The Zapatistas: A Battle for Indigenous Rights in Mexico

Updated: Sep 16, 2020

Mexico’s Zapatista Army of National Liberation (known simply as the Zapatistas, or by their Spanish acronym EZLN) are the revolutionary leftist rebels that took the world by surprise in the 1990s. They rose to international fame after leading a militant uprising in Chiapas and declaring war on the Mexican state in demand of indigenous rights.

Named after the agrarian reformer Emiliano Zapata, who led the Liberation Army of the South during the Mexican Revolution, the Zapatistas are primarily made up of rural indigenous people from Chiapas.

The overarching ideals of the Zapatistas have always been centred around the struggle for democracy, indigenous autonomy over local resources, and land reform in Chiapas. Indeed, the slogan of the Zapatistas clearly expresses this: ‘Para todos todo, para nosotros nada’ (For everyone, everything. For us, nothing).

The 1990s Zapatista Uprising

The Zapatista uprising was timed to coincide with the announcement of NAFTA on the 1st of January, 1994. The group believed the deal would ultimately widen the economic gap in Chiapas. Some 3,000 Zapatista rebels staged the violent uprising that was to draw the world’s attention to their impoverished but political southern state.

Towns and villages were seized, prisoners were freed, and military buildings were burned. However, after just 12 days of fighting, military involvement led to a ceasefire being declared. Following, early-stage peace talks, negotiated by the Catholic church, began.

However, the initial peace talks in which the Zapatistas wanted greater political autonomy for the indigenous people of Chiapas ultimately broke down.

This period of rebellion was the first time in which the Zapatistas had gone public with their demands and ideologies. Soon after, they issued their First Declaration of Revolutionary Laws.

This declaration was particularly progressive as it included the Women’s Revolutionary Law. The Women's Revolutionary Law outlined women's right to participate in revolutionary and political struggles and make decisions about their bodily autonomy, education and career.

The Zapatistas in the Present Day

Nowadays, some municipalities in Chiapas remain under Zapatista control, largely overlooked by the Mexican government. As reported by the BBC, these communities have their own health clinics, and women are granted a far more equal role in the society than in most indigenous communities. However, poverty remains a prevailing factor.

It could be said that 2017 saw the most shocking turn of events in the recent history of the Zapatistas. They officially endorsed a presidential candidate, the indigenous woman María de Jesús ‘Marichuy’ Patricio, for the 2018 election.