Zapatista Movement

Subcomandante Marcos and Comandante Tacho in La Realidad, Chiapas, 1999, TJ Scenes/Cesar Bojoquez, CC. 2.0

Subcomandante Marcos and Comandante Tacho in La Realidad, Chiapas, 1999, TJ Scenes/Cesar Bojoquez, CC. 2.0

Zapatista Movement

In this article, we shall discuss the Zapatista Movement in Mexico. We shall examine the origins of the movement, the political, social, economic, and cultural issues that the movement raises in Mexico and elsewhere, as well as their criticisms of the Mexican government and their policies towards the indigenous community in the country. We will also discuss the leadership of the Zapatista Movement, with particular attention to Subcomandante Marcos. We will also examine their rise to power in the Chiapas in 1994, as well as the current conditions in the region. The Zapatista Movement, who’s numbers may be as high as 250,000 people (or roughly 22 percent of the total indigenous Chiapas population) (Klein, 2015) are a very important movement in the Chiapas, Mexico, and internationally. In addition, there is increased attention to this region, particularly with the Pope Saint Francis’ planned visit to the Chiapas in mid-February. 

Origins of the Zapatista Movement

In terms of their origins, the Zapatistas are said to have come from various indigenous communities in Southeast Mexico, many of which are located in or near jungles. According to scholars, “[t]hey were mostly colonists displaced by the harsh economic realities of the Chiapas highlands, but other migrants who also came were mestizo veterans of agrarian struggles in other parts of Mexico, and elements of the intellectual left that went underground after the repression of 1968 and the early 1970s” (Rosset, Martinez-Torres & Hernandez-Navarro, 2005: 37). It is also said that they were highly influenced by liberation theology (Rosset, Martinez-Torres & Hernandez-Navarro, 2005).

Over the years (such as in the early 1990s when the EZLN was forming), much of this was because of government actions against the indigenous population in Mexico. For example, in an interview with a farmer twenty years later, Laura Gottesdiener (2014) found that he felt the government continued to abuse the indigenous community, by either taking their lands, taking resources from the land, not providing them with rights, making people move out of the country, and also setting up an education system that did not provide for cultural rights such as the use of local languages. 

In 1994, the various indigenous population in southeastern Mexico–in the Chiapas region–“took up arms to protest their government’s acceptance of the North American Free Trade Agreement” (Smith, et. al., 2015). And from this point, when the rebels took over four areas in Chiapas, the Zapatista Movement came to control the politics and economics of their local community, and “emerged as one of the first globally networked groups to resist economic globalization” (Smith, et. al, 2015: 66-67).  It is important to note that this as the same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was put in place. 

After controlling their local areas, they began to not only reorganize the local politics, but they also reached out and continued to speak out on behalf of the rights of the indigenous in the country and elsewhere. They were quiet critical of the neo-liberal economic policies of NAFTA, and what they believed it would do to the economies and goods of local farmers. Related to this, it was said that many of the indigenous communities in the Chiapas region were challenged by cattle ranchers, by corruption at the local and national levels, by difficult farming soil, as well as falling prices for their farmed goods. And thus, as a result of these issues, individuals came together to protest their conditions and government rights abuses (Rosset, Martinez-Torres & Hernandez-Navarro, 2005). Thus, they felt that NAFTA would minimize demand for local products (thus hurting the farmers and also the indigenous community), and in addition, that the agreement as a whole had little in it calling for the rights of people (Garcia, 2016).

And while the fighting with the state ended after twelve days, the government, although saying they would offer concessions and other benefits to the indigenous population–through the form of a codified agreement–changed their position. In terms of what happened,

“Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, who, in the wake of the uprising, had promised to enact greater protections for indigenous peoples, instead sent thousands of troops into the Zapatistas’s territory in search of Subcomandante Marcos, the world-renowned spokesperson for the movement. They didn’t find him. But the operation marked the beginning of a hush-hush war against the communities that supported the Zapatistas. The army, police, and hired thugs burned homes and fields and wrecked small, communally owned businesses. Some local leaders disappeared. Others were imprisoned. In one region of Chiapas, the entire population was displaced for so long that the Red Cross set up a refugee camp for them. (In the end, the community rejected the Red Cross aid, in the same way that it also rejects all government aid)” (Gottesdiener, 2014).

In 1996, the Zapatista Movement signed an accord with the Mexican National Government in which the government offered additional rights and also provided autonomy for the indigenous population (Klein, 2015). They have continued to advocate for indigenous rights. For example, they also pushed for anti-discrimination laws in 2001, and although it passed, some suggest that the final language was so diluted that it did little for indigenous and minority rights (Garcia, 2016). As a result of this, the Zapatistas looked internally for their rights, angry and disenchanted with the government and government actions towards the indigenous population (Garcia, 2016).

Political Organization of the Zapatistas

The Zapatistas have worked to establish self-governance in the Chiapas region of Mexico. They have evolved their political tactics from merely controlling state buildings (such as in January of 1994) to other forms of governance which now include five specific councils. Here, “[m]embership in these rotates between different members of the community every two weeks, so that everyone is directly involved in local governance” (Tucker, 2014).

The Zapatista military does have weapons, although they do not have many, the ones they have are viewed as old and rather outdated (60 Minutes interview), and the Zapatista Movement seems to rarely use them. Instead, according to reports, “Since 1994, the movement has largely worked without arms. Villagers resisted government attacks and encroachments with road blockades, silent marches, and even, in one famous case, an aerial attack comprised entirely of paper airplanes” (Gottesdiener, 2014). 

Societal Organization of the Zapatistas

The Zapatistas have structured their communities in a very communal way. There are a number of villages and towns that are under the control of the Zapatista movement. In addition, the size of the villages may vary. Within the overall Zapatista Chiapas controlled region, the different communities are viewed as municipalities, which can have varied numbers of villages. There are roughly forty of these municipalities, and they are divided into five larger zones or caracoles (Klein, 2015).  

Gender Rights 

The Zapatistas have also been consistent and outspoken advocates for equal gender rights. The Zapatista movement not only makes verbal statements with regards to their belief of equal rights, but they also have a series of structures in place that guarantees equal rights for women. For example, many women have held leadership positions within the Zapatista movement and society, with “Zapatista women [having] served as insurgents, political leaders, healers, educators, and key agents in autonomous economic development” (Klein, 2015). In addition, as Klein (2015) writes:

Women’s participation in the EZLN has helped shape the Zapatista movement which has, in turn, opened new spaces for women and led to dramatic changes in their lives. A woman who was abused as a teenager at the hands of a husband chosen by her father would later join a caravan of thousands of Zapatistas marching on Mexico City to demand indigenous rights. Along the way, she would meet with other Mexican women and urge them to fight for their liberation as she had. Compañeras documents these changes through the voices of women who lived them.

The Zapatista movement also demands that women have equal representation in leadership positions.

Subcomandante Marcos

Although he does not seem himself as such, many have argued that the political leader of the Zapatista (EZLN) Movement is an individual that goes by “Subcomandante Marcos”. His background is not completely known. But despite not revealing his identity, many have pointed to the influence that Marcos has had on the region, on the demands for human rights, and for criticizing neo-liberal economic policies. Speaking about Subcomandante Marcos, Al Jazeera (2014) writes that “Marcos helped galvanise support from civil society groups, even as the Mexican army forced the Zapatistas back into the jungles and mountains of Chiapas.” He is an individual that has received a great deal of international attention, and support by activists, as he has continued to call for the the rights of the politically and economically oppressed.

Positions of the Zapatista Movement

The Zapatista Movement has been one of the most prominent voices regarding the rights of the indigenous population in the Chiapas and Mexico as a whole. They have argued that the indigenous groups’ rights have continued to be oppressed by internal and external forces; they have argued that both historical Mexican governments, as well as international actors (and international systems such as capitalism) have all lead to increased suffering of the population. Specifically, 

The indigenous communities that make up the EZLN have historically confronted extreme inequality: economic, because of the legacy of colonialism and the concentration of land and wealth in Chiapas; political, because of their exclusion from state, national, and local decision making; and social, because of racism against indigenous people and the lack of basic services such as health care, education, electricity, and potable water. Women have also faced gender-based discrimination. In the words of Comandanta Ester, from a speech she gave in Mexico City’s central plaza in 2001, “We are oppressed three times over, because we are poor, because we are indigenous, and because we are women.” This history of marginalization serves as a backdrop for the striking changes that have taken place in Zapatista territory (Klein, 2015).

Zapatista Issues with NAFTA

The Zapatista movement has spoken out against the injustices that neo-economic policies bring to humans and communities as a whole. As scholars explain, “For Zapatismo,‘modern globalization, or neo-liberalism as a world system, should be understood as a new war of conquest.’ The end of the Cold War–what the Zapatistas call the Third World War–does not imply that we have achieved stability under the hegemony of the victor.Yes, there was a loser, but it is not clear who the victor is. Out of the defeat of the socialist camp came new markets without owners, and a global race to conquer them. The Zapatistas see the Fourth World War as the battle for the conquest of markets, a race between the world’s great financial centres” (Rosset, Martinez-Torres & Hernandez-Navarro, 2005: 36).

Thus, related to their criticism of this neoliberal capitalism are their problems with the NAFTA. In fact, the Zapatista Movement has been highly critical of the North American Free Trade Agreement. In fact, “Zapatista spokesman known only as “Subcomandante Marcos” proclaimed NAFTA a “death certificate” for Mexico’s indigenous farmers, noting it would force them to compete with a wave of cheap US imports, while under the terms of the agreement the Mexican government had revoked their constitutional right to communal land” (Tucker, 2014). The concern was that the local corn markets would be highly impacted by NAFTA (Gottesdiener, 2014). And thus, they began protesting these government policies.

But while NAFTA was implemented a two decades ago,  the Mexican government today is continuing along this path of economic liberalization, and, according to some, at the expense of domestic community and individual rights. For example, in 2014, they put forward “energy reforms that will allow private and foreign firms to drill for oil in Mexico[,]” which has “angered and frustrated the left” (USA Today, 2014).

Current Situation in the Chiapas

Speaking about the current Zapatista Movement and the local conditions of the indigenous community in the Chiapas, it has been said that “Today the rebellion remains a work in progress. Having established complete political and economic autonomy, the Zapatistas govern and police their own communities across five regions of Chiapas. Relations with the state remain strained, and Zapatistas complain of regular harassment by the military and paramilitary forces that surround their territory” (Tucker, 2014). Furthermore, there is little cooperation between the government and the Zapatista forces; they do not accept government aid, and are reliant on aid from any backers of the movement (Tucker, 2014). And thus, poverty is still very high in the region (USA Today, 2014). 

Furthermore, in May of 2014, “Jose Luis Solís López, a teacher in the Zapatista’s “Little School” (La Escuelita) was targeted and murdered, and at least 15 Zapatistas seriously injured, in an ambush in which the leaderships of the paramilitary group called CIOAC-Histórica, the Green Ecological Party, the National Action Party [PAN] and the Revolutionary Institutional Party [PRI] are all implicated in directing on Friday, May 2, 2014.  The same attackers damaged or destroyed both the autonomous Mayan school and the local health clinic at the Zapatista caracol of La Realidad” (Schools for Chiapas, 2014).

Thus, the area is still heavily guarded by the Zapatista fighters. and, “Although wary of outsiders and especially the media, the Zapatistas sometimes allow sympathisers and even curious tourists to visit Oventic, a tranquil community in the pine-clad highlands. If allowed entrance by the masked but unarmed guards, visitors may be allowed to speak with the governing council, buy local produce and view a school where children are taught in both Spanish and their native Tzotzil language. Guests who become ill are cared for at the Zapatista-run clinic” (Tucker, 2014).

In terms of the question of their strength and power, this remains difficult to answer. Some believe that they have not been given the same level of support and attention due to various other issues in Mexico currently (Jose Gil Olmos, in Al Jazeera, 2014). Even Subcomandante Marcos seems to concur, saying in a written press release that “They left. Some went faster than others. And the majority of them don’t look at us, or they do so with the same distance and intellectual disdain that they did before the dawn of Jan. 1, 1994” (USA Today, 2014).

However, it seems that they still have thousands of members. For example, in December of 2012, some 40,000 supporters marched in silence across Chiapas. Supporters say the movement has restored a sense of pride in the area, saying the Zapatistas have empowered women by passing a law prohibiting forced marriage or any form of sexual discrimination, and have kept their communities free from violence and addiction by outlawing drugs and alcohol” (Tucker, 2014). And, as Felipe Zrizmendi, who is the Roman Catholic Bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas, says, “The EZLN remains alive, not as a military option, but as a social and political organization that fights for a dignified life…”. He went on to say that “It is an effort to demonstrate that autonomy is possible; you don’t have to depend on the government” (USA Today, 2014).

And they have continued to work for indigenous rights in the country. They have done so through the continuing pressuring of the national government, the establishment of local self-governance, as well as the establishment of Zapatista health facilities, and Zapatista schools.

There has been some more recent coverage on the Zapatista movement in the Chiapas. In a 2016 article by Malcolm Garcia entitled Faded Zapatista Legacy Lingers in Chiapas, he argues that poverty continues to be a very serious problem in the Chiapas region of Mexico. Some have also continued to question the Zapatista movement’s position on refusing any government aid to help the indigenous population.

The Zapatista Schools

The EZLN has been very active in providing and supporting local schools within their controlled caracoles in the Chiapas region of Mexico. For example, “In August 2013, the Zapatistas launched La Escuelita – “The Little School” – a series of coordinated classes that drew about 1,500 academics, activists and sympathisers from Mexico and abroad to the autonomous communities” (Tucker, 2014). Here, students will learn about various subjects, which include their history and the Zapatista Movement against the rights abuses of the Mexican government.  In addition, they will also learn “learn trades like electrical wiring, artisanal crafts, and farming practices” (Gottesdiener, 2014).

Again, the Zapatistas have been active in establishing training sessions for individuals, to help them think about issues related to what they view as the problems of capitalism. For example, “On the outskirts of San Cristobal de las Casas, famed colonial center of the southern state of Chiapas, on the wooded campus of the Indigenous Center for Comprehensive Training (Spanish acronym:CIDECI…over a thousand people from all over Mexico and beyond are attending a weeklong seminar “Critical Thinking Confronting the Capitalist Hydra” (Rodgers, 2015).  Here, individuals from throughout the community and throughout Mexico are coming to discuss ideas about issues related to capitalism. Participants have included “…masked members of the Zapatista army, rural peasant farmers, high school and college students, activists, teachers, artists’ collectives, [and] members of various social and political formations like the National Indigenous Congress (Spanish acronym: CNI)” (Rodgers, 2015).

Members of the Zapatista movement spoke about the history and fight of the Zapatistas in Mexico. For example, Rodgers (2015) writes:

During the seminar itself, it is the words of now-official spokesman Subcommandante Moisés that have been the clearest, most unequivocal depiction of the 30-year long Zapatista story and its lessons. Moisés, a Tzeltal Maya, was one of the first locals to join up with the revolutionaries, so his experience is vast. Day after day, alternating with Galeano as speaker, Moisés has been giving a living history, from the arrival of the first group of clandestine (and non-indigenous) insurgents in the 1980s, to the 1994 armed rebellion which resulted in a standoff with government troops, and then (and this is the part that he has described in the most concrete detail) the transformation of that movement into an evolving experiment in regional autonomy, self-sufficiency, and resistance to violence and government cooptation. An experiment which, á lMark Twain, has been reported moribund more than once, but now comprises thousands of campesino (peasant farmer) families collectively organized at four different levels of increasing scale: communities, municipalities, regions, and zones.

In addition, there are also poets, philosophers, among others who are also speaking at this seminar. According to Rodgers, “The analysis…has been relatively concordant and not surprising: a litany of the human and ecological disaster that capitalism has wrought (not just in Mexico, but of course that is the primary focus here). The Spanish word “despojo,” which has only a much weaker equivalent in English, “dispossession,” recurs in so many presentations that it is clearly seen as one of the most fundamental characteristics of the system. “To be stripped violently of everything that sustains you” would be closer to the real meaning of this word. That is the key experience of capitalism’s innumerable losers: the mass of humans without power or privilege, and the living world.”

The Zapatistas continue to point to the political, economic, and social abuses that have resulted from the capitalist system, and are attempting to work to educate the population, as well as help them further mobilize to bring about change. 

Other Rights Abuses in Mexico

The Zapatista Movement continues to shed light on other human rights abuses in Mexico. For example, they have been quite active in ensuring that attention continues to be placed on the disappearances of 43 students in 2014. Some of the parents of the missing students reached out to the Zapatistas and offered words to show their gratitude for what the Zapatistas are doing to continue to emphasize the horror of what has taken place, and how little has been done to find those who committed these disappearances (Rodgers, 2015).

Subcommandante Marcos Today

While Subcommandante Marcos held one of the top positions in the Zapatista Movement (something he continued to minimize) (60 Minutes), he no longer serves as the spokesperson for the Zapatista Movement, although he continues to be active in their struggle. For example, during the education seminar that Rodgers wrote: Zubcommandante Marcos “…made several speeches during the seminar in the manner that  has become his “brand:” metaphoric, digressive, lyrical ruminations–allegories or parables that leave one with resonant impressions of what it is to be creating a new world “from below and to the left,” the Zapatistas now put it.”

In addition, Marcos no longer want to go by the title “Subcommandante Marcos.” The reason for this is that he had decided to hold a new name, “Galeano” after a Zapatista school teacher that was killed by paramilitary forces. Thus, “Marcos himself has publicly “died” and taken the name Galeano” (Rodgers, 2015).

Domestic Influence of the Zapatistas

The Zapatista Movement has had significant influence in the country. The have brought indigenous rights to the forefront, even as the government continued to ignore the plight of these communities. The Zapatista movement was successful in establishing their autonomy in the form of schools and local government. Furthermore, some have argued that “For some, its greatest achievement was prompting Mexico to enshrine sweeping anti-discrimination measures in its constitution in 2001. Passaged followed a Zapatista caravan across a dozen states to the capital, climaxing in dramatic speeches by masked rebels in Congress” (USA Today, 2014). However, “…the Zapatistas were enraged when lawmakers watered down sections that interested them most: expanding indigenous autonomy and control over land and natural resources” (USA Today, 2014).

However, there have been some that have criticized the movement. For example, “The Zapatistas have been criticized in the last decade for withdrawing too much from public view. They failed to endorse leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in the 2006 presidential elections, which he lost by a margin of about half a percentage point” (USA Today, 2014). 

Furthermore, other criticisms have included their lack of progress on issues of poverty (that were alluded to above). Many have suggested that the Indian communities in the Chiapas are still living in poverty, and unemployment is still a critical problem for the community, with many making little as corn farmers (USA Today, 2014). 

In response to this, Subcomandante Marcos has suggested that is it still important to celebrate the rebellion against the controls of the national government, where he was quoted as saying that “”Rebellion, friends and enemies, is something that has to be celebrated, every day and at every hour. Because rebellion is also a celebration” (USA Today, 2014). 

And this can be seen with some of the Zapatista children. For example, Gottesdiener (2014) speaks about a boy, Diego, who

“is part of the first generation of Zapatista children whose births are registered by one of the organization’s own civil judges. In the eyes of his father, he is one of the first fully independent human beings. He was born in Zapatista territory, attends a Zapatista school, lives on unregistered land, and his body is free of pesticides and genetically modified organisms. Adding to his autonomy is the fact that nothing about him—not his name, weight, eye color, or birth date—is officially registered with the Mexican government. His family does not receive a peso of government aid, nor does it pay a peso worth of taxes. Not even the name of Diego’s town appears on any official map.”

And she says that this is at the expense of government aid, or significant economic wealth (Gottesdiener, 2014).

Others, such as Subcommandante Moisés, who, while speaking at the 2015 seminar, admitted out that not every approach taken has been successful. For example, ideas like “total collectivization of work did not function, nor large-scale barter projects, nor relying heavily on NGO-sponsored “development” or service projects. Direct governance of the base by the armed insurgency did not work either” (Rodgers, 2015). However, he went on to say that the movement itself has been idealized by many outsiders, but that the Zapatista movement can continue to improve; their mistakes and successes are also helpful for the overall movement (Rodgers, 2015). In fact, the saying “through error we correct ourselves” seems to be quite common among the Zapatistas (Rodgers, 2015).

Worldwide Influence of the Zapatista Movement

The Zapatista Movement has been an inspiring force for many global activists. In fact, they have been highly influential for many other protests, whether it is against state repression, human rights violations, or environmental abuses. In fact, many within the Occupy Wall Street movement were pointing to the influence of the Zapatista Movement (Tucker, 2014). Furthermore, this organization has shown the world how to function as an autonomous society (Tucker, 2014), outside of the corrupt powers of an illiberal national state.

Many rights groups were influenced by the Zapatistas in their international activist. For example, “The networks Zapatismo inspired–including an infrastructure of people, organizations, and ideas required for the WSF’s [World Social Forum’s]emergence. These groups helped catalyze global resistance to the G8 and WTO during the late 1990s, including the June 1999 Global Day of Action Against Capitalism and the November 1999 protests in Seattle (Juris 2008; Notes from Nowhere 2003; Starr 2005)” (Thuker & Weiss, 2015: 67).

Again, just because we are not hearing too much about the Zapatista movement does not mean that they are not highly active. In fact, as has been mentioned, they tend to be skeptical of a number of media outlets, who they see as advocating a particular agenda of fear that aids right-wing governments (Democracy Now, 2014).


Overall, one of the lasting contributions of the Zapatista movement is their legacy of social justice (Garcia, 2016). In Mexico and elsewhere, people continue to reflect on what the Zapatistas stood for, and continue to stand for, which is social justice, human rights, and protecting society from economic and other forms of exploitation. 

In addition, many argue that they have been instrumental in the shaping of Mexico’s political system. For example, “The Zapatista movement arguably helped bring an end to seventy years of one-party rule in Mexico when the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI), which had monopolized state power since the Mexican Revolution, lost the presidential elections in 2000. And, through its national mobilizations and dialogue with other sectors of the population, the EZLN is also credited with the strengthening of Mexican civil society” (Klein, 2015). These sorts of activities and accomplishments, along with their continued calls for human rights and social justice allow the Zapatista movement to have further influence within Mexico and elsewhere.

Zapatista Movement References

Democracy Now (2014). Zapatista Uprising 20 Years Later: How Indigenous Mexican Stood Up Against NAFTA “Death Sentence.” January 3, 2014. Available Online: 

Garcia, J.M. (2016). Faded Zapatista legacy lingers in Chiapas. National Catholic Reporter. February 10th, 2016. Available Online: 

Gottesdiener, L. (2014). A Glimpse Into the Zapatista Movement, Two Decades Later. The Nation, January 23, 2014. Available Online:

Klein, H. (2015). Women Are at the Forefront of the Zapatista Revolution. Truthout. 30 July 2015. Available Online: 

Rodgers, C. (2015). A Zapatista “Seminar” in Chiapas. Counterpunch. May 8, 2015. Available Online:

Schools for Chiapas (2014). Zapatista Teacher Dead, 15 Seriously Wounded in Deadly Chiapas Ambush. May 7, 2014. Available Online: 

Tucker, D. (2014). Are Mexico’s Zapatista Rebels Still Relavant? Al Jazeera, 01 January 2014. Available Online:

USA Today (2014). Mexico’s Zapatista Rebel Movement Marks 20 Years. January 2, 2014. Available Online: 

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