Chiapas conflict

Chiapas conflict

Subcommandante Marcos orating before fellow zapatistas
Date1994 present (main phase: January 1–12, 1994)
LocationChiapas, Mexico
Result Military Stalemate where both parties subsided
San Andrés Accords, granting autonomy to the indigenous peoples
Formation of the first Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities
 Mexico EZLN
Commanders and leaders
Mexico Carlos Salinas de Gortari Subcomandante Marcos
Casualties and losses
Military dead: 3 Military dead: 51

Civilians dead: 46+[1][2][3]

Total dead: 118-126

The Chiapas conflict (Spanish: Conflicto de Chiapas) refers to the 1994 Zapatista Uprising and its aftermath,[4] as well as the general tensions between the indigenous peoples and subsistence farmers in the Mexican state of Chiapas, having its roots in the 1990s and 1980s.

The Zapatista uprising started in January 1994, lasting for less than two weeks, before being crushed by the government. Negotiations between the government and Zapatistas allowed agreements to be signed as part of peace negotiations, but these agreements were not complied with in the following years and the peace process stagnated. This resulted in an increasing division between people and 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 para-militaries. 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, with a Zapatista-affiliated teacher killed and 15 more wounded in Chiapas.[3]

History and socio-political background

Post-Colonial Mexico

Historically Mexico is characterized as a country founded upon a Spanish elite system which featured limpieza de sangre or cleanliness of blood, a legal system characterized by feudal land tenure, and an economic system which featured an exploitative system which furthered social inequalities. The issue over land rights and social rights dates back to the Mexican War of Independence when the colonial Mexican-born people of Spanish origin known as the Criollos rebelled against the Spanish crown as a means of protecting and furthering their own land and social rights against foreign Spanish authorities.

Revolutionary Mexico

The same issue appeared amongst the non-Criollos population in later years, especially among the Mestizo (Mixed Indigenous-Spanish Ancestry ) population during the 19th century. The uprisings by various Criollo, Mestizo, and eventually Indian populations against perceived ruling class interests groups crystallized in the Mexican Revolution of 1910, when poor farmers and other marginalized groups, led by Emiliano Zapata, rebelled against the government and large land tenants made up of mostly Spanish families who had cozy relationships with central strongmen.

Hewing to a Marxist dialectic of class warfare which believed that the rural land system based upon old Spanish law rather than diffuse socioeconomic issues had perpetuated a corrupt system, revolutionary leaders in conjunction with collaborating ruling class families instituted wealth redistribution whilst maintaining the essence of private property.

Democratic Mexico

Consequently, the years after the revolution (1917–1934) saw agrarian reforms, and in article 27 of the Mexican Constitution the encomienda system was abolished, and the right to communal land for traditional communities was affirmed. Thus the ejido-system was created, which in practice should comprise the power of private investments by foreign corporations and absentee landlords, and entitled the indigenous population to a piece of land to work and live on. The compromise recognized the right of individuals to own private property and of associations, whether Indian or other, to similarly own property, thereby allowing for security, safety, and property of the mostly Spanish upper class whilst elevating Indian and Meztizo groups to equality before the law while simultaneously allowing them to retain their traditional pre-colonial and colonial customs and rights.

However, since the issues of material and political equality were more complex than simple Marxist land class problems, rather than instantly bringing about an increase in material wealth and standard of living, the living conditions of most of the country remained as before.

This was especially true in the Yucatán peninsula where stubborn resistance of the Mayan population along with complex historical development features, kept the geographical area divided between an almost wholly European property owning and wage earning population living along the coasts and certain inland areas and the interior which in essence remained a Mayan country of collective ownership. Consequently, removed from the overall Mexican economic system, the native Mayan Indian nation remained as a free but marginalized underclass much the same as before the revolution.

1950s-60s Mexico

The hardened division of class and race remained in the Yucatán until the 1950s when various Mexican central government initiatives were launched with the aim of modernizing the Mayan communities and reducing poverty by integrating Mayan families into Mexico through new economic opportunities with the larger Mexican economy. Perceiving the lack of sufficient jobs in the city and desirous of not upsetting the Mexican communities in the cities, the government encouraged and steered many landless farmers, mainly Mayan Indians, into settling in the uncultivated Lacandon Jungle and the abandoned white farms which had suffered an enduring economic depression of the previous twenty years. However, although this kept a social crisis from occurring in the cities, it enraged many displaced Mexican farmers, especially of Criollo class, whose rights to land and title were supposedly being ignored in contravention of the compromise of the Mexican revolution. Thus, during the 1950s and 1960s, this immigration of Mayans into former white lands led to land-related conflicts and an increasing pressure on the rain forest which in turn led to environmental degradation and further economic ruin of the rural economy. Furthermore, rather than bring individual Mayan families into the practice of private property and the larger Mexican economy, the process backfired as much of the surplus Mayan community moved from its traditional areas into the new lands.

1970s Mexico

As the crisis threatened to grow into rebellion by the mostly European population, and realizing that the ecological ruin caused by the movement wasn't being mitigated by economic prosperity within the Mayan population, the government decided to halt the migration.

To halt the migration, the government decided in 1971 to declare a large part of the forest (614,000 hectares, or 6140 km2), encompassing both the previously unsettled regions and the former Mexican-owned farms, as a protected area: the "Montes Azules Bio-sphere Reserve". They appointed only one small population group (66 Lacandon Indian families) as tenants (thus creating the Lacandon Community), thereby displacing 2000 Tzeltal and Chol families from 26 communities, and leaving non-Lacandon communities dependent on the government for asserting their rights to land.

1980s-90s Mexico

Since the 1980s and 1990s, Mexico's economic policy concentrated more on industrial development and attracting foreign capital. The Salinas government initiated a process of privatization of land (through the PROCEDE-program).

The direct cause

In 1992, as a (pre)condition for Mexico for entering the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the US and Canada, art.4 and art.27 of the Constitution were modified, by means of which it became possible to privatize communal ejido-land. This undermined the basic security of indigenous communities to land entitlement, and former ejidatorios now became formally illegal land-squatters, and their communities informal settlements.

In the Lacandon jungle in Chiapas, a rebellion began to take shape against the marginalization of the indigenous population, the 1992 amendment to the Constitution, and the expected results of NAFTA.


The 1994 uprising

Main article: Zapatista uprising

On 1 January 1994, the day on which NAFTA became operational, an armed insurgence broke out, led by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), demanding social, cultural and land rights. The EZLN seized five villages in the state. The government responded by calling in the armed forces to retake the areas, 12 days of fighting ensued until a ceasefire was declared.

After the uprising (1994-97)

Media attention

These developments attracted a lot of international attention. While human rights organisations 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."[5]

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.

Peace Negotiations

To break the gridlock peace negotiations were started in March 1995 in the village of San Andrés Larráinzar.

In 1996 the Comisión de Concordia y Pacificación (COCOPA) presented a proposal of constitutional reform (the Cocopa law) based on the San Andrés Accords to the EZLN and the federal government. As a gesture of political will to solve the conflict peacefully the Zedillo-government signed this proposal, thereby recognizing the indigenous culture and its right to land and autonomy (in concordance with International Labour Organization convention 169, signed by Mexico in 1990).

Acteal Massacre (1997)

These agreements however were not complied with in the following years and the peace process stagnated. This resulted in an increasing division between people and 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 para-militaries.

Internationally this atrocity led to great upheaval. The European Commission, at that time negotiating an Association Agreement and Free Trade Agreement with Mexico, adopted in January 1998 a resolution in which the involvement of the Mexican army and local government in the para-military violence was condemned, and President Zedillo was encouraged to re-initiate the peace process. The European Parliament even proposed to postpone the ratification of the agreement.

PRI power downfall (2000-01)

Nevertheless, the treaty with the European Commission came into effect on July 1, 2000, one day before presidential elections in Mexico were scheduled.

After 71 years in power the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had to make way for the right wing neoliberal National Action Party (Mexico) (PAN), the party of Vicente Fox, whose main electoral promise was to solve the conflict with the Zapatistas within 15 minutes, and to ensure 7% of economic growth. When Fox entered office in November 2000, he pledged to honour the San Andrés Accords.

To enforce their demands in Congress, the Zapatistas organized a march to the capital in March 2001.

EZLN dialogue suspended (2003)

The Zapatistas march turned out to be in vain when Congress adopted an amendment to the constitution and ratified a diluted indigenous rights law, which was not in concordance with the San Andrés Accords.

This new law was criticized by the International Labour Organization (ILO) for violating ILO-convention 169,[6] and the National Commission for Human Rights demanded the change to be annulled.

The EZLN felt betrayed and suspended all dialogue with the government, and the Zapatistas unilaterally installed the self-determination Juntas de Buen Gobierno (communities of good governance) in 2003.

Latest developments

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).

The last violent incident occurred in 2014, with a Zapatista-related teacher killed and 15 more wounded in Chiapas ambush by alleged anti-Zapatista militia.[3]

Social development policies

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:

  1. preservation of the rainforest in the Lacandon region
  2. combatting poverty & stimulating citizenship among the communities in the Lacandon region
  3. control over the socio-political situation in the Lacandon region

These goals have been included in several social development programs. Examples are Programa Solidaridad, Plan Cañadas, PIDSS, and Prodesis.

Plan Cañadas

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."[7]


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.


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).


All of these projects (Cañadas, PIDSS, Prodesis) have been criticized for being actually counter-insurgency projects, aimed at controlling and pacifying the population, rather than improving their living conditions and resolving the conflict by addressing the land issue. Because of scepticism among the target groups of these programs (for lack of consultation, transparency and democracy, by being top-down and counter-insurgent, and having no respect for the population or local organizations) many projects fail. Therefore, a future challenge for the government (federal or state) is to:

Chiapas Conditions Today

Since the 1994 Zapatista uprising, much has changed. After being suppressed for so long by the Mexican federal army, political leaders, laws and social structure, the indigenous people of Chiapas are beginning to realise the autonomy they have longed for. Over the years, they have received land that is their own, not supervised or governed by politics. They are free to do whatever they like with this land, and they are taking full advantage of the opportunity despite financial constraints. The people of Chiapas have established farms, clinics, schools, banks, etc. Because these places are run by the indigenous people of Chiapas, they are able to run them how they believe is best. For example, both their native language and Spanish are taught in schools and health clinics practice traditional medicine.[8] Though they are not state-of-the-art establishments, they are autonomous. Not run by the government, these businesses and shops are completely controlled by the indigenous people of Chiapas. With no government aid, there is intense poverty throughout the state of Chiapas, but this is largely regarded as less important than indigenous autonomy. They are beginning to see the rewards of their toils over the last several decades, and though the conflict is long from over, things seem to be headed in the right direction.

List of violent incidents (1994–present)

Total casualties during the conflict: 105 killed.

Media Influence

For many years, unknown to the rest of the world, the indigenous people of Chiapas were given bad land to farm and lived in poverty. The Zapatista Uprising occurred because the people realized they deserved justice and freedom from the socio-economic constraints the government placed on them. They soon realized the best way to make this happen was to make the rest of the world aware of their plight. The uprising initially started as violent guerrilla warfare, but soon the Zapatista army realized that their untrained and unfunded guerrilla fighters were no match for the Mexican government and its army. They realized the only way left for them to fight was with words. At the declaration of a cease-fire, the Zapatista army started internet campaigning, simply to get the rest of the world involved. This internet campaigning was monumental to their cause for many reasons. Previously, any information that was getting out to the rest of the world was leaked from the government, and naturally, was anti-Zapatista. But the internet allowed these people to explain their plight without bias, and their cause spread throughout the world. Soon all eyes were watching this uprising in Mexico. With the rest of the world watching they gained political leverage over the Mexican government. The Zapatistas now rely on the internet to keep their cause alive so people do not forget the poor living conditions of the indigenous people. The ELZN use the Internet as tool, not as a sole operant, to strengthen their efforts and keep the attention focused on their struggle. While the Zapatistas have little physical affect outside of Chiapas, the domination of the "information space" has strengthened their image and allies from foreign activists and journalists.[12] Because the members of EZLN are residents of Chiapas, living among the poor and isolated reaches of 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.[13] Soon following the uprising, fax-writing campaigns and public caravans were popular methods of gaining media attention and organizing supporters.[12] The use of the Internet as a way to disseminate information and the Zapatista ideology is believed to have prevented violence and promoted peaceful negotiations.

See also


  1. 1 2 3
  2. "". 1994-01-01. Retrieved 2013-10-29.
  3. "Brad Parsons, Mexico: US Bank Orders Hit on Marcos". Retrieved 2013-10-29.
  4. Carlsen, Laura. "The Zapatistas at Twenty". The Nation. Retrieved 21 June 2014.
  5. "Chiapas: Masojá Shucjá, conmemoración de las víctimas del conflicto de ´95 y ´96". Blog SIPAZ. Retrieved 22 October 2014.
  6. "Paramilitaries Are Still Murdering Zapatistas in Mexico". VICE News. Retrieved 22 October 2014.
  7. 1 2 Ronfeldt, David (1999). The Zapatista "Social Netwar" in Mexico. Santa Monica: RAND Corp. pp. 64–66. ISBN 9780833043320.
  8., The Zapatista Effect: The Internet and the rise of an alternative political fabric.

Further reading

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