Zapatista Army of National Liberation

From Academic Kids

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. The EZLN claims to represent the rights of the indigenous population, but also sees itself and is seen as part of a wider anti-capitalist movement. The Zapatistas are consciously opposed to neoliberalism, the economic system advocated by the Mexican presidents from 1982 to 2000. The group takes its name from the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata; they see themselves as his ideological heir and the heir to 500 years of indigenous resistance against imperialism.

The EZLN breaks from the ordinary mould of revolutionary groups; except for the initial uprising in the first two weeks of 1994, they aren't known to have used any weapons or bombs and have remained primarily in Chiapas. They refuse to use the normal channels Mexico provides to listen to demands and provide solutions--including running for public office or endorsing political parties. They say these channels have been ineffective for the indigenous and for everyone else for too much time (500 years, as they say), thus the EZLN motto: ¡Ya Basta! ("Enough!"). A few times, some of their elements have publicly visited (unarmed) Mexico City, marching down the streets, doing press conferences and organizing meetings with the civilian population and some political parties. The great march to Mexico City, described later, was also relatively peaceful, with some minor, mostly verbal, incidents. This peaceful approach is one of the reasons for its longevity and some popularity with the civilian population.



The group was formed on November 17, 1983 by former members of different groups, some of them fighting, some of them peaceful and ignored by the government. 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. Later they declared it was their way to say We are still here in the middle of globalization. Indigenous fighters wearing ski masks staged an armed uprising, 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. After just a few days of fighting, 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 Agreement, 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, but many blame the Army for this.

New President Vicente Fox Quesada 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, Subcomandante Marcos and his group decided to go, unarmed, to Mexico City in order to speak at Congress in support of the modifications to the constitution. 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 session.

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.

After that, 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.

An important episode occurred in the late months of 2002. Subcommander Marcos wrote a letter to a Spanish supporter on October 12, a date indigenists claim signals the beginning of their suffering, the arrival in the Americas of Columbus. In that long, winding letter, Marcos calls Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón a "grotesque clown" for, among other things, banning the Independentist Basque Party after claiming it was supporting Spanish terrorist group ETA, and then calling Garzón's attempt to try Chilean General Pinochet for human rights violations against Spanish citizens a "fool-deceiving tale". Subcommander Marcos also made heavy criticism of the Spanish monarchy and then Spanish President José María Aznar. After the publication of the letter by the Mexican press in November 25, Marcos and Garzón exchanged many more via the international press, in a not-so-elegant duel of words, which included Marcos' joking acceptance of Garzón's challenge to a debate, betting to reveal his secret identity if he lost against Garzón's commitment to the EZLN cause if he won. The whole incident caused much stir among many of Marcos' supporters. Some were upset about Marcos devoting his time to other causes; others thought the tone of his letters was improper of the official spokesman of the EZLN and finally others interpreted his letters as supporting the ETA.

Later, in February 2003, he wrote a letter condemning his political allies, the Democratic Revolution Party congressmen, claiming they agreed to approve a modified version of the EZLN-sanctioned COCOPA Law the previous year. That letter and the replies that followed left many of EZLN's strongest and most influential allies ill disposed toward Marcos. Having lost much of his support, Marcos still wrote many "comunicados" for the rest of that year, but most went unnoticed. Aside from criticism of political actors, he described EZLN's ongoing work in its zones of influence, and changes in its internal organization.

Since December 1994, the Zapatistas had been gradually forming several Autonomous Municipalities, independent of those staffed by government officials. In August 2003, Marcos sent "comunicados" describing how these municipalities had gradually developed local government "juntas", communitarian food-producing programs among indigenous peasants and free health and school systems supported in part by NGOs and again independent of government-provided systems that had paid no attention to indigenous medicine, needs and culture. Then he announced the creation of several "Committees of Good Government" formed by representatives of the autonomous municipalities and overseen by the EZLN, which serve to verify that no corruption or abuses of power are committed, and that the committees and local juntas follow the Zapatistas mandate: mandar obedeciendo (to command by obeying the people). Some analysts applauded this initiative: government by the people for the people, in the face of great inefficacy of the State in attending the needs of the people; others however, indicated that this Zapatista initiative amounts to forming a state within the state, a dangerous proposition at best.

For the first half of 2004, Marcos remained silent. By the middle of the year Luis H. Álvarez, Head of COCOPA, the official communication link between the EZLN and the Mexican government, declared Marcos hasn't been seen in Chiapas for some time, and that he didn't know his location. However the EZLN was still active, mostly tending the local governments it has created.

In August 2004, Marcos sent to the Mexican press eight brief commuiques, the whole set titled "Reading a video", published from August 20 to August 28. They were probably intended as a mocking of the political video scandals earlier in the year, the set beginning and ending as a kind of written description of an imaginary low-budget zapatista video, the rest being Marcos' comments on political events of the year and the EZLN current stance and development. In particular, he describes the result of one year's work of the autonomous municipalities and the commitees of good government. These have a continuously changing membership in order to promote transparency and to bring to everybody the opportunity to serve in a governing post. The communiques went mostly unnoticed, partly because of the Olympic Games of Athens 2004 and the Congress reforms to the IMSS pension system, and partly because of loss of interest by the public.


The EZLN placed a very high priority on communication, with the rest of Mexico and the rest of the world. From their first public actions, they produced declarations and analysis written in plain prose, and sent these to local, national, and international media. They also made excellent use of technology, in the form of satellite phones and the Internet to communicate with supporters in other countries, helping them gain international solidarity and support from less radical organizations and people. For some time, on almost every trip abroad the president of Mexico was confronted about "the Chiapas situation".

Their public spokesperson is Subcommander Marcos, a pipe-smoking middle-aged man whose real identity, according to the Mexican government, is Rafael Guillén, a middle-class university lecturer. Marcos himself denies this, but keeps his identity secret. His skin tone is paler than that of the average Mexican. He is clearly not indigenous, something his critics use to question his goals and motives. Marcos has been recognized by many as an outstanding and eloquent communicator; his writings, colloquial, ironic, and with references to indigenous stories were eagerly published by the media in the first years. However, after 2001 a long period of silence brought his relationship with the media to a standstill.

Later, in 2002, after the public exchange of letters with Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, many, including former admirers, saw Marcos as a supporter of Spanish terrorist group ETA, and his public image suffered.

By 2004 the EZLN's communication strategy wasn't clear. Except for isolated letters and "comunicados" about the political climate, mostly criticism, the EZLN had been silent for almost three years, and the media simply moved on.


The EZLN claims most indigenous people want to leave behind centuries of poverty, abuse and lack of education but at the same time retain the best of their customs and way of life, including communal property and public election of authorities. The EZLN has been mainly fighting for autonomy of the indigenous population—a kind of state within a state where peoples can retain their ways of government and communal way of life yet receive outside support in needed areas.

This situation is very complex. Chiapas is a very rich state in terms of natural resources, especially petroleum and biodiversity, and most of the country's electricity is generated there. Despite this, its indigenous population is among the poorest in Mexico. The autonomy proposed by the EZLN included control over the use of these resources, which precipitated opposition from all kinds of groups. Critics are quick to point out that the firearms and gear used by the Zapatistas, especially Marcos, are expensive, speculating about who funds the movement and the means whereby those funds were obtained.

EZLN in 2004

As of 2004 many people believe that Subcomandante Marcos no longer resides in the jungles of Chiapas. He has been absent from the limelight for a long time, and has not responded to requests for interviews and pictures. Any response from him comes from various communiqués via email or posted on the Internet. Many authorities and journalists want to write this off as proving that Marcos has left Chiapas, and some believe that he has been living outside Chiapas for a number of years, faking residence from somewhere in Europe.

But, even if he has fled the jungles one still has to ask the question, does it matter? Marcos was never the definite head of the Zapatista movement, and stood as a sort of an interpreter and organizer of the indigenous people. He merely showed up in the face of their extinction to aid in a fight for welfare for the indigenous people. If he felt that they were at a point where they could move on in progression for themselves, then they might be better off without him. The communiqués of 2004 are set up to display what has been accomplished and what has gone wrong with the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional (Zapatista National Liberation Army or EZLN). The EZLN has succeeded in helping to set up and maintain the Councils of Good Government, or Juntas de Buen Gobierno (JBGs), as well as keep the violence between them and the military to a minimum. Subcomandante Marcos explains that their quest to get women more involved in every aspect of culture and politics has failed so far. Women still maintain the same positions that they inhabited before, and though there are a few examples of women in positions of importance, these are exceptions as compared to the majority. The quest for equality amongst the sexes-as being one of their initial premises in 1994-is now one of the main focuses from August 2004 onward.

From the perspective of Marcos’ communiqués it seems that he’s still witnessing the actions of Zapatista communities in southern Mexico, regardless of the means. Marcos now wants to make clear the intense opposition that the Zapatistas have towards the world’s movement towards a neoliberal focused globalized economy. He believes that the privatization of all of the previously state controlled organizations will simply lead to the tendency to exploit people that are easily victimized across the globe. Neoliberalism via NAFTA is what the EZLN was afraid of when they rose up in 1994, and now Marcos wants to claim that the war “against terrorism” and the attack on Iraq are all pieces of this quest for the global application of neoliberalism.

Subcomandante Marcos in recent October communiqués explained the arising problems in relations with the Mexican Government. In areas close to the Selva Lacandona region of Mexico some communities have been relocated to the Montes Azules biosphere. This is an attempt to gain control of an area rich in natural resources. These communities are attempting to maintain the rules outlined by the JBG’s, but are in bad situations when it comes to food and resources. The armed EZLN is prepared to take up arms if necessary, but hopes to accomplish a resolution diplomatically. Marcos claims that this is just another branch of the movement towards the neoliberal perspective. But, Subcomandante Marcos and the EZLN claim to be ready to maintain their land and autonomous governments. The Mexican government maintains a vague stance on the issue, claiming the people were moved for their own benefit.

It seems as if the more mainstream media that actually take time to report on the subject of the Zapatistas accept the fact that the Zapatistas did definitely make a shocking appearance on the world stage for a short time. But, now for the most part the media seems to reflect the idea that the Zapatistas have dismembered due to failures in compromises with the government, and the lack of a need for an armed revolt against the military since the president pulled them out of occupied territories in Chiapas. It seems that the Zapatistas have gone back to being unseen in the jungle, or have split up completely. But, this perspective seems like a Westernized one, where the view stems from focus on the importance of the armed EZLN, not the Zapatista people and their supporters as a whole. This does not adequately illustrate the regular activities of the Zapatistas. Instead they try and attract attention when they are acting upon something, and attention needs to be drawn to it. So, this stepping back to work on what to do next is nothing new to the waxing and waning of armed EZLN action in Chiapas, Mexico. On the other hand, the advocates for the Zapatistas across intellectual and internet based activism still seem to be praising their name and acting as if they are still in full effect often using the Zapatista’s revolt as proof to illustrate personal political agendas. Many call the Zapatista revolution the first post-modern revolution-due to the fact that the Zapatistas defined their own rights accompanied with the defining of what government should be and what role it should play in people’s lives. Also, it is one that accommodates historical methods of revolt along with technological and cultural changes that reflect the realities of today. For revolutionary groups it proves that standing up against governments is still possible even today, and even for extremely poor urban farmers when international support is present.

Latest News

On June 19, 2005 a General Red Alert was issued by Subcomandante Marcos. According to the communiqué issued on the EZLN website (, "the evacuation of the members of the different Good Government Juntas and the autonomous authorities, in order to place them in shelter." No reason is given as to why or in response to what is the alert for, but it seems as though EZLN will go into further seclusion and has turned over many responsibilities it previously oversaw to civilian control. Rumor states that the communique was issued in response to a certain repositioning of government troops, and a fear of an impending invasion of rebel-held territory. The last such "Red Alert" preceeded the Acteal Massacre in 1997.

Further reading

External links

da:EZLN de:EZLN eo:Zapatista_Armeo_por_Nacia_Liberigo es:Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional fr:EZLN nl:Zapatistas sv:Zapatisterna


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