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Zapatista Army of National Liberation
Participant in Chiapas conflict
Flag of the EZLN.
Active 1994–present
Ideology Zapatismo
Libertarian socialism
Libertarian Marxism
Leaders None, but their spokespersons are
Subcomandante Marcos
Comandante Hugo 
Comandante Ramona
Subcomandante Pedro 
Subcomandante Elisa
Subcomandante Moisés
Area of
Chiapas, Mexico
Strength About 3,000 active participants and militia; tens of thousands of civilian supporters (bases de apoyo)

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) often referred to as the Zapatistas is a revolutionary leftist group based in Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico.

Since 1994, the group has been in a declared war "against the Mexican state," though this war has been primarily nonviolent and defensive against military, paramilitary and corporate incursions into Chiapas. Their social base is mostly rural indigenous people but they have some supporters in urban areas and internationally. Their main spokesperson is Subcomandante Marcos (currently a.k.a. Delegate Zero in relation to "the Other Campaign"). Unlike other Zapatista spokespeople, Marcos is not an indigenous Maya.

The group takes its name from Emiliano Zapata, the agrarian reformer[1] and commander of the Liberation Army of the South during the Mexican Revolution, and sees itself as his ideological heir. In reference to inspirational figures, in nearly all EZLN villages exist murals accompanying images of Zapata, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and Subcomandante Marcos.[2]

Although the ideology of the EZLN is reflective of libertarian socialist politics, paralleling both anarchist and libertarian Marxist thought in many respects, the EZLN has rejected[3] and defied[4] political classification; retaining its distinctiveness due in part to the importance of indigenous Mayan beliefs in Zapatismo thought. The EZLN aligns itself with the wider alter-globalization, anti-neoliberal social movement, seeking indigenous control over their local resources, especially land.

Since their 1994 uprising was countered by the Mexican army, the EZLN has abstained from using their weapons and adopted a new strategy that attempts to garner both Mexican and international support. Through an Internet campaign, the EZLN has begun to disseminate an understanding of their plight and intentions. With this change in tactics, the EZLN has received greater support from a variety of NGOs and organizations as well as increased attention in both leftist and mainstream media outlets.


We don’t want to impose our solutions by force, we want to create a democratic space. We don’t see armed struggle in the classic sense of previous guerrilla wars, that is as the only way and the only all-powerful truth around which everything is organized. In a war, the decisive thing is not the military confrontation but the politics at stake in the confrontation. We didn't go to war to kill or be killed. We went to war in order to be heard.


The Zapatistas went public on January 1, 1994, the day when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect. On that day, they issued their First Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle and their Revolutionary Laws. The declaration amounted to a declaration of war on the Mexican government, which they considered so out of touch with the will of the people as to make it completely illegitimate.

Their initial goal was to instigate a revolution in all of Mexico, but as this did not happen, they used their uprising as a platform to call the world's attention to their movement to protest the signing of NAFTA, which the EZLN believed would increase the gap between rich and poor people in Chiapas - a prediction that has been vindicated by subsequent developments.[6] The EZLN also called for greater democratization of the Mexican government which had been controlled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for 65 years and for land reform mandated by the 1917 Constitution of Mexico but largely ignored by the PRI.[7] The EZLN did not demand independence from Mexico, but rather autonomy, and (among other things) that the natural resources that are extracted from Chiapas benefit more directly the people of Chiapas.

On the morning of January 1, 1994, an estimated 3,000 armed Zapatista insurgents seized towns and cities in Chiapas, including Ocosingo, Las Margaritas, Huixtán, Oxchuc, Rancho Nuevo, Altamirano, and Chanal. They freed the prisoners in the jail of San Cristóbal de las Casas, and set fire to several police buildings and military barracks in the area. The guerrillas enjoyed brief success, but the next day Mexican army forces counter-attacked and fierce fighting broke out in and around the market of Ocosingo. The Zapatista forces took heavy casualties, and retreated from the city into the surrounding jungle.

Armed clashes in Chiapas ended on January 12, 1994, with a ceasefire brokered by the Catholic diocese in San Cristóbal de las Casas under Bishop Samuel Ruiz, a well known liberation theologian who took up the cause of the indigenous of Chiapas. The Zapatistas retained some of the land they took over in 1994, but the Mexican army overran the territory they held militarily for a little more than a year in a surprise breach of ceasefire in February 1995. The Zapatista villages were mostly abandoned following the offensive, and the rebels fled into the mountains after breaking out of the Mexican army perimeter.

The extraordinarily complex and rich history of political discussion and organizing in Chiapas from the 1970s to the 1990s produced something genuinely original, a new leftist language and vision. This includes negotiation about what it means to be Indian within a larger Mexican nation. It includes discussion about new forms of democracy and an inventiveness regarding civil society—exemplified by the convention in the jungle; by the Zapatistas’ national consulta, in which they asked people around the nation to comment and vote; by Marcos’s communiqués; and by the accords on Indian autonomy hammered out with government negotiators in 1996. The new leftist vision also includes a communication and public debate deeply rooted in popular cultural idioms—indeed, in the language of rock and roll and its progeny.
Dissent magazine[8]

Although army camps were set up along all major thoroughfares, the army failed to capture the guerrilla movement's commanders. Instead, the Mexican government pursued a policy of negotiation, while the Zapatistas developed a mobilization and media campaign through numerous newspaper comunicados and over time a Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle with no further military actions on their part. After the First Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle, subsequent declarations have focused on non-violent solutions, both through political channels and through the assumption of many of the functions of government in the Chiapas state of southeastern Mexico. Other groups within Chiapas, such as the pacifist Las Abejas, support many of the goals of the Zapatista Revolution without condoning the use of violence to achieve those goals. A strong international Internet presence prompted numerous left-wing international groups to support the Zapatista movement.


With the new government of President Vicente Fox (the first non-PRI president of Mexico in over 70 years) in 2001, the Zapatistas marched on Mexico City to present their case to the Mexican Congress. Although Fox had stated earlier that he could end the conflict "in fifteen minutes,"[9] the EZLN rejected watered-down agreements and created 32 "autonomous municipalities" in Chiapas, thus partially implementing their demands without government support but with some funding from international organizations.

On June 28, 2005, the Zapatistas presented the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle,[10] declaring their principles and vision for Mexico and the world. This declaration reiterates the support for the indigenous peoples, who comprise roughly one third of the population of the state of Chiapas, and extends the cause to include "all the exploited and dispossessed of Mexico". It also expresses the movement's sympathy to the international alter-globalization movement, and offers to provide material aid to those in Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and elsewhere, with whom they make common cause. The declaration ends with an exhortation for all who have more respect for humanity than for money to join with the Zapatistas in the struggle for social justice both in Mexico and abroad. The declaration called for an alternative national campaign (the "Other Campaign") as an alternative to the presidential campaign. In preparation for this alternative campaign, the Zapatistas invited to their territory over 600 national leftist organizations, indigenous groups and non-governmental organizations in order to listen to their claims for human rights in a series of biweekly meetings that culminated in a plenary meeting on September 16, the day Mexico celebrates its independence from Spain. In this meeting, Subcomandante Marcos requested official adherence of the organizations to the Sixth Declaration, and detailed a six-month tour of the Zapatistas through all 31 Mexican states to take place concurrently with the electoral campaign starting January 2006.


The ideology of the Zapatista movement, Zapatismo, synthesizes traditional Mayan practices with elements of libertarian socialism, anarchism,[11][12] and Marxism.[13] The historical influence of Mexican Anarchists and various Latin-American Socialists is apparent on Zapatismo; with the positions of Subcomandante Marcos also adding a distinct Marxist (according to the New York Times) [14] element to the movement. A Zapatista slogan is in harmony with the concept of mutual aid: "For everyone, everything. For us, nothing" (Para todos todo, para nosotros nada).

The EZLN opposes economic globalization, arguing that it severely and negatively affects the peasant way of life of its indigenous support base and oppressed people worldwide. An example of neo-liberal policy that the EZLN opposes is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Apart from opening the Mexican market to cheap mass-produced US agricultural products, NAFTA spells an end to Mexican crop subsidies without a corresponding end to US ones, and drastically reduced the income and living standards of many southern Mexican farmers who cannot compete with the subsidized, artificially fertilized, mechanically harvested and genetically modified imports from the United States. The signing of NAFTA also resulted in the removal of Article 27 Section VII in the Mexican Constitution which previously had guaranteed land reparations to indigenous groups throughout Mexico.

Another key element of the Zapatista ideology is their aspiration to do politics in a new, participatory way, from the "bottom-up" instead of "top-down." The Zapatistas consider the contemporary political system of Mexico inherently flawed due to what they consider its purely representative nature and obvious disconnection from the people and their needs. Instead, the EZLN claims to reinforce the idea of participatory democracy or radical democracy by limiting public servants' terms to only two weeks, not using visible organization leaders, and constantly referring to the people they are governing for major decisions, strategies and conceptual visions. As Marcos has reiterated, "my real commander is the people". In accordance with this principle, the Zapatistas are not a political party: they do not seek office throughout the state, because that would perpetuate the political system by attempting to gain power within its ranks. Instead, they wish to reconceptualize the entire system.

In an unusual move for any revolutionary organization, documents released by the EZLN[15] (in Spanish) before the initial uprising in 1994 explicitly defined a right of the people to resist any unjust actions of the EZLN. They also defined a right of the people to:

demand that the revolutionary armed forces not intervene in matters of civil order or the disposition of capital relating to agriculture, commerce, finances, and industry, as these are the exclusive domain of the civil authorities, elected freely and democratically.

It added that the people should "acquire and possess arms to defend their persons, families and property, according to the laws of disposition of capital of farms, commerce, finance and industry, against the armed attacks committed by the revolutionary forces or those of the government."

Women's Revolutionary Law

From the First Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle, the Zapatistas presented to the people of Mexico, the government, and the world their Revolutionary Laws on January 1, 1994. One of the laws was the Women's Revolutionary Law,[16] which stated:

  1. Women, regardless of their race, creed, color or political affiliation, have the right to participate in the revolutionary struggle in any way that their desire and capacity determine.
  2. Women have the right to work and receive a fair salary.
  3. Women have the right to decide the number of children they have and care for.
  4. Women have the right to participate in the matters of the community and hold office if they are free and democratically elected.
  5. Women and their children have the right to Primary Attention in their health and nutrition.
  6. Women have the right to an education.
  7. Women have the right to choose their partner and are not obliged to enter into marriage.
  8. Women have the right to be free of violence from both relatives and strangers.

Political Expressions of EZLN

Since December 1994, the Zapatistas had been gradually forming several autonomous municipalities, called Rebel Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities (MAREZ). In these municipalities, an assembly of local representatives forms the Juntas de Buen Gobierno or Councils of Good Government (JBGs). These are not recognized by the federal or state governments; they oversee local community programs on food, health and education, as well as taxation. The EZLN political formations have happened in two phases generally called Aquascalientes and Caracoles.


After the cessation of fighting in mid-1994, the EZLN put a call for a Democratic National Convention. As part the call of they started the practice of setting up cultural spaces for the purpose of exchanges and meetings with the EZLN and Zapatistas, with political and cultural sectors of civil society in the Mexico and the international community. These spaces were called Aguascalientes, in memory of the city of Aguascalientes that harbored Supreme Revolutionary Convention of Aguascalientes which brought together, among others, the most progressive forces of the Mexican revolution such as the Magonistas, the Villa and the Zapatistas. This Aguascalientes was created in the Lacandon Jungle, near the community of Guadalupe Tepeyac Tojolabal, in the municipality of Las Margaritas, from August 6 to August 9, 1994.

It will be until the end of 1995 when the EZLN propose again to civil society building new Aguascalientes, as a symbol of resistance and rebellion. In 1996, the Aguascalientes I (Reality), Aguascalientes II (Oventic), Aguascalientes III (La Garrucha), Aguascalientes IV (Morelia) and Aguascalientes V (Roberto Barrios), became headquarters of the political and cultural initiatives of the Zapatistas in the form of the: National Indigenous Forum, National Civil Committees Meeting for National Dialogue, Special Forum for State Reform, First American against Neoliberalism and for Humanity and First Intergalactic. These cultural centers, which had auditoriums, health clinics, toilets, baths, libraries, stairs and bedrooms were always surrounded by army camps and federal databases.

Outside of Chiapas, other Aguascalientes were opened as various expressions of Zapatista civil society. CLETA, a cultural organization that understands the work in the performing arts as a necessarily political left space would take the UNAM in the House of Lake the first one. Later the Francisco Villa Popular Front Independent, in a dwelling unit also built on land taken, opened the Aguascalientes El Molino, where in September 1997 it hosted the 1,111 Zapatistas who attended the foundation of FZLN in Mexico City.

In January 1996, the "governor" insurgent Chiapas, Amado Avendaño Figueroa, inaugurated another Aguascalientes in Tijuana, Baja California. In the heart of University City, built by students who mostly participated in the 1999–2000 strike at UNAM, would the Water Mirror Aguascalientes, where the Zapatista give a message to young people and students in the country under The March of the Color of the Earth, and the same would happen in Xochimilco, where a group of indigenous organizations would found another Aguascalientes.

More ephemeral and symbolic to be the Aguascalientes in Cuernavaca, Genaro opened by one of the delegates who visited Zapatista lands Morelos in March 1999 in connection with the consultation of that year, and Aguascalientes the El Angel, in Mexico City. Both spaces would work just as statements about the Lacandon Jungle and the San Andrés Accords, and voting, then disappear.


Between 8 and 10 August 2003, in Aguascalientes Oventic, a feast was held honoring the birth of the Caracoles and the Councils of Good Government (JBG) of the Zapatistas. This was a the culmination of a series of changes made in the EZLN and the 27 Rebel Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities (MAREZ). The decision would come after a long period of critical and self-critical analysis about how the MAREZ and Aguascalientes had worked, the problems they had faced and their relationship with Mexican and international civil society, and was meant to represent a major advance in the autonomy process which the Zapatistas to the communities and indigenous peoples of the country.[10] The EZLN, being a political-military apparatus, declared the Councils of Good Government also marked a transition where the EZLN military would no longer give orders in civil matters in the autonomous communities. The Caracoles is an attempt to unilaterally implement San Andres expression and culture and rights of Indigenous people in Mexico.

Carcoles and replaced the old Aguascalientes, but respecting a greater or lesser extent areas comprising (about 4 and up to 8 municipalities each). The Good Government Councils were arranged (and to this day they do) in what is called the center of Caracol where there are also offices Governance Monitoring, Reporting, in some clinical cases, in cases secondary regions, etc.


From the beginning, the EZLN has made communication with the rest of Mexico and the world a high priority. The EZLN has used technology, including cellular phones and the Internet, to generate international solidarity with sympathetic people and organizations. Rap-rock band Rage Against the Machine is well known for its support of the EZLN, using the red star symbol as a backdrop to their live shows and have also often informed concert crowds of the ongoing situation. As a result, on trips abroad the president of Mexico is routinely confronted by small activist groups about "the Chiapas situation". The Zapatistas are featured prominently in Rage Against the Machine's songs, in particular "People of the Sun", "Wind Below", "Zapata's Blood" and "War Within a Breath".[17]

Prior to 2001, Marcos' writings were frequently published in some Mexican and a few international newspapers. Then Marcos fell silent, and his relationship with the media declined. When he resumed writing in 2002, he assumed a more aggressive tone, and his attacks on former allies angered some of the EZLN's supporters. Except for these letters and occasional critical "communicados" concerning the political climate, the EZLN was largely silent until August 2003, when Radio Insurgente was launched from an unknown location. In 2004, COCOPA head Luis H. Álvarez stated in mid-2004 that Marcos had not been seen in Chiapas for some time. The EZLN received little press coverage during this time, although it continued to develop the local governments it had created earlier.

In August, Marcos sent eight brief communiques to the Mexican press, published from August 20–28. The set was entitled "Reading a video" (possibly mocking political video scandals that occurred earlier that year). The set began and ended as a kind of written description of an imaginary low-budget Zapatista video, with the rest being Marcos' comments on political events of the year and the EZLN current stance and development.

In 2005, Marcos made headlines again by comparing the then presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador to Carlos Salinas de Gortari (as part of a broad criticism of the three main political parties in Mexico - the PAN, PRI, and PRD), and publicly declaring the EZLN in "Red Alert". Shortly thereafter, communiques announced that the EZLN had undergone a restructuring that enabled them to withstand the loss of their public leadership (Marcos and the CCRI). After consulting with their support base, the Zapatistas' issued the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle.

Since the first uprising, the newspaper La Jornada has continuously covered the Zapatistas. Most communicados and many of Marcos' letters are delivered to and only published by La Jornada, and the online edition of the newspaper has a section dedicated to The Other Campaign.

The independent media organization Indymedia also covers and prints Zapatista developments and communications.

Activities 2005–2013

On June 28, 2005 the EZLN released an installment of what it called the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. According to the communique, the EZLN has reflected on its history and decided that it must make changes in order to continue its struggle. Accordingly, the EZLN has decided to unite with the "workers, farmers, students, teachers, and employees... the workers of the city and the countryside." They propose to do so through a non-electoral front to talk and collectively write a new constitution to establish a new political culture.

On January 1, 2006 the EZLN began a massive tour - "The Other Campaign" - encompassing all 31 Mexican states in the build up to the year's presidential election, which the EZLN made clear they would not participate in directly.

On May 3–4, 2006, a series of demonstrations protested the forcible removal of irregular flower vendors from a lot in Texcoco for the construction of a Walmart branch. The protests turned violent when state police and the Federal Preventive Police bussed in some 5,000 agents to San Salvador Atenco and the surrounding communities. A local organization called the People's Front in Defense of the Land (FPDT), which adheres to the Sixth Declaration, called in support from other regional and national adherent organizations. "Delegate Zero" and his "Other Campaign" were at the time in nearby Mexico City, having just organized May Day events there, and quickly arrived at the scene. The following days were marked by violence, with some 216 arrests, over 30 rape and sexual abuse accusations against the police, five deportations, and one casualty, a 14-year-old boy named Javier Cortes shot by a policeman. A 20-year-old UNAM economics student, Alexis Benhumea, died the morning of June 7, 2006, after being in a coma caused by a blow to the head from a police-launched tear-gas grenade.[18] Most of the resistance organizing was done by the EZLN and Sixth Declaration adherents, and Delegate Zero has stated that the "Other Campaign" tour will be temporarily halted until all prisoners are released.

In late 2006 and early 2007, the Zapatistas (through Subcomandante Marcos), along with other indigenous peoples of the Americas, announced the Intercontinental Indigenous Encounter. They invited indigenous people from all over the Americas and the rest of the world, to gather on October 11–14, 2007 near Guaymas, Sonora. In the declaration for the Indigenous Intercontinental Conference, it designated this date because of "515 years since the invasion of ancient Indigenous territories and the onslaught of the war of conquest, spoils and capitalist exploitation". Comandante David said in an interview; "The object of this meeting is to meet one another and to come to know one another’s pains and sufferings. It is to share our experiences, because each tribe is different."[19]

The Third Encuentro of the Zapatistas People with the People of the World was held from December 28, 2007 - January 1, 2008[20]

In mid January 2009, Marcos made a speech on behalf of the Zapatistas in which he supported the resistance of the Palestinians as "the Israeli government's heavily trained and armed military continues its march of death and destruction." He described the actions of the Israeli government as a "classic military war of conquest". He said: "The Palestinian people will also resist and survive and continue struggling and will continue to have sympathy from below for their cause."[21]

On August 8, 2013, the Zapatistas invite the world to a three-day fiesta to celebrate the ten years of Zapatista autonomy, in the five caracoles in Chiapas. 1,500 activists from all over the world will join the event named “the Little School of Liberty according to the Zapatistas”.[22][23]

Notable members

New media technologies and the Zapatista idea

The Zapatista idea is the use of tactical media to draw public attention to a political cause. Used as a form of political activism, the Zapatista idea is the notion that “the important thing is the spectacle that you make out of an event in the media, as opposed to the event itself".[24] The concept derives from the Zapatistas' ability through new media to communicate and generate universal solidarity in Mexico and worldwide. An example of the use of new media technology is through the Chiapas Media Project

The “communications revolution has generally shifted the ‘balance of power’ from the media to the audience”.[25] This has allowed the Zapatista idea to flourish, opening up new channels and providing a powerful forum for political participation by citizens (see edemocracy) on a scale like never before. “Digital, networked media allow for faster, diverse, two-way communications between users who have both more control and more choice”[26] as they become simultaneously users, producers and agents of social change.

See also




Further reading

  • Castellanos, L. (2007). México Armado: 1943-1981. Epilogue and chronology by Alejandro Jiménez Martín del Campo. México: Biblioteca ERA. 383 pp. ISBN 968-411-695-0 ISBN 978-968-411-695-5
  • Patrick & Ballesteros Corona, Carolina (1998). Cuninghame, "The Zapatistas and Autonomy", Capital & Class, No. 66, Autumn, pp 12–22.
  • The Zapatista Reader edited by Tom Hayden 2002 A wide sampling of notable writing on the subject. ISBN 9781560253358

External links

  • (Spanish)
  • EZLN Communiques (1994–2004) translated into English
  • by Subcomandante Marcos Chapter 1
  • "What is it that is Different About the Zapatistas?"
  • by Blake Bailey
  • A Celebration of the Struggle of the Zapatista Women
  • Occupy Movement, the Zapatistas and the General Assemblies
  • The Narco News Bulletin - Articles on the Zapatistas
  • "A Commune in Chiapas? Mexico and the Zapatista Rebellion (1994–2000)" by
  • "Visiting the Zapatistas" by Nick Rider, New Statesman, March 12, 2009
  • "Commodifying the Revolution: Zapatista Villages Become Hot Tourist Destinations" by John Ross


  • Documentary:
  • Documentary:
  • NPR Audio Stories: Zapatistas In Mexico City
  • Short film:
  • BBC News In Pictures: Mexico's Zapatistas
  • DeviantArt: EZLN
  • Schools for Chiapas: Murals, Signs, & Art
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