On the same fateful day in 1994 that NAFTA was signed into law, a coalition of roughly 3,000 armed indigenous revolutionaries in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas claimed control of cities and government buildings in political protest. They opposed NAFTA’s new rules for land ownership within areas that belonged to indigenous communities. Calling themselves the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN, translating to Zapatista National Liberation Army)—after the Mexican revolutionary Emilio Zapata, they issued a declaration of war and a list of demands for indigenous rights and better treatment from the government as part of their vision of a more just world.
All of this was politically inconvenient for the Partido Revolucionario Instituciona (PRI), the ruling party of Mexico, especially in an election year. An 11-day battle between the PRI and the EZLN became a diplomatic negotiation that produced the 1996 San Andres Accords, a peace agreement which would have seen the government agree to improve conditions for indigenous people in Mexico. But the accords were never signed. Instead, the government escalated paramilitary efforts to counter indigenous protests, culminating in the Acteal Massacre of 1997. As The New York Times reported on the massacre’s tenth anniversary, the PRI left 45 indigenous people dead, and local police later tampered with the crime scene to remove evidence.
Despite the government’s violent tactics, the Zapatistas remained active, focusing on internal education and leadership programs. In 2003, years after the accords failed, the EZLN established five communities, known as caracoles, through land seizures. The government avoids them for fear of inciting another war with the forces defending the caracoles, and those inside their borders live within a world of the Zapatista ideology: local, direct, popular democracy and economic anarcho-communism. In September 2019, two reporters for The Nation published an article describing the dynamics they witnessed in their travels to Chiapas: While government paramilitary officials patrol the streets, indigenous organizations—in the EZLN or in splinter groups—buttress themselves with systems of community support, ranging from after school art programs to soldier location tracking.
Two and a half decades later, the EZLN is still fighting—and expanding. In August 2019, the EZLN announced via blog the creation of 11 new caracoles, as a form of “exponential growth that allows us to break the blockade again.” Understanding how the EZLN achieved this “exponential growth” is key to understanding their political agency. While the promise of land reclamation has served to power grassroots mobilization, the actual seizure of land has granted better geographic mobility and political autonomy to the EZLN and its members. However, this decision to seize land and property is not solely a reaction to NAFTA, but rather a calculated political move in a larger fight for indigenous autonomy. Take, for instance, the first line of their 1994 declaration of war: “We are a product of 500 years of struggle.” Grassroots mobilization for the seizure of land has beeneffective in this struggle to realize their vision of land, rights, and freedom.
The EZLN is not the first to recognize the political utility of land rights and use in conflicts over autonomy and statehood. Leftist organizing in Chiapas had existed for decades before the beginning of the Zapatista rebellion, though mostly in clandestine organizations rather than in a mass movement. The unity and scale of the EZLN was made possible in large part by widespread rage at the repressive land policies of the Mexican government.
The current model of injustice in land policy dates back to 1917. Although Article 27 of the 1917 Mexican Constitution promisedcommunal recognition of land rights, Eastern Michigan University political scientist Richard Stahler-Sholk, who has done extensive research on Zapatista polities, observed that mass privatization quickly overwhelmed that promise, as a handful of finca (estate) owners claimed most of the land. NAFTA’s enactment in 1994 was the perfect catalyst for mass mobilization: As it expanded the system of denying Mexican rights to a global scale, it created a political opening for a unified movement motivated by a belief in the indigenous rights to land.
Notably, existing peasant organizations drove much of the mobilization during the EZLN’s NAFTA war, taking and maintaining land for caracoles. Furthermore, many of these organizations were supported by women, who continue to play a role in EZLN community organizing. Reports from La Vie Campesina, an international farmers’ rights organization, reveal that many of these women began to organize in the 1990s in hopes of taking back the land they lived on, despite facing extreme adversity. This, along with the peasant mass mobilization, were likely inspired by a recognition of the relationship between political power and land rights, a relationship central to the EZLN’s philosophy on land. The group is based on an understanding of an indigeneity with the land, a notion of a right to land that was denied, and an aspiration to political autonomy—in order to create a world with the equal and democratic social relations they desire.
In practice, by claiming land for caracoles, the Zapatistas have created a new space for political mobility and agency. By creating new schools and forms of direct democracy within their caracoles, they are turning what were once philosophical ideals into a reality. One public spokesperson for the Zapatistas, Subcomandante Marcos, describes the caracoles as “a small part of the world we aspire to, which is made up of many worlds.” While limited access to caracoles makes it difficult to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the situation inside them, it is evident that they have successful participatory local democracy and schools that teach their philosophies, embodying a form of what sociologist Gemma van der Haar calls “autonomy in practice.” The function of land within this setting is quite obvious: Without its resources, it would be impossible for the Zapatistas to sustain their communities. In contrast to Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s development projects, which the Zapatistas strongly condemn as an unjust seizure of land for a vision of Mexico that excludes them, the EZLN’s escalation of new caracoles has opened up more opportunities for growth.
The system of land expansion and reclamation used by the Zapatistas has global implications for other indigenous resistance. In a broad review of the 21st-century organization, sociologist Nicole Guleswitch argues that the EZLN movement has inspired a transnational network of other movements, especially in indigenous communities. This is likely what the EZLN hoped for, as, according to Stahler-Sholk’s political analysis, they see themselves as part of a larger framework of global struggle. The ultimate global impact of their story remains to be seen.
The Zapatistas’ strategy of reclaiming and remaking relationships to land is not a relic of the past. Their rebellion should remind us that those facing political repression are constantly adapting and that those without land are within a constant state of statelessness. The existence of resistance is one of constant motion. This is a result of the current political order—and it will also be that order’s downfall.
Photo: Image via mufflevski (Flickr)