Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Patricia Tovar

Committee Members

Ismael Garcia-Colon

Murphy Halliburton

Subject Categories

Anthropology | Development Studies | International and Area Studies | Latin American Studies | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Social and Cultural Anthropology


Chiapas, Mexico, humanitarian aid, Chiapas conflict, Las Abejas, EZLN


This dissertation is about a faction of the Sociedad Civil Las Abejas who, as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), were housed at the INI IDP camp in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, in 1997-99 after the Acteal massacre on December 22, 1997. This faction is of interest because they protested the remaining members of Sociedad Civil Las Abejas (Civil Society The Bees) social movement at Acteal and the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, often better-known as the Zapatistas), because the movement required them to reject governmental humanitarian aid and development programs or lose their membership in the social movement. Challenging David Graeber’s (2011) conception of debt as something accumulated among social equals, I show that the aid, which I contend was not in any sense a “free gift” as it demanded reciprocity (as part of a gift economy), was most often accepted—specifically that IDP recipients who accepted this aid drop out of the Zapatista movement and embrace the PRI, or Party of the Institutional Revolution, to whom they would acquire a debt of loyalty in a clientelistic mechanism. v The study analyzes the ways that poverty obstructs projects of indigenous and “original peoples’” resistance against states, such as Spanish colonial, Mexico or Guatemala (Chiapas was a department of Guatemala until 1841), that have dominated them for centuries. Repression, preventable death, enslavement, illiteracy, illness, corruption, underdevelopment, racism, domination, displacement, deterritorialization, extractavism, dispossession and accumulation by dispossession in Chiapas have kept poverty indicators among the highest of Mexican states and comparable to much poorer countries elsewhere in the world. I argue that under these extreme conditions, resistance to the state is harder to sustain, causing many to reject the idea of resistance—and to drop out of resistance movements, a factor that has been under-theorized in the social movements literature. And, more critical to this study, I argue that much humanitarian aid, especially from federal government and international sources, is “assistentialist” in that it is fundamentally “charity,” treating the symptoms rather than the structural causes of poverty, and not changing the fundamentals of people’s lives. I contend that the IDPs at the INI camp were more likely to be critical of aid that was a “free gift” and assistentialist than non-assistentialist aid—because this aid simply placed a band-aid on their absolute poverty. Drawing on my fieldwork in the camps in 1997, 1998 and 1999, as well as a return visit with 14 of the families that were housed there, I show how the INI camp illustrated Fassin’s (2012) critique that humanitarian efforts are fraught with difficulties, from critical and uncompliant refugees and IDPs, who are never grateful nor docile, to the declaration of a state of exception within Mexico in September, 1998, to a host of other problems and issues. In short, I ask why did some people embrace (government sourced) humanitarianism in a context in which it was rejected politically by powerful local actors, such as the EZLN? I showed how the Mexican government’s vi Progresa/Oportunidades/Prospera cash transfer program was structured to counter “the problem” of Zapatismo, along the lines of the Maussian dualism between prestation and war, and how it aligned with a Marxian reading of “history from below.” I showed how the Chiapas conflict had become a civil war by 1997 with paramilitaries carrying out the massacre at Acteal—and the mild reaction that Las Abejas had toward the paramilitary wandering freely in Acteal during 1999, and the paramilitaries’ light sentencing for the massacre. I also offered a clear illustration of how the IDPs were social agents with “a feel for the game” (Bourdieu 2005), causing many of them to make individual choices which embraced but then rejected the PRI, whom they saw principally as among their “enemies” bearing “gifts.” The study also illustrates the power of representatives of the Mexican government to divide the neo-Zapatista social movement—that is, the modern Zapatista movement, including all the movements allied with the EZLN—particularly when abject poverty and hardship were involved.