On the 1st January 1994 a peasant army of masked guerrillas took
over five towns in Chiapas, the southern most state of Mexico. This
was the introduction to the world of the Zapatista Army of National
Liberation (EZLN). From the balcony of the Municipal Palace in San
Cristóbal de la Casas their iconic spokesperson Subcomadante
Marcos declared ¡YA BASTA! (enough is enough).
The EZLN had been formed ten years earlier and developed in to
an army without an absolute leader. Instead command rests with a
large committee made up of representatives from the Indigenous communities.
The indigenous population of Chiapas had been repressed ever since
the conquistadors arrived from Spain 500 years ago. In more recent
times the feudalistic ranching system and governmental indifference
had left the Chiapan Indians deprived of health care, education
or even sufficient food and water. To illustrate this it is estimated
that 30 000 of their number died from hunger and disease related
to malnutrition in 1993 and life expectancy was only just over 40
years of age.
Chiapas is biologically one of the most diverse places on the planet
containing 34 micro climates and over 30 000 plant species, there
is also good evidence that Chiapas sits on huge reserves of oil.
Before 1994 the majority of the fertile land in Chiapas was owned
by a hand full of rich ranching families, each rancher employed
a private militia who beat and intimidated the indigenous workers
to keep them in line. If Indigenous families farmed any land at
all it was infertile and of no use to the larger land owners. In
short the Indigenous people of Chiapas had no control over their
lives or the land that they had occupied for thousands of years
hence, they had nothing to gain from the impending invasion of multinational
companies ready to tap the natural wealth of Chiapas via coffee
plantations, oil wells and pharmaceutical research.
For some years the EZLN had been attempting to protect the Indigenous
population from the ranchers private armies. Using conventional
politics was useless since the Institutional Revolutionary Party
(PRI), who ran Mexico as a single party 'democracy' for 71 years
(only loosing power in 2000), was the cause of many of their problems.
In 1988 the PRI candidate Carlos Salinas was elected president thanks
to some quite outrageous ballot rigging (including the break down
of the electoral computer) and embarked on comprehensive neo-liberal
policies that made the gap between rich and poor even wider. Salinas
encouraged foreign sweat shops by holding down wages, providing
tax breaks, relaxing health and safety laws and banning unions.
Salinas' greatest moment was to be the inauguration of the North
American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between Mexico, the USA and
Canada on 1st January 1994. This proved to be the last straw for
the EZLN since it would encourage multinational companies to enter
Chiapas to extract its natural wealth and force the Indigenous population
into poorly paid, moribund and underrepresented existence.
Fed up with the undemocratic election of politicians who did not
care, repression by feudal lords and threatened by the approach
of life under NAFTA, the EZNL and its supporters in the indigenous
communities voted for an armed conflict. The date for the up rising?
The 1st January 1994, the same day that was to usher in the new
age of NAFTA.
On that day the Zapatistas occupied 5 towns and after the speeches
in San Cristóbal, municipal documents were burnt to destroy
all official records of land ownership. After 30 hours the Zapatistas
withdrew from four towns only leaving a force in Ocosingo where
they had occupied a radio station. When the army attacked, many
civilians and Zapatistas died and the government criticised the
Zapatistas for allowing people into battle armed only with wooden
The army maintained its offensive until 12th January, by which
time international and internal pressure was mounting against them.
An army of journalists from around the world tried to gain access
to Chiapas and 100 000 protesters took to the streets of Mexico
City in support of the Zapatistas. The government declared a cease-fire
but left a strong military cordon around the jungle to which the
Zapatistas had withdrawn.
The PRI was obviously shaken by what had happened in Chiapas especially
since 1994 was an election year. In March Luis Donaldo Colosio,
the PRI presidential candidate was assassinated under circumstances
which sparked a conspiracy theory concerning anti-reformists within
the party. This speculation was fuelled by the assassination of
Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, a PRI party member who had openly supported
reform. In December the PRI's new candidate Ernesto Zedillo Ponce
took office as president. The EZLN complained that election fraud
had been used to impose a PRI governor in Chiapas and declared the
On the 19th December the EZLN broke the military cordon and with
the help of the civilian population created 38 new municipalities,
outside the original conflict zone, without firing a shot. This
'non-violent offensive' left over half of Chiapas in Zapatista hands.
Two days later the peso crashed losing half of its value against
the dollar. The government blamed the Zapatistas, however others
blamed Salinas for having kept the peso artificially high to create
the illusion of strength during NAFTA negotiations.
Initial peaceful overtures towards the EZLN by the government seem
to have been adversely affected by a report from the Chase Manhattan
Bank. The report stated that while the trouble in Chiapas would
probably not lead to uprisings throughout Mexico, potential investors
may not see this and so "the government will need to eliminate
the Zapatistas to demonstrate effective control
Zedillo responded by issuing arrest warrants for those it suspected
of being EZLN leaders and named Marcos as Rafael Guillén,
a former professor at a university in Mexico City. In January 1995
a renewed offensive by the army targeted Zapatista communities,
the EZLN and many supporters (numbering around 20 000) retreated
into the mountains rather than returning fire. Many people however,
were arrested at this time in several states around Mexico amid
allegations of torture and erroneous charges. After a few months
the government realised that the offensive had failed and opted
to open peace negotiations with the EZLN. Government officials met
the EZLN representatives at San Andres, a Zapatista community near
San Cristóbal. The first accords from the San Andres negotiations
were signed in February 1996 however, the constitutional changes
required for their implementation never made it through congress.
The second round of the San Andres negotiations never really got
off the ground.
After the 1995 offensive the Zapatistas created Peace Camps in
each community. Each Peace Camp consists of a few foreign nationals
who stay in the communities to monitor army movements and if an
offensive occurs they insure that first hand information gets out
of Chiapas to the rest of Mexico and the world. Many foreigners
have been deported from Mexico, some with a life time ban from the
country, for their involvement with the Peace Camps
Also in 1995 well armed, right wing paramilitary groups began to
appear in Chiapas terrorising the Zapatista communities. There is
much speculation about how much involvement the government has with
these groups but few doubt that their actions are helped by army
and police accomplices. Many go further and accuse the government
of funding and training paramilitaries so that a low level war continues
in Chiapas such that it is largely kept out of the international
The most infamous atrocity perpetrated by paramilitaries occurred
on 17th December 1996 in a Zapatista community called Aceteal. Here
the Tzotzil Indians who lived in the village were rounded up into
the church where 45 were massacred, 36 of these were women and children.
The Aceteal Massacre caused such and outrage that the government
was forced to arrest many suspected of its perpetration however,
Zedillo also use the uproar to move even more troops in Chiapas.
Paramilitary groups and the army have continued to wage a 'low-intensity
war' on the Zapatista communities and NGO groups estimate that 1500
people have died as a result. People in the communities are constantly
harassed by road blocks, surveillance planes, illegal detentions
and interrogations. Periodically the army will move into a community
and destroy houses and crops displacing the population, in some
cases the entire village has been raised to the ground.
It is a mistake to imagine Chiapas divided into Zapatista controlled
areas and government controlled areas. Many of the villages which
contain Zapatista communities are in fact mixed with some families
being part of the Zapatista movement, some sympathetic towards the
Zapatistas but not involved and others loyal to the government.
These villages usually existed before 1994. Other newer villages
have been (and continue to be) founded since 1994 on land confiscated
by the EZLN from large ranches, these villages tend to be wholly
The government has attempted to exploit these divisions by constructing
large army bases outside villages and erecting road blocks. Another
tactic is to buy the support of families who are not part of the
communities by offering rewards such as water and electricity supplies.
Families that have excepted government support are known as PRIsters,
since their allegiances lie with the PRI part. This approach has
caused great tensions with in villages and it is to the Zapatista's
credit that their members have not persecuted PRIsters in villages
that are predominately Zapatista.
The Zapatistas continue to demand that indigenous people be recognised
and not exploited. They also demand an end to illiteracy and have
started their own schools in many of the communities, teaching in
Spanish as well as indigenous languages. Also on the agenda is a
belief that land should be under the control of those that own it,
an end to malnutrition and hunger and release of all political prisoners.
Both left and right wingers around the globe have expended a lot
of energy discussing whether the Zapatistas are Marxists or not.
There are marked differences between them and other Latin American
Marxists however, since the greatest achievement of the Zapatistas
to date seems to have been their ability to hold subsisting communities
together against terrible odes with out resorting to force and terrorism.
Despite the popularity of Subcomadante Marcos the structure of the
EZLN is designed to avoid personality cults and to give an equal
say to everyone.