Zapatistas and the Modern World

By Brooke O’Connor

As November brings our minds to politics, we see wars and conflicts around the globe. It’s easy to think, “It’s far away from me,” or “It’s not my business,” but political unrest is around the corner in every culture.

In Mexico, we see how uprisings with the Zapatistas played out not so long ago. Those uprisings are continuing to affect important historical and cultural areas of Mexico.

Who Are the Zapatistas?

The Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista National Liberation Army, or EZLN) is a guerrilla group in Mexico. It was founded in 1983 and named after the inspiring peasant revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, who led the Liberation Army of the South during the Mexican Revolution (1910-21). Zapata’s forces fought for land reform, with the goal of reclaiming communal lands (ejidos) stolen by large agricultural haciendas (encouraged by the national government).

On January 1, 1994, the Zapatistas initiated a rebellion from their base in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. They aimed to protest against economic policies that they believed would harm the indigenous population of Mexico. This uprising later transformed into a powerful political movement, advocating for the rights and empowerment of Mexico’s marginalized indigenous communities.


The Zapatista movement has a fascinating history that should be better known. Although they say they were founded in 1983, it was in the early 1990s that they started to gain followers. From their base in the Lacandón rainforest in eastern Chiapas, they called on Mexico’s indigenous people to rise up against the one-party rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

The Zapatistas wanted greater political and cultural autonomy for indigenous people in Chiapas and the rest of Mexico, and specifically to reform land ownership and distribution. The reason for their rebellion was a series of economic reforms introduced by the Mexican government to prepare for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which would link Mexico, the United States, and Canada. The Zapatistas believed that these reforms would make indigenous people even poorer, especially a land reform bill that would privatize communal farms.

The Rebellion

On January 1, 1994, NAFTA came into effect. On that very day, the Zapatistas took control of four towns in Chiapas. Led by the charismatic Subcomandante Marcos (Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente), they called on indigenous people from all over Mexico to join their cause. The rebels bravely held these towns for several days, battling with Mexican troops before retreating into the surrounding jungle. Over a hundred lives were lost during these initial clashes.

The impact of this uprising was far-reaching, as it quickly spread to other parts of Chiapas. In the following years, insurrections erupted in adjacent and nearby states – Veracruz, Oaxaca, Guerrero, and Puebla. Numerous indigenous communities supported the EZLN throughout this time. In fact, many municipios (roughly equivalent to a US or Canadian county) even declared themselves autonomous from both the state and federal governments, demonstrating their solidarity with the Zapatistas.

In 1994, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari started peace talks, but the conflict with the EZLN was not resolved by the time Ernesto Zedillo became president later that year. In February 1995, President Zedillo tried to use military force against the EZLN and even issued arrest warrants for Subcomandante Marcos and other important Zapatistas. However, these actions were unpopular, so Zedillo changed his mind and resumed negotiations with the EZLN.

The talks continued until February16, 1996, when both sides signed the San Andrés Accords. These accords included plans for land reform, indigenous autonomy, and cultural rights. The Mexican government, unfortunately, showed no signs of initiating any of the agreement’s provisions, and the EZLN broke off talks on August 29, requiring that the government fulfill their obligations under the Accords before talks could resume. The Mexican government offered a new agreement that basically ignored the San Andrés Accords, despite the government’s declaration that it had fulfilled the Accords. In December of that year, Zedillo rejected the agreements.

In the meantime, the government was also involved in a secret war against the rebels. They provided weapons to paramilitary groups who fought against the Zapatistas and their followers, often targeting innocent civilians to punish them for supporting the rebels. On December 22, 1997, in the tiny village of Acteal, Máscara Roja (Red Mask) a paramilitary group called aligned with the PRI, massacred 45 people, including pregnant women and children. The victims were members of a pacifist group called Las Abejas (The Bees), attending an indigenous Catholic prayer meeting. Las Abejas supported the Zapatistas, and espoused the group’s rejection of violence.

The Political Movement

Despite occasional conflicts, the Zapatistas eventually moved away from using weapons and instead focused on peaceful political actions. At the local level, they established administrative systems within the villages they controlled. Over time, they also created various local centers of government called caracoles (snails – the Zapatistas specifically meant conchas; conch shells magnify sound, both incoming and outgoing). According to Subcomandante Marcos, the caracoles are an interface between the Zapatistas and the larger world; they are

like doors which allow entry to communities and allow the communities to exit; like windows so that people can look inside and so that we can see outside; like megaphones to project our words into the distance and to hear the voice of the one that is far away. But above all to remind us that we should watch over and be responsive to the totality of the worlds that populate the world.

On a national scale, in 1999, the group organized the National Consultation on Indigenous Rights and Culture. Thousands of individual Zapatistas carried out the National Consultation by visiting indigenous towns and villages to conduct discussions of the issues driving the San Andreas Accords. On March 21, 1999, the EZLN held a national poll on indigenous rights. Approximately three million Mexicans participated in the voting, and the overwhelming majority supported the implementation of the San Andrés Accords.

Since the 1990s, amid many political twists and turns, Zapatismo has evolved into a global social movement that has gained strong support from progressive groups in the United States and Europe. The new Zapatismo movement promotes indigenous rights, cultural diversity, and standing against globalization and capitalism. Instead of focusing solely on class struggle, they believe in the power of building broad coalitions and grassroots movements to challenge the neoliberal world order. Unlike resorting to armed conflict, their strategy revolves around capturing the attention of the international media, earning them the title of the world’s first “virtual guerrilla” movement.

How Does This Affect Mexico Today?

Ironically, this anti-globalism movement has formed strong connections with foreign organizations over the years, ties that have been crucial for the EZLN’s survival. International organizations have been generous in providing donations and platforms for selling products, such as coffee, in a manner that they claim offers an alternative to globalism without exploiting indigenous communities.

These connections with other worlds beyond Mexico has led the Zapatistas to take a stance on various issues, including gender identity, the Ukraine-Russia conflict, COVID policies, rail lines in Norwegian Sami territory, and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s Maya Train project.

While their autonomous strategy has aimed to address local needs like healthcare and education, its effectiveness in improving the situation remains a subject of debate. Chiapas, including the Zapatista territory, continues to face extreme poverty. Moreover, the absence of federal troops has made the area quite appealing to human and drug smugglers, which is ironic considering the international connections involved.

Paradoxically, Subcomandante Marcos could well be considered the most extraordinary tourism ambassador the state has ever had. Before 1994, there were some tourists and foreign residents in Chiapas, but the media coverage attracted even more curious or idealistic people. They came not only to experience the rich native cultures but also with the hope of encountering someone wearing a black Zapatista pasamontaña (balaclava).

Moral of the Story

The only constant is change, and only sometimes does what seems to be a noble cause yield the results a movement sought initially. The author believes that the only way we can effectively initiate change is within ourselves first, then within our homes, and slowly, within our community through example and concern for our fellow man. Maybe then we can eliminate the endless death and destruction that war and uprisings bring because of political differences.

Leave a Reply