The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN, from the Spanish Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional) is an armed Indigenous insurgent organization based in Chiapas, Mexico, the country’s southernmost and poorest state. The EZLN, also referred to as the Zapatistas, launched an uprising against the Mexican state on January 1, 1994, in the process wresting control over a considerable area of Chiapas from the Mexican government.
The Zapatistas are not only a militant organization, but also maintain a regime of Indigenous political autonomy in the zones under their control. The Zapatistas refer to these areas collectively as “Rebel Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities” (Municipios Autónomos Rebeldes Zapatistas), or “MAREZ.” Additionally, though the EZLN never gave up its arms, the armed struggle was only an initial strategy of resistance employed by the group. In the decades since the 1994 uprising, the Zapatistas have turned to civil resistance strategies, while the armed conflict has largely remained frozen since a ceasefire declared in 1994.
Guided by a syncretic ideology which mixes the movement’s Indigenous roots with far-left political theory and Catholic liberation theology, the Zapatistas have defended and gradually expanded the MAREZ, which operate on principles of Indigenous rights, women’s rights, direct democracy, and other characteristics of the Zapatista model of “good government.” The EZLN are opposed, on the other hand, to the Mexican state, neoliberalism, capitalism, globalization, and what they consider the legacies of colonialism built into the Mexican social order since the Spanish conquest (Hayden 2002).
Although firmly rooted in the historical and cultural context of the Indigenous peoples of Mexico, the Zapatista insurgency is not a strictly local conflict. The Zapatistas have turned into far-reaching symbols of resistance and rebellion with global brand recognition, particularly for the international left and alter-globalization movements. This is due in no small part to the enigmatic figure of Subcomandante Marcos, the eminently quotable pipe-smoking masked revolutionary who led the Zapatistas in battle before becoming the public spokesperson for the movement in its negotiations with the Mexican state and its public relations campaigns. As quintessentially Latin American a revolutionary as Che Guevara, stylized images of Marcos can be found on T-shirts and tote bags from Seattle to Sydney, while his books and communiqués can be found in numerous languages in bookstores around the world. However, it is necessary to distinguish Marcos from the EZLN writ large, and Marcos has made increasingly infrequent public appearances in recent years.
Today, the EZLN and the MAREZ remain in a position of relative stability, maintaining a steady ceasefire with the Mexican state, which no longer poses an immediate threat to their political autonomy and internal operations. The main threats faced by the EZLN now come in the form of paramilitary violence in the MAREZ, which have been on the uptick in recent years (Art of the Commune 2021; Romero 2023; Santos Cid 2023). Despite these problems, the EZLN continues to fight for what it sees as the rights, dignity, and autonomy of the Indigenous peoples of Chiapas and Mexico.
History & Foundations
2.1 - Background
On January 1, 1994, the same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) formally went into effect, masked and armed members of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation descended from the Indigenous highlands of Chiapas and occupied four of the state’s key cities, including its largest, San Cristóbal de las Casas.
But the Zapatista uprising of January 1, 1994, was only the public unveiling of a movement years in the making. Behind it lies a history of 500 years of colonial dispossession in the largely Maya zones of the Chiapas hinterland, as well as a more recent history of left-wing insurgency in urban Mexico during the late twentieth century. In the summer of 1983, in the remote Lacandon Jungle of Chiapas, two revolutionary currents converged when disaffected Maya peasants began meeting with a small core of urban intellectual guerrilla militants from the National Liberation Front (Frente de Liberación Nacional, FLN), who had recently arrived in Chiapas fleeing state repression in the cities. The Maya wanted to put an end to the historical injustices of colonialism and its legacies in the majority-Indigenous highlands of Chiapas. The Marxist guerrilla, for its part, came with dreams of whipping the traditional grievances of the Maya into proletarian revolutionary fervor.
Subcomandante Marcos on horseback in 1996 (photo by Jose Villa).
Instead of converting the Maya to Marxism, however, the guerrilla—who came with 12 militants and dwindled to four during their time in the mountains—were themselves transformed by their encounter with the Indigenous communities. According to Subcomandante Marcos and Comandante Elisa, both members of the small FLN cadre that arrived in 1983, their ragtag team of urban intellectual revolutionaries didn’t succeed in converting the Indigenous people to Marxism so much as the Maya convinced the guerrillas to reform themselves as the revolutionary vanguard of an Indigenous people’s army (Hayden 2002, 148).
The guerrilla soon gave up their initial objective of seizing state power in favor of defending local Indigenous communities from the aggressions of cattle barons and large landowners backed by the power elite of Chiapas and Mexico City. The presence of an educated, urban core of intellectual revolutionaries also proved organizationally expedient for the Maya militants, many of whom did not speak Spanish and had difficulty coordinating through the numerous Indigenous languages spoken across Chiapas. The vanguard led by Marcos and the Maya militants established a strategic partnership to learn from each other and advance their mutual goals. Founded on November 17, 1983, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation was the product of this revolutionary encounter (Muñoz Ramírez 2003).
As the EZLN organized itself, setting up clandestine training camps in the jungles of Chiapas and assembling an arsenal, officials in the halls of power of Washington and Mexico City were hashing out the details of a comprehensive new neoliberal trade policy, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Combined with the 1992 modification of Article 27 of the 1991 Mexican Constitution, which strengthened private property rights and allowed the privatization of ejidos—agrarian parcels of communal land owned by the state and administered collectively by local farmers—NAFTA presented serious threats to the economic lifeways of smallholder farmers, especially Indigenous ones in primarily agricultural states such as Chiapas. It seemed that the new trade deal would spare no room for the Indigenous peasants who already suffered so much under the old system—now their economic and vital sustenance was at stake. As the date of NAFTA’s implementation in Mexico grew nearer, Indigenous communities across the Chiapas Highlands made ready for war. This was the context within which, in the early 1990s, the EZLN began planning its public unveiling (Hayden 2002).
2.2 – The Zapatista Uprising & its Aftermath
On New Year’s Day, 1994, the EZLN went public by coming down from the mountains and occupying several key municipalities of Chiapas in the early hours of the morning. Tourists on holiday to visit the Maya ruins of southern Mexico woke to the spectacle of Maya men and women marching, masked and armed, down the central avenues of San Cristóbal de las Casas. By the break of dawn, the city hall had been occupied, land records destroyed, and prisoners freed. Hours later, knowing that state retribution would be swift, the rebels abandoned San Cristóbal.
Meanwhile, the Mexican Army and police were already engaged in firefights with rebel divisions which had taken other cities in Chiapas, namely Altamirano and Ocosingo. By the end of the first week of the uprising, the EZLN had been driven out of the towns they had initially occupied. Skirmishes continued in the Lacandon Jungle for several more days until the Mexican government called a ceasefire on January 12, 1994. By the end of the bloodshed, about 145 people lay dead, most of them rebels (UCDP 2023).
Twelve days into the uprising, a crowd of 100,000 demonstrated in Mexico City in support of the Zapatistas and a peaceful resolution to the uprising. The Zapatistas and their cause were already a phenomenon, not only sweeping the nation but also attracting international interest to a state which had long been one of the most neglected and overlooked corners of Mexico. Contradictorily, most of the news circulating in and about Chiapas during the early days of the movement was propagated digitally, using technology that the EZLN itself did not have ready access to in the mountains and jungles of Chiapas, where most Indigenous communities were without telephones and internet. Nevertheless, the EZLN demonstrated their technical ingenuity and media savvy by quickly capitalizing on the use of media, both traditional and digital, to spread their messages and attract support. This led some commentators to describe the movement as the first “post-modern revolution” (Burgess 2016; Carrigan 1995; Cleaver 1998).
Meanwhile, despite the ceasefire, the Mexican state continued to deny the legitimacy of the autonomy claimed by the EZLN and the de facto autonomous municipalities they operated in. Indeed, for some in the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party; Partido Revolucionario Institucional) government, the rebel zones were perceived as an affront to the sovereign authority of the Mexican state. In short order, Chiapas became the most militarized state in Mexico.
These tensions resulted in the so-called Zapatista crisis of 1995. During initial peace talks with the government in early 1995, it appeared that a favorable conclusion to the conflict might soon be reached. However, the newly elected President Ernesto Zedillo—the last in an unbroken 71-year line of PRI presidents—soon broke from his predecessor’s moves towards peace, instead choosing to publicly reveal the identity of Subcomandante Marcos and issuing arrest warrants against him and numerous other known EZLN leaders, branding them as terrorists. As state forces, with the support of the US military, moved in to apprehend the “terrorists” and besiege EZLN camps in the Lacandon Jungle, it appeared that the Zedillo government was veering towards a military solution to the Chiapas conflict (Willson 1998).
Zedillo’s advisors, however—and the escape of Marcos from under the nose of the Mexican military—managed to convince Zedillo that a military solution to the conflict threatened to escalate retaliatory violence and turn the EZLN into real terrorists. Cooler heads in the government emphasized that Marcos maintained an open negotiating track and a pacificist orientation. By April 1995, the peace talks were back on course. However, the events of early 1995 demonstrated clearly to both the Mexican state and the EZLN that the prospect of violent escalation in Chiapas hung dangerously in the balance. It was in this context that both parties moved to accelerate the peace process, which culminated in the signing of the San Andrés Accords on February 16, 1996 (Baronnet et al. 2011; Hayden 2002).
The San Andrés Accords were designed to guarantee respect, rights, dignity, and autonomy to the Indigenous peoples of Chiapas. In their spirit, they echo the list of demands first proclaimed by the EZLN on the first day of 1994, which called for the recognition of Indigenous rights, including the right to autonomy and self-determination according to the cultures and customs of each community. Initially, the signing of the San Andrés Accords seemed to indicate a breakthrough in the peace process. However, the Zedillo government soon made it apparent they did not intend to keep their promises and respect the principals of the San Andrés Accords. Since its signing, none of its points has been effectively adopted by the Mexican state. The EZLN therefore turned to other strategies to advance its agenda.
In October 1996, the EZLN convoked Mexico’s first ever nationwide Indigenous congress, the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), which convened in Mexico City to discuss how to advance Indigenous rights against the intransigence of the Mexican state, as demonstrated by the government’s failure to respect the San Andrés Accords. Since 1996, there have been five national congresses of the CNI, constituting one of the most important platforms for the advancement of the EZLN agenda outside of Chiapas.
2.3 – Mexican Standoff: Consolidation & Recent Developments
In the decades since the signing of the San Andrés Accords, the Chiapas conflict has gone cold; there has been no more fighting, at least not between the EZLN and the Mexican state, and the MAREZ have been able to operate with relatively autonomy. However, despite the failures of their most radical goals outside of Chiapas following the San Andrés Accords, the EZLN, especially through their spokesman Subcomandante Marcos, remained active voices on the national political scene well into the 2000s. Activities such as the March of the Color of the Earth and the Other Campaign, both taking place in the early-mid-2000s and drawing mass domestic and international support, confirmed the EZLN’s staying power as political actors of national consequence. In Chiapas, however, the situation has remained relatively stable and slow to develop, at least until the escalation of paramilitary violence in recent years.
In 2019, the Zapatistas announced the expansion of the MAREZ to include 11 new autonomous zones in Chiapas (Oikonomakis 2019; “Zapatista rebels extend control” 2019). Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whom the Zapatists are openly critical of, welcomed the expansion, as long it was achieved nonviolently. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the MAREZ closed their doors to outsiders. Since then, little news has come out of the MAREZ save for the occasional EZLN communiqué, usually referring to the escalating situation of paramilitary violence in the MAREZ and elsewhere in Chiapas. However, EZLN-affiliated media channels continue to operate, and the EZLN still occasionally issues communiqués and press releases informing the outside world as to their activities and the situation in Chiapas.
Despite the frozen nature of the conflict, whereby the Mexican government tends to leave the EZLN and the MAREZ to their own devices, evidence recently surfaced that the Zapatistas are one of the most heavily surveilled groups in Mexico, suggesting that the state still considers them a threat and treats them accordingly (Goodman 2022). Additionally, the paramilitary violence increasingly perpetrated against the Zapatistas and their allies has always evinced clear links to the Mexican state, suggesting that perhaps the latter has merely adapted its oppositional strategy towards the EZLN (Romero 2023).
The Zapatistas, for their part, are constantly alert to the threat of surveillance and infiltration by bad actors, which is partly responsible for their notoriously hermetic nature. Historically, outsiders have been able to visit the caracol of Oventik—what some have referred to as the de facto capital of the MAREZ—with relative ease, but further access to the MAREZ is heavily restricted, and all visitors are subject to strict monitoring by Zapatista officials (Vidal 2018).
Due to the unstable paramilitary situation in Chiapas, the caracoles have been closed for over a year and visitors are not allowed in, with rare exceptions. As the 30th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising approaches, the EZLN has not yet announced whether there will be commemorative events open to the public or the press, as there were for the 20th anniversary.
Objectives & Ideology
3.1 – Ideological Background & Influences
Ideologically, the Zapatistas are difficult to pin down. They have been called Marxists, anarchists, libertarian socialists, Indigenists, Magonists (referring to the Mexican anarcho-communist Ricardo Flores Magón), and more. The Zapatistas have even inspired comparisons to the Kurds of Rojava in Northern Syria based on apparent ideological and organizational similarities (Geerdink 2021; Stanchev 2015). Although some of these labels may be generally applicable, and while clearly aligned with the far-left ideologies in general, the ideology of the Zapatistas—what some have called Zapatismo or neo-Zapatismo—is best described as a syncretic mix of various influences and elements, drawing from both the Indigenous cultures of Mexico and various strands of radical leftism (Duterme 2011).
At its core, the EZLN is an Indigenous movement comprised almost exclusively of Indigenous Mexicans from numerous communities of southern Mexico, mainly subgroups of the Maya such as the Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Ch’ol, Zoque, Tojolabal, and many others. The central demands and objectives of the EZLN are for the recognition of Indigenous rights, dignity, and autonomy; an end to more than five centuries of colonial oppression of Indigenous peoples; and an end to neoliberalism and globalization in Chiapas and beyond. In the poetic terms of the Fourth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, a communiqué issued by the EZLN on the second anniversary of the Zapatista uprising, “In the world we want everyone fits. In the world we want many worlds to fit” (EZLN 1996).
The Zapatistas take their name from Emiliano Zapata, one of the principal figures of the Mexican Revolution, who led the insurgent Liberation Army of the South to fight for agrarian form and land redistribution. Following his assassination by the Mexican state, Zapata became a larger-than-life symbol of the spirit of the Mexican Revolution, particularly for the poor, landless, and Indigenous peasants whose cause he upheld. Zapata’s movement was encapsulated in the slogan “Land and Liberty” (Tierra y Libertad), a phrase attributed to the Mexican anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón, who was one of the main ideological reference points for the leftist elements of the Mexican Revolution. By adopting Zapata’s name, the EZLN positioned themselves as the legitimate ideological successors of Zapata. As Subcomandante Marcos writes in the Fourth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, “Zapata is alive, and in spite of everything, the struggle continues” (EZLN 1996).
In tandem with their Indigenous roots, the Zapatistas are vocal critics of neoliberalism and globalization, which Marcos has termed the forces of the “Fourth World War” (Subcomandante Marcos 1997). The Zapatistas view neoliberalism and globalization as the newest manifestations of a long tradition of colonial oppression and dispossession targeting Indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups. These commitments have led to their being associated with the alter-globalization movement, which advocates for global interconnection and solidarity while criticizing the negative economic, political, and ecological effects of neoliberal globalization (Engler 2019).
The ideological overlap between the Zapatistas and other Latin American radical movements and figures is also demonstrated by Marcos’ adoption of the name “Galeano” after the 2014 murder of Teacher Galeano, a Zapatista schoolteacher. Teacher Galeano himself took the name from Eduardo Galeano, a Uruguayan leftist critic and poet who wrote the highly influential book Open Veins of Latin America, and who maintained a written correspondence with Marcos in the early days of the Zapatista movement, even visiting the MAREZ (Hayden 2002). Furthermore, images and artwork depicting Latin American revolutionary leaders such as Che Guevara—and, of course, Emiliano Zapata himself—are common sights in the public art of the MAREZ. The Zapatistas therefore situate themselves, in part, within a tradition of Latin American revolutionary struggle (Christ 2020).
The ideological orientation of the Zapatistas is perhaps most simply and eloquently encapsulated in one of their many slogans: “Below and to the left” (abajo y a la izquierda). The former term refers to both the grassroots and Indigenous nature of the movement—the EZLN has repeatedly referred to Indigenous peoples as the “subsoil” of the Mexican nation in a semantic move that both identifies them with the earth (as in the Zapatista phrase “people of the color of the earth”) and as a socioeconomically downtrodden underclass of Mexican society (Hayden 2002). The latter term situates the EZLN within a legacy and international community of leftist politics. In other words, the Zapatistas are both distinctively Mexican, homegrown, and Indigenous; and, at the same time, leftist and internationalist in their outward political orientation.
3.2 – Objectives & Demands
In March 1994, the EZLN issued a communiqué which details 34 demands made of the Mexican national government and the state of Chiapas on behalf of the Indigenous peoples of Chiapas, proclaiming: “The indigenous peoples of the state of Chiapas, having risen up in arms in the EZLN against misery and bad government, hereby present the reasons for their struggle and their principal demands” (EZLN 2022, 639). These demands range from free and democratic elections at all levels of politics to the implementation and safeguarding of specific Indigenous rights and forms of autonomous self-government, in addition to many other points.
Notably, the EZLN’s list of demands includes a section specifically representing the “Indigenous women’s petition,” the points of which closely parallel those of the EZLN Women’s Revolutionary Law, which was issued on January 1, 1994, in tandem with the launching of the Zapatista uprising (EZLN 1994). The Women’s Revolutionary Law specifically establishes the rights of Zapatista and Indigenous women, which include such guarantees as the rights to political participation, education, freedom from gendered violence, and bodily autonomy, among others. As the law reads, “In their just fight for the liberation of our people, the EZLN incorporates women in the revolutionary struggle regardless of their race, creed, color or political affiliation, requiring only that they meet the demands of the exploited people and that they commit to the laws and regulations of the revolution” (1).
In the context of Chiapas and Mexico writ large, where conservative, patriarchal gender and sexual norms have long predominated, these demands represent a radical shift in women’s social position (Geerdink 2021). Women have gone on to play a central role in the Zapatista movement, including as officers and spokespeople. A key example is Comandanta Ramona, the first Zapatista to appear in public in Mexico City, where she presided over the 1996 CNI gathering (Rovira 2000). Estimates place the number of women in the EZLN at about one third of combatants and half of the support base (Kampwirth 2002).
A sign indicating that one has entered a Zapatista autonomous zone, reading “here, the people command and the government obeys.”
As the EZLN gave up the armed struggle in the wake of the 1994 ceasefire and the 1996 signing of the San Andrés Accords, its focus shifted towards legal means of establishing Indigenous rights and autonomy. One of the specific goals of the EZLN in its negotiations with the Mexican government has long been the promulgation of a Law of Rights and Culture of Indigenous Peoples, which the EZLN first proposed in July 1998 in the Fifth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle (EZLN 1998). This demands was reiterated in 2005 in the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, the most recent major manifesto of the EZLN (EZLN 2005).
In the words of Subcomandante Marcos:
"You can rest assured that we want to get rid of our masks and our weapons as quickly as possible. We want to conduct politics in the broad light of day. But we won’t take off our masks just in exchange for promises. The rights of the Indians must be recognized. If the government refuses, not only will we take up arms again, but so will other movements, far more radical, intolerant, desperate, and violent than ours. Because here, as elsewhere, the ethnic question can easily create fundamentalist movements ready for all kinds of murderous madness. On the other hand, if things go as we hope and Indian rights are finally recognized, Marcos will cease to be subcomandante, leader, myth… People will realize that the Zapatistas’ main weapon was not the gun, but words. And when the dust raised by our uprising settles, people will discover a simple truth: In this whole struggle and thinking process, Marcos was just one more fighter. That’s why I say, “If you want to know who Marcos is, see who’s hidden behind the mask, then take a mirror and look at yourself. The face you see there will be face of Marcos, because we are all Marcos” (Hayden 2002, 141).
Political & Military Capabilities
4.1 – Military Capabilities & Organization
EZLN militants in uniform. Note that they carry sticks and machetes, but no guns.
During the 12 days of active combat that followed the Zapatista uprising on January 1, 1994, the EZLN proved itself to be an effective and well-organized fighting force, despite its significant technological and logistical limitations compared to their state adversaries. Like most guerrilla groups, the EZLN never aimed to stand up to a modern army in conventional warfare. Instead, their strength rested in their mobility, local support base, and knowledge of the terrain. However, during the Mexican Army’s counteroffensive in early January 1994, the EZLN was forced to retreat to the highlands. Most of the 145 killed during the uprising were rebels (UCDP 2023). The choice to refrain from armed struggle since 1994 was a pragmatic one—although the EZLN appears to be a capable defensive force, the militants knew that in open battle they were no match for the Mexican Army.
In terms of equipment, EZLN militants are lightly armed, if not poorly equipped. Common weapons in the hands of insurgents include assault rifles such as AK-47s and M16s, submachine guns, hunting rifles, and shotguns. As a lightly armed militant force, the EZLN does not possess the advanced technological and military capabilities of modern militaries and some other insurgent organizations, such as advanced weaponry, heavy artillery, or armored vehicles. In fact, guns are apparently in such short supply that EZLN militants have sometimes been observed carrying carved blocks of wood in place of rifles—symbolic, perhaps, but not functional (Hayden 2002; Korykhalova and Myasoedov 2017).
Organizationally, the EZLN is under the command of the Revolutionary Indigenous Clandestine Committee – General Command, or CCRI-CG (Comité Clandestino Revolucionario Indígena – Comandancia General). In their initial field operations, EZLN battalions were commanded by officers referred to as comandantes and subcomandantes. Subcomandante Marcos, despite his symbolically subordinate title meant to downplay his authority, was charged with coordinating the high-level military strategy of the EZLN prior to and during the 1994 uprising. He was also charged with leading the assault on a police station in San Cristobal to seize weapons during the 1994 uprising (Hayden 2002).
Although since 1994 the EZLN has stepped back from the armed struggle, Subcomandante Marcos has emphasized that it retains its military character. In a May 1999 interview, he noted that “the EZLN is still a political-military force. But it is a political-military force whose principal actions are not military, they are political-social” (AP Archive 2015).
4.2 – Political Capabilities & Strategy
More important than the EZLN’s military capabilities is their media-savvy approach to public relations, particularly as mediated by the internationally famous Subcomandante Marcos. Many, including Marcos himself, would argue that “the Sup,” as he is affectionately known, is not so much a person as a symbol and mouthpiece of the Zapatista cause, the conduit through which their collective will is eloquently expressed (Hayden 2002). What is clear is that Marcos’ approach to media strategy has been instrumental in mobilizing support both domestic and international for the Zapatista movement, which may have factored into the Mexican government’s willingness to call a ceasefire and negotiate instead of responding to the Zapatista uprising with a military crackdown (Burgess 2016; Cleaver 1998).
The Zapatistas have shown themselves to be capable organizers on the national stage of Mexican politics. As part of their nonviolent strategy of resistance and popular mobilization, the Zapatistas have organized several nationwide marches and campaigns in defense of their political objectives. In 2001, for instance, one day after the inauguration of neoliberal president Vicente Fox, the EZLN announced the “March of the Color of the Earth,” which saw a caravan of 1,111 Zapatistas walk 3,000 kilometers from Chiapas to Mexico City. The objective of the march, which culminated in a gathering of thousands in the Zócalo, the heart of Mexico City, was to meet with the Mexican Congress of the Union to discuss constitutional reform on behalf of Indigenous rights and in defense of the San Andrés Accords, which the Mexican government had failed to respect (Hernández Navarro 2021).
Subcomandante Marcos during the March of the Color of the Earth.
The Zapatistas also organized the Other Campaign (la Otra Campaña), which again sought to mobilize popular support for the recognition and implementation of Indigenous rights and autonomy. Beginning in January 2006, the EZLN sent Subcomandante Marcos to travel across Mexico speaking on behalf of the Zapatistas and their agenda. This movement also had the objective of establishing connections with other activists and organizations across different segments of Mexican society, especially those representing marginalized groups. Over several months, Marcos met with LGBT activists, women’s rights defenders, human rights advocates, students, environmentalists, workers, teachers, and various other people. The greater objective of the campaign was to lobby the Mexican government to legally enshrine the recognition and protection of Indigenous rights. As with the EZLN’s prior efforts, the Other Campaign did not achieve this goal, but it did illustrate once again the ability of the movement to rally considerable domestic and international support and to establish relations of solidarity with other groups (Baronnet et al. 2011).
4.3 – Political Autonomy within the MAREZ
According to the organization’s constitution, the EZLN is officially without political power or influence over the internal political procedures of the MAREZ, which instead operate according to a parallel civil political process. There are three general levels of government in the MAREZ: local, municipal, and regional (Baronnet et al. 2011; Oikonomakis 2019; Stanchev 2015; Vidal 2018).
Local government consists of groups of families residing in particular locales who choose to involve themselves in the political process, regardless of their affiliation with the EZLN. Those who directly participate in the internal operations of the EZLN are referred to as the “support base” (base de apoyo), but they do not enjoy greater political power or prestige than non-affiliates. This level of government aims to manage affairs and resolve problems at the local level. For problems of a greater scale, local governments elect representatives to express the will and interests of their communities at the municipal level.
Municipal government takes place at the level of a central hub, typically a larger town in a region of villages, where representatives from various local governments meet to coordinate with each other and resolve problems of a municipal nature. Representatives are encouraged to consult with their constituencies at the local level to ensure maximal representation of the popular will at the municipal level.
The highest level of the political process in the MAREZ takes place through the Councils of Good Government (juntas de buen gobierno), which represent confederated groups of autonomous municipalities. The Councils of Good Government consist of elected representatives sent from the municipal governments. They are responsible for coordinating organizational efforts and resolving disputes between municipalities throughout the MAREZ.
Each level of government in the MAREZ is supposed to comply with the seven organizing principles collectively referred to as “govern while obeying” (mandar obediciendo; Korykhalova and Myasoedov 2017):
Suggest, do not impose.
Represent, do not replace.
Build, do not destroy.
Obey, do not dictate.
Go down, not up.
Convince, do not conquer.
Serve others, not yourself.
These principles form the basis of the Zapatista concept of “good government” (buen gobierno), in contrast to the “bad government” (mal gobierno) of the Mexican state. The Zapatistas claim that cultivating the principles of good government in the MAREZ is essential to realizing their goals of securing the rights and dignity of Indigenous peoples and all other marginalized groups.
In line with their promotion of Indigenous autonomy in the MAREZ, the Zapatistas encourage economic self-sufficiency within the autonomous zones. One of the most significant economic initiatives of the EZLN has been its promotion of coffee cooperatives. Chiapas is the biggest coffee producer in all of Mexico, which itself is one of the biggest producers in the world (Pérez-Grovas et al. 2001). The organization of the Zapatista coffee cooperatives, some of which distribute to the United States and Europe through affiliate solidarity networks in both regions, represents an attempt to bring economic organization in the MAREZ in line with Zapatista political principles. Likewise, the MAREZ have also implemented autonomous programs of education, healthcare, and ecological sustainability to bring other facets of social organization in line with Zapatista ideological principles (Baronnet et al. 2011).
Approach to Resistance
5.1 – Armed Struggle
Excluding the 12 days of combat which followed the Zapatista uprising of 1994, the EZLN has been involved in relatively few combat engagements, instead opting for strategies of nonviolent struggle and civil resistance (Hayden 2002, 138). However, the EZLN has pointedly declined to surrender its weapons, declaring that as long as the San Andrés Accords remain unratified by the Mexican state, the conditions for peace have not been met. Consequently, the Chiapas conflict can be described as a frozen conflict; although the EZLN and the Mexican state remain nominally at war with each other, there is no active conflict between the two groups. For now, the EZLN maintain their pacifist stance in line with the precepts of the peace process that resulted in the San Andrés Accords.
5.2 – Civil Resistance
Following the ceasefire and the signing of the San Andrés Accords, the EZLN switched from the armed struggle to pacifist strategies of civil resistance. During the period of intense militarization in Chiapas in the mid-1990s, Zapatista communities organized marches and sit-ins meant to obstruct the operations of Mexican state forces in EZLN-claimed territory. Following the withdrawal of the Mexican military, marches by and in support of the Zapatista movement became common fixtures in both local and national politics, especially during key events such as the issuing of the declarations of the Lacandon Jungle, as well as EZLN political initiatives such as the founding of the CNI and campaigns such as the March of the Color of the Earth and the Other Campaign, both of which attracted mass popular support by peaceful means. These tactics are typical of the EZLN’s adoption of a civil resistance strategy following the abandonment of the armed struggle (Hayden 2002).
A peaceful march in support of the EZLN in 2012.
5.3 – Media & Propaganda
From the earliest days of the Zapatista uprising, the EZLN, and particularly Subcomandante Marcos as its spokesperson and chief public relations liaison, has demonstrated mastery over the use of media as its most powerful weapon. The media-savvy leadership of Marcos allowed the EZLN to garner considerable domestic support across a broad range of social sectors, from Indigenous peasants to students, the urban left, and even members of the political class (the so-called “radical chic” crowd).
Equally important is the success with which the Zapatistas were able to attract international interest in their movement, especially through Marcos, who frequently gave multiple interviews per day on key occasions during the early years of the Zapatista movement. Indeed, some have supposed that the romantic mystique of Marcos as the quintessential Latin American guerrilla hero proved instrumental to the EZLN’s ability to attract considerable international support and interest. The EZLN and its leadership therefore capitalized on Marcos’ symbolic value to bolster their image (Burgess 2016; Cleaver 1998).
The media expertise of the Zapatistas has led some to refer to their efforts, even their initial violent seizure of San Cristóbal and other municipalities during the 1994 uprising, as an exercise in political theater (Carrigan 1995; Hayden 2002). In this sense, the Zapatista uprising was designed as spectacle meant to capture the world’s attention in dramatic fashion to achieve the widest possible circulation of the Zapatistas’ message, for the world to hear their cry of ¡Ya basta! (“Enough is enough!”).
The EZLN has also made use of radio and internet pages to disseminate their messages. Enlace Zapatista, the official website of the EZLN, maintains an archive of the EZLN’s communiqués and periodically issues new announcements from the group. Radio Zapatista, which once hosted the official radio station of the EZLN, called Radio Insurgente, also maintains a website where they post official announcements and other news related to the Zapatista movement. Finally, a host of affiliate organizations and media outlets which form part of the Zapatistas’ international solidarity network also act in similar roles for the EZLN’s media and propaganda efforts.
5.4 – Institutional Political Participation
In the early years of the Zapatista movement, the EZLN pointedly rejected any possibility of participating in legal political processes at the national level. Given the history of fraudulent elections and corruption in Mexican politics, and the nature of what the Zapatistas term the “bad government” of the Mexican state, the EZLN rejected the legitimacy of the formal political process. Instead, they preferred to maintain their strategy of civil resistance while continuing to voice their demands for the adoption of legal recognition of and protection for Indigenous rights and autonomy (Hayden 2002).
However, in 2017, during a CNI congress held in San Cristóbal de las Casa, the EZLN formally broke with their record of abstaining from electoral politics by endorsing the first Indigenous woman ever to run for president in Mexico, the Nahua traditional healer and human rights advocate María de Jesús Patricio Martínez (Tucker 2017). The affectionately nicknamed Marichuy ran as an independent candidate in the 2018 presidential election, losing to Andrés Manuel López Obrador, whom the EZLN has since extensively criticized. Despite her loss of the presidential bid, the EZLN’s decision to explicitly endorse Marichuy’s run marked a shift in the group’s willingness to engage in national politics on the electoral level.
5.5 – International Solidarity & Outreach
Since the earliest days of the Zapatista uprising, the EZLN has recognized the strategic value of cultivating international relationships of solidarity with ideological allies on the global stage. The EZLN has hosted several series of international gatherings in the MAREZ, inviting foreign activists to dialogue on themes of mutual concern, such as opposition to neoliberalism and globalization. The EZLN refers to these gatherings as encuentros, or “encounters.” These encounters began in July 1996 during the First Intercontinental Encounter For Humanity and against Neoliberalism, during which 4,000 people—Zapatistas and visitors invited from all around the world—gathered in the Lacandon Jungle to discuss resistance to capitalism, neoliberalism, and globalization. The second such encounter occurred in August 1997 and drew a similarly large and diverse crowd. Since then, there have been numerous such encounters organized around different themes and concerns that have taken place in Chiapas at the convocation of the EZLN (Hayden 2002; Baronnet et al. 2011).
One of the most recent examples of Zapatista efforts in international solidarity and outreach is the Journey for Life, a Zapatista world tour which began its first phase in 2021 (Marquardt 2021; Subcomandante Galeano 2021; “Zapatista World Tour” 2021). On the 500th anniversary of the conclusion of the Conquest of Mexico, a small crew of seven Zapatistas set sail from the Gulf of Mexico, their heading set for Spain. This delegation included four women, two men, and one transgender person, a 4-2-1 formation which earned it the moniker “Squadron 421” in homage to the Mexican Air Force’s 201st Fighter Squadron, which aided the Allies in the Pacific Theatre of World War II.
This expedition was conceived as a symbolic reversal of the conquest of Mexico; now it was the Maya who would “conquer” Europe. Squadron 421 spent four months traveling through Europe, holding encuentros with various activist groups, before returning to Mexico in September 2021. That same month, a second phase of the Europe chapter of the Journey for Life saw another delegation of 170 Zapatistas calling themselves “the Extemporaneous” continue the encuentros in Europe (Subcomandante Moisés 2021). The Journey for Life aims to eventually visit five continents, but so far only the Europe chapter has been completed.
Relations & Alliances
6.1 – Other Guerrillas
The EZLN can be regarded as the most successful—indeed, probably the only successful—movement in a line of Mexican guerrilla organizations that adopted strategies of armed struggle beginning in the 1960s. Most were obliterated by the Mexican state in its punitive dirty war against the Mexican left throughout the 1960s and 70s, which found maximum expression in such atrocities as the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, during which over 350 students were gunned down by the Mexican Army in the heart of Mexico City. By the end of the 1970s, most Mexican guerrillas had either been destroyed or disbanded under the onslaught of state repression. By continuing the armed struggle, the ragtag group of 12 FLN militants who fled to the jungle of Chiapas in the summer of 1983 proved a rare exception. In the years that followed, the successes of the Zapatista movement and the de facto autonomy of the Zapatista territories ever since have established the EZLN as the one Mexican guerrilla that not only survived but thrived in the wake of the Mexican Dirty War (Hayden 2002).
Given the EZLN’s background in armed struggle, the Zapatistas are rumored to have established alliances with other left-wing militant organizations throughout Mexico. One alleged ally is the Popular Revolutionary Army (Ejército Popular Revolucionario, EPR), one of Mexico’s few extant guerrillas, which carried out attacks throughout the 1990s and 2000s. While the EZLN denies any affiliation with the EPR, the EPR claims to support the Zapatistas (Henriquez 1996). There is no direct evidence of direct cooperation between the two groups, nor are there clear affiliations between the EZLN and other guerrillas currently or historically active in Mexico.
6.2 – The Mexican State
Although the ideological rhetoric of the Zapatistas is mainly directed at general abstractions such as neoliberalism, globalization, and “bad government,” in concrete terms the primary opponent of the Zapatistas has always been the Mexican state. However, since January 1994, the EZLN has ceased to engage in armed struggle, and the two parties maintain a truce whereby Mexican forces do not venture into the MAREZ.
The PRI, which ruled Mexico as a de facto one-party state for 71 years until being dethroned in 2000, was one of the primary reference points for the Zapatista critique of “bad government,” as the party’s electoral history was marred with corruption and fraud, while its economic policies increasingly favored foreign business interests—the passing of NAFTA being a keystone example of such collusion, according to the Zapatistas. The PRI government, with the support of opposition parties and anti-EZLN paramilitary groups in Chiapas, was responsible for the general hostility on the part of the state to EZLN demands during the first six years of the Zapatista movement. When the PRI was finally unseated from power in the presidential election of 2000, the Zapatistas refocused their criticisms on the new government of the neoliberal Vicente Fox, whose National Action Party (Partido de Acción Nacional, PAN) maintained its predecessors’ anti-EZLN stance. The EZLN has never enjoyed good relations with the Mexican state in the years since, accusing them of aiding and abetting the right-wing paramilitaries which have long threatened and attacked Zapatista communities and allies in Chiapas (Hayden 2002; Mazzei 2009; Romero 2023; Santos Cid 2023).
The Zapatistas are vocal critics of the current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, for his support for the Tren Maya, a railway in southwest Mexico which is designed to connect Maya archaeological sites to tourism hubs on the Caribbean coast, and which is scheduled to begin operation in December 2023 (Jiménez 2020). The EZLN charges the government with ecocide and ethnocide, accusing it of catering to tourists at the expense of the natural environmental and local Indigenous groups, who they claim will not benefit from the railway’s construction. They also protest the fact that the Mexican Army has been deployed along the construction route for “security” purposes (Ribeiro 2023).
6.3 – The Catholic Church
A key figure in the early history of the Zapatistas is Bishop Samuel Ruiz García, the Diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas between 1959 and 1999 and a proponent of liberation theology, a mainly Latin American branch of Catholic doctrine that stresses interpretations of the Bible based in social justice and anti-capitalism. Liberation theology has long exerted a powerful influence on the religious life of the Indigenous peoples of Chiapas, as elsewhere in Latin America, being that it provides a religious justification for challenging capitalism and organizing to improve their material conditions.
For the first several years of the Chiapas conflict, Bishop Ruiz served as the primary intermediary and negotiator in the peace talks between the EZLN and the Mexican state. He was an ideal choice for the position of mediator, given his popularity with the Indigenous peoples of Chiapas and his respectable position vis-à-vis both the Church and the Mexican state. However, Bishop Ruiz resigned from his role as peace mediator in 1998, accusing the Mexican government of failing to abide by the spirit of the San Andrés Accords, which he helped produce. Others in the Vatican have sought to distance themselves from the EZLN, as liberation theology was never a mainstream perspective in the Catholic Church, and Bishop Ruiz’s successors have never enjoyed his popularity in Chiapas or his close relationship with the Zapatistas (Hayden 2002).
6.4 – Civil Society
Since the beginning of the Zapatista uprising, the EZLN has engaged in outreach with friendly segments and affiliate organizations within Mexican civil society. A key early example is the Indigenous Christian pacifist group known as Las Abejas, or “the Bees.” Comprised of Tzotzil Maya peace activists who adhere to liberation theology, Las Abejas was formed in 1992 in the municipality of Chenalhó, Chiapas, following a land dispute that left one person dead and several innocent Indigenous people imprisoned without just cause. After the community organized a peaceful march on San Cristóbal de las Casas which led to the release of the prisoners, Las Abejas organized itself as a civil society promoting the use of pacifist means in conflict resolution. During the Zapatista uprising several years later, Las Abejas came out in support of the Zapatistas’ demands for Indigenous rights, though not without criticizing their violent means (Lifson 2005).
Other Mexican civil organizations to which the Zapatistas maintain ties—or which at least could be classified as ideological allies sympathizing with the principles and objectives of the EZLN—include the National Indigenous Congress (Congreso Nacional Indígena), the Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center (Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Bartolomé de las Casas), and formerly the Chiapas Media Project (now the Mexican NGO ProMedios de Comunicación Comunitaria).
6.5 – Narcos & Paramilitaries
Currently, the main threats to Zapatista communities are the armed narcotrafficking and paramilitary groups which have, in recent years, begun to encroach on the MAREZ. Although Chiapas has long been regarded as one of the safest states in Mexico, having been spared the violence of the drug wars ongoing elsewhere in the country, there are signs that this is beginning to change. Especially concerning to the EZLN is the recent and ongoing uptick of paramilitary violence inflicted against MAREZ communities and Zapatista allies (Art of the Commune 2021; Romero 2023; Santos Cid 2023).
Their committed pacifism notwithstanding, Las Abejas’ declaration of solidarity with the Zapatistas’ principles and aims established them as ideological allies—and therefore put them in the crosshairs of the Zapatistas’ enemies. On December 22, 1997, right-wing paramilitaries allied with the Mexican government against the Zapatistas and their sympathizers entered the Tzotzil village of Acteal and massacred 45 members of Las Abejas as they prayed in the village church. The Mexican Army, which operated a base just down the road from Acteal, failed to show up until hours after the shooting ended—even as survivors of the massacre ran down the road and begged them to intervene. This event, the bloodiest of the Chiapas conflict, has since become known as the Acteal massacre, and marked a turning point in the escalation of anti-Zapatista paramilitary violence in the Chiapas conflict. The annual commemoration of the anniversary of the massacre on December 22 has since become a focal point of pro-Zapatista solidarity in the state of Chiapas (Hayden 2002; Las Abejas de Acteal 2023; Lifson 2005; Rico 1997).
Shortly after the Acteal massacre, journalists revealed that the right-wing paramilitary group responsible for the killing, which called itself Máscara Roja, or “Red Mask,” had direct ties to Chiapas government officials affiliated with the PRI government in Chiapas. Few among the Zapatistas and their supporters were surprised when the news broke that the paramilitary killers behind the Acteal massacre received direct support from PRI officials. Although initially it seemed that some of the killers and their government collaborators would be brought to justice, it was perhaps even less surprising when their sentences were overturned. In 2020, the Mexican government formally admitted responsibility for the Acteal massacre, but the killers still enjoy impunity (Varzi 2020). Even today, Las Abejas continue to face targeted violence at the hands of anti-Zapatista paramilitaries. As recently as 2016, members of Las Abejas regularly received death threats and beatings, and on July 5, 2021, Simón Pedro Pérez López, an activist with Las Abejas, was murdered by an unknown assailant, presumably in retaliation for his political activism with Las Abejas (Las Abejas de Acteal 2023).
Similarly, other right-wing paramilitaries such as the inaptly named Paz y Justicia (“Peace and Justice”) and the Chinchulines have also threatened the EZLN and their allies and sympathizers in civil society. These groups form part of a historical legacy of “White Guards,” vigilante and paramilitary groups which long terrorized Indigenous peasants in Chiapas on behalf of White and Mestizo landowners who coveted Indigenous land or coerced labor (Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada 2000; Romero 2023). Like the White Guards before them, contemporary paramilitary groups enjoy the tacit (and sometimes direct) support of the Mexican state, from which they typically enjoy impunity for their aggressions against Zapatista communities and allies.
A banner reading “The Zapatistas are not alone!” displayed during a march against paramilitary violence and militarization in Chiapas.
6.6 – The Lacandon Maya
Despite their largely positive reputation among Indigenous communities in general, EZLN activities in the Lacandon Jungle—one of Mexico’s largest and most pristine natural areas—have put them at odds with a local Indigenous population, the Lacandon Maya. Whereas the EZLN encourage degrees of settlement and economic exploitation of the sparsely populated jungle, particularly as a response to displacement at the hands of anti-Zapatista paramilitaries in Chiapas, the small Lacandon Maya community is opposed to these initiatives, and a persistent conflict between the two has ensued. The Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, which is also a zone of ecological protection, is at the heart of this conflict.
The Lacandon Maya, who number about 1,000, have accused EZLN militants of intimidation tactics meant to displace them from their land to make it available to settlement by Zapatista-affiliated groups. Several third-party organizations have also called attention to the tense situation in the Lacandon Jungle. In part, the issue is one of land titling; most members of both parties do not have formal title to the land they claim as their own, and with no formal government presence in the area, it is difficult to resolve disputes in an objective and transparent way. The situation is complicated by the fact that although the Lacandon accuse the EZLN of ecological unsustainable practices, the EZLN itself claims to uphold principles of sustainability in the Lacandon Jungle and has historically opposed state and corporate development projects in this ecologically sensitive area (SIPAZ 2019; Stevenson 2002; Weinberg 2007).
6.7 – Global Solidarity Networks
One of the unique aspects of the Zapatista movement has been its ability to garner international popular support and to establish links of ideological solidarity—and sometimes direct aid and cooperation—with activist networks abroad, as well as high-profile activists and public intellectuals. The global solidarity network of the EZLN has been instrumental in mobilizing international interest in the Zapatista movement and constitutes an important extension of the EZLN’s innovative and strategic use of media to garner support for their movement.
Given the proximity of the United States to Mexico and the close historical and cultural ties between parts of both countries, the US is home to an outsize number of solidarity networks that provide aid and outreach on behalf of the EZLN. Some of the US-based solidarity organizations which have collaborated, directly or indirectly, with the Zapatistas include Schools for Chiapas, the Chiapas Support Committee, Sexta Grietas del Norte, and the Institute for Social Ecology.
The long list of public luminaries who have voiced their support for the Zapatistas includes names such as Noam Chomsky, Oliver Stone, Naomi Klein, Elena Poniatowska, and José Saramago, among many others. The EZLN has even received the direct support and personal visits of high-profile musicians such as Rage Against the Machine and Manu Chao, both of whom have incorporated Zapatista themes in their work (Hayden 2002; Burgess 2016; Culshaw 2007; Rage Against the Machine 2017). Most recently, a statement signed by 1,000 Mexican and international leading figures sought to bring attention to the paramilitary threat facing the EZLN in Chiapas (Santos Cid 2023).
A poster in solidarity with the EZLN against paramilitary attacks signed by the CGT, a Spanish anarcho-syndicalist organization.
Works Cited (MLA-style)
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