Without a doubt, the Zapatistas have been the social movement most followed and discussed by the media in Mexico. However, with the direct, armed insurrection over a long time ago, those without an interest may have believed the Zapatistas had disappeared. So it’s worth taking a look at why the organisation exists, and why it became most prominent in Chiapas.
Twenty years ago on New Year’s Day 1994, an armed indigenous group calling itself the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) shocked Mexico when it tried to occupy seven municipal centres as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force. They were critical of President Salinas’s ‘modernisation’ (read privatisation) and demanded an end to the exploitation of Chiapan communities.
This movement was not something completely new, however. In the 1970s, guerrilla National Liberation Forces spread through Mexico, encouraging indigenous people to question the exploitative reality in which they lived. These views were shared by Marists and other Catholics in the state. According to the mixed-ethnicity spokesman of the EZLN, known as Subcomandante Marcos, the group was formed on November 17th 1983, using a red star on a black flag as their representative symbol.
Unlike other guerrilla groups, the EZLN managed to unite the majority of different indigenous groups —tzotziles, choles, zoques, mames, tojolabales, tzeltales— in the uprising of 1994. Starting this year, 38 new municipalities were set up, and were referred to as rebel territories. In spite of the violent nature of the armed uprising, the group claimed to place more emphasis on the power of the word. It tried to reach agreements with the government through manifestos and demands but, upon the breakdown of the San Andrés Accords, the EZLN encouraged communities to make the rebel territories autonomous from the federal government.
Marcos himself became a media phenomenon, with his relaxed and eloquent way of speaking invoking comparisons with Che Guevara or even Emiliano Zapata. His straightforward way of speaking, criticised by politicians and intellectuals, helped to attract the support of the people. He spoke of poverty, social exclusion, and economic injustice – issues facing Zapatista sympathisers day in day out.
After 1994, Marcos gave many interviews and issued numerous communiques, which made many people see him as the leader, rather than representative, of the EZLN. As a result, the media focussed on his identity, trying to determine his own motives and personal history. However, Salinas realised that, due to the immense support of the Zapatistas, it was not in the government’s interests to wage a battle to the death with the movement.
When President Zedillo was inaugurated, however, he hoped to defeat the EZLN once and for all, revealing Marcos’s identity in February 1995 and ordering his capture. Zapatistas, intellectuals, and Mexican civil society defended Marcos, launching a campaign called “We are all Marcos”, demonstrating their commitment to the movement. Zapatistas also revealed that the EZLN was not Marcos’s project, and that they had chosen him themselves to be their spokesperson.
Having been defeated militarily, and with the image of Marcos taking prominence, the EZLN learned that they would have to construct their own future, defending the communities they currently had. Marcos remained silent for long periods of time, hoping to return attention to the movement itself rather than his own personality.
Later on, groups throughout the country and the world were encouraged to participate in “The Other Campaign”. This effort was reinforced when Marcos embarked on a year-long tour around Mexico to show solidarity with social movements throughout the country and learn about the issues facing the nation’s diverse communities.
Translated and adapted from http://www.newsweek.mx/index.php/articulo/7225