In the heavily Mayan Indian state of Chiapas in southeastern Mexico, on New Year’s Day, 1994, a group of rebels carrying automatic rifles, axes, and sledgehammers, wearing black ski masks, and calling themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) proclaimed themselves in rebellion against the Mexican government. The uprising was timed to coincide with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Mexico, the United States, and Canada. The Mexican government responded by sending some 25,000 soldiers into Chiapas, armed with automatic weapons, tanks, and helicopters.
On January 12 the government declared a cease-fire, saying it would respond with force only if attacked. By this time around 150 people had been reported killed, most by government security forces. Talks between the EZLN and government negotiators began on February 20. The Zapatista spokesperson, who called himself Sub-Commander Marcos, soon became an international celebrity. In what has been called the world’s first postmodern rebellion—waged against not only a national government but an international trade agreement, its principal weapons not guns but words, grassroots organizing, and the Internet, and launched not with the goal of military victory but of gaining indigenous rights and national and international solidarity—the Zapatista movement continued into the 21st century, posing a thorny challenge to the Mexican state and local power holders. In 2007 the rebellion still simmered, centered in dozens of Zapatista “autonomous municipalities” in the heart of the Chiapas Lacondón rain forest, central highlands, and northern zones.
Home to some of the oldest civilizations on Earth, Mexico’s Maya zones have seen a long series of protest movements against local, regional, national, and imperial authorities that stretch back to the initial Spanish invasion in 1522 and continued with the Tzeltal Revolt of 1712, the Jacinto Canek Revolt of 1761, the Caste War of Yucatán from 1848 and its aftermath, and subsequent revolts and resistance movements. After the Mexican Revolution (1910–20) and the establishment of a “one party democracy” under the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) in 1929, Chiapas remained one of the poorest and most marginalized states in the Mexican States United (Estados Unidos Mexicanos). In 1994 its 3.5 million people, spread over some 76,000 square kilometers, included large concentrations of Maya Indians, some two-thirds living in rural areas and divided into numerous ethno-linguistic groups, including Tzeltales, Tzotziles, Choles, Zoques, and Tojolabales.
At least half of the indigenous people did not have access to potable water and were illiterate; two-thirds did not have sewage systems; and 90 percent had little or no income. In 1992 President Carlos Salinas and the PRI-dominated houses of Congrttess approved farreaching changes to Article 27 of the 1917 Constitution, effectively privatizing the ejidos (collective village lands) that had been a cornerstone of Mexico’s post-revolutionary agrarian reform laws. The terms of NAFTA further accelerated decades-long trends toward privatization and the opening of the Mexican economy to transnational corporations and unfettered trade.
The rebels named their army after Emiliano Zapata, a village leader from the state of Morelos and one of the leading figures in the Mexican Revolution, whose honesty, rectitude, and uncompromising demands for “land and liberty” made him a heroic figure among the country’s poor and Indian population. The Zapatista spokesperson, Sub-Commander Marcos, remains an enigmatic figure. Never photographed without his black ski mask, he is thought to be Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente, a Jesuit-educated former professor of philosophy at the Metropolitan Autonomous University in Mexico City who began working and organizing among the Maya of Chiapas in the mid-1980s. His name is presumed to be an acronym for the municipalities first taken over by the rebel army (Las Margaritas, Amatenango del Valle, La Realidad, Comitán, Ocosingo, and San Cristóbal de Las Casas). He is called the group’s “sub-commander” because the EZLN is based on grassroots participatory democracy, and he is therefore considered not the group’s leader but a subordinate to the people in whose name he speaks.
Peace talks between representatives of the EZLN and the national government began at San Andrés Larrainzar in April 1995. On February 17, 1996, the parties agreed to the terms of the Accords on Indigenous Rights and Culture, known as the San Andrés Accords. The Accords called for revision of Article Four of the 1917 Constitution to require the Mexican state to “recognize the right of Indian peoples to freely determine their own forms of social, economic, political, and cultural organization.” In essence, the accords would have permitted an autonomous parallel state and political structure within Mexico, including an independent judicial system based on indigenous practices.
Meanwhile, the military buildup by the Mexican army and security forces in Chiapas intensified as the government waged a low-intensity war against EZLN forces throughout the region. Local paramilitaries, growing out of the “white guards” (guardias blancas) organized by the region’s cattle and landowning oligarchy and active since the early 1980s, also stepped up their attacks against EZLN activists and supporters. New anti-EZLN paramilitaries formed, including the Indigenous Revolutionary Anti-Zapatista Movement (MIRA) and the Red Mask. Attacks, assaults, and human rights abuses against EZLN supporters mounted. On December 22, 1997, the Red Mask massacred 45 people at Acteal, including 21 women and 15 children.
In this context of growing militarization and violence, in August 1996 the EZLN sponsored an International Conference for Humanity Against Neoliberalism (called by Marcos the “Intergalactic Encuentro”), attended by intellectuals, activists, and celebrities from around the world. In January 1997 President Ernesto Zedillo proposed a watered-down version of the San Andrés Accords that eliminated the provisions recognizing indigenous rights. The EZLN rejected the revisions, and henceforth the accords remained a dead letter.
The EZLN’s propaganda offensive continued in marches, demonstrations, solidarity agreements with various sectors of civil society, and a flurry of communiqués and declarations from Sub-Commander Marcos. In March 2001 Zapatista commanders headed a caravan to Mexico City, where they rallied with supporters to demand legislation implementing the original San Andrés accords. Instead, the government passed a law denounced by indigenous rights groups. The Zapatistas responded with a four-year period of “strategic silence,” which they broke in June 2005 with their “Sixth Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle,” inaugurating a series of grassroots meetings and a national tour, the “Other Campaign,” to form a coalition of left groups.
Typical of the EZLN’s approach to waging war was the assault by the “Zapatista Air Force” against a Mexican military installation in January 2000, in which rebels launched hundreds of paper airplanes into the camp, each bearing handwritten messages such as: “Soldiers, we know that poverty has made you sell your lives and souls. I also am poor, as are millions. But you are worse off, for defending our exploiter Zedillo and his group of moneybags.” Part of a broader resurgence of indigenous political organizing in Mexico, Central America, and the Andes, in 2007 the EZLN controlled over 30 autonomous municipalities, while the struggle in Chiapas and beyond showed no signs of abating.
- Harvey, Neil. The Chiapas Rebellion: The Struggle for Land and Democracy. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998;
- Weinberg, Bill. Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico. London: Verso, 2000;
- Womack, John, Jr. Rebellion in Chiapas: An Historical Reader. New York: New Press, 1999.
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