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Zapatista Movement


The Zapatistas. The official name of this group is the Zapatista Army of National Liberation which first appeared publically on January 1, 1994.

The Zapatista movement in Mexico is a revolutionary movement that is attempting to correct the chronic impoverishment Mexico's indigenous people have suffered since colonial times. The official name of this group is the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) which first appeared publically on January 1, 1994. This day was symbolically important since this was the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect which liberalized trade between Mexico, Canada and the United States. The Zapatistas presented to the world the Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle which was a call to arms against the Mexican government since peaceful protest had not accomplished any results over the years. The founder and leader was called Subcomandante Marcos who preferred this nom de guerre along with wearing a balaclava in order to protect his anonymity. After a short period of unrest and fighting the Zapatistas today have established autonomous villages in the state of Chiapas where they promote their political and social system while largely being ignored by Mexico's central government. On May 24, 2014 it was announced that the image of Subcomandante Marcos would no longer exist since this character was becoming more of a distraction to the cause. This new public image of the EZLN is directed by Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano, named after a Zapatista that had died in an earlier paramilitary attack.

The Zapatista movement began in the early 1990's as a reaction to the Mexican government's continued neglect of its indigenous population as well as threat of free trade and neoliberal economic policies on impoverished people throughout Mexico but especially in the southern state of Chiapas. This group takes its name from the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata who led an agrarian revolution in the hopes of achieving land reform in time when the land was controlled by a small group of wealthy land owners. Zapata became an important part of the Mexican revolution helping to restore democracy to the country while also hoping for more radical land reforms as his reward for successfully overturning the government of Porfirio Diaz.

Zapata's involvement in the revolution would be key to the change in Mexico's future but he would later be killed in trap set by federal soldiers. Zapata's death would make him a martyr in Mexican folklore as a symbol of the struggle of the poor against a system that is stacked against them.  His struggle for the indigenous cause was unprecedented and he is today seen as a visionary. Much of what Zapata fought for was granted under the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas in the 1930's. Today considered by some to be a bandit, Zapata is considered by many to be a revolutionary that continues to influence political movements in the country, especially the EZLN.

The politics of the EZLN is based on the Zapatismo of the early 20th century but also blending in elements of Maya traditions, Marxism and libertarian socialism. The slogan of the EZLN is Para todos todo, para nosotros nada or "For everyone, everything. For us, nothing." The Zapatistas believe in a collective existence and participatory democracy while shunning capitalism and globalization. Curiously in one of their early manifestos they declared that people had the right to resist any unjust actions perpetrated by the EZLN, something unheard of by any revolutionary group. The EZLN is not a political party nor do they appear to have political aspirations, however they are promoters of policies and encourage people to actively participate in the politics within the framework of their movement.

The Zapatistas are have also addressed some taboos that are prevalent in the conservative Mexican cultural like LGBT rights. In a communication, Subcomandante Marcos stated that the Zapatistas demand "respect and recognition for the rights of the lesbian, gay, transsexual and bisexual communities". The Zapatistas have also established the Women's Revolutionary Law in which the following provisions are stated:

These issues along with their progressive programs have garnered them a favorable image not only with progressives in Mexico but also with progressives and liberal all over the world.

Since the initial fighting in the early 1990's the Zapatistas have renounced an armed struggle, instead hoping to spread their message through education and a sustained public relations campaign relying heavily on the internet to transmit their ideas and progression. Since then, the Mexican government has worked to maintain the Zapatista movement contained in Chiapas State by cordoning off this area and controlling access into and out of the state. This state's value as an important tourist and cultural destination has also played an important role in preventing a military escalation in the area which would be disastrous for everyone.

Today, the Zapatistas have established various Caracoles and Councils of Good Government which form the nucleus of the management of the Zapatisa Rebel Autonomous Municipalities or MAREZ. These bodies of government are designed to decentralize authority and pass control to the local indigenous communities and out of the hands of the EZLN. Each caracol is the administrative center for four to eight towns in which different services like education, healthcare and local governance is administered. Zapatistas continue to engage in, but not instigate, low level fighting primarily with paramilitary groups operating in the region. In 2014, teacher José Luis Solís López aka Galiano prominent advocate of the Zapatistas was killed in a paramilitary attack in the La Realidad caracol when 20 paramilitaries entered the village with machetes, guns and clubs and proceeded to assault other Zapatistas. This attack also resulted in the destruction of a school, health clinic and the local water system. As a result of this attack, the image of Subcomandante Marcos was retired with the presentation of the Zapatista's new public spokesperson: Subcomandante Galiano.

The Zapatistas today are a group that has carved out a small part of the Chiapas countryside where they are living out their particular form of self governance with little direct intervention and funding from the Mexican government, although they are under constant threat from paramilitary and military intervention. What this movement has shown is that historic inequalities in Mexico continue to persist to this day and, at least, the Zapatistas are offering an alternative which has drawn attention and support from the outside world and made the Mexican government reconsider how relations with indigenous people are carried out. However, their opaque governance and focus on local control has inhibited their ability to expand beyond Chiapas which has limited their capacity to organize a broader movement outside of there enclave.