclusion was also resisted by Mayan communities, in the Central Highlands and other regions, who had a long-standing history of defending their political and cultural traditions.17

State Building and Roads in Postrevolutionary Chiapas and at the Turn of the 21st CenturyClick to view larger

Figure 1. Map of Chiapas’ five regions.

Produced by Jeff Levy.

Chiapas’ isolation from Mexico City was partially overcome when, in 1891, Emilio Rabasa was elected governor and began to implement the modernization projects espoused by Porfirio Diaz.18 Diaz hoped that the advancement of communications infrastructure would weaken local resistance to outside influence, and with the support of Rabasa, initiated a highway project aimed at connecting Chiapas to the neighboring state, Oaxaca. Illustrating the sentiment of the time, El Porvenir de Chiapas, a local newspaper, pronounced in reference to road building in the state, “one of the driving wheels of progress [roads] is now being built.”19 As a result of these efforts Chiapas was, at the turn of the 19th century, able to inaugurate its integration into the world market, producing agricultural goods on large foreign-owned haciendas for export.20 Yet, despite such gains, Chiapas’ remained relatively isolated from the rest of the country during the revolution and in the years immediately following the fighting.21

It was not until the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas, which began in 1934, that road building arrived as an initiative of the Mexican Federal Government. Prior to his administration, post-Revolutionary road construction remained a distinctly local effort, led by governors such as Raymundo Enríquez (1928–1932) and Victórico Grajales (1932–1936). Both recognized the necessity for roadway development in their state, and both made road construction a priority of their governments, allocating large sums of money to roadway projects.22 Enríquez, for example, argued that the three major problems of the state government were “roads, roads, roads,” suggesting that more attention needed to be paid to road building.23 In this regard, Enríquez noted that, “Roads will be the best legacy I can leave my children.”24

During Cárdenas’ presidency, roads were built in Chiapas as part of an agrarian reform program in which the federal government provided resources to support poor farmers.25 The goal was to strengthen and expand the agricultural economy in the state.26 As a result of these efforts, Chiapas was able to regain its pre-Revolution agricultural successes, becoming the country’s largest producer of coffee, beans, and corn for national consumption and one of the top three producers of sugar, rice, cacao, tropical fruits, and cotton.27 Additionally, Cárdenas authorized the extension of the ambitious Pan-American Highway, which would pass through Chiapas into Central America.28

Despite its economic objectives, road construction during Cárdenas’ presidency extended beyond its economic benefits. Cárdenas, for instance, found it necessary to integrate Mayan communities within the revolutionary nation-building project.29 For him, the key to ensuring loyalty to the new nation among the Mayan population was to provide impoverished communities with work and resources and to weaken the power of local caciques.30 In doing so he hoped to quell any local discontent with the new Mexican state and prevent the potential for local uprisings.

In the end, road building in post-Revolutionary Mexico, from 1924 to 1940, was centered on a state building imperative designed to integrate historically isolated regions into the national economy. For Mexicans, it provided an opportunity to feel newly connected to the rest of the country and to begin to imagine and identify with the collective post-Revolutionary national identity. Yet, Chiapas, a largely isolated state, did not receive the promises of the Revolution—or their related integrative effects—until the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas. Even then, Chiapas’ isolation continued into the 1970s, as government support waned.31 While some highways were constructed during the 1950s and 1960s, including the Cristóbal Colon highway that connected the state capital, Tuxtla Gutierrez, with Guatemala, and several others were initiated, infrastructure development in general paled in comparison to what was underway in many of the country’s industrializing urban centers.32 By the 1990s, road-building efforts expanded significantly as part of a broader development strategy aimed at creating national security in the border region and at bringing economic growth to the rural state.

1990–2015: Roads as a Tool of Governance in Chiapas

While Mexican historians highlight the importance of roads as a state building tool following the Mexican Revolution, it was not until the 1990s that state road building efforts became a persistent aspect of local governance strategies in Chiapas. Following the 1994 Zapatista uprising, the Mexican Federal Government and Chiapas State Government sought to use roads as a tool of governance designed to co-opt people sympathetic to the Zapatista movement to work in an expanded tourist and export-oriented agricultural economy—to become part of, rather than critics of, the capitalist economy to which road building contributed. These efforts expanded into the first decades of the 21st century, but have been met with resistance by those who are skeptical of the state’s development agenda and who are interested in preserving autonomy from the Mexican state. Both dynamics—state building through road construction and resistance to it—can be seen in one particular project, the San Cristóbal-Palenque Highway project—an initiative that was pursued in two phases, beginning in 2009 and again in 2014.

While road building has been pursued as a governance strategy in Chiapas since the 1994 Zapatista uprising, it is generally promoted by the Mexican Federal Government and Chiapas State Government as a means for expanding the state’s agricultural export and tourist industries. Market-based development in Chiapas has been inspired by theories of neoliberalism that present the market as the most effective means of organizing economic, social, and political life. Such views motivated the work of several technocratic presidents such as Miguel de la Madrid (1982–1988), Carlos Salinas (1988–1994), Ernesto Zedillo (1994–2000), and Vicente Fox (2000–2006) to create an export-oriented economy supported less by government subsidies and more by private sector investment. Each of these efforts altered the relationship of the Mexican government to the economy and the relationship of Mexican society to both, and created significant insecurities across the Chiapaneco countryside.

Inspired by theories of neoliberalism, the Mexican government began to expand infrastructure development in Chiapas. Additionally, they (a) signed and ratified the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and the United States in 1994, which facilitated the import of cheap corn and other agricultural commodities and undercut the ability of poor farmers in Chiapas to compete in local markets; (b) allowed for the privatization of communal ejidal land—a reversal of one of the most significant post-Revolutionary land redistribution efforts—which, although designed to facilitate foreign investment in the countryside, threatened to destabilize access to land among poor farmers; and (c) withdrew federal funding for rural development programs.33 As a result of these changes, many farmers in Chiapas began to see state-promoted development during this time, including infrastructure and roadway expansion, as destructive to their agricultural livelihoods and as having the potential to only benefit the elite in the country.

It was in the context of this neoliberal transition that the Zapatistas—a largely indigenous rebel group based in Chiapas—began a violent revolt against the Mexican state, capturing several municipal seats in Chiapas and establishing a series of autonomous communities. The Zapatistas, who had been organizing since the 1980s, timed the beginning of the uprising to coincide symbolically with the first day of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which they saw as another element in the long history of disenfranchising policies toward Mexico’s Indigenous people. They also argued that the decision of the federal and state governments to disinvest in the Chiapaneco countryside and to end the ejido land tenure program amounted to a continuation of the over 500 years of exploitation and neglect that started first with the Spanish and continued with post-Independence governments. The Mexican government responded to the uprising with a creative mix of repression and co-optation/negotiation—what the Zapatistas have referred to as the política de la doble cara—“two-faced politics.”34 Repression was most visible in the mobilizing of the Mexican military immediately following the uprising, although it also included the less visible mobilization of paramilitary groups whose core function has been to divide and weaken Zapatista communities.35

In addition to military and paramilitary repression, co-optation has been an important component in the government counterinsurgency strategy—a component driven by state-led infrastructure development programs. Following the uprising, the Mexican Federal Government focused largely on the development of large-scale infrastructure projects such as roadways, schools and health clinics via the Mexican military. This work, which has been identified by Diez and Nicholls as the “remilitarization” of Mexico, has involved the realization of civic action and social projects aimed at providing assistance to Mexican citizens in cases of national emergency or necessity.36 These projects have been largely carried out by military-directed “civic action battalions” whose assignments in Chiapas were extended from twice a month to a permanent status in 1994.37 Since the mid-1990s, this has resulted in an effective meshing of state-led neoliberal development and counterinsurgency objectives in Chiapas, where the former has come to be used as a tool of governance aimed at ensuring national security.

The efforts of the Mexican government to use road building to achieve dual economic and state building objectives through the turn of the 21st century illustrate the fact that even the re-orientation of the economy around market-based objectives has required an ongoing government influence, especially in Chiapas.38 In fact, rather than diminishing, the Mexican state has instead changed shape, relying on a multitude of newly formed governance functions that are relabeled as modern and neoliberal. The ongoing influence of the Mexican government throughout the country’s neoliberal transition is especially visible in road building projects, which continue to be used as a tool of governance in the southernmost state—an example of which can be found in the San Cristóbal-Palenque Highway project. Yet, resistance to this initiative illustrates the ongoing limitations to state building through roadway expansion in Chiapas.

San Cristóbal-Palenque Highway Project

On February 15, 2009, the Mexican government announced its plans to begin construction on the San Cristóbal-Palenque Highway in Chiapas, Mexico, an initiative that was highly touted by then Chiapas state Governor, Juan Sabines, as an important catalyst for economic development. The ambitious roadway project represented one of the largest infrastructure initiatives of then president Felipe Calderón’s presidency and was designed, in part, to connect the two largest tourism locations in the state, San Cristóbal de las Casas and Palenque. The stated benefits of the two-lane (twenty-six meter-wide) highway included the fact that it would nearly halve the current travel time between the two cities from 4.5 hours to 2.5 hours, provide a safer and more pleasant travel experience for tourists, increase movement and commerce between the two cities, and allow people living near the state’s eastern border in Palenque to more easily visit tourism locations within their own state.39 In addition to the numerous economic benefits of the highway, the Mexican government highlighted the fact that the increased ease of transportation accompanying the new roadway would allow governmental agencies to more effectively provide important resources to poor communities such as medical supplies and schools.

State Building and Roads in Postrevolutionary Chiapas and at the Turn of the 21st CenturyClick to view larger

Figure 2. Map of estimated San Cristobal-Palenque highway path.

Produced by Jeff Levy with information obtained through interviews with various governmental ministries in Chiapas.

From its beginning, the San Cristobal-Palenque Highway project bore the marks of past roadway building in the state, while also reflecting contemporary political, social and economic factors. First, like past road building this particular initiative captured the imagination of government officials who saw it as the key to finally creating a modern Chiapas that had been promised since the end of the Revolution. As one official in the Ministry of Tourism (SECTUR) from Palenque noted excitedly in a 2009 interview, “Imagine, my children will be able to travel to San Cristóbal to go to school!”40 Looking at a state map with a second official from the same ministry, he laid out his vision for how the new highway would facilitate the broad expansion of the state’s ecotourism industry, noting that while Palenque had much to offer with its archeological sites, coffee producing municipalities such as Yajalón (see figure 2) could also become home to new agricultural tourism programs that would allow visitors to watch and learn about the coffee production process, all the while providing new income-earning opportunities to poor farming communities.

Second, such visions were communicated to the public by government officials through the use of a paternalistic revolutionary rhetoric that mirrored the language of post-Revolutionary administrations. In his praise of then president Felipe Calderón’s $15 million-dollar support for initial highway construction, then governor Juan Sabines said we have a “president who listens to his pueblo.”41 The State Government also argued that the San Cristóbal-Palenque Highway would “detonate” development in the region. Yet, given that roadway building had, since the Zapatista uprising, become a widely recognized counterinsurgency tool in the state, many Zapatista communities were wary of the implications of road building for their communities. Moreover, they and others questioned the premise that expanded tourism and export-oriented agricultural development would benefit all people in the state equitably. Their concerns and the resistance they provoked ultimately challenged the project and the related state building objectives of the Mexican Federal Government and Chiapas State Government.

Resistance to the San Cristóbal-Palenque Highway project quickly emerged in 2009 among communities located in the road’s proposed path, as they expressed a vision for the state and the country that differed from that presented by government officials. This opposition was most visible in the ejido of Mitzitón, a community located only eight kilometers from San Cristóbal, where initial road building activities began. Mitzitón, like other communities located along the proposed path of the highway, is majority Mayan, rural and consists of relatively high levels of poverty relative to the state’s urban centers. Farmers here tend to produce beans, corn, and squash for consumption and limited sale in nearby communities and are dependent on farmland for maintaining their agricultural livelihoods. Community leaders in Mitzitón argued in interviews that the highway would pass through valuable farmland and would be ruinous to people’s livelihoods and the natural environment.42 This, they noted, would force affected people to migrate to urban centers such as San Cristóbal, which would unravel the social fabric of the ejido. Similar concerns were echoed by other communities located along the road’s proposed path, such as Guaquitepec in the municipality of San Sebastian Bachajón, and Jotolá in the municipality of Chilón. In a similar fashion, members from Zapatista communities in the municipality of Chilón expressed concern during interviews that the highway and the development it would bring would destroy community resources including forests and farmland, and would be detrimental to corn and bean production.43 In addition to concerns about the environmental impacts of the San Cristóbal-Palenque Highway project, human rights organizations in San Cristóbal and in Chilón recognized the highway’s potential to provide the Mexican military with greater access to Zapatista and other oppositional communities, thus leading to greater insecurity for already marginalized people.

The strength of the 2009 opposition to the highway project was especially visible on July 30, when activists, human rights organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and Zapatista and non-Zapatista communities worked with Mitzitón to organize a peaceful road blockade, in which hundreds of people were involved, on the San Cristóbal-Comitán Highway.44 The aim of the blockade was to denounce the highway project and to oppose the violence wrought by paramilitary groups in which one person, Aurelio Diaz, was murdered. Increased opposition to the highway was also visible in denouncements published by human rights organizations and by independent researchers working in the state.45 Responding to this opposition, the Mexican government declared on December 27, 2009, that it would suspend construction on the San Cristóbal-Palenque Highway so as to ease social tensions. Borrowing from Zapatista rhetoric it suggested, ironically, that its decision was influenced by the principle that “the community commands and the government obeys,” and that it would respect the self-determination of Indigenous communities.46

In 2014, the Chiapas State Government re-initiated the highway project. Again, protests emerged in 2014 and 2015, led by a broad network of civil organizations in the region. As was the case with the 2009 opposition, the protests led to the cancellation of the second iteration of the project by August 2015. On September 17, 2014, more than 2,000 people from over 70 communities gathered to oppose the highway initiative, with the support of the Movement in Defense of Life and Territory (Movimiento en Defensa de la Vida y el Territorio).47 The Movement provided an important component of the interconnected set of actors opposing the project, and included oppositional communities, allied NGOs—most of which were from Mexico—activists, and academics in the state. The main argument of this broad opposition reflected that of 2009: that the tourism and agricultural growth potential of the highway project would be destructive rather than beneficial, posing a threat to the welfare of the natural environment and communities across the state.48 The Declaration of Laguna Suyul, signed by 2,740 people on September 17, argued that Mother Earth was a priceless gift, which their ancestors had cared for and defended and which they too would safeguard. They argued, moreover, that highway construction by the Mexican state represented a violation of indigenous rights protected within the International Labor Organization and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The protests by the broad coalition of oppositional communities, allied NGOs, activists, and academics in the state and the consequential cancelation of the project by the Mexican government represent yet again the limitations of state building efforts through highway expansion in the region. The protests, more specifically, reflected an opposition to the government’s vision for the country—namely, the continuation of development policies and counterinsurgency measures that enhanced insecurity for poor farmers in the state. They also demonstrate an attempt by allied actors to engage in the state building process on alternate non-state terms and illustrate the limits of the ability of the Mexican Federal Government and Chiapas State Government to use roads as a state building tool, particularly when those roads have represented a vision contrary to those who will be most affected by them.

The state building efforts of the Mexican government, following the Mexican Revolution and again at the turn of the 21st century, have been designed to reorganize space across the country with the goal of connecting people in new ways, expanding economic development, and enhancing access to and visibility of previously isolated regions and people. Yet the success of such efforts has been spatially uneven and has been faced, in some cases, with government neglect, the resistance of local elites skeptical of national integration, and the opposition of farmers with alternate visions for the country. This has been especially true in Chiapas, one of Mexico’s most politically and economically marginal states. Such limits illustrate the incoherence of the Mexican state and the challenges it faces in establishing and maintaining sovereignty across the country’s territory.

Following the Revolution, road building facilitated the linking of previously disconnected Mexicans and the inclusion of the country’s disparate regions within the national economy. Moreover, it allowed Mexicans to begin to imagine their country as an integrated community. As the case of Chiapas shows, state building efforts were largely inconsistent at this time. While some states like Veracruz received significant road building support, such projects were slow to arrive in Chiapas. This was due, in part, to the efforts of local political elites to resist integration with the rest of the country in an effort to preserve their privilege and influence in the state. It was also an outcome of government neglect in a state that continued to receive few resources throughout much of the 20th century.

By the 1990s, roads took on new meaning in Chiapas as a state building tool, particularly in the context of the 1994 Zapatista uprising, which posed a direct and violent challenge to state authority. Government officials valued road building for its ability to enhance access to a population that had been deemed dangerous to state interests following the uprising. Others saw roads as a means to expand the state’s agricultural export and tourism industries, and as a way to provide the opportunity to co-opt Zapatista sympathizers into the economy. In this way, road building came to embody the dual goals of restructuring and expanding the state’s economy while also providing a countermeasure to the Zapatistas—a characteristic that continued to define infrastructure advancement into the 2000s.

While road-building efforts expanded in Chiapas during the 1990s and into the early 2000s, the case of the San Cristóbal-Palenque Highway project demonstrates the limitations of road building and state building in the region. Zapatista and non-Zapatista communities, alongside NGOs and activists, actively protested the state’s largest roadway initiative, arguing that it would only lead to environmental destruction and social division, and would benefit only elites in the state. The project was cancelled twice as a result of this opposition, illustrating limitations of the government-led state building project and the shortcomings of roads as a tool for pursuing such efforts.

Discussion of the Literature

In the years leading up to and following the Mexican Revolution, newspaper articles in local Chiapaneco newspapers conveyed the attitudes surrounding road building, including the modernist visions of local and national-level government officials and citizens impacted by the infrastructure projects. The centrality of road building in the efforts of post-Revolutionary governments to re-build the Mexican state have been especially documented by Wendy Waters in her doctoral dissertation and in subsequent publications such as her chapter, “Remapping Identities: Road Construction and Nation Building in Post-Revolutionary Mexico,” as part of Mary Kay Vaughan’s edited volume, The Eagle and the Virgin.49 More recent work continues to explore the importance of transportation infrastructure and technology as a post-Revolutionary state building tool from the 1920s to the 1950s. Michael Bess, for instance, examines the institutional, bureaucratic, and political complexities surrounding road building during this period.50 He notes, moreover, that road building was influenced by the United States automobile industry, which sought to expand market access beyond its southern border.51 In a related vein, J. Brian Freeman explores the evolution of the automobile industry during the same period, showing how U.S. automobile production and car consumption in Mexico strengthened ties between the two countries that had become frayed during the Revolution.52 Finally, others such as Alan Knight, Benjamin Fulwider, and Ovidio González Gómez also recognize the importance of road building in post-Revolutionary Mexico, although to a lesser extent.53

This work is situated within a broader literature examining the various facets of the building of the Mexican state in the decades following the Revolution, including the implementation of education programs, the provisioning of health care services, and the realization of land reform.54 This work recognizes that state building efforts following the Revolution were comprised of a broad set of strategies designed to create a shared understanding of the Mexican nation and to generate a sense of connectedness across the country’s disparate regions. Yet, as Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniel Nugent show, the state building project of successive post-Revolutionary governments was hardly coherent, reflecting the political, economic, and social realities of the country’s distinct regions.55 Jan Rus demonstrates in Everyday Forms of State Formation that state building strategies were spatially uneven, with states like Chiapas often receiving few of the benefits of the Revolution.56 Rus’s argument is further supported by the lack of literature on post-Revolutionary road building in Chiapas, compared to other states such as Veracruz.

In contrast, much has been written on state-led infrastructure development in Chiapas following the 1994 Zapatista uprising, especially among NGOs operating in solidarity with the Zapatistas in Mexico’s southernmost state. Such NGOs include organizations like SiPaz, Otros Mundos, the Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (FRAYBA), and the Centro de Investigaciones Económicas y Políticas de Acción Comunitaria (CIEPAC). Since 1994, the influence of each group in the state has varied, with some organizations such as CIEPAC closing their doors. Regardless, the influence of such groups in creating a public venue for public discussion about development following the Zapatista uprising cannot be overstated. CIEPAC, for instance, went to great lengths to situate state-led infrastructure building efforts within the broader neoliberal objectives of the Mexican government, noting that infrastructure development has been as much about economic expansion as about social control. This was especially true in the analysis of the San Cristobal-Palenque Highway project by Juan Romero, who wrote for CIEPAC in 2009.57

Extending beyond the work of local NGOs operating in solidarity with Zapatista and allied communities, many scholars have provided robust analyses of Mexico’s neoliberal transition, including Gerardo Otero’s edited volume, which provides a broad countrywide assessment of its various implications for labor unions, the Mexican state, and international trade.58 In this volume, Neil Harvey illustrates the challenges of the neoliberal transition for farmers in Chiapas. He shows, for instance, how the ending of the ejido land tenure program and the removal of state supports for agricultural production—namely, access to credit and price supports—created significant instability for Chiapaneco farmers in the years preceding the Zapatista uprising.59 This work is accompanied by that of Jonathan Fox and Libby Haight, who provide a national-level assessment of the implications of the country’s neoliberal transition for the Mexican countryside.60 In line with Harvey, Fox and Haight illustrate the extent to which Mexico’s neoliberal transition was accompanied by a parallel removal of state support in the agricultural sector, and the limitations of new government programs for providing a meaningful replacement.

Finally, very little has been published on the San Cristóbal-Palenque Highway project. As part of his Master’s thesis in the Department of Geography at the University of Kentucky, Jonathan Otto examined the implementation and contestation of the initiative. He also published a 2016 article examining the goals and objectives of the highway opponents who used the protests as an avenue for voicing their frustrations with the Mexican government and for sharing their alternate visions for Chiapas and for the country.61

Primary Sources

In his assessment of pre-Revolutionary road building in Chiapas, Thomas Benjamin draws on correspondence between Emilio Rabasa and Porfirio Diaz, which may be found in the archive, Colección General Porfirio Díaz.62 Additionally, in his discussion of post-Revolutionary road building in the state, particularly by governors such as Raymundo Enríquez and Victórico Grajales, he draws on references from the newspaper, La Vanguardia, to shed light on their opinions regarding such work. As Wendy Waters´ work demonstrates, newspaper reports about road building in the post-Revolutionary period may also be found in newspapers such as Excélsior, and can be located in the Archivo General del Estado de Veracruz (AGEV).63

Information about infrastructure projects in Chiapas and the response of Zapatista and other allied communities to such efforts can be found, first and perhaps most importantly, on the Zapatista website.64 The website provides access to communiqués written by the movement and to reflections by key figures such as Subcomandante Marcos, ranging from the years immediately following the 1994 uprising until now. They provide insight into the relationship of the Zapatistas to the state, including their economic vision for Chiapas as it relates to neoliberalism and infrastructure development.

In addition to the Zapatista website, significant information is located online at the newspaper, La Jornada.65 The extensive coverage provided by Hermann Bellinghausen, in editorials and news coverage, is especially detailed and uniquely exhaustive, covering the Zapatista movement in general, with a detailed focus on its relationship to activities such as development projects and to actors that include state and municipal governments, paramilitary groups, the Mexican military, and various civil society organizations. The newspaper provides insight into the various facets of the Mexican government’s response to the Zapatista uprising through the 1990s and into the 2000s, and its implications for rural communities in the state.

In addition to La Jornada, the bulletins—boletines—and reports—reportes—published on the web pages of various NGOs, provide access to past political events in Chiapas as they relate to human rights issues and state oppression against Mayan communities, and they shed light on the ongoing political circumstances in the region. Organizations such as SiPaz, Otros Mundos, and the Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Bartolomé de las Casas (FRAYBA) are particularly useful. As mentioned in the literature discussion above, the Centro de Investigaciones Económicas y Políticas de Acción Comunitaria (CIEPAC) also provided significant coverage on similar topics. Given that the organization is no longer in operation and its website has been removed, however, access to the regular and highly informative bulletins published by the organization has been limited to the re-publication of its work by other organizations in Chiapas and around the world.

Additionally, information about the San Cristobal-Palenque Highway project, and resistance to it by Zapatista and non-Zapatista communities, may be found in the reports of Hermann Bellinghausen in the online newspaper, La Jornada. While some of the previously mentioned organizations have also discussed the highway in their boletines and reportes (e.g. Juan Romero’s piece published with CIEPAC), Bellinghausen’s accounts provide a more nuanced day-to-day assessment of the road building and the tensions surrounding it. Unpublished interviews and focus groups referenced in the article were conducted by the author in 2009.

Finally, institutional correspondence may be available at the Archivo General de la Nación, and potentially, at the Archivo General e Histórico del Estado de Chiapas located in the state capital, Tuxtla Gutierrez. These documents, if available, could shed light on the relationship of officials working with state organizations like the Ministry of Defense (SEDENA) or the Ministry of Transportation and Communication (SCT) in relation to communities and activists protesting the San Cristóbal-Palenque Highway Project.

Further Reading

Benjamin, Thomas. A Rich Land a Poor People: Politics and Society in Modern Chiapas. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.Find this resource:

    Bess, Michael K. “Routes of Compromise: Road Building and Motor Transportation in Modern Mexico, 1920–1952.” PhD diss., University of Texas at El Paso, 2013.Find this resource:

      Freeman, J. Brian. “‘Los Hijos de Ford’: Mexico in the Automobile Age, 1900–1930.” In Technology and Culture in Twentieth-Century Mexico, edited by Araceli Tinajero and J. Brian Freeman, 214–232. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2013.Find this resource:

        Fulwider, Benjamin. “Driving the Nation: Road Transportation and the Postrevolutionary Mexican State, 1925–1960.” PhD diss., Georgetown University, 2009.Find this resource:

          Gonzalez Gomez, Ovidio. “Construccion de carreteras y ordenamiento del territorio.” Revista Mexicana de Sodoloafa 52, no. 3 (1989): 49–68.Find this resource:

            Harvey, Neil. “Rural Reforms and the Zapatista Rebellion: Chiapas, 1988–1995.” In Neoliberalism Revisited: Economic Restructuring and Mexico’s Political Future, edited by Gerardo Otero, 187–209. Boulder: Westview, 1996.Find this resource:

              Harvey, Neil. The Chiapas Rebellion: The Struggle for Land and Democracy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.Find this resource:

                Otero, Gerardo. Neoliberalism Revisited. Boulder: Westview, 1996.Find this resource:

                  Otto, Jonathan. “Finding common ground: exploring synergies between degrowth and environmental justice in Chiapas, Mexico.” Journal of Political Ecology 24 (2017): 491–503.Find this resource:

                    Romero, Juan. “La autopista San Cristóbal-Palenque, la espina dorsal del CIPP: Sigilo y destrucción violenta.” October 24, 2009.

                    Rus, Jan. “The ‘Comunidad Revolucionario’: The Subversion of Native Government in Highland Chiapas, 1936–1968.” In Everyday Forms of State Formation: Revolution and the Negotiation of Rule in Mexico, edited by Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniel Nugent, 265–300. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

                      Waters, Wendy. “Remapping the Nation: Road Building as State Formation in Post- Revolutionary Mexico, 1925–1940.” PhD diss., University of Arizona, 1999.Find this resource:

                        Waters, Wendy. “Remapping Identities: Road Construction and Nation Building in Post-Revolutionary Mexico.” In The Eagle and the Virgin: Nation and Cultural Revolution in Mexico, 1920–1940, edited by Mary K. Vaughan and Stephen E. Lewis, 221–242. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.Find this resource:


                          (1.) Wendy Waters, “Remapping the Nation: Road Building as State Formation in Post-Revolutionary Mexico, 1925–1940” (PhD diss., University of Arizona, 1999), 17.

                          (2.) Michael K. Bess, “Pathways of the Golden Eagle: Themes of Mobility and Transport in Recent Scholarship of Mexico,” Mobility in History 5 (2014): 121–126.

                          (3.) Benjamin Fulwider, “Driving the Nation: Road Transportation and the Postrevolutionary Mexican State, 1925–1960” (PhD diss., Georgetown University, 2009), 78.

                          (4.) Neoliberalism refers to a set of theories and ideas that emphasize the market as the central mechanism for organizing political, social, and economic life and that deemphasize the role of the government in such spheres. In Mexico, these theories provoked a political, social, and economic transition that reoriented the relationship of the Mexican government to the national economy and the relationship of both to Mexican society. The outcomes of these transformations were many. The context of this article shows how theories of neoliberalism motivated road building in Chiapas that were designed to enhance market-based development programs by the Mexican government and by private sector actors. Also evident is how they generated significant insecurity in the rural countryside, which motivated, in part, the 1994 Zapatista uprising.

                          (5.) Waters, “Remapping the Nation,” 13.

                          (6.) Michael K. Bess, “Routes of Compromise: Road Building and Motor Transportation in Modern Mexico, 1920–1952” (PhD diss., University of Texas at El Paso, 2013), 26.

                          (7.) Fulwider, “Driving the Nation,” 35.

                          (8.) Wendy Waters, “Remapping Identities: Road Construction and Nation Building in Post-Revolutionary Mexico,” in The Eagle and the Virgin: Nation and Cultural Revolution in Mexico, 1920–1940, ed. Mary K. Vaughan and Stephen E. Lewis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 221–242.

                          (9.) Fulwider, “Driving the Nation,” 29–40.

                          (10.) Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991), cited in Waters, “Remapping the Nation,” 12.

                          (11.) Jessica Kim, “Destiny of the West: The International Pacific Highway and the Pacific Borderlands, 1929–1957,” Western Historical Quarterly 46, no. 3 (2015): 311–333.

                          (12.) Ovidio Gonzalez Gomez, “Construccion de carreteras y ordenamiento del territorio,” Revista Mexicana de Sodoloafa 52, no. 3 (1989): 49–68.

                          (13.) Waters, “Remapping Identities,” 226–229.

                          (14.) Waters, “Remapping the Nation,” 228.

                          (15.) “Estado de Chiapas,” Instituto para el Federalismo y el Desarrollo Social (INAFED), 2010.

                          (16.) “Estado de Chiapas.”

                          (17.) Jan Rus, “The ‘Comunidad Revolucionario’: The Subversion of Native Government in Highland Chiapas, 1936–1968,” in Everyday Forms of State Formation: Revolution and the Negotiation of Rule in Mexico, ed. Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniel Nugent (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), 265–300.

                          (18.) “Estado de Chiapas.”

                          (19.) Quoted in Thomas Benjamin, A Rich Land a Poor People: Politics and Society in Modern Chiapas (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989), 57.

                          (20.) Neil Harvey, The Chiapas Rebellion: The Struggle for Land and Democracy (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), 48–55.

                          (21.) “Estado de Chiapas”; and Rus, “The ‘Comunidad Revolucionario’,” 265.

                          (22.) Benjamin, “A Rich Land,” 183–185.

                          (23.) Benjamin, “A Rich Land,”181.

                          (24.) Benjamin, “A Rich Land,” 181.

                          (25.) Benjamin, “A Rich Land,” 207.

                          (26.) Benjamin, “A Rich Land,” 218.

                          (27.) Rus, “The ‘Comunidad Revolucionario’,” 285.

                          (28.) William Cameron Townsend, Lázaro Cárdenas, Mexican Democrat (Ann Arbor. MI: George Wahr, 1952), 343.

                          (29.) Rus, 267.

                          (30.) Fulwider, “Driving the Nation,” 86.

                          (31.) “Estado de Chiapas.”

                          (32.) “Estado de Chiapas.”

                          (33.) See Jonathan Fox and Libby Haight, Subsidios para la desigualdad (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2010); Neil Harvey, “Rural Reforms and the Zapatista Rebellion: Chiapas, 1988–1995,” in Neoliberalism Revisited: Economic Restructuring and Mexico’s Political Future, ed. Gerardo Otero (Boulder: Westview, 1996): 187–209; Kevin J. Middlebrook and Eduardo Zepeda, “On the Political Economy of Mexican Development Policy,” in Confronting Development: Assessing Mexico’s Economic and Social Policy Challenges, ed. Kevin J. Middlebrook, Eduardo Zepeda (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 3–54; Gerardo Otero, “Neoliberal Reform and Politics in Mexico: An Overview,” in Neoliberalism Revisited: Economic Restructuring and Mexico’s Political Future, ed. Gerardo Otero (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), 1–26; and Judith Teichman, “Economic Restructuring, State-Labor Relations, and the Transformation of Mexican Corporatism,” in Neoliberalism Revisited: Economic Restructuring and Mexico’s Political Future, ed. Gerardo Otero (Boulder: Westview, 1996), 149–166.

                          (34.) Rosalva Aída Hernández Castillo, “Between Civil Disobedience and Silent Rejection: Differing Responses by Mam Peasants to the Zapatista Rebellion,” in Mayan Lives, Mayan Utopias: The Indigenous Peoples of Chiapas and the Zapatista Rebellion, ed. Jan Rus, Rosalva Aída Hernández Castillo, and Shannan L. Mattiace (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 63–84.

                          (35.) Andres Aubry and Angelica Inda, “Quienes son los paramilitares?” La Jornada, December 23, 1997.

                          (36.) Jordi Díez and Ian Nicholls, The Mexican Armed Forces in Transition (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2006), 27.

                          (37.) Roderic Ai Camp, Mexico’s Military on a Democratic Stage (Westport, CT: Praeger Secuirty International, 2005), 101.

                          (38.) See the following for additional insight into this general trend: Gillian Hart, “Geography and Development,” Progress in Human Geography 28, no. 1 (February 2004): 91–100; and Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).

                          (40.) Roberto Menendez (employee with the Ministry of Tourism) in discussion with the author, August 2009 (names have been changed from their original to protect interviewee privacy).

                          (41.) “Incluye Presidente Calderón Carretera San Cristóbal-Palenque en propuesta del PEF 2009,” Instituto de Comunicación Social.

                          (42.) Jose Enrique (community leader in Mitzitó) in discussion with the author, August 2009 (names have been changed from their original to protect interviewee privacy).

                          (43.) Jorge Gomez and Felipe Put (community leaders in Chilón) in discussion with the author, August 2009 (names have been changed from their original to protect interviewee privacy).

                          (44.) Hermann Bellinghausen, “Confirman el inicio de las obras carreteras que unirán a San Cristóbal con Palenque,” La Jornada, February 16, 2009.

                          (45.) Romero, “La Autopista.”

                          (46.) Juan Sabines, “Inversión histórica para los pueblos indígenas de Chiapas en 2010, anuncia Juan Sabines,” Acciones Juan Sabines (blog), December 28, 2009.

                          (47.) Hermann Bellinghausen, “Rechazan indígenas el paso de autopista por sus comunidades,” La Jornada, September 18, 2014; and Hermann Bellinghausen, “Para los niños que vienen del futuro, no para nosotros,” La Jornada, November 10, 2014.

                          (48.) Jonathan Otto, “Finding common ground: Exploring synergies between degrowth and environmental justice in Chiapas, Mexico,” Journal of Political Ecology 24 (2017): 491–503.

                          (49.) Waters, “Remapping the Nation”; Waters, “Remapping Identities.”

                          (50.) Michael K. Bess, “Routes of Compromise.”

                          (51.) Michael Bess, “Roots of Conflict: Building Roads and Shaping the Nation in Mexico, 1941–1952,” The Journal of Transport History 35, no. 1 (2014): 78–96.

                          (52.) J. Brian Freeman, “El automóvil y el turismo norteamericano en México, 1900–1940,” in Ciencia y tecnología. Apuntes para su reflexión en la historia de México, ed. Ilse Angélica Álvarez Palma, Sandra Gabriela Pichardo Arellano, and César Salazar Velázquez (Mexico City: Sociedad Mexicana de Historia de la Ciencia y de la Tecnología A.C., 2012): 81–92; and Freeman, “‘Los Hijos de Ford’.”

                          (53.) Fulwider, “Driving the Nation”; Alan Knight, “Popular Culture and the Revolutionary State in Mexico, 1910–1940,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 74, no. 3 (August 1994): 393–444; and Olivido Gonzalez Gomez, “Construcion de carreteras y ordenamiento del territorio,” Revista Mexicana de Sodoloafa 52, no. 3 (1989): 49–68.

                          (54.) See Gabriela Soto Laveaga and Claudia Agostoni, “Science and Public Health in the Century of Revolution,” in A Companion to Mexican History and Culture, ed. William Beezley (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2011): 561–574; Mary Kay Vaughan, Cultural Politics in Revolution: Teachers, Peasants, and Schools in Mexico, 1930–1940 (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1997); and Rus, “The ‘Comunidad Revolucionario.’

                          (55.) Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniel Nugent, Everyday Forms of State Formation: Revolution and the Negotiation of Rule in Modern Mexico (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

                          (56.) Rus, “The ‘Comunidad Revolucionario.’

                          (57.) Romero, “La Autopista.”

                          (58.) Gerardo Otero, Neoliberalism Revisited: Economic Restructuring and Mexico’s Political Future (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996).

                          (59.) Harvey, “Rural Reforms.”

                          (60.) Fox and Haight, “Subsidios para la desigualdad.”

                          (61.) Otto, “Finding Common Ground.”

                          (62.) Benjamin, “A Rich Land.”

                          (63.) Waters, “Remapping Identities.”

                          (64.) “Enlace Zapatista,” Zapatistas.

                          (65.) “La Jornada,” Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.