Who Are the Zapatistas? Unmasking Mexico’s Indigenous Guerrilla Army

The Zapatistas are an enigmatic army of Indigenous insurgents who live autonomously in the Mexican state of Chiapas. But who are they behind their masks?

Jul 1, 2024By Rowan Glass, BA Cultural Anthropology, History, and Latin American Studies

zapatistas mexican indigenous army


The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) is an Indigenous insurgent group in southern Mexico that fights for the rights of Indigenous Mexicans. The group is based in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state, and began its rebellion against the Mexican government on January 1, 1994. During this uprising, the Zapatistas gained control over a significant area of Chiapas, which they have since governed as an autonomous zone, free from the control of the Mexican state. The EZLN’s actions marked a critical moment in Indigenous Mexicans’ fight for autonomy, rights, and recognition.


Historical Background: Mayans and Marxists

Zapatistas on the 26th anniversary of the uprising, by Anya Briy, 2020. Source: openDemocracy.


In the early hours of January 1, 1994, masked and armed EZLN insurgents marched down from the Indigenous highlands of Chiapas and took control of four important cities in the state, including its largest one, San Cristóbal de las Casas. As some Zapatista rebels engaged the Mexican army and police in gunfights, others distributed flyers, delivered speeches, and burned public records thought to be harmful to Indigenous farmers. As Mexican forces launched a counterattack, the rebels retreated to the mountains and jungles from whence they came, preparing their next moves.


However, the Zapatista uprising was not an impulsive action. It was the result of years of planning and preparation. The roots of this movement can be found in 500 years of colonial exploitation in the largely Mayan regions of Chiapas, as well as the leftist uprisings in the urban areas of Mexico during the late 20th century.


In the summer of 1983, two revolutionary movements converged in the remote Lacandon Jungle of Chiapas. Local Maya peasants, who had been deprived of their lands and rights for centuries, joined with urban intellectual guerrilla militants of the National Liberation Front (FLN), who had recently arrived in Chiapas after fleeing state repression in the cities. The Maya aimed to put an end to the historical injustices of colonialism and its impact on the majority-Indigenous highlands of Chiapas. The Marxist guerrillas aimed to spark a proletarian revolutionary fervor by channeling the traditional grievances of the Maya. Together, they founded the EZLN.

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Subcomandante Marcos, a leading spokesperson of the EZLN, by AFP, 2014. Source: BBC.


By the early 1990s, the ELZN had also begun setting up concealed training camps in the jungles of Chiapas and gathering weapons. Meanwhile, officials in Washington and Mexico City were discussing a new trade policy, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which would be enacted together with the 1992 amendment of Article 27 of the 1991 Mexican Constitution. This amendment strengthened private property rights, enabling the privatization of ejidos, or agricultural parcels of communal land owned by the state and managed collectively by local farmers. These measures posed serious threats to the economic livelihoods of smallholder farmers, particularly Indigenous ones in primarily agricultural states such as Chiapas. The Indigenous peasants, who had already suffered considerably under the old system, were now at risk of losing their economic and vital sustenance. As the date of NAFTA’s implementation in Mexico approached, Indigenous communities across the Chiapas Highlands prepared to resist.


The Zapatista Uprising of New Year’s Day 1994

Zapatista insurgents moving through the jungle, by Jorge Núñez, 2014. Source: The Conversation.


On January 1st, 1994, the EZLN made their public debut by capturing several towns in Chiapas, Mexico during the early hours of the morning. Tourists on the way to visit Mayan ruins such as Chichen Itza awoke to masked and armed Maya men and women marching through the central streets of San Cristóbal de las Casas. By dawn, city hall had been taken over, land records destroyed, and prisoners freed. The rebels soon realized that the state was prepared to retaliate and left San Cristóbal shortly after.


The EZLN was initially successful in occupying several towns. However, by the end of the first week of the uprising, as Mexican state forces rallied and launched a counteroffensive, the rebels were driven out. Skirmishes continued in the Lacandon Jungle for a few more days until the two sides called a ceasefire on January 12, 1994. The conflict resulted in the deaths of approximately 145 people, mostly rebels. After the brief war, both the Zapatistas and the Mexican government largely opted to pursue peaceful means of resolving the conflict, though some government voices still called for a military solution.


The Aftermath of the Uprising

Zapatista territory sign in Chiapas, by Matthew Rader, 2006. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


In the decades since the uprising, the Chiapas conflict has been mostly stable. There has been no more extensive combat between the EZLN and the Mexican state, and the autonomous zones have been able to operate with relative freedom. Although their most radical goals outside of Chiapas failed to materialize following the uprising, the EZLN, particularly through its spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos, remained an active voice on the national political scene well into the 2000s. The March of the Color of the Earth and the Other Campaign, two Zapatista tours through Mexico in the 2000s, drew mass domestic and international support and confirmed the EZLN’s political significance on a national level. In Chiapas itself, the situation remained relatively stable until the recent escalation of paramilitary violence.


In recent years, there has been an increase in paramilitary violence against Zapatista communities. This is partly due to the Mexican drug war spreading into southern Mexico, which was previously considered a safer area compared to other parts of the country. Due to the unstable paramilitary situation in Chiapas, the autonomous zones are currently closed, with only rare exceptions allowing visitors to enter. The Zapatistas recently opened their territory to the outside public for the first time in several years when they celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Zapatista uprising.


Zapatismo: What do the Zapatistas Believe?

Zapatista militants standing against a mural of Emiliano Zapata, by Eduardo Verdugo, 2018. Source: The Guardian.


The Zapatistas are difficult to categorize in terms of ideology. They have been referred to as Marxists, anarchists, libertarian socialists, Indigenists, and more. Although some of these labels may be generally applicable, the Zapatistas’ ideology—often called Zapatismo or neo-Zapatismo—is best described as a syncretic blend of various influences and elements. It draws from both the Indigenous cultures of Mexico and various strands of radical leftism.


The EZLN is a movement primarily composed of Indigenous Mexicans from various communities in southern Mexico, particularly subgroups of the Maya such as the Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Ch’ol, Zoque, and Tojolabal. The main goals of the EZLN are to obtain recognition of Indigenous rights, dignity, and autonomy; to put an end to over five centuries of colonial oppression of Indigenous peoples; and to put an end to neoliberalism and globalization in Chiapas and beyond. The Fourth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, a communiqué released by the EZLN on the second anniversary of the Zapatista uprising, captures its vision: “In the world we want, everyone fits. In the world we want, many worlds fit.”


Zapatista musicians playing the Zapatista hymn under the movement’s flag, by Eduardo Verdugo, 2014. Source: CTV News.


The Zapatistas also look to the past to define their ideology, taking their name from Emiliano Zapata, a key figure in the Mexican Revolution. Zapata led the Liberation Army of the South, fighting for land redistribution and agrarian reform. After he was assassinated by the Mexican state, Zapata became a symbol of the revolution, especially for poor, landless, and Indigenous peasants. His movement was encapsulated by the slogan “Land and Liberty” (Tierra y Libertad), which was coined by the Mexican anarchist Ricardo Flores Magón. By adopting Zapata’s name, the EZLN position themselves as the legitimate successors to Zapata’s ideology.


Political Objectives and Demands

Zapatista women, by Tim Russo, 1998. Source: North American Congress on Latin America.


In March 1994, the Zapatistas issued a list of 34 demands on behalf of the Indigenous peoples of Chiapas, addressed to the Mexican national government and the state of Chiapas. Their statement explains the reasons for their struggle and their primary demands, as the Indigenous people of Chiapas rose up in arms against poverty and poor governance. Their demands involve a wide range of issues, including free and fair elections at all levels of politics, recognition and protection of specific Indigenous rights, and the establishment of autonomous self-governance, among other issues.


Notably, this declaration includes a section specifically for the “Indigenous women’s petition.” This section closely resembles the EZLN Women’s Revolutionary Law, which was issued on the day of the Zapatista uprising. The Women’s Revolutionary Law establishes the rights of Zapatista and Indigenous women, including the right to political participation, education, freedom from gender-based violence, and bodily autonomy. The law states that the EZLN incorporates women into the revolutionary struggle regardless of their race, creed, color, or political views.


In the state of Chiapas and throughout Mexico, traditional gender and sexual norms have long held sway, making the Zapatistas a progressive force in terms of women’s rights. Women have become increasingly involved in the Zapatista movement, taking on roles such as officers and spokespeople. One notable example is Comandanta Ramona, the first Zapatista to appear in public in Mexico City, where she presided over the 1996 CNI gathering. Approximately one-third of EZLN combatants are women.


Comandanta Ramona. Source: Wikimedia Commons


After the ELZN abandoned the armed struggle following the 1994 ceasefire, the group focused on pursuing legal ways to establish Indigenous rights and autonomy. One of their key objectives during negotiations with the Mexican government has been the creation of a Law of Rights and Culture specifically for Indigenous Peoples. The EZLN first proposed this law in July 1998 in the Fifth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle and reiterated its demand for it in the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle in 2005, which is their most recent major manifesto. For now, the Zapatistas are dedicated to peacefully establishing legal recognition of Indigenous rights and cultures in Mexico.

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By Rowan GlassBA Cultural Anthropology, History, and Latin American StudiesRowan is an anthropologist, journalist, and filmmaker with a BA in Cultural Anthropology, History, and Latin American Studies. Rowan grew up in Oregon but has spent much of his life exploring other cultures and corners of the world. His undergraduate research took him from the mountains and rainforests of southwest Colombia, where he conducted an ethnography of cultural reproduction and autonomy with the Indigenous Kamëntšá people, to the streets of Dakar, Senegal, where he crafted recommendations for culturally responsive pedagogy with local NGOs. Rowan strives to tell engaging stories about underreported people and places through incisive research and creative endeavors.