Zapatista Movement Has Long History, Indigenous Roots


EVEN as President Carlos Salinas de Gortari called for a unilateral cease-fire on Wednesday, rumors continue to fly about who's behind Mexico's Indian guerrilla movement.

Few had ever heard of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) before it occupied five southern Mexico towns on Jan. 1. Ever since, the conspiracy mongers have gone wild.

One popular theory is that Texas billionaire Ross Perot, incensed over passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, financed the rebellion to start the day the treaty went into effect. Some say a local political foe of President Salinas is behind it; others see the hand of narcotraffickers. The government says the EZLN is directed by ``important numbers of foreigners.''

As proof, the government says that among the 120-odd rebels captured, one is Guatemalan and one Nicaraguan. An official statement says, ``This is not an Indian movement nor a campesino movement but the acts of a radical group directed by professionals who are tricking or forcing Indians to participate.''

But many researchers and analysts familiar with the region conclude that this is - as the Zapatistas insist - a home-grown Mexican insurrection.

``This is a revolution by people pushed to the limit by conditions here,'' says Will Hoffman, cultural director of Na Bolom, a Chiapas-based ecology group. ``The Indians weren't manipulated. That's the bigoted perspective of those who see them as uneducated peasants who can't think for themselves.''

The Mexican government allows that the abject poverty and land conflicts in Chiapas have spawned numerous community movements, some ``extremist.'' While its report implies the EZLN began in the last three years, Zapatistas interviewed say their movement began in 1969.

At that time, say Chiapas researchers, Maoist student groups and economic professors from the National Autonomous University in Mexico City entered the Chiapas highlands and began working with indigenous groups to set up agricultural cooperatives.

In 1974, an Indian congress was organized by the young leftist militants and the Roman Catholic Church, which was focusing increasing attention on the social needs of its parishioners. The Congress spawned numerous successful independent trade unions, says Marie-Odile Marion, anthropologist at the National School of Anthropology and History.

But by 1977, attacks by ranchers and internal dissent created fissures in the movement. As the ideology became more radical, the Catholic Church officially separated from it, and the Indian movement broke in two. The majority pursued an economic development model that included setting up credit unions and, with government financing, buying warehouses, several coffee plantations, and cattle ranching. The more radical political group went underground, Ms. Marion says. In 1983, the EZLN was founded as a secret army.

But the Zapatistas didn't gain momentum until the early 1990s. The collapse of world coffee prices bankrupted the Indian cooperatives. Other employment was scarce and low paying, thanks to the influx of Guatemalan war refugees.

The Zapatistas emerged from hiding in early 1990, offering an armed alternative. Their public face was the Emiliano Zapata National Independent Campesino Alliance (ANCIEZ), according to Proceso, an independent Mexican weekly magazine. On Oct. 12, 1992, some 10,000 Indians marched to protest the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Colombus.

Then, in early 1993, the leaders of the ANCIEZ disappeared. Shortly thereafter, Mexican Army patrols were attacked twice by heavily armed men in the forest between Ocosingo and Altamirano.

The official line until Jan. 1 was that there were no guerrillas in Chiapas. The Jan. 6 government report now says the guerrillas (estimated to number 1,500 to 2,000) have 15 training camps and draw members from 24 communities. They count on a network of 172 citizen band radios.

Government officials imply that they must have outside financing to set up an armed movement of this size. But past and present Guatemalan, Nicaraguan, and Salvadoran guerrilla leaders deny having funded or trained them. One Central American rebel leader says privately the Zapatistas probably wouldn't need funds from abroad. Since the Mexican government has given tacit support to Central American rebels over the years, none contacted wanted to publicly contradict the official position.

``To train, organize, and outfit a majority of the Mexican guerrillas, what you need is time, not a lot of money,'' says William LeoGrande, a Latin America specialist at American University in Washington, D.C.

It is speculated that the Zapatistas could have bought their weapons with ransom money. Over the last two years, at least 20 individuals, including ranch or plantation owners, have been kidnapped. Proceso estimates some $12 million in ransom money has been paid.

The presence of a few Central Americans in the Zapatista ranks doesn't surprise analysts. Several hundred thousand illegal Central American immigrants cross into Chiapas each year. Some 20,000 Guatemalan war refugees live in Chiapas.

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