The Mexican government said on June 28, 2005, it hoped to work with the armed Zapatista rebels to bring them into mainstream politics, but there was no sign whether the rebels – who have announced a ‘new political initiative’ – would participate in the effort.
The rebel army led by the Subcomandante Marcos declared war on the government more than 10 years ago from its stronghold in the southern state of Chiapas to demand indigenous rights, but it has staged no attacks since then and turned increasingly toward civic action.
About EZLN (Mexican Zapatista National Liberation Army)
The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) is an armed revolutionary group based in Chiapas, one of the poorest states of Mexico. Their social base is mostly indigenous but have supporters in urban areas; their most visible leader by far is Subcommander Marcos.
Going public in 1994 with the initial goal of overthrowing the Mexican government, some consider the Zapatista movement the first post-modern revolution, by defining both their rights and the kind of government they should have. It also incorporated modern technologies like satellital telephony and the Internet as a way to obtain domestic and foreign support to traditional guerrilla tactics.
Hostilities ended in a few months and there have been almost no full-scale confrontations since. The Mexican government pursued a policy of low-intensity warfare in an attempt to control the rebellion. After 2000 they mostly disappeared from public view, opaqued by the electoral victory of Vicente Fox, the first opposition president in 72 years. In June 2005 they recovered media attention by declaring themselves in “Red Alert”, apparently in reaction to news that marijuana fields were discovered in Chiapas, with conflicting versions on whether they were found in Zapatista-controlled territory, calling attention on their unknown funding methods. A few days later, Subcommander Marcos downplayed the importance of the Red Alert, saying it was just to organize an assembly to vote on further policies.
The group was founded on November 17, 1983 by former members of different groups, both pacifist and violent. They broke onto the national and international scene on January 2, 1994, just one day after the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada became operational, as a way of stating the presence of indigenous peoples in the middle of a globalized world.
Indigenous fighters, some of them wielding fake rifles made of wood, took hold of five municipalities in Chiapas, officially declared war against the Mexican government and announced their plans to march towards Mexico City, the capital of Mexico, either defeating or allowing the mexican army to surrender and imposing a war tax on the cities they conquered in their way.
After just a few days of localized fighting in the jungle, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, then in his last year in office, offered a cease-fire agreement and opened dialog with the rebels, whose official spokesperson was Subcomandante Marcos.
The dialogue with the government extended over a period of three years and ended with the San Andrés Agreements, which entailed modifying the national constitution in order to grant special rights, including autonomy, to indigenous people. A commission of deputies from political parties, called COCOPA, modified slightly the agreements with the acceptance of the EZLN. President Ernesto Zedillo, however, said Congress would have to decide whether to pass it or not. Claiming a violation of promises at the negotiating table, the EZLN went back into the jungle while Zedillo increased the military presence in Chiapas to prevent the spread of EZLN’s influence zone. An unofficial truce accompanied by EZLN’s silence ensued for the next three years, the last in Zedillo’s term.
After the dialogue ended, many accusations were made against the Mexican army and para-military groups due to prosecution and detentions of Zapatistas; one particular incident was the Massacre of Acteal, where 45 people attending a church service were killed by unknown persons. The motives and the identities of the attackers aren’t clear, to the point it might not be related to the EZLN at all.
In 2000 new President Vicente Fox Quesada, the first from the opposition in 72 years, sent the so-called COCOPA Law (constitutional changes) to Congress on one of his first acts of government (December 5, 2000), as he had promised during his campaign. After seeing the criticism and proposed modifications by notable congressmen, Subcommander Marcos and part of his group decided to go, unarmed, to Mexico City in order to speak at congress in support of the original proposal. After a march through seven Mexican states with substantial support from the population and media coverage (and escorted by police to protect the EZLN members), representatives of the EZLN (not including Marcos) spoke at Congress in March, 2001, in a controversial event. The march was nicknamed “Zapatour”, and on the day of their arrival an unrelated concert for peace was held. During their stay they visited schools and universities.
Soon after the EZLN had returned to Chiapas, Congress approved a different version of the COCOPA Law, which did not include the autonomy clauses, claiming they were in contradiction with some constitutional rights (private property, secret voting); this was seen as a betrayal by the EZLN and other political groups. These constitutional changes still had to be approved by a majority of state congresses. Many political and ethnic groups filed complaints both against and in favour of the changes, which were finally approved and went into effect on August 14, 2001. This, and the still recent President Fox’s electoral victory in 2000 (the first of an opposition member in the last seventy years) slowed down the movement, which had less media coverage since then.
As a last recourse to void the changes, a constitutionality complaint was filed to be resolved by the Supreme Court of Justice, which ruled in September 6, 2002 that since they were constitutional changes made by Congress and not a law as it was wrongly called, it was outside its power to reverse the changes, as that would be an invasion of Congress’ sovereignty.
Until 2004 many people believed Subcommander Marcos had fled from Chiapas. Attempts to contact him failed or were answered by email or Internet publications. Although Marcos refused to be the head of the Zapatista movement, presenting himself as a spokesman, he is by far the most prominent figure of the EZLN to the public.
The communiqués of 2004 list accomplishments and failures of their movement. From their own point of view, the Councils of Good Government, or Juntas de Buen Gobierno have been successful, as well as efforts to keep the violence between them and the military to a minimum. Their efforts to increase the role of women in cultural and political matters weren’t that successful.
From these communiqués it seems Marcos has been following the developments, from wherever he was. He also reiterated their long known opposition to what they see as a worldwide movement towards a neoliberal focused globalized economy, claiming privatization of government-owned industries leads to people’s exploitation. The United States war on terror is seen as an application of these policies.
However, the relevance of the EZLN to the national political agenda has disminished.