What is the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN)?
The Zapatistas are both an Indian and a campesino, or peasant
movement. The EZLN and its social bases of support, the Indidenous
communities of Chiapas, are composed almost exclusively of Tzeltal,
Tzotzil, Chol, Mam, Zoque and Tojolobal Indians. Mexicans from other
social backgrounds and different states are involved in the movement as
well. The Army is an army of farmers. Troops rotate between the fields and
military duty. One-third of the combatants are women. Women make up 55% of
the Zapatista logistical support base. Comandantes Ramona Petra, Ana Maria
and Susana led battalions into the war. The EZLN's structure is based on
traditional indigenous forms of organization and governance. The communal
assembly guides and directs its decisions.
What is the organizational structure of the EZLN and who con-
stitutes its leadership?
The Zapatistas' organizational structure
is based upon traditional indigenous forms of organization and governance.
The communal assembly is integral to each Zapatista community and based on
the equal participation of women and men. Each assembly within the
Zapatista indigenous villages selects its own officers: a "responsible" to
secure the communal safe house, education and health commissioners who
meet regionally. They also select delegates to one of six Clandestine
Revolutionary Indigenous Committees (CCRIs), each of the six Zapatista
language groups having its own. Each CCRI has sixteen to forty members
depending on the regional population. Eleven delegates are chosen to sit
on the ruling CCRI-General Command (CCRI-CG) of the Zapatista Army of
National Liberation. The overall consensus reached by the sum total of the
Zapatista village assemblies guides and directs the decisions of the
EZLN's leadership. Consultations are held with these village assemblies on
a regular basis with regard to the decisions concerning everything from
the decision to go to war in January 1994, the position of the EZLN within
the negotiation process for indigenous rights, to the Zapatistas' recent
rejection of the Mexican governments counter-proposal to the San Andres
Agreements on Indigenous Rights and Culture.
Who is Subcommandante Marcos?
He is the official spokesman
and leader of the EZLN's military wing. He is not Indian,. and is one of
three ladinos, a person of mixed decent, who remain in the EZLN. He came
to Chiapas in 1983 when the Zapatistas first becan to organize themselves.
The Subcomandante serves under the CCRI-General Command and was chosen
spokesperson because of his "facility with castilia" (Spanish), English
What proportion of the population is Indigenous and what is their
current social, economic, status in Mexico?
Mexico has the largest
indigenous population in Latin America. Forty percent of the continent's
40 million native peoples inhabit the territory known today as Mexico.
Clustered into 56 distinct cultures and a hundred languages. the Indian
population is estimated to be between 8-12 million, or 10 to 14% of the
total population of 86 million in Mexico. Twenty of the groups have less
than 1,000 members, and are in danger of extinction. Some groups, such as
the Tojolobales in Chiapas, are practicing Catholics and have little
recollection of their history, culture or religion. The natives have the
highest indices of poverty, disease, marginalization and levels of
malnutrition and illiteracy. Of the 32 states in Mexico, 6 have a high
percentage of indigenous people; Chiapas is one them. Despite the fact
that Chiapas has enormous industrial and agricultural wealth, it remains
one the most impoverished states in Mexico. For example Chiapas produces
55% of Mexico's hydroelectric energy, 20% of the nation's electricity, and
the estimated oil potential of Chiapas and Guatemala combined could exceed
that of Saudi Arabia. Yet 7 out of 10 homes are without electricity; over
50% of the work force earns less than US$3.32 per day; 80% of the children
suffer from malnutrition; on average 1,500 deaths occur each year from
What is the indigenous peoples' current political status and
relationship to the Mexican state?
Officially Mexico recognizes
its indigenous peoples within Article 4 of the Mexican Constitution.
Indigenismo is the name of the government policy towards indigenous
peoples. This policy is manifested through guardianship and is welfare
oriented and paternalistic. The National Indigenous Institute (INI), a
Government agency similar to the US Bureau of Indian Affairs, carries out
health, education, cultural development, and defense of indigenous
peoples' citizenship rights. However INI has been criticized for using
education as a tool for assimilation and health care is spotty. It has
become increasingly unclear in Mexico just who is Indian, from the state's
perspective. Today, the state recognizes as "indigenous" only those who
speak indigenous languages. There exist no commonly understood juridical
categories for the Indian peoples. Demands for collective rights are made
to a loose interpretation of what might constitute a "people" or "pueblo"
or "ethnic group," suggesting that Native groups do not always view
themselves as nations." They are typically classified according to
socioeconomic class (especially campesinos). The majority of native
peoples live on ejidal or communal land that, prior to 1994, was
constitutionally guaranteed to both canipesinos and indigenous
peoples. Since the amendment of Article 27 and 1994 rebellion, indigenous
peoples have increasingly begun to organize socially and politically under
their own structures. In 1996, representatives of the 56 groups formed the
National Indigenous Congress, a body closely involved in the San Andres
What is significance of Article 27 and NAFTA to the
The Zapatistas have referred to issues of
land and agriculture as fundamental to their struggle. The changes made by
former PRI President Carlos Salinas de Gortari to Article 27 of the
Mexican Constitution and the implementation of NAFTA were stated to be
"the death sentence for the indigenous peoples of Mexico" by the
Zapatistas in their 1994 declaration of war. Article 27 was adopted during
the Mexican Revolution by the government as a result of the organized
protest and demands of revolutionary campesinos such as Emilano
Zapata, the leader of the original Zapatistas. Article 27 proclaimed the
Mexican people as owners of the lands and waters of the nation. It
established an agrarian reform to redistribute land to campesinos,
and provide for communal ownership of that land. In the 1930s further
agrarian reform provided the constitutional basis for the distribution of
20 million hectares of land or ejidos to indigenous and
non-indigenous agrarian communities. President Salinas amended Article 27
just prior to the 1994 rebellion in order to permit the privatization of
communal land holdings. The changes were meant to "modernize" the Mexican
countryside and more significantly intended to bring Mexico's property
laws into line with their partners in NAFTA, the United States and Canada.
Ejido lands now have a market value and as was demonstrated under
the American system of allotment of Indian lands in the 1880s, that alone
was enough to destroy an Indian land base.
These reforms were made to pave the way for NAFTA, about which the
indigenous and non-indigenous peoples were not consulted, and affected 3.5
million people living and working on ejidal lands in Chiapas, and
millions of other campesinos throughout Mexico. Many are concerned
about losing land they already occupy, and many have already been
violently evicted by large cattle ranchers, landowners and the government,
who typically employ private militias or "white guards" to conduct the
removals of the indigenous campesinos. The Zapatistas as well as
many others groups in Mexico have voiced their concern that the
elimination of tariff barriers and quotas would flood the Mexican market
with US and Canadian corn and lead to the economic ruin of small-scale
Mexican farmers. These concerns, first voiced in 1993 and 1994, have
increasingly become a reality.
What is the significance of natural resources within the
The reforms made by the Mexican government with regard
to the privatization of not only ejidal lands but to the formerly
state-owned petroleum and natural gas industries are significant with
regard to the issue of indigenous rights. Official reports by oil experts
indicate that the proven oil reserves of Chiapas are second only to
Venezuela in the Western Hemisphere. Eight important unexplored oil sites
are located on ejido land under Zapatista control. Officials from
PEMEX, the Mexican government oil company, also reportedly informed the US
Department of Energy and Commerce negotiators during the final phases of
NAFTA negotiations in 1993, of other large petroleum and natural gas
sources near Ocosingo, which is located in the conflict zone. In order to
secure a $50 billion bailout package from the US to stave off the collapse
of the Mexican economy, the Mexican Government put up its oil reserves and
the proceeds from Mexican crude oil, oil products and petrochemical
exports for collateral.
Mexico has also signed several agreements concerning investment and
development projects with US and other transnational corporations. Many of
the lands and resources in question are located on indigenous
ejidal lands. For example, in November 1996 Hydro Quebec
International signed an agreement for the development of natural gas
resources with Mexico's Federal Electricity Commission, the Quebec
Association for Energy Efficiency, and Mexico's Trust for Energy Savings.
Furthermore, less than one month after the President Zedillo rejected the
proposed legislative initiatives regarding indigenous rights, the
Environmental Minister announced a large World Bank loan for "forestry"
and commercial plantations. In relation, it has recently been made public
that the Zedillo Administration signed an agreement in June 1995 for
the establishment for a Mexican forestry industry that would be supported
by commercial plantations. At that time, President Zedillo committed to an
initial project of 50,000 hectares in the state of Chiapas. The lands in
question are primarily inhabited by indigenous peoples who have
historically occupied them.
The Mexican government has also made agreements with US companies,
Simpson Paper and Louisiana Paper, to buy all the wood products from a
project to produce 6 million cubic meters of wood material per year.
President Salinas made the agreement on the project with the company
Interfin in 1993), to establish commercial plantations for rapid growth on
a surface of 300,000 hectares in the states of Tabasco, Campeche and
Chiapas-states with some of the largest indigenous populations and who
live on much of the land in question. However, as Mexican constitutional
law now stands, there are no provisions or rights which would require that
the government or private financial interests consult indigenous peoples
about leasing and sales of their lands or agreements made for foreign
investment and development projects regarding the resources on these
What are the San Andres Agreements?
The San Andres Agreements
are accords outlining the fundamental demands of Mexico's indigenous
peoples. These minimum standards were agreed upon at the National
Indigenous Forum in January 1996. Representatives of the 56 indigenous
peoples met with the Zapatistas to express their needs and demands.
Fundamental points include: 1) Recognition of indigenous people's right to
self-determination. 2) Autonomy as a means sought to achieve
self-determination: as a collective right to have diversity respected,
control over native territories and resources within them. 3) Recognition
of the "community" as a public entity with a legal character, not only in
the agrarian area, but in all municipalities, rural and urban. At this
time only municipal agencies have official recognition; urban
neighborhoods, un-incorporated villages and rural centers do not have any
type of representation. 4) The indigenous peoples propose to reinforce the
municipality as an institution that must be adapted in a realistic manner
to the particular situation of indigenous peoples. They should have the
right to designate freely their representatives as well as their
organizations of municipal government. 5) The indigenous peoples propose
the right for municipalities to become associated among themselves as
indigenous communities in order to coordinate their actions. 6) In order
to solve the national agrarian problem it is necessary to reform Article
27 of the Constitution. This article should recover the spirit of Emilano
Zapata summarized in the basic demands: the lands should be owned by those
who work them.
What is the difference between the original agreements of San Andres
that were signed by both the EZLN and the government in February 1996, and
the document of the COCOPA on constitutional reforms regarding Indigenous
The original agreements of San Andres were the
Constitutional proposals that resulted after several months of debates and
negotiations between the EZLN, several hundred indigenous leaders and the
government negotiating team. They were signed by the Zapatistas and the
Mexican government in February 1996. The agreements were based on the
concepts of indigenous autonomy, as expressed through self-determination,
territory and community. The government however refused to convert the
documents into law. In November 1996, the COCOPA intervened and the EZLN
and the government entrusted the COCOPA to draft a new proposal. The
constitutional proposal was among the most important conditions which were
being dealt with for a resumption of the dialogue. The COCOPA document
proposed many far-reaching changes for indigenous rights but lacked many
elements of the original agreements of San Andres, particularly the issue
of land reform and distribution. On November 29, 1996 the EZLN accepted
the proposal of the COCOPA while the government responded on December 19th
with a counter-proposal.
Why are the agreements important?
Currently the indigenous
peoples have no constitutionally guaranteed rights as "peoples." Their
"historic significance" is recognized in Article 4 of the Constitution but
they have no collective rights to self-determination or over their
homelands. If the San Andres Agreements were converted into Constitutional
law indigenous peoples for the first time in Mexico's history would have
the rights to: self-determination; autonomy as a collective right, have
their diversity respected, control over the resources within their lands:
recognition of the "community" as a public entity; right to organize the
municipalities in their territories according to their traditional forms
of governance; to elect their own officials and tile right of these
indigenous municipalities to become associated in order to coordinate
Why did the Zapatistas reject the government's counter-proposal on
The Zapatistas stated that their "particular
considerations" for rejecting the document were: "In Article 4, three
central aspects of autonomy are nullified:
1) The capacity of the
indigenous peoples for self-government.
2) The capacity to apply
internal normative systems.
3) The collective access to the use
and enjoyment of natural
resources on their lands and
The Zapatistas also stated that the counter-proposal "reduces
indigenous peoples to secondary status"; "is based upon an ethnocentric,
discriminatory and racist conception;" and "reveals clearly an ignorance
of indigenous peoples, of legal techniques, of the Constitution and of
What is the "low-intensity war?"
Low-intensity war refers to
the Mexican government's policy of militarization, repression and violence
against the indigenous communities in Chiapas. The strategy employed by
Federal Army troops is to build walls of hunger, isolation and fear in
order to undermine the Zapatistas' social base of support. The
low-intensity war has been going on since 1994 after the official
cease-fire. In the last three years there have been countless reports
filed by international human rights groups like Amnesty International as
well as by Mexican organizations. There is an alarming rate of human
rights violations by the military in the conflict zones. These violations
include: summary executions, rape, torture, beatings. kidnappings,
mutilation, threats, destruction of property, theft of food and animals,
arbitrary searches, arrests, and imprisonment without trial. Currently
there are now 60,000 Mexican troops stationed in the state of Chiapas,
25,000 of which are located in the areas deemed as conflict zones. There
have also been numerous reports of human rights abuses by the military
since the Zapatistas' rejection of the govemment's counterproposal on
January 11, 1997.
What is the current status of the crisis?
Little has changed
with regard to the crisis-the low-intensity war continues. The Government
has remained firm in its resolve to pursue a military as opposed to a
political solution to the demands and needs of the Indigenous peoples.
Instead, state-sanctioned violence against the Indigenous Zapatista
communities and sympathizers has escalated in recent months leaving tens
of thousands murdered, disappeared or displaced from their lands.
In response to the rapidly deteriorating situation in Chiapas and the
Govemment's unwillingness to work towards a peaceful solution to the
conflict or to respect the rights of Indigenous peoples, the Zapatistas
have decided to send delegations of representatives out of Chiapas. The
first delegation, comprised of one Tojolobal man and woman, traveled to
Spain in July in order to attend the Second Intercontinental Encounter for
Humanity and Against Neoliberalism. Felipe and Dahlia,
addressed more than 3,000 people from all over the world. They shared
their testimonies concerning the effects of the low- intensity war on
their communities as well as their stories of resistance and vision for a
new Mexico. In sum they told supporters, "Never Again a Mexico Without
Us." Felipe and Dahlia asked on behalf of the Zapatistas'
social bases of support for civil society to organize and mobilize for the
immediate end the low-intensity war; the demilitarization of Chiapas and
other states in Mexico; implementation of the San Andres Agreements on
Indigenous Rights and Culture in its entirety; and the Mexican govemment's
full compliance with international human rights laws.
In the beginning of September, the Zapatistas sent another delegation
to Italy. The two representatives at one rally near Rome were met by more
than 50,000 supporters. Days after in Mexico, 1,111 Zapatistas marched to
Mexico City in order to protest against the low-intensity war and the
failure of the government to implement by the San Andres Agreements, as
well as to attend the founding Congress of the Zapatista Front of National
Liberation (FZLN). The FZLN is a new civilian political force, based on
principles of Zapatistismo.
The Zapatistas were met in the Zacalo, Mexico City's central plaza and
main political stage, by more than 200,000 supporters. Following the
rally, and the four-day inaugural Congress, the Zapatistas returned to
their communities in Chiapas. The overwhelming public support generated by
national and international civil society was successful in dismissing the
public posturings of the Mexican government and mainstream media about
their fading support. In addition, the march was relatively effective in
creating more energetic support for the San Andres Agreements by the
opposition parties in the Mexican Congress. Members of the PRD stated
recently that it is their intention to push an emergency measure regarding
the implementation of the accords in their entirety, through the Congress.
Zedillo however has dismissed the undeniable and overwhelming, success of
the Zapatistas' march and has made no overtures towards implementing the
Agreements nor towards ending the low-intensity war and restarting
negotiations with the Zapatistas.