In December 1993, the EZLN launched an assault on military and police targets, catching them off-guard on the eve of the establishment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
On the 1st of January 1994, they led a surprise armed uprising in the state of Chiapas. Soon after they released the ‘Declaración de la Selva Lacandona‘, in which they would declare war on the Mexican government and demand “work, land, shelter, food, health, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice, and peace“. They occupied centres of government in several towns and cities in the state, encountering significant resistance upon attacked an under-protected army camp. In one battle, the EZLN’s chief of staff would be killed. In the end, they were forced to withdraw back into the rainforest.
Despite capturing the ex-governor of Chiapas, the army had reclaimed all of the targets taken by the EZLN in the first days of the assault by the 4th of January. In these few days of conflict, 57 people had died and 40 had been injured. The military claimed the EZLN had been definitively defeated.
President Salinas denied the existence of an indigenous uprising and offering pardons to those who were prepared to put down their arms. The government claimed the EZLN was receiving foreign support, a claim that the EZLN denied whilst denouncing abuses of the military against them.
Now on the back foot themselves, the EZLN sought to negotiate with the help of the bishop of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Samuel Ruiz, Rigoberta Menchú and the journalist Julio Scherer as mediators. Nonetheless, sporadic attacks continued, with car bombs exploding in several locations and power supplies being attacked in Chiapas, Puebla and Michoacán. The EZLN clearly had sympathisers throughout the country.
On the 12th of January, Salinas ordered a unilateral ceasefire in Chiapas and proposed an amnesty for all combatants, opening the path towards dialogue. Upon the resignation of the interim governor of Chiapas, the EZLN released a communiqué proposing an agenda of four main points to be negotiated. They also proposed to exchange the kidnapped ex-governor for Zapatista prisoners. The proposal was accepted. Meanwhile, some 70,000 people marched to Mexico City in support of peace.
The EZLN called on indigenous communities and NGOs to support the Zapatista demands and the peace process. The first conversations began in February.
When the EZLN presented Salinas with a list of demands in March, he proposed certain political changes to be passed into law but did not agree to the EZLN’s demands. Indigenous communities and Zapatista supporters would discuss Salinas’ proposals.
Meanwhile, on the 23rd of March the PRI’s chosen presidential candidate Luis Colosio was assassinated in Tijuana. The circumstances suggested the complicity of high-level political and military figures.
In the middle of 1994, the federal army had, according to conservative estimates, 12,000 troops and hundreds of checkpoints and military operating bases in the “conflict zone”, and military presence throughout the country was also increasing in preparation for the national elections later in the year.
On the 10th of June, the EZLN issued its “Segunda Declaración de la Selva Lacandona“, in which it proposed, among other things, to rethink the problem of power, freedom and justice in the hope of creating a new political culture within the country’s political parties. Two days later, the rejection of Salinas’ proposed political changes was revealed when the results of the popular consultation were released. The Commissioner for Peace in Chiapas resigned, amid claims that the PRI’s presidential candidate, Ernesto Zedillo, had sabotaged the negotiations.
On the 6th August, a “national, sovereign and revolutionary” National Democratic Convention (CND) was convened in San Cristóbal de las Casas by the EZLN. Its efforts, in the medium term, would be focussed on “setting up a transition government” and the establishment of a “new constituent assembly” that would be able to draw up a “new Magna Carta”. However, the CND would be demobilised after the general elections of 1994 and the triumph of Ernesto Zedillo. In Chiapas, the PRI gubernatorial candidate Eduardo Robledo Rincón proclaims himself the winner amid protests and accusations of fraud.
Despite supporting the peace process, the EZLN considered Eduardo Robledo’s assumption of power as the formalised end to the ceasefire. They named the PRD’s gubernatorial candidate “governor in rebellion” on behalf of the state’s indigenous communities, and created 38 new municipalities of Chiapas – declared rebel territories on December 19th. Four days later, the government designated the CONAI as the mediating body for dialogue with the insurgents, who in turn offered a truce with the army until the 6th of January.