The experience of Los Panchos and the autonomous community of Acapatzingo in Mexico City. 

Carlos Tornel

In times of civilizational collapse, the preservation of dignity can only come from below.”*

In conversations ranging from coffee shops to university classrooms, the language and notion of  “civilizational collapse” is becoming increasingly common. The disaffection towards unrealistic promises of development, democratic organization and liberalism is growing in proportion to the evidence that demonstrates we are in a generalized crisis with multiple faces: from climate collapse and the mass extinction of species to,  accelerating rates of economic inequality, waste and the depletion of nature transformed into resources. The civilizational crisis also manifests itself as a paradoxical process in which democracy is democratically dismantled. The proliferation of authoritarian leaders around the world in recent decades, from India to the most recent victory of Javier Milei in Argentina, points in this direction. Thus, as Giorgio Agamben and Gustavo Esteva remind us, the future no longer has a future; we live in an interregnum characterized by radical uncertainty because we no longer know or can even predict what will happen. The climate we knew no longer exists, confidence in ‘democratic’ institutions is diminishing and what we once understood as ‘common sense’ or ‘certainty’ seems to vanish into thin air. It is not surprising then, that the belief in government institutions and/or markets to provide a way out of this context no longer finds many followers.

The narrative of collapse tends to condemn certain places to that inevitable end. This could not be better epitomized than in large cities. In this narrative, places like Mexico City are irretrievable spaces: subject to a spatial configuration dictated by the market where automobiles and real estate cartels rule, as well as to an ever-growing social metabolism (which refers to the demand for materials and energy) that can only generate peripheral and “sacrifice zones” in their surroundings. For this reason, the ‘answers’ to this civilizational crisis tend to emerge in a kind of ‘escapism’: leaving and abandoning cities to collapse, while alternatives are woven from other spaces/territories such as ‘the rural’. After years of work trying to lessen the effects of the civilizational crisis in the urban space, my perception is that little can be done from governmental management or the ballot box, so any action would be redundant. However, a chance encounter with a member of the Francisco Villa Popular Organization of the Independent Left (OPFVII) in 2019, as well as a visit to the housing community of Acapatzingo in Iztapalapa opened my eyes and ears to other horizons and worlds of what is possible to do and cultivate in spaces like Mexico City. In short, what I saw, experienced and heard in Acapatzingo reflects not only one of the deepest and richest autonomous experiences of recent years, but also allows us to glimpse the ways in which communal organization in resistance and community work as a way of weaving autonomy, allowing us to see another horizon different from the collapse of civilization, one where it is possible to speak of dignity, solidarity and a good life.

The lessons of Zapatismo

Thirty years of Zapatismo have brought about a transformation of leftist movements. As Yásnaya E. Gil[1] argues, the Zapatistas no longer seek dialogue with governments, nor do they seek to convince political elites about inclusion through multi or pluriculturalism. Nor do they bet on transformations by seizing state power or the commodification of human and non-human relations, but rather promote other political processes and spaces beyond the structure of the nation-state and formal democracy. The process of rebellion that rejects the revolutionary vision; that seeks to recover dignity in the face of indifference and dispossession, as well as those knowledges and worlds subjected in the name of the promise of development and progress, has led to an eco-territorial turn[2], where thousands (if not millions) of ordinary people no longer ask for anything from the State or the market, but weave their hope from below, from the community, from collective work, the recovery of community networks and the construction of autonomy.

In the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandonian Jungle[3], the Zapatistas propose a reformulation of politics for life, by no longer seeking “to make agreements above to impose below (…) but to build FROM BELOW AND FOR BELOW an alternative to neoliberal destruction, a leftist alternative for Mexico”. The journey for life in 2021 meant an opening to those many abajos [belows] beyond Mexican territory, demonstrating that the limits of creating emancipatory projects through the formal democratic path and the complete subsumption of the State to capitalism are not exclusively  Latin American phenomena. The journey for life constitutes a ‘globalization of rebellion‘, where the practices of government no longer depend on bureaucracies, caudillos and intermediaries but on territorialized, self-managed and autonomous processes.[4]  This process, which is built from below, reflects a new internationalism of the 21st century, a strategy that seeks to interconnect struggles and generate solidarity networks among alternatives to the State that put life, care and feminine politics at the center, breaking with extractivism, competition and hierarchies. The Zapatista experience is framed in an accentuation of the civilizational crisis, which in Latin America has been characterized by the recognition of the limits of the progressivism of leftist governments and their impossibility to decolonize, depatriarchalize and decapitalize the State. The integration of the concept of Buen Vivir and the codification of the rights of mother earth, particularly in Ecuador and Bolivia, were overshadowed by a neo-developmentalism that, although critical of market control, was unable to break with globalized economic integration and the extractive character of the nexus between state and capitalism.[5]

“Critical Thinking Before the Capitalist Hydra”, a seminar convened by the Zapatistas at Universidad de la Tierra en Chiapas, San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, México, 2015.

The Zapatista message has echoed around the world, from women in Rojava who today practice democratic confederalism[6], to communities in India that promote Eco-Swaraj as a form of radical ecological democracy[7]. The struggle for autonomy, that is, a process of self-determination that goes beyond representative democracy, the economization of socio-natural relations and the patriarchal system and Western modernity itself, is read today as an alternative to the civilizational collapse and as a source of hope with increasing clarity.[8] However, few communities have managed to weave an autonomous project as hopeful as the housing community of Acapatzingo through the Organización Popular Francisco Villa de Izquierda Independiente [Francisco Villa’s Independent Left Popular Organization] (OPFVII). Los Panchos, as they are called, brings together more than 1,300 families in Iztapalapa and Tláhuac[9], two of the most marginalized neighborhoods of Mexico City, a city with more than 20 million inhabitants. 

An organization that emerged from the urban periphery, the story of Los Panchos underscores the importance of struggle in the face of imposed precarity as a way to recover and reclaim dignity from the margins. The accelerated urban growth of Mexico City forced a large part of the population to the periphery. In 1968, several social movements began to weaken the revolutionary institutionalization that had captured popular movements for decades, imposing state hegemony on social demands and seeking to eliminate any emancipatory effort beyond the state, its bureaucracy and institutions. In 1981 the National Coordination of the Popular Urban Movement (Conamup) arose with organizations from all over the country. This process promoted the occupation of peripheral territories of Mexico City through okupas, brigades, commissions and general assemblies, promoting the collective self-construction of housing, drainage and community spaces.[10] The collective management and work of the territory soon led to a broader organization promoting a process of (re)education, health, food production and access to water and energy, among others. During the 1980s, the dual liberalization of the economy and the electoral democratic process transformed the processes of social struggle to the discourse of liberalism, reconfiguring many anti-systemic struggles to the language of human rights, the institutionalization of civil society and political parties.[11] In particular, the conformation of neoliberalism in its configuration of urban space after the earthquake of 1985, as well as the emergence of the Popular Democratic Front in support of Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas before the election of 1988 left a weakened and fragmented popular movement that resulted in the separation of the movement’s faction which established the community of Acapatzingo in 1994 and formed, in 1998, the OPFVII.[12]

A history of urban autonomy and resistance: reclaiming the right to the city

The philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre conceptualized the “right to the city” as a process of territorial management that goes beyond a charter of individual guarantees provided by the state. The right to the city implies an “intention to struggle” as the principle and not the result of an emancipatory policy. In almost every city in the world, property rights and their exchange value outweigh the inhabitants’ rights of use. It is the State, an institution of colonial origin, limited by a liberal-democratic model, that must guarantee these rights.[13] The process of struggle, Lefebvre argues, is based on the possibility of appropriation, that is, on the possibility of inhabiting through the occupation, reinvention and self-management of urban space in common, as well as through radical participation in the decision-making process. The right to the city challenges the common sense of individual ‘rights’ or ‘guarantees’ as well as the revolutionary vision that plagued 20th-century Marxism: as a process of large-scale social transformation.[14] In this sense, the right to the city constitutes a process similar to what Gustavo Esteva would call the ongoing insurrection[15], that is, an everyday form of resistance and therefore rebellious process, involving a direct rejection of the vertical structures of governance, to recover the community networks that were progressively degraded by the bureaucratic process of the State and later by the market and neoliberalism.

The 596 families in the eight hectares that make up the Acapatzingo housing community have developed a form of self-management based on voluntary community work. This process implies an organization in brigades by zones of the community and working in commissions that cover almost all areas of daily life – from health, education, vigilance, food, communication and sports, among others. The conformation of these commissions operates through general councils of representatives, which all members agree to participate in by subscribing to a series of organizational principles such as a) the centrality of democracy: a process that reproduces the Zapatista model of commanding by obeying (mandar obedeciendo); b) the practice of criticism and self-criticism —to promote equality and the constant improvement of the collective process — and; c) collective leadership and the division of community work as a key point for self-management and the maintenance of autonomy.[16] This organizational process has resulted in the construction of collective spaces for children, senior citizens and youth, water collection, filtration and purification systems, collective management of electricity as well as the development of three greenhouses, composting systems and fruit trees that produce food, a community radio station, spaces for procuring collective health and care, as well as a system of education up to secondary school.[17] In the words of the members of the security committee “Our neighbours themselves say, ‘once we cross the gate from Iztapalapa to Acapatzingo we realize that the space is inhabited differently’, some have been robbed just a few streets away from here, but this does not happen inside our community. The children are free to play in the street here. Space and daily life are experienced differently thanks to the community work and the contribution we all make to the community.”[18]  The process of autonomy has then taken shape as the recovery of urban space through the struggle for dignity and a redefinition of a good life. For Lefebvre, this process is understood as a way of recovering the right to inhabit: the possibility of self-managing space, through a struggle in resistance to the state, progressively eliminating its ‘necessity’ while producing a radically democratic form of community management, reaffirming human dignity and reformulating its relationship with the environment. 

Acapatzingo Cooperative. The colors of the houses demonstrate the organization into brigades. Pic. José Luis áSantillán.

In other words, although community organization arises out of necessity, the proposal for autonomy implies a rejection of the development model, one that has progressively created a counterproductive dependence on the state and its institutions. In the words of David Contreras, a member of the political coordination of the organization: “Faced with the lack of services, and the continuous forms of dispossession by the state, the only viable option left for us is to organize. So, as long as we have a little piece of land that we can protect, we are going to fight for autonomy and self-management.”[19] Part of this struggle is the resistance to the State’s continued harassment of Los Panchos‘ autonomy proposal. As Ivan Illich established 50 years ago, counterproductivity is the most prevalent characteristic of modern institutions. Once institutions like schools, hospitals or transit systems pass a certain threshold, they paradoxically begin to defeat their own purpose.[20] After this threshold, means become ends, tools (technologies) and institutions do not allow needs to be satisfied but rather mold needs to existing means. Perhaps even more problematically, once the threshold of paradoxical counterproductivity is transgressed, institutions become what Illich calls radical monopolies, where externality to the system is lost, where all alternatives are presented as inaccessible or unimaginable.[21] Thus, motorized transportation begins to increase rather than decrease travel times for the majority, becoming a chronophagous system,[22] the institutionalization of medicine creates a dependency on doctors, eliminating the ability to heal in other ways, all the while producing more diseases and segregating those who cannot pay. Thus, schooling systems, like the medical or transportation system, produce people who need knowledge, medicine, energy, which depend on experts, opening the way to disciplinary systems and to the molding of education, medicine or transportation under an assumption of scarcity. This diagnosis allows us to see how modern institutions, coupled with a promise of development and progress, have systematically eroded the possibility of building a good life without the help of experts to prescribe the necessary adjustments, measures or policies.

The Acapatzingo experience is thus a project that arises from the possibility of recovering actions (or verbs) instead of nouns that manifest themselves through the creation of this radical monopoly of institutions. The possibility of learning, healing, eating and dwelling implies a refusal of education, health, food or housing. As the community’s motto states: housing projects not only imply the possibility of self-managing the construction process, but also implies a life project in itself.[23] The process implies breaking with the radical monopoly to rebuild community networks that give people back their capacity to trust in internal, local processes and to dare to imagine and inhabit other possible worlds beyond the state and the market. The possibility of conviviality implies a possibility of regaining control of tools, freeing oneself from the radical dependence that defines homo economicus or the needy man and, in turn, recognizing the definition of a common roof by establishing socially imposed limits.

Community members outside the water treatment plant in Acapatzingo. Pic. Carlos Tornel.

Hope in the midst of civilization collapse. Los panchos’ experience as a response to the climate crisis.

An essential part of OFPVII’s example is that, following the Zapatista process, the transformation has not only looked to change its immediate reality, but through cooperation and collective networking, it has sought to weave its experience of autonomy with other struggles throughout the country and the Latin-American region. First, the organization works with surrounding neighbours by collectively denouncing and demonstrating against government instigations and abuses — including the lack of water and the proliferation of organized crime—. In other words, struggling for autonomy and self-management does not involve closing in, turning our gazes inward and ignoring the systemic violence and collapse of capitalist modernity, but opening up to foster and shape solidarity with other civilizational alternatives and transition initiatives. The OPFVII is part of the Mexican Alliance of Social Organizations, as well as the Network of Autonomous Anticapitalist Resistances, in addition to participating in the Zapatista Other Campaign.[24] But, perhaps most surprising of all is that the community is located in the middle of Mexico City. Normally we tend to think of alternatives as something outside of the urban space, as an experience in indigenous territories or in the countryside where there are still some signs of community. In the context of cities, a breeding ground for individualism, alternatives seem few. The experience of Los Panchos demonstrates the fallacy that everything happens ‘out there’ and the possibility of organizing from the everyday, through local practices, rooted in a territory and starting from the practice of autonomy. Echoing the statements of the now-extinct Subcomandante Marcos: “great transformations do not begin from above nor with monumental and epic events, but with small movements in their form and that appear as irrelevant to the politician and the analyst from above.”[25] Thinking about the proliferation of these movements and their articulations gives us the possibility of thinking about other scales and forms of organization that go beyond nation-states: a proposal for democratic confederalism or a global tapestry of alternatives[26] on a national, regional or even planetary scale.

The autonomous proposal of Los Panchos reveals three major characteristics that can help navigate the ongoing civilizational crisis and imminent collapse as well as offer some clues towards the future of alternatives. The first is that the experience reveals the impossibility of transforming things from above. The repeated failure of international climate change conferences to abate global warming, COP28 being one of the most recent examples, demonstrates that the problems created by capitalist modernity — understood as the confluence of a colonial and patriarchal system configured around a constant demand for commodity accumulation, the notion of linear progress and the separation of society from nature — cannot be solved by the system itself. The second is that they invite us to decolonize our imaginary from notions such as the global and scale when we think of ‘solutions.’ The nation-state and even plurinational states are subservient to the capitalist world-system, which limits the possibilities for real transformation from above, or through the seizure of power, even by those individuals or groups, parties and/or representatives who have the best intentions. While seemingly disempowering in the phase of proliferating global crises, struggles and territorial alternatives form below offer more than hope, as they are rooted in an ontological and epistemological redefinition of well-being. Finally, the experience of Los Panchos teaches us to think from the practice of self-management, where autonomy entails a struggle and community work, and not a right or a guarantee.

One of the greenhouses in the Acapantzingo housing community. Pic. Carlos Tornel.

The struggle for life breaks with the supposed and fictitious separation between struggle and daily life, something that troubles the so-called middle classes everywhere. Los Panchos’ proposal offers a way of recovering the relationship with nature and territory in the middle of the city. The individualizing practices of the urban environment and the educational model itself, focused on competitiveness, individualization of the subject and consumption, are institutionalized as ways of providing the needy subjects with rights, merchandise, services and goods. The process of autonomy built from self-management, mutual aid and collective work implies in turn a pedagogical project that is taught from everyday life. The power that Los Panchos have managed to capture implies a refusal to be absorbed by the clientelist apparatus of the State and an affirmative and daily proposal of rebellion, resistance and community. Their experience is, in the face of the collapse of capitalist modernity, proof that the answers to the crisis of civilization are woven on a daily basis, from below, in resistance and above all, in community.

Carlos Tornel holds a PhD in human geography from the University of Durham, UK. For more than a decade he has worked with civil society organizations and social movements on issues related to climate justice and territorial defense. He is co-author, with Elias González Gómez, of Gustavo Esteva: Vida y obra de un intelectual desprofesionalizado (Bajo Tierra, Mexico City), and with Pablo Montaño, Navegar el Colapso: Una guía para enfrentar la crisis civilizatoria y las falsas soluciones al cambio climático (Heinrich Böll Foundation and Bajo Tierra, Mexico City). Since 2023 he is part of the Global Tapestry of Alternatives.

*Quote by an Acapatzingo community member


[1] Aguilar Gil, Y. (2023). To whom does Zapatismo speak now? Revista de la Universidad de México, 903/904: 16-21.

[2] Svampa, M. (2019). The frontiers of neoextractivism in Latin America. Socio-environmental conflicts, ecoterritorial turn and new dependencies. Guadalajara: CALAS.

[3] EZLN (2006). Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. Available at: 

[4] Lopez and Rivas, G. (2023). ‘The resistances of the original peoples as the internationalism of the XXI century.’ In Internacionalismo crítico y luchas por la vida: Hacia la construcción de horizontes futuros desde las resistencias y autonomías. Edited by Francisco de Parres González. (pp: 25-41). Guadalajara: Cátedra Interinstitucional Jorge Alonso.

[5] For an analysis see: Dinerstein, A.C. (2015). The Politics of Autonomy in Latin America.

The art of organising Hope. Palgrave McMillan.

[6] Öcalan, A. (2019). Democratic Confederalism. Jorge Alonso Chair. Universidad de Guadalajara.

[7] Kothari, A. (2018). Eco-Swaraj vs. Global Eco-Catastrophe. Asia Pacific Perspectives. 15(2): 49-54.

[8] Esteva, G. (2019). Autonomy. In Pluriverse a Dictionary of post-development. Edited by Ashish Kothari, Ariel Salleh, Arturo Escobar, Federico Demaria and Alberto Acosta (pp: 170-173). Barcelona: Icaria.

[9] Francisco Villa Popular Organization of the Independent Left. Available at:

[10] Zibechi, R. (2022). The urban autonomouscommunity. The new world in the heart of the old. In Pensar las autonomías. Experiences of self-management, popular power and autonomy. Edited by Alicia Hopkins and César Enrique Pineda (pp: 23-52). Mexico: Bajo Tierra Ediciones.

[11] Law, S., Cruz, A. and Nava, V. (2023). Constructing a Communal Form of Life: Destituent Praxis in the Peripheries of Mexico City. The South Atlantic Quarterly 122(1): 103-119.

[12] Francisco Villa Popular Organization of the Independent Left. Available at:

[13] Lefebvre, H. (2003b [1970]). The urban revolution. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

[14] Purcell, M. (2013). Possible Worlds. Henri Lefebvre and the Right to the City. Journal of Urban Affairs, 36(1): 141–154.

[15] Esteva, G. (2013). “The ongoing insurrection.” In, Raúl Ornelas (Coordinator). Crisis civilizatoria y superación del capitalismo. (pp: 129-216). Mexico: UNAM.

[16]  OPFVII (2023). Principios y estatutos.

[17] Interview with people from the autonomous community of Acapatzingo.

[18] Interview with people from the autonomous community of Acapatzingo.

[19] Interview with people from the autonomous community of Acapatzingo.

[20] Illich, I. (2006). ‘Conviviality.’ In Illich, I. Collected Works, Volume I. (pp. 296-427). Mexico: Fondo de Cultura Económica.

[21] See, Cayley, D. (2022). Ivan Illich An Intellectual Journey. Pennsylvania State University Press (pp. 125-129).

[22] Robert, J. (2022). La Era De Los Transportes Devoradores De Tiempo. Mexico: Ithaca.

[23] Law, S., Cruz, A. and Nava, V. (2023). Constructing a Communal Form of Life: Destituent Praxis in the Peripheries of Mexico City. The South Atlantic Quarterly 122(1): 103-119.

[24] Zibechi, R. (2022). La comunidad autónoma urbana. El mundo nuevo en el corazón del viejo. In Pensar las autonomías. Experiencias de autogestión poder popular y autonomía. Edited by Alicia Hopkins and César Enrique Pineda (pp: 23-52). Mexico: Bajo Tierra Ediciones.

[25] Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, “Ni el centro ni la periferia”, intervención en el Coloquio Aubry, San Cristóbal de las Casas, 13 de diciembre de 2007. Disponible en: Quoted in Zibechi, R. (2022), La comunidad autónoma urbana. El mundo nuevo en el corazón del viejo, p.44.

[26] See: Global Tapestry of Alternatives.

Note: The pictures in this article have been taken from open sources on the internet.

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