Zapatista Army of National Liberation

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Zapatista Army of National Liberation

LEADER: Subcommandante Marcos, widely presumed to be Rafael Sebastian Guillén





The Zapatista National Liberation Army (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) began a rebellion against the Mexican government in the southern state of Chiapas on January 1, 1994. The organization is committed to fighting for the rights of indigenous and poor Mexicans. It is part of the global opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The designation of EZLN as a terrorist group is in dispute. The government of former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo linked EZLN to the terrorist National Liberation Forces. Most Mexicans, including those in Congress and in the government of Chiapas, do not regard it as a terrorist force. Instead, they view EZLN fighters as irregular forces participating in a civil war. The U.S. government has occasionally described EZLN members as terrorists.


The rebellion in Chiapas has its roots in the agricultural history of centuries past. The state had been an isolated region in which the owners of large, underdeveloped estates made their incomes mostly from cattle, sugar, and grains that they produced with Indian labor conscripted from nearby villages. Trade in these products was mostly contained within the state. In the 1890s, Chiapas suddenly became one of the most profitable agricultural regions in Mexico. Over the next century, it was the nation's largest source of coffee, providing approximately 40% of the annual harvest. It was also consistently one of the top Mexican states in the production of chocolate, sugar, bananas, corn, and beans.

To produce these agricultural products, labor was needed but there was a shortage of workers. The state government had advertised Chiapas land as an investment property to the Germans, Americans, Spaniards, English, and French while touting the area's abundance of plentiful, docile, hardworking, and underutilized Indian laborers. To make its claims true, the government had to get the Indian population to work on the plantations. Accordingly, it imposed new taxes to force Indians into debt and accompanied these taxes with widespread arrests of indigenous tax-evaders at markets and their subsequent auction to labor contractors. When planters, labor contractors, and the government realized that as long as Indians had the capacity to feed themselves from their own lands they could avoid debts, they sought to reduce the landholdings of the indigenous people. Such actions would also force the Indians to come to markets where they could be captured and sold. From 1890 to 1910, the Chiapas government appropriated and sold most of the land that the indigenous people held. Police and army forces backed the actions of the government and the planters.

The government land policy was enormously effective. At the start of the 1970s, an estimated 80,000 indigenous men out of a total population of 100,000 males were moving around the state each year, from one harvest to another. Even agrarian reform, which came to Chiapas in the 1930s, failed to remedy this problem. Over time, the land that did return to indigenous hands failed to keep pace with population growth. The net effect was to keep indigenous people tied down. They had enough land to make it difficult for them to abandon their communities but not enough land to allow them to be self-sufficient.

As agriculture began to decline in profitability in the 1970s, large landowners in Chiapas stopped investing in their land and scaled back production. Some plantations were converted to cattle ranches. By the 1990s, most large landholders had abandoned the countryside altogether to be replaced by small landholders and communal holders. These new landowners did not need as much hired labor as the plantations that they replaced. Meanwhile, the population of Chiapas had dramatically increased. By 1990, it was estimated that more than 200,000 men were seeking work. Adding to the labor woes, about 80,000 adult Guatemalan Mayas had taken refuge in Chiapas, starting in the 1980s. The refugees were also looking for agricultural jobs, were competing with the native Mexicans, and were accepting less money to do the same work previously performed by Chiapas's Indians. Essentially, Chiapas's indigenous people, who for almost a century had been maneuvered into relying on seasonal, often migratory, labor to maintain themselves, suddenly found that they were no longer needed.

The EZLN was formed on November 17, 1983, by three mixed-race and three indigenous people. Meanwhile, tensions in Chiapas continued to build, but EZLN leaders did not believe that situations were right for an uprising. In 1992, when the indigenous people of Chiapas rioted to commemorate Columbus's 500-year anniversary of "discovering" the Americas, one of EZLN's leaders, Marcos, persuaded them to forgo the launching of a full-scale rebellion. Throughout 1993, there were rumors of the presence of guerillas in the mountains of Chiapas.

Many people familiar with Chiapas were not surprised that a rebellion began on January 1, 1994, inauguration day for NAFTA. Indians were increasingly frustrated by abuses to their dignity and rights. The new trade agreement paid no attention to the labor and environmental concerns of the indigenous people. The Zapatistas suddenly emerged from the jungle, seizing towns and clashing with security forces. About 150 people were killed before Mexican armed forces crushed the uprising. The remaining EZLN members retreated to a few villages in rural Chiapas, where the government has not pursued them.

Both sides, under pressure from both Mexican and international public opinion, agreed to a ceasefire. By February 1994, peace negotiations had begun. The Zapatistas claim that they have been in a defensive posture since February 1994. They expected that talks would yield results. Optimism was also high among the Mexican public that the Chiapas rebellion would push Mexico toward political reform quickly and without additional bloodshed. However, the peace negotiations stalled.

Meanwhile, the territory under EZLN control grew rapidly from December 1994 to February 1995. As local people joined the rebellion, thirty-eight municipalities became free, outside of government control. These municipalities also rejected government aid. At the same time, as the EZLN expanded its reach, the Mexican peso lost half its value. Middle-class Mexicans could not pay their bills and the poor lost much of their buying power. The economic crisis led to public anger and increased public support for the Zapatistas. The revolutionaries now seemed to speak for an ever-larger share of Mexicans.

An increasingly desperate Mexican government broke the ceasefire in February 1995, when it invaded Zapatista territory in an effort to capture the EZLN high command. They did not succeed, but in the weeks that followed, the army did retake large areas of EZLN-controlled land. In March, congressional representatives from Mexico's four largest political parties sought to halt the bloodshed. The political leaders formed the Commission of Conciliation and Pacification (COCOPA) to focus on discussions of Indian culture and Indian rights.

On February 16, 1996, the EZLN and the Mexican government signed the San Andrés Accords on Indigenous Culture and Rights that had been developed by COCOPA. The Accords were a package of constitutional amendments on autonomy for Mexico's Indians. Such political reform was the EZLN's one precondition for laying down arms. The EZLN went on a tour to promote congressional approval of the Accords. The Zapatistas were permitted to address Congress, and they drew about 100,000 people to a Mexico City rally. However, the Accords were gutted by conservative lawmakers before they were passed, causing the rebels to break off the peace dialogue. The gutting of the accords was protested by Indian groups across Mexico, many of whom pledged civil disobedience to pressure the Mexican Congress to reverse the changes.

While the truce has largely held, rightist paramilitary groups have been blamed for dozens of deaths in Chiapas. The situation in Chiapas has since disintegrated into an undeclared civil war between the indigenous poor and the mixed-race or white wealthy. The EZLN has never put down its arms, but most of the hundreds of deaths in fighting since 1994 have been blamed on the government-sponsored paramilitary forces. Many leftist non-governmental organizations have formed to aid the Zapatistas.

In June 2005, the EZLN put itself on Red Alert in anticipation of an attack from the Mexican government. Marcos cancelled all EZLN leaves and put the organization into a cell structure to enable it to withstand an assault. He also announced that the Zapatistas were moving toward politics and away from armed conflict. The EZLN embarked on a cross-country, pre-election tour aimed at uniting workers, students, and activists around a left-wing agenda. The new phase of Zapatista action aimed to make EZLN into a peaceful political force in Mexico, Latin America, and the rest of the world.



Subcommandante Marcos, identified by the Mexican government as Rafael Sebastian Guillén, helped found the EZLN in 1983. Always clad in military fatigues and a black ski mask, the pipe-smoking revolutionary has become the group's primary spokesperson.

The fourth of eight children of a prosperous furniture store owner in the northern state of Tamaulipas, Guillén was born July 19, 1957. He earned degrees in philosophy and sociology from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) before acquiring a Master's degree in Paris. He worked as a university lecturer in graphic design at UNAM before vanishing in 1984. Marcos is rumored to have trained with the insurgent Sandinista army in Nicaragua in 1987, under the name Jorge Narvaez. Known for being austere and highly cultured, Marcos reportedly has a son with Mexican journalist Gloria Munoz Ramirez.

The Chiapas uprising has made the revolutionary leader into a popular hero in the Chiapan highlands. Marcos has taken advantage of his popularity to co-author a novel, Uncomfortable Dead, with Mexican crime writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II. While Marcos occasionally comes out of hiding, he spends much of his time at his jungle base 800 kilometers from Mexico City. He has repeatedly denied that he plans to run for a Mexican political office.


The EZLN has had three major influences. The Zapatistas are named for Emilio Zapata, an early twentieth-century peasant leader who wanted to decentralize and reform the corrupt Mexican government of the time. While building on the legacy of Zapata, EZLN also reflects the 1970s tradition of Latin American guerrillas. The guerrillas of the 1970s consisted of Marxist-Leninist ideologues who wanted to transform the world to create a dictatorship of the proletariat. The EZLN additionally drew on the increasing radicalization of the Catholic Church. The original Zapatistas—Marcos, Daniel, and Pedro—assumed biblical names to signal their support for liberation theology. Despite non-indigenous influences on the group, the EZLN is composed mostly of Chiapan Indians.

The political platform of the Zapatistas lists eleven goals: work, land, shelter, food, health, education, independence, liberty, democracy, justice, and peace. The EZLN focuses on anti-neo-liberalism, environmentalism, and, chiefly, indigenous rights. The EZLN regards the pitfalls of neo-liberalism as the principal global threat facing Mexicans. Neo-liberals in Mexico controlled the government and pushed a 1992 constitutional amendment that codified the end of land reform in Mexico and permitted the privatization of public lands. Such changes made it more difficult for Indians to possess enough land for subsistence. In 1992, Marcos wrote an article that called attention to the mounting ecological crisis in Chiapas and the horrific living standards endured by the indigenous people, who compose the majority of the state's population. He pointed out that more than 80% of highland residents suffered from malnutrition, and that Chiapas had the highest mortality rate in Mexico. For the EZLN, the trampling of indigenous people came in the context of imperialist exploitation of Chiapas's rich natural resources, such as gas and oil.

The tactics of the Zapatistas rely very heavily on public relations. Except for minor skirmishes with government forces and rightwing death squads, armed conflict between the Mexican military and the Zapatistas ended on January 12, 1994. Unable to match Mexico militarily, they have compensated by trying to win the hearts and minds of the Mexican public. They operate a web site, speak often to the press, conduct occasional Zapatourists through Chiapas, write essays, and publish a magazine.

In their first published essay, "Declaration of the Lacandona Jungle," the Zapatistas lamented that their declaration of war was a method of last resort. The Zapatistas criticized the poor living standards of Chiapas's Indians as an attempt at genocide on the part of the Mexican government. They complained about the lack of democracy in Mexico, a country notorious for its history of political corruption. To EZLN, the inability of the poor to use the political process had made violence a necessity for survival.

In their magazine, El Despertador Mexicano (The Desperate Mexican), EZLN has called for fair wages for Mexican workers, agrarian reform, and equal rights for women. In Mexico's patriarchal society, the Zapatistas insist on women's right to become revolutionaries and to participate politically, to have access to basic health and education services as well as fair employment, and to control the number of children that they bear.


The EZLN was formed.
The EZLN went public.
The EZLN went on Red Alert, anticipating an attack by the Mexican government.


Most commentators agree that the Zapatistas are not stereotypical terrorists. Emilio Ulloa Perez, a federal deputy with the left-opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) and a member of the congressional negotiating team for the peace dialogue with the EZLN, compared the Mexican activists with other agitators: "We can't put the guerrillas in the same category as groups in the Middle East, or the Balkans or the terrorist responsible for the Oklahama bombing in the United States. In Mexico, we don't have guerrillas who put bombs in restaurants."


The EZLN is a revolutionary organization for the media age. Since 1994, the Zapatista movement has been largely nonviolent. The group fights through the press and the Internet. While it has had success in attracting global attention to its message of indigenous rights and anti-capitalism, it has not had much luck in bettering the situation of the Indians in Chiapas. The EZLN has failed in its goal of becoming a political force.



Ponce de León, Juana. Our Word Is Our Weapon: Selected Writings of Subcomandante Marcos. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2001.

Rochlin, James F. Vanguard Revolutionaries in Latin America: Peru, Colombia, Mexico. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003.

Ross, John. Rebellion from the Roots: Indian Uprising in Chiapas. Monroe, ME: Common Courage, 1995.

Rus, Jan, et al. Mayan Lives, Mayan Utopias: The Indigenous Peoples of Chiapas and the Zapatista Rebellion. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.