Zapatista Rebellion

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Zapatista Rebellion









The Zapatista rebellion began on January 1, 1994, in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico. Considered by many to be the first postmodern revolution, the Zapatista movement is a powerful example of the response capacity of indigenous peoples to racism and colonialist indigenismo in an era of neoliberalism and globalization. It is more than coincidence that the same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect between the United States of America, Canada, and Mexico, the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, or EZLN) emerged on the national political scene with the shout “Ya Basta!” (Enough!). This cry served as a reminder that Mexico would not enter into the First World through NAFTA, as the Mexican government proposed, without first paying its historical debt to the indigenous peoples of the nation.

The answer of the Mexican state to the conflict that soon raged in Chiapas was a program of genocide against the EZLN, their communities, and their supporters, as well as the instigation of a low-intensity war in the Mexican indigenous regions, located mainly in the states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, Tabasco, and Chiapas. The main obstacle to solving the conflict in Chiapas has been the lack of commitment on the part of the Mexican State and the major Mexican political parties to accept the multi-culturalism of Mexico. This has been evident in their reticence to implement the San Andrés Accords, a set of agreements signed by the EZLN and the federal government in 1996.

In 2001 the Mexican Congress enacted constitutional reforms addressing indigenous rights and culture. But because these reforms did not directly address issues important to the indigenous groups, such as autonomy and free determination, the indigenous peoples as subjects of public right, lands and territories, the use and enjoyment of natural resources, the election of municipal authorities and the right to regional association, they have been indicted by the EZLN as treason and a mockery of previous agreements. In 2005, in the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, the EZLN announced that it would begin a new stage in the history of the indigenous movement, in which a permanent dialogue with Mexican civil society would be sought.


The Zapatista rebellion must be framed historically within the long and complex process of cultural resistance of the Mayan peoples, beginning with the European invasion in the sixteenth century. The deep causes of the rebellion are multiple and complex, but their deep roots undoubtedly lie in a long history of colonialism, social exclusion, and ethnic and racial discrimination.

Nevertheless, the postmodern conflict in Chiapas is closely related to the neoliberalism adopted by Mexico in the early 1980s, which brought about a social crisis and aggravated the difficult living conditions of the indigenous peoples in Mexico. The implemented neoliberal policies bet the Mexican future on an ambitious modernization project that included the thinning of the state, with minimal state intervention, a free market, and commercial openings through the signing of NAFTA. Nevertheless, the neoliberal policies applied by the government of Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988–1994) did not include the

indigenous peoples of Mexico in this modernization. This ontological blindness showed the homogenizing and exclusionary face of Mexico, and it constituted a serious mistake that had enormous political, economic, and social costs for Mexican society as a whole.

The Zapatista rebellion displayed the country’s amnesia about indigenous peoples, the flaws of the neoliberal modernization project, and the weaknesses of the Mexican financial system. The Mexican stock market’s dependency on offshoring (the relocation of business processes from one country to another) and foreign financial investments was revealed, and the resultant political instability migrated to other countries, causing the Mexican peso crisis and the loss of confidence of foreign investors in a number of Central and South American countries (this spread of capital flight to other nations has been dubbed the “tequila effect”).

Among the causes of the Zapatista rebellion, several specialists have pointed to the drop in coffee prices in 1989, the dismissal of public policies in education, health and food, the weakness of the benefactor state (Mexico), and the signing of NAFTA in 1993. The EZLN was founded on November 17, 1983, in the Lacandon jungle of Chiapas, by older militants of various political organizations in Mexico. It was the fidelity of the EZLN to the revolutionary political ideology of the legendary Emiliano Zapata, the campesino leader during the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), that led the group to anoint themselves the “Zapatistas.” But the Spanish writer Manuel Vázquez Montalván points out that there was apparently little receptivity and support for the EZLN in the Mayan towns at first.


In 1992 the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP) sponsored a Conference on the Peopling of Americas in Veracruz, Mexico. Prior to this inquiry into the “Encounter between Two Worlds,” the Mexican government considered it prudent to implement constitutional amendments with the implicit purpose of addressing the challenge of the Mexican indigenous movement. In 1991, President Salinas sent a legal initiative to the Mexican Congress, asking them to make an addition to Article 4 of the Political Constitution of Mexico. This constitutional addition, approved by the Mexican Congress in July 1991, defines Mexican nation as pluricultural and declares that Mexican law system will protect and promote indigenous peoples and cultures. The addition to Article 4 was approved by the Mexican Congress in July 1991. The government of Mexico also ratified the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, the foremost international instrument dealing specifically with the rights of indigenous peoples. ILO Convention 169 took effect in September 1991.

These constitutional reforms and agreements did not stop the impetus of the indigenous movement, which was well organized and united around the “Campaign for 500 Years of Indigenous, Afro-American, and Popular Resistance.” This campaign was proposed in the “Bogota Declaration,” during the continental encounter for peasants-indigenous organizations, an important meeting that took place in Bogota, Colombia in October 1989. The Mexican Council for 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance organized many demonstrations around the country. On October 12, 1992, in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, leaders of the indigenous organizations demolished the sculpture of Diego de Mazariegos, the Spanish conqueror of Chiapas, because they considered it to be an offense against the dignity of their peoples.

The indigenous movement also declared that the reforms to Article 4 of the constitution were limited to recognizing the existence of the indigenous peoples in Mexico, but that their ethnic rights were still unrecognized (Ruiz 1999). The indigenous leaders felt that their indigenous laws were in essence reduced to mere “uses and customs,” that their religious practices were equated with “witchcraft and beliefs,” and that their ejidos (communal lands) were being sold off or transferred away due to the agrarian reforms. With respect to ILO Convention 169, the indigenous organizations declared their support for the ratification, though they considered the convention very limited with respect to the indigenous people’s demands. According to the indigenous organizations, ILO Convention 169 puts many “padlocks” on the recognition of their political status and on their autonomy claims within international law.


On May 27, 1993, the Mexican army, while conducting a routine military exercise in Chiapas Jungle found, by chance, Las Calabazas, a military advance post of the EZLN. The EZLN had built several military posts around Chiapas Jungle in strategic geographic localizations, far away from the mayor cities. These military posts stored food and guns, and operated a training camp. The government of Mexico hid this information from the public in order to avoid risking negotiations for the NAFTA agreement. Thus, the Mexican army and its military intelligence were being reinforced in Chiapas, while the government was obtaining information about the organization of the EZLN, which had been founded in 1983.

The quietly organized EZLN, composed mainly of young people from various indigenous groups, including the Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Chol, and Tojolabal, staged their first armed action at 5 a.m. on January 1, 1994. Several hundred Zapatistas, many armed only with useless “guns of wood” or machetes, took control of five municipalities in the state of Chiapas: San Cristóbal de las Casas, Altamirano, Ocosingo, Chana, and Las Margaritas. They released about 200 prisoners and took Absalon Castellanos, the former governor of Chiapas, as a hostage. They also demanded the resignation of officials of the federal and state government and that democratic elections be held. The spokesman for the rebels was a shadowy figure nicknamed Subcomandante Marcos (all of the members of the EZLN wore masks during their military actions). Since the actions of 1992, Marcos has published numerous articles and books outlining his views.

The demands of the Zapatistas were outlined in the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. Not only did

they ask for indigenous peoples’s rights to be respected, they also enumerated several demands regarding work, land, housing, food, health, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace (Collier 1999, p. 156). The Mexican government, in response to what they considered a conflict originated by a “group of 200 insurgents led by foreign professionals,” launched a military campaign that lasted twelve days, during which the Mexican army recovered control of the city of San Cristobal de Las Casas and the rest of the municipalities. The fighting was fierce, however. In Ocosingo, the Mexican army killed hundreds of unarmed Zapatistas and civilians. The newspaper La Jornada denounced the discovery of five Zapatistas who had been murdered with their hands tied, the “disappearance” of communitarian leaders, and several attacks on journalists and members of the International Red Cross, all in violation of international law.

The Mexican army, in the subsequent months, increased their armed forces in the area to more than 17,000 soldiers, in order to encircle the region of the Lacandon jungle. The events in Chiapas grabbed attention in the national news, and many were surprised to learn that Chiapas had the worst Human Development Index in Mexico, despite producing 35 percent of the electrical energy of the country, possessing large fuel deposits, and providing the national market with precious wood, meat, coffee, flowers, fruits, vegetables, and other products. In general, Chiapas was one of the richest Mexican states in natural resources, but its people were among the poorest.


On January 16, 1994, just when the Zapatistas had diffused themselves into the Lacandon jungle, the Mexican government announced a general amnesty and ceasefire. President Salinas named Manuel Camacho Solis as the Commissioner for Peace and Reconciliation. The first peace dialogues took place in the Catholic diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas, and Bishop Samuel Ruiz became a fundamental figure in this process because of the enormous respect he enjoyed as an advocate for indigenous rights. As a good-will gesture, the EZLN, with the intermediation of the International Red Cross, released Absalón Castellanos on February 17, 1994. The government released several Zapatistas in return.

The EZLN released the Second Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle on June 10, 1994. In this declaration they informed the people about the worsening of the conflict in Chiapas and called Mexicans “to a civic and peaceful effort. This was the National Democratic Convention, which was to achieve the profound changes that the nation demanded.” The EZLN emphasized that its movement members were Mexicans and not aliens, and in its demonstrations they displayed the Mexican flag with pride and sang the national anthem.

On December 1, 1994, Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, a leader of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), became president of Mexico. The dialog between EZLN and the Mexican government with Bishop Ruiz as a negotiator was broken in July, when the EZLN rejected the government proposals. The new government launched a new military campaign in Chiapas and increased its military forces in the region. However, on December 19, 1994, the EZLN broke the military encirclement of thirty-eight independent municipalities. The new government then initiated a mass media campaign, declaring that the Zapatistas were terrorists. In addition, orders were given for the apprehension of Rafael Sebatián Guillén Vicente, who was believed to be subcommander Marcos.

The counterinsurgency effort now took the form of a permanent low-intensity conflict. Six paramilitary groups were created to help the Mexican army search for the insurgents’s infrastructure and divide the EZLN from the indigenous communities. These paramilitary groups were located in strategic areas of the military encirclement, and their members were affiliated with the PRI and the Cardenista Front for the National Reconstruction (FCRN).


At the beginning of 1995, the EZLN released the Third Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, which summoned Mexican society to form a national liberation movement and “to install a transitional government, a new constitutional body, a new constitution, and the destruction of the system of the Party-State.”

In March, the Mexican Congress approved the Law for the Dialogue, Reconciliation and Peace with Dignity in Chiapas. A cease-fire was ordered, as well as an end to military hostilities against the EZLN. Negotiations were then initiated, centered on indigenous rights and culture, democracy and justice, welfare and development, and women’s rights. The meetings took place in the Municipality of San Andrés Larraínzar with the Commission for Agreement and Pacification of the Mexican Congress (COCOPA) and the National Mediation Intermediation Commission (CONAI) acting as intermediaries. The first meetings finished in September 1996. The EZLN then called for an international and national referendum, in which more than a million people participated. These developments led to the signing of the San AndrésAccords on February 16, 1996. These accords laid the groundwork for further negotiations on indigenous rights, conservation of natural resources on Native territories, political participation, and the autonomy of the indigenous communities. However, in September 1996, due to the lack of movement on these issues by the governmental delegation, the EZLN left the negotiations.

The Zapatistas, in an effort to pressure the government, organized the Zapatour, in which thousands of Zapatistas traveled from Chiapas to Mexico City. The purpose was to inform Mexican civil society and the international public of the human rights violations in Chiapas and the manipulation of media information. In February 2001, twenty-four ski-masked Zapatista leaders, including Subcomandante Marcos, left Chiapas, followed by a caravan of supporters. They arrived in Mexico City fifteen days later and were greeted by throngs of supporters.

The EZLN also organized the First Intercontinental Encounter for Humanity and Against Neo-liberalism, which took place in Chiapas in July 1996. Indigenous organization leaders from five continents were present, as well as diverse intellectuals, politicians, and civil society members.

In the Fourth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, released on January 1, 1996, the EZLN announced the creation of the Zapatista Front of National Liberation (FZLN) as their political organization. On December 22, 1997, a massacre was committed in Acteal, Chiapas, by PRI members and cardenistas. As reported by the Peace Brigades International and SIPAZ, a Web site created to monitor the conflict in Chiapas:

On Monday, December 22, an armed group of supporters of the ruling PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) massacred 45 displaced indigenous persons who had sought refuge from earlier violence in Acteal in the county of Chenalho in the Chiapas highlands. The victims were Zapatista supporters or members of the peasant organization “the Bees” (Sociedad Civil Las Abejas, a group with politics similar to the Zapatistas but which does not support armed struggle). They were attending Mass in the Catholic church when the shooting started… . [T]he attackers included at least 60 heavily armed men… . The Mexican Red Cross reported 45 deaths, including nine men, 21 women, 14 children and one baby. Nineteen others were wounded. (Peace Brigades International 1996)

The following day, during a mass funeral, the community identified forty-three suspects and the police arrested them. In the aftermath of the massacre, President Zedillo affirmed in a national message that it was a deplorable act that undermined the unity of all Mexicans.

The Chiapas governor, Roberto Albores Guillén, was accused of giving little social and economic aid to the indigenous communities. In response, Governor Guillén proposed a law initiative on indigenous rights and culture. Meanwhile Protestant Christian groups started a defamation campaign against Samuel Ruiz. Though canon law required Ruiz to resign his position as bishop in 1999, when he turned seventy-five, he has continued to advocate for indigenous rights.

In July 1998, the EZLN published the Fifth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, which contained a summons to a “national consultation concerning the legal initiative on indigenous rights” of COCOPA. Moreover, they insisted that CONAI and Mexican civil society to take part in this process of consultation.


The historical inability of the Mexican state to achieve a social consensus on indigenous rights only worsened the conflict in Chiapas, leading to the first electoral defeat of the PRI in the presidential elections since 1928. The EZLN stayed away from the 2000 electoral process, and they called for Mexican society to abstain from voting.

The new president, Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN), had promised during his electoral campaign resolve the conflict in Chiapas in 15 minutes. EZLN demanded, before it would resume the peace process, the fulfillment of “three signals”: the San Andrés accords, the freedom of EZLN prisoners, and the closure of the seven military posts. Luis H. Alvarez was appointed head of COCOPA, and Fox sent the Senate his proposed COCOPA Law, which recommended constitutional changes to address the demands for indigenous rights.

It was in this context that the Zapatour arrived in Mexico City, with the Zapatistas chanting the slogan “Never More a Mexico Without Us,” a clear reference to the exclusionary policies and racism of the Mexican state. Nevertheless, the Mexican Congress made numerous changes to the COCOPA initiative, which became known as the Indigenous Rights Law, essentially removing many of the elements important to the indigenous community. The EZLN indicated their complete disapproval, arguing that the changes represented a treasonous action. On September 6, 2002, the Supreme Court of Justice rejected the complaints filed by various indigenous organizations against the Congress’s actions on constitutional reform. As a result, the reforms were enacted. A possible explanation for the inability of the Mexican state to adequately address the calls for indigenous rights include the racism of the state in failing to recognize multiculturalism. It might also be related to the Plan Puebla Panamá, a large-scale development plan designed to promote regional integration in the nine southern states of Mexico. The plan has been criticized by indigenous groups because they feel it impels the United States, Mexico, and the Central American countries to obtain control of strategic natural resources in the Mesoamerican region. Any political and territorial autonomy of the indigenous peoples over these natural resources would therefore hinder this plan.

In the following months the conflict in Chiapas lost the attention of the public due to Zapatista silence caused by military harassment, and a governmental abandonment of this population in resistance. After a long silence, during which many political analysts speculated that Comandante Marcos had left the country, the EZLN again “took over” the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas on January 1, 2003. Following this demonstration of their continued determination and power, they left the city peacefully.

During 2004, in the Municipality of Zinacantan, the Zapatistas and members of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), which controls the municipality, came into conflict over access to water. Dozens of Zapatistas were hurt and 125 Zapatista families were displaced from the community of Jechvo as a consequence. Overall, nearly 20,000 indigenous people have been displaced by the conflict in Chiapas.


In 2005, after a long consultation process, the EZLN distributed the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, in which they announced the decision of Zapatista communities to bet their future on the utopia of political participation with Mexican civil society. The EZLN decided to channel their efforts in alliance with other social movements, particularly with Mexican “workers, campesinos teachers, students, employees … the workers of the city and the countryside.” Nevertheless, the EZLN has recently criticized certain political candidates and exhibited a loss of interest in the electoral process and a loss of confidence in Mexican civil society.

There are several possibilities for the future regarding this conflict. On one hand, it is evident that the EZLN will reinforce the “other campaign” that it launched as a new strategy based on listening in order to seek alliances with the Mexican civil society. The EZLN’s role in Mexican politics during the electoral period has been cautious, though decisive in Chiapas. On the other hand, the Mexican government has again diminished the Chiapas conflict and the indigenous people’s demands. It would not be a surprise to see new popular movements or rebellions occurring in Mexico in the near future.

SEE ALSO Mayan Genocide in Guatemala; Violence against Indigenous People, Latin America.


Canal 6 de Julio. 1998. Acteal Masacre de Muerte. Documentary video. Mexico: Canal 6 de Julio

Collier, George. 1994. Basta! Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas. Oakland, CA: Food First.

Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN). Available from The texts of the six Declarations of the Lacandon Jungle can be found at

Holloway, John, and Eloína Peláez, eds. 1998. Zapatista!: Reinventing Revolution in Mexico. London: Pluto Press.

García de León, Antonio. 1989. Resistencia y utopía. Memorial de agravios y crónica de revueltas y profecías acaecidas en la provincia de Chiapas durante los últimos 500 años de su historia. Mexico City: Editorial ERA.

Muñoz Ramírez, Gloria. 2003. EZLN: 20 y 10, el fuego y la palabra. Mexico City: Desarrollo de Medios.

Ordóñez, Carlos Salvador. 1996. “Derechos humanos de los pueblos indios.” In Etnicidad y Derecho un diálogo postergado entre científicos sociales, edited by José Ordóñez. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Peace Brigades International. 1996. “Massacre in Acteal (Chenalho), Chiapas—Paramilitary group kills 45 Tzozil Indians.” Available from

Ruiz Hernández, Margarito. 1999. “La Asamblea Nacional Indígena Plural por la Autonomía. (ANIPA) Proceso de construcción de una propuesta legislativa autonómica nacional.” In México Experiencias de Autonomía Indígena, edited by Aracely Burguete Cal y Mayor. Copenhagen, Denmark: Grupo Internacional de Trabajo Sobre Asuntos Indígenas.

Servicio Internacional para la Paz (SIPAZ). “Brief History of the Conflict in Chiapas.” Available from.

Vázquez Montalván, Manuel. 2001. Marcos: El señor de los espejos. Madrid, Spain: Aguilar.

Womack, John, ed. 1999. Rebellion in Chiapas: An Historical Reader. New York: New Press.

Carlos Salvador Ordóñez