The Zapatistas: History and Current Role in Mexico

An Indigenous Movement That Inspired the World

The EZLN stands in front of a statue of Emiliano Zapata
Subcomandante Marcos and lieutenants of the EZLN continue their march on Mexico City, on the way they meet Diego and Ana Maria Zapata, children of the Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata.

 Bernard Bisson / Getty Images

The Zapatistas are a group of mostly indigenous activists from the southern Mexican state of Chiapas who organized a political movement, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista National Liberation Front, more commonly known as the EZLN), in 1983. They are known for their fight for land reform, advocacy for indigenous groups, and their ideology of anti-capitalism and anti-globalization, specifically the negative effects of policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on indigenous communities.

The Zapatistas initiated an armed rebellion in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, on January 1, 1994. The most visible leader of the Zapatista movement until recently was a man who went by the name of Subcomandante Marcos.

Key Takeaways: The Zapatistas

  • The Zapatistas, also known as the EZLN, are a political movement made up of indigenous activists from the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.
  • The EZLN led an uprising on January 1, 1994 to address the Mexican government's indifference to the poverty and marginalization of indigenous communities.
  • The Zapatistas have inspired many other anti-globalization and anti-capitalist movements around the world.

EZLN

In November 1983, in response to longstanding indifference by the Mexican government to the poverty and inequality faced by indigenous communities, a clandestine guerilla group was formed in the southernmost state of Chiapas. The state was one of Mexico's poorest regions and had a high proportion not only of indigenous people, but of illiteracy and unequal land distribution. In the 1960s and 70s, indigenous people had led non-violent movements for land reform, but the Mexican government ignored them. Finally, they decided that armed struggle was their only choice.

The guerilla group was named the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista National Liberation Front), or the EZLN. It was named after Emiliano Zapata, a hero of the Mexican Revolution. The EZLN adopted his slogan "tierra y libertad" (land and freedom), stating that although the Mexican Revolution had succeeded, his vision of land reform had not yet been achieved. Beyond his ideals, the EZLN was influenced by Zapata's stance on gender equality. During the Mexican Revolution, Zapata's army was one of the few that allowed women to fight; some even held leadership positions.

The leader of the EZLN was a masked man who went by the name of Subcomandante Marcos; although he has never confirmed it, he has been identified as Rafael Guillén Vicente. Marcos was one of the few non-indigenous leaders of the Zapatista movement; in fact, he was from a middle-class, educated family in Tampico, in northern Mexico. He moved to Chiapas in the 1980s to work with Mayan peasants. Marcos cultivated an aura of mystique, always wearing a black mask for his press appearances.

EZLN leader Subcomandante Marcos
Zapatista National Liberation Army leader Subcomandante Marcos (L) smokes a pipe during peace talks on February 24, 1994, in San Cristobal, Chiapas, Mexico.  Omar Torres / Getty Images

1994 Rebellion

On January 1, 1994, the day NAFTA (signed by the U.S., Mexico, and Canada) went into effect, the Zapatistas stormed six cities in Chiapas, occupying government buildings, freeing political prisoners, and expelling landowners from their estates. They chose this day because they knew the trade agreement, specifically the exploitative and environmentally destructive aspects of neoliberalism and globalization, would harm indigenous and rural Mexican communities. Crucially, around one-third of the rebels were women.

Three Zapatista women with masked faces
Three Zapatista women stand in front of a painted mural as Zapatista rebellion leader Subcommandante Marcos discusses the details of a 15 day protest march that he will lead to Mexico City, February 22, 2001.  Susana Gonzalez / Getty Images

The EZLN exchanged fire with the Mexican military, but the fighting lasted only 12 days, at which point a ceasefire was signed. More than 100 people were killed. Indigenous communities in other parts of Mexico led sporadic uprisings in the following years, and many pro-Zapatista municipalities declared themselves autonomous from the state and federal governments.

In February 1995, President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León ordered Mexican troops into Chiapas to capture Zapatista leaders in order to prevent further rebellions. The EZLN and many indigenous peasants fled to the Lacandón Jungle. Zedillo targeted Subcomandante Marcos in particular, calling him a terrorist and referring to him by his birth name (Guillén) in order to strip away some of the rebel leader's mystique. The president's actions were unpopular, however, and he was forced to negotiate with the EZLN.

In October 1995 the EZLN began peace talks with the government, and in February 1996 they signed the San Andrés Peace Accords on Indigenous Rights and Culture. Its goals were to address the ongoing marginalization, discrimination, and exploitation of indigenous communities, as well as give them a degree of autonomy in terms of government. However, in December, the Zedillo government refused to honor the agreement and tried to alter it. The EZLN rejected the proposed alterations, which didn't recognize indigenous autonomy.

Two women hold a sign urging the government to comply with the San Andrés Accords
Two women wave a sign to reclaim the fulfillment of the Accords of San Andres, 08 March, 2000, during a demonstration in Chiapas, Mexico.  Janet Schwartz / Getty Images

Notwithstanding the existence of the accords, the Mexican government continued to wage a covert war against the Zapatistas. Paramilitary forces were responsible for a particularly horrific massacre in the Chiapas town of Acteal in 1997.

In 2001, Subcomandante Marcos led a Zapatista mobilization, a 15-day march from Chiapas to Mexico City, and spoke in the main square, the Zócalo, to a crowd of hundreds of thousands. He lobbied for the government to enforce the San Andrés Accords, but the Congress passed a watered-down bill that the EZLN rejected. In 2006, Marcos, who changed his name to Delegate Zero, and the Zapatistas emerged again during a presidential race in order to advocate for indigenous rights. He stepped down from his EZLN leadership role in 2014.

Zapatistas Today

Following the uprising, the Zapatistas turned to non-violent methods of organizing for indigenous people's rights and autonomy. In 1996 they organized a national meeting of indigenous people across Mexico, which became the National Indigenous Congress (CNI). This organization, representing a wide variety of distinct ethnic groups and backed by the EZLN, has become a crucial voice advocating for indigenous autonomy and self-determination.

In 2016, the CNI proposed the establishment of an Indigenous Governing Council, which would represent 43 distinct indigenous groups. The Council named an indigenous Nahuatl woman, Maria de Jesús Patricio Martínez (known as "Marichuy") to run in the 2018 presidential elections as an independent candidate. They didn't receive enough signatures, however, to get her on the ballot.

Maria de Jesus Patricio, who seeks to be the country's first indigenous presidential candidate, attends a political meeting at the Hemiciclo to Benito Juarez monument in Mexico City on January 24, 2018.  Pedro Pardo / Getty Images

In 2018, the left-wing populist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected president, and he promised to incorporate the San Andrés Accords into the Mexican constitution and to repair the federal government's relationship with the Zapatistas. However, his new Maya Train project, which seeks to build a railway across southeastern Mexico, is opposed by many environmentalists and indigenous groups, including the Zapatistas. Thus, the tension between the federal government and the Zapatistas is ongoing.

Zapatistas protest President López Obrador's Maya Train project
Supporters of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) take part in a protest against the Maya Train project of the government of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in front of the National Palace in Mexico City on January 25, 2019.  Rodrigo Arangua / Getty Images

Legacy

The Zapatistas and the writings of Subcomandante Marcos have had an important influence on anti-globalization, anti-capitalist, and indigenous movements across Latin America and the world. For example, the 1999 Seattle protests during the World Trade Organization meeting and the more recent Occupy movement that was kicked off in 2011 have clear ideological links to the Zapatista movement. In addition, the Zapatistas' emphasis on gender equality and the fact that many leaders have been women has had an enduring legacy in terms of the empowerment of women of color. Over the years, the dismantling of patriarchy has become a more central goal for the EZLN.

Notwithstanding this impact, the Zapatistas have always insisted that each movement needs to respond to its own communities' needs, and not simply emulate the methods or goals of the EZLN.

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