The State of Chiapas
Popular Revolutionary Army
|Commanders and leaders|
Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1994)|
Manuel Camacho Solís (1994)
Ernesto Zedillo (1994-99)
Arturo Guzmán Decena (Until 1997) †
|Casualties and losses|
|In total 316 deaths|
The Chiapas conflict (Spanish: Conflicto de Chiapas) refers to the 1994 Zapatista uprising, the 1995 Zapatista crisis and their aftermath, and tensions between the indigenous peoples and subsistence farmers in the Mexican state of Chiapas from the 1990s to the present day.
The Zapatista uprising started in January 1994, and lasted less than two weeks before a ceasefire was agreed upon. The principal belligerents of subsection of the conflict were the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Spanish: Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional; EZLN) and the government of Mexico. Negotiations between the government and Zapatistas led to agreements being signed, but were often not complied with in the following years as the peace process stagnated. This resulted in an increasing division between communities with ties to the government and communities that sympathized with the Zapatistas. Social tensions, armed conflict and para-military incidents increased, culminating in the killing of 45 people in the village of Acteal in 1997 by an anti-Zapatista militia. Though at a low level, rebel activity continues and violence occasionally erupts between Zapatista supporters and anti-Zapatista militias along with the government. The last related incident occurred in 2014, when a Zapatista-affiliated teacher was killed and 15 more wounded in Chiapas.
After the Mexican War of Independence, Mexico kept many features of its Spanish colonizers, including limpieza de sangre ("purity of blood"), a legal code that distinguished those of Spanish ancestry from those of indigenous ancestry. This was the starting point for many land rights and social rights struggles in Mexico, some of which can be attributed to the strict structure of Mexican social classes with the Criollo people at the top, who were Mexicans of direct Spanish descent.
The same issue appeared amongst the non-Criollo population in later years, especially among the Mestizo population during the 19th century. In the Mexican Revolution of 1910, poor farmers and other marginalized groups, led in part by Emiliano Zapata, rebelled against the government and large land tenants due to failures of the authoritarian regime of Porfirio Díaz. It is from Zapata that the Zapatistas got their name.
The years after the revolution saw several agrarian reforms, and through Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution the encomienda system was abolished and the right to communal land and other resources for the people of Mexico was granted in accordance with the principles set forth by Zapata. This part of the Constitution more specifically gave the traditionally communal indigenous groups within the country the "legal capacity to enjoy common possession of the lands, forests, and waters belonging to them or which have been or may be restored to them." Thus, the ejido system was created, which organized lands that were able to be worked by various members of rural and indigenous communities, but were often sold off to multinational corporations.
Aldama, in the highlands region of Chiapas, has experienced a territorial dispute dating back to the 1970s.
Since the 1980s and 1990s, Mexico's economic policy concentrated more on industrial development and attracting foreign capital. However, this policy soon changed to try to brand Mexico as more of an agricultural power, which culminated in the administration of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari initiating a process of privatization of land through several amendments in 1992, which put the process of determining communal land under federal jurisdiction. The EZLN claims that it has existed since 1983, although it only began to gain traction by the early 1990s.
In 1982, General Absalon Castellanos Dominguez, then Governor of Chiapas, increased acts of violent oppression against indigenous people. Members of the National Liberation Forces (FLN), including Rafael Vicente, eventually known as Subcomandante Marcos -- the eventual spokesman of the EZLN -- moved into the area later that year, and by late 1983 the EZLN was formed by 3 indigenous people and 3 mestizos. As the group grew, it became more like the state of Chiapas, consisting primarily of indigenous or partly indigenous people.
In December 1993, The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) issued the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, which declared that the government of Mexico and President Gortari were illegitimate. This declaration was heavily rooted in Emiliano Zapata's Plan of Ayala (1911), which denounced President Francisco Madero and proposed several measures to reform the government.
On 1 January 1994, the EZLN began their military insurrection in the southernmost province of Mexico, Chiapas, in the name of the rights of oppressed indigenous peoples and democracy; this was the same date on which the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect. The EZLN based their operations out of the Lacandon Jungle, and used this as their launching point for capturing the towns of Ocosingo, Las Margaritas, Altamirano, and San Cristóbal de las Casas. By 2 January, the rebels had already captured former Governor Castellanos Dominguez, and proceeded hold him hostage due to their own tribunal finding him guilty of anti-indigenous crimes and corruption, and sentenced him to forced labor. By 3 January, the EZLN had lost over 50 of its soldiers, and over 100 civilians had been killed, but had withdrawn from San Cristóbal de las Casas, as they could not maintain their grip on it; they had also liberated a government prison with about 180 inmates.
During the period of 1-12 January 1994, there was a large discrepancy between the information released and spread by the two respective sides. The government insisted that there were only a few hundred rebels, while the EZLN reported that they numbered in the thousands.
The federal government reached a ceasefire agreement with the EZLN on 12 January, and on 17 February the peace negotiators of each party met for the first time, resulting in the freeing of Castellanos Dominguez. Manuel Camacho Solis was the government's chief peace negotiator, Subcomandante Marcos was the EZLN's, and Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia mediated between the two parties. As peace talks continued, there were several high and low points in apparent progress in drafting an agreement, but eventually there was a shift in strategy on the part of the rebels to keep up the talks until the upcoming Mexican Election, to increase the pressure on the government after years of having little to no way to influence government policy or actions. On 11 June, the EZLN rejected the agreement proposed by the Mexican government, but reinforced its commitment to the ceasefire unless the government broke it first. By mid-October, tensions began escalating when the rebels threatened action if the Governor-Elect Eduardo Robledo Rincon of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) were to take office. Subcomandante Marcos also heightened the rhetoric in this situation: "If they want lead, we'll give them lead... We are an army, not a labor union or some neighborhood club."
These developments attracted a lot of international attention and criticism. While human rights organizations emphasized the marginalization of the indigenous population, Riordan Roett (adviser to the Emerging Markets Group of the Chase Manhattan Bank) stated in January 1995:
"While Chiapas, in our opinion, does not pose a fundamental threat to Mexican political stability, it is perceived to be so by many in the investment community. The government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and of security policy."
Just 2 days later the Mexican army came into action to bring the Zapatista occupied areas back under their control, but they did not succeed in arresting subcomandante Marcos or other leaders of the EZLN.
In February 1995, the new President, Ernesto Zedillo, attacked the EZLN, which proved to be politically unpopular, resulting in new peace negotiations that culminated in the San Andrés Accords of 1996. This treaty indicated an agreement on the importance of indigenous autonomy and land reform.
On 21 March 1999, several referendums on the rights of indigenous people were held with support of the EZLN, and the people voted in support of the San Andrés Accords, although turnout was low compared to general elections in that time period.
In the months leading up to the Acteal massacre, growing violence resulted in over 6,000 people being displaced, and 25 had been killed in the area. In December, 1997, this culminated in the largest incident of violence of the Chiapas Conflict since the initial rebellion took place in the village of Acteal, in which 45 indigenous people, 15 of whom were children, were murdered by people with machetes and AK-47 assault rifles inside a church.
Following the killing, the investigation was led by Attorney General Jorge Madrazo Cuéllar, and the witnesses/survivors of the Acteal Massacre have said that the attackers were loyalists to the governing PRI. By the end of the month, several people had been charged with the killings, including the de facto mayor of Acteal, Jacinto Arias Cruz, a member of the PRI, resulting in the national party denying any connection to the killings and to the mayor.
On 2 July 2000, the first non-PRI president was elected, Vicente Fox, ending the PRI's 71 year grip on the office. His campaign focused on increasing economic growth and ending government corruption.
In March 2001, about 100,000 supporters of the Zapatistas and the rights of indigenous people mobilized in Mexico City to express their demands of the government; many of the rebels, led by Subcomandante Marcos, traveled for two weeks to reach the site of the political rally. This march was known as the "March of the Color of the Earth" (Spanish: La Marcha del Color de la Tierra) after a quote by Marcos. The Zapatistas expressed support for a Bill of Rights for the nation's minority Indian population and, in his speech to the crowds, Marcos demanded that President Fox "listen to us," despite Fox's vocal support for, and initial proposal of, the Zapatista-backed legislation. By the end of April 2001, the Bill was passed by Congress by a wide margin, with Fox's support, but underwent several amendments before it was passed that was criticized by a number of indigenous leaders. The Zapatistas referred to the final version of the law as a "betrayal" because of its failure to affirm the communal rights indigenous people had to land, other natural resources, and to have autonomous states within Mexico, contrary to the San Andrés Accords.
In response to the passage of the law with its new amendments, the EZLN suspended dialogue with the government and created a new system of leadership, which was necessary to govern autonomously as the San Andrés Accords allowed, in principle, and created "Good Government Committees (JBG)" to do so.
The peace process has been in a gridlock ever since, the government officially ignores the EZLN, seeing it just as a political rival, but armed attacks involving pro-government para-military groups frequently make civilian casualties (see the list below).
A violent incident occurred in 2014, with a Zapatista-related teacher killed and 15 more wounded in Chiapas ambush by alleged anti-Zapatista militia; however, there appeared to be some dispute as to whether the casualties occurred due to a "confrontation" or an "ambush of unarmed" civilians.
A more serious flare-up took place in 2020-21, as several assassinations took place across Mexico, targeting indigenous rights advocates - including the murder of Pérez López in Chiapas.
Although and because the Chiapas conflict is intricately linked with low intensity conflict and fourth generation warfare, it is important to stress that the conflict is not only about military or para-military action against armed rebels. Addressing the problems in the region with social development programs are often interpreted by the target group as "counter-insurgency light"; as a means to divide and rule.
Since the creation of the Lacandon Community (1971) and the growing tensions in the region, and even more so since the Zapatista uprising (1994), the government has been faced by three challenges:
Plan Cañadas (1994-2001) (cañada = glen or valley) was conceived after they found guerrilla training camps in the Lacandon Jungle in 1993 (just before the Zapatista uprising). This programme was aimed at suppressing the expected uprising by social means, by giving support to people who were more favourably disposed to the government, and thus ensuring their loyalty to the state. Over time Plan Cañadas was criticised for being a counter-insurgency project ("counter-insurgency-by-other-means", or "counter-insurgency light") designed in the framework of the low intensity conflict:
"It was in the aftermath of the rebellion that the Mexican government began to devote resources to the region for development, establishing the Cañadas Programme. However, a few years after the initiative was introduced it became highly criticised because of its counter-insurgent character (it offered resources in exchange for the abandonment of the Zapatista cause) and because of its failure in promoting development."
Plan Cañada's successor was the Integral Programme for the Sustainable Development of the Jungle: PIDSS (Programa Integral para el Desarrollo Sustentable de la Selva). This project, that started in 2001, was introduced as "a joint effort to foster development in a participatory way". Goals were to change the relationship between government and society, foster social reconciliation, exclude paternalism, promote participation, and endorse real development projects. The implementation of the programme was achieved through the creation of 34 micro-regions (similar to those under which the Cañadas Programme worked). However, PIDSS received much of the same criticism as Plan Cañadas:
The outcomes of the Programme fall short of those expected. The types of projects that appear in the development plans are the same as those promoted during the Cañadas Programme. [...] Villagers in the region display much disillusionment and discontent. In fact, in most of the interviews it was affirmed that the present programme was worse than its predecessor. [...] The situation suggests that the authorities did not take properly into account the difficulties that the new initiative would encounter and which are the source of its problems. [...] A very important source of conflict has come from the groups that benefited most from the Cañadas Programme. These groups have fought very hard to keep their privileges and to return to the previous model, [...] which has distorted the operation of the programme and led to further conflict. [...] Moreover, the presence of Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities in the region, which do not desire any relationship with the Mexican government and thus do not participate in the PIDSS, complicates things even further. Disputes over land are very common, and the presence of paramilitary forces confronting the Zapatistas makes the situation even more difficult.
There is a lack of coordination between different government institutions, and even some divergence of objectives. The state government, for instance, seems to perceive hidden interests among the officials of the federal government for the PIDSS to fail. [...] The technicians of the federal government seem to be much better prepared than the others, which allows them to dominate and impose their decisions. [...] The technicians seem to have a disproportionate amount of discretionary power. This is dangerous if we take into account that the main problems of the Cañadas Programme came through the behaviour of some of the federal government technicians. And in fact our research has shown that in some communities complaints about the counter-insurgency behaviour of the technicians have began to appear.
Another source of problems for the PIDSS seems to lie in the notions of participation and development pursued and those of the different actors. From the very beginning there was a general agreement that the Programme had to be participative and foster development. However, no effort was made to reach an agreement on what these concepts mean and entail. The result is that, for instance, the PIDSS has sought participation of the population in a very limited way.
In the interviews with the social organisations it was also argued that their problems to participate were due to the fact that they defend a notion of development that is opposed to that of the government. They argue that the PIDSS is an element that has to be related with the wider Puebla-Panama Plan, which is a regional development plan based on the implantation of low-wage factories (maquiladoras) and similar liberal economic initiatives. In opposition to this, people in the communities talk about the importance of land and about maintaining their way of life. Again, these elements are not taken into account in the design and operation of the Programme, and as a consequence have a negative impact in its outcomes.
- The permanent conflict in the area and past development initiatives are important determinants that should have been better taken into account and incorporated in the design of the program.
- Issues regarding coordination among different levels of the administration have proved to be a source of problems. These appear at the level of objectives, but also in the day-to-day operation, with the important role of the technicians and their discretionary power as a key issue.
- The underlying notions of development and participation certainly determine the nature of the initiative and people's expectations of it, and thus have to be dealt with from the beginning. Promoting participation but then to have it managed through questionnaires in which people have no input and which are filled in by secondary school students implies an understanding of the concept that is, at the very least, problematic.
The follow-up of PIDSS was Prodesis (2004-2008), an EU-Chiapas cooperation project targeted at 16 of the 34 micro-regions identified by PIDSS. The difficulties this new project encountered were exactly the same as the PIDSS-project stumbled upon:
- It was argued that "Prodesis sought participation of the population in a very limited way".
- Also there were accounts of "counter-insurgency behaviour of the technicians".
- Moreover, the fact that Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities do not desire any relationship with the Mexican government prevents full participation of the whole target group, leading to "further conflict between and within communities".
- Finally, it was argued, Prodesis interpreted the problems in the region along demographic lines, "ignoring the cultural and socio-political history of the region" (i.e., the fact that a large part of the population defends a notion of development that is opposed to that of the government, and stresses the importance of land and maintaining their way of life).
Total casualties during the conflict: 105 killed.
While the Zapatistas have little physical effect outside of Chiapas, their domination of the "information space" has strengthened their image and allies from foreign activists and journalists. Because the members of EZLN are residents of Chiapas, living in the jungle, original material for the organization started out as written communiques for media outlets, which were then uploaded to the Internet. Many forums and websites dedicated to the discussion of the Chiapas conflict are sponsored by advocacy groups centered on Latin America and indigenous protection, mostly situated in North America and Western Europe. Soon after the uprising, fax campaigns and public caravans were popular methods of gaining media attention and organizing supporters.