War and Conflict

Latin America & the Caribbean

What was the Chiapas uprising?

Also called the Zapatista uprising, it was a January 1994 revolt staged by Mayan rebels in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. On New Year’s Day, members of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) launched a coordinated attack on four municipal capitals and a Mexican army headquarters in the remote region. With the cry of “tierra y libertad” (“land and liberty”), the armed insurgents invoked the name and spirit of Emiliano Zapata (1879–1919), Mexico’s early twentieth-century revolutionary leader. The EZLN, or “Zapatistas,” destroyed government offices, burned land deeds, and freed prisoners. At least 135 people died in the rebellion.

On January 12, after 11 days of heavy fighting, a ceasefire was called. The next month peace talks began between EZLN representatives and the Mexican government. Negotiations between the two sides proved to be a frustrating and lengthy process. Seeking “democracy, liberty, and justice for all Mexicans,” the EZLN called for government reforms, including local autonomy, as well as land redistribution and other measures to aid the region’s impoverished indigenous population. In February 1996 the two sides signed the San Andrés Accords and agreed to more talks. But in August of that year, the dialog stalled; the EZLN said it would not return to the negotiating table until the government implemented the San Andrés Accords.

Meanwhile, progovernment paramilitary groups with ties to Mexico’s ruling PRI party (Institutional Revolutionary Party) made their presence known in Chiapas. There were violent episodes, the most horrific of which occurred on December 23, 1997, when the progovernment paramilitary group Paz y Justicia (Peace and Justice) brutally attacked a group of unarmed indigenous people in the village of Acteal. A total of 45 people, mostly women and children, were slaughtered, and 25 more were injured.

The turbulence in Chiapas is fueled by deep-seated antigovernment feelings among the indigenous (Mayan) population. Despite the fact that it is rich in natural resources (including coffee, corn, timber, and oil), it is one of the poorest regions of Latin America; the wealth of Chiapas rests in the hands of a few. In 1990 half of the population in the state was malnourished, 42 percent had no access to clean water, 33 percent was without electricity, and 62 percent did not have a grade-school education. It was no coincidence that the 1994 uprising took place the same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect: According to one Zapatista leader, NAFTA was the “death sentence” for Mexico’s poor farmers, who would now have to compete with farmers north of the border. In 2005, more than 10 years after the Zapatistas burst onto the scene, the situation in Chiapas remained unresolved.

Zapatistas carry machetes as they march on January 1, 2003, in Mexico’s Chiapas state to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the rebel group’s uprising against government oppression.

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