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Zapatista Army of National Liberation

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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 represents the rights of the indigenous population, but also sees itself and is seen as part of the wider anti-capitalist movement[?], fighting for democracy, peace and justice for all Mexicans, and for all people. The Zapatistas are consciously opposed to neoliberalism, the economic system attributed to 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 break from the ordinary mold of revolutionary groups; except for 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 ("That's Enough"). A few times, some of their elements have publicly visited (disarmed) Mexico City, marching down the streets, doing press conferences and organizing seminars 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. That's one of the reasons for its longevity and some popularity with the civilian population, another being the generally accepted justice of their cause—but disagreement with war.

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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. However, 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 offered a cease-fire agreement and opened dialog with the rebels.

The dialogue with the government extended over a period of three years and ended with the San Andres Agreement[?], which entailed modifying the national constitution in order to grant special rights to the indigenous people, including the desired autonomy. A commission of deputies from political parties called COCOPA[?] modified slightly the agreements with the acceptance of the EZLN. President Zedillo, however, backed off from the agreement claiming the decision to approve it was in Congress. Claiming a violation of promises at the negotiating table, the EZLN went back into the jungle while Zedillo increased military presence at Chiapas to prevent the spread of EZLN's influence zone.

After that, many accusations were made of prosecution and unjust detentions against the Mexican army and para-military groups; one particularly hideous 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.

President Vicente Fox Quezada sent the so-called COCOPA Law (in reality constitutional changes) to Congress[?] on his first day of government (January 2, 2001), as he had promised during his campaign. Subcomandante Marcos and his group decided to go to Mexico City totally unarmed in order to speak at Congress in support of the needed modifications to the constitution. After a triumphal march through seven Mexican states with substantial support from the population and media coverage (and escorted by police to avoid attacks against the EZLN), 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 law, which did not include the autonomy clauses, claiming they were in contradiction with other constitutional rights (private property, secret voting); these changes angered the EZLN and other political groups. These changes had to be approved by a majority of state congress. Many groups filed complaints both against and in favour of the changes, which were finally approved.

After that a constitutionality complaint was filed to be resolved by the Supreme Court of Justice, which ruled in late 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. This, and President Fox's electoral victory in 2000 (the first of an opposition member in the last seventy years) have, in the perception of many, slowed down the movement, which rarely appears in the media after 2001.


The EZLN has 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 have 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 Sebastian Guillen, a university teacher. Marcos himself denies this, but keeps his identity secret. His skin tone is relatively whiter than that of the average Mexican, definitely not indigenous, something his critics use to question his goals and motives, while his supporters claims Zapatistas aren't fools just following a white man. Marcos is recognized by many as an outstanding and eloquent communicator; his writings have become famous as pieces of literature as well as history.


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, producing the majority of electrical power used in the country. Despite this, its Indian population is among the poorest in Mexico. Autonomy as 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 those funds were obtained.

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Please note: this article is current up to November, 2002

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