About Chiapas


Chiapas is the southernmost and eighth largest state in Mexico with an area of 75,000 square kilometres, and, in terms of natural resources, it is one of the richest. It produces 55% of Mexico’s hydroelectric power, 21% of Mexico’s oil, and 47% of it’s natural gas. Chiapas produces more coffee than any other region of Mexico, is the country’s second largest beef producer, and is one of Mexico’s most important suppliers of corn, honey, bananas, melons, avocados, sorghum and cocoa. Large amounts of mahogany and cedar wood also come from Chiapas. Chiapas is also host to an overwhelming variety of plant and animal species, particularly in the ‘biospheres’ of the Lacandon rainforest.

Despite being surrounded by immense natural wealth, the people of Chiapas are some of the poorest in Latin America. Of Chiapas’ 3 million inhabitants, over 70% live under the poverty line, mostly indigenous Mayan peasants. Half of the population is unemployed. There is a chronic lack of basic services for the population – across the state, only 30% of the population are literate, and in the rainforest areas, only 217 primary schools serve 65,000 school-age children. Not surprisingly, 40% of the population has never been to school. Health services are similarly paltry – there are 0.4 hospital beds for every 1000 inhabitants, one-third the level of Mexico as a whole. The inhabitants of Chiapas are also poorly served by utilities and infrastructure- 62% of the homes in Chiapas have no clean drinking water; 85% have no drainage systems. There are 12,000 rural communites which can only be reached by mountain trails. And perversely, in a state which exports vast quantities of both commodities, 70-80% of the homes in Chiapas have no access to electricity or gas.

This appalling state of affairs came about due to the corrupt hegemony of the landowners and cattle ranchers in Chiapas. They had, through the main Mexican political party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI, completely taken over the political and economic life of Chiapas. Almost all formal political posts in Chiapas went to landowners or cattle ranchers, and the system was bolstered by a network of PRI-appointed caciques, indigenous village leaders who controlled the official peasant and indigenous organisations. Electoral fraud and intimidation was rife in Chiapas – the PRI vote was usually of the order of 98 or 99%. And if violence was needed to suppress the people, the landowners could always rely on the Guardias Blancas, or ‘White Guards’, paramilitary mercenaries who were all too willing to seize indigenous land or assassinate peasant or indigenous leaders, with the complicity of the federal and state governments; raids by the White Guards on indigenous communities were often accompanied by the federal police or Mexican army.

The conditions for the Mexican poor worsened with the implementation of neoliberal economic reforms in the 1980s and 1990s – a program of privatisations, union-busting and IMF-induced austerity had been put in place to control rampant inflation and the debt crisis of 1982. The NAFTA ‘free-trade’ agreement with the US and Canada heightened fears that subsistence farmers would be forced off their lands by a wave of cheap food imports from US agribusiness. In preparation for NAFTA the government had effectively privatised the ejidos, state controlled communal lands, by amending the 1917 constitution, adding to the threat of illegal land seizures from the rancheros.

Zapatista Uprising

On January 1st 1994, the day NAFTA was due to be implemented, a guerrilla force calling itself the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (the EZLN, or ‘Zapatistas’), stormed five towns in Chiapas, including the former state capital, San Cristobal del las Casas, taking the Mexican government by surprise. The Mexican army deployed 15,000 troops in Chiapas to crush the uprising, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of civilians and the execution of dozens of Zapatista prisoners.

However, the influx of Mexican troops was matched by an influx of journalists, political activists and human rights workers from all over Mexico. News of the rebellion, and of the living conditions of much of the indigenous people, filtered out via television, newspapers and the internet, and solidarity demonstrations took place all over Mexico, North America, and the world. Mexico’s business and political elite were now terrified of the effect of the uprising on their NAFTA trading partners, and within 12 days, a ceasefire was called, with negotiations due to start in early February.

The Zapatista (the term ‘Zapatista’ comes from Emiliano Zapata, one of the heroes of the Mexican revolution) demands were for indigenous rights, land, housing, food security, and the rights of the indigenous people to have political autonomy, and to control their own health and education systems. On top of this, they aimed at democratizing Mexico through the empowerment of ‘civil society’, a term for those social groupings devoted neither to making private profit nor wielding governmental power. Unlike previous revolutionary movements, the Zapatistas weren’t trying to overthrow the government and wield state power themselves.. A long process of negotiations followed, with the EZLN periodically taking proposals back to the indigenous communities to be voted upon. In February 1996, both the government and EZLN agreed upon the San Andres Accords which guaranteed political, cultural and civil rights to Mexico’s indigenous population, and autonomy inside indigenous territories and municipalities. The accords, however, were discarded by President Zedillo, who supposedly objected to the word ‘autonomy’; in response, the EZLN broke off negotiations in September 1996.

Autonomy in action

The Zapatista communities, however, were already practicing autonomy. In Zapatista villages, communal decisions were made at village assemblies, where every adult villager was allowed to participate and vote. Larger-scale decisions are taken at the municipality level (a municipality is a collection of 30 or 40 villages), with delegates sent from each of the villages. Important municipal decisions are taken in a consulta, where the village assemblies debate an issue, and delegate a villager to the municipal assembly on their behalf. A proposal is then drawn up, but is only implemented after it’s sent back to the villages and ratified by the majority of village assemblies. This system gives ordinary people in the autonomous communities far more say over the running of their community than they had before.

The Zapatistas were putting the rest of their demands into practice too. During the rebellion, hundreds of landed estates were seized. Landowners either fled or had what land they couldn’t work by themselves confiscated. Land in the autonomous communities is now held in a mixture of communal farms,and single-family smallholdings, producing, for the most part, food or coffee. The autonomous communities have implemented their own health and education systems. Without government funding, autonomous hospitals have put in place a system of health ‘promoters’ to educate the population from their own villages in hygiene and sanitation, and perform basic medicine. The system has a chronic lack of professional staff and resources, but lacks the discrimination and neglect that is a regular feature of government health clinics.

Women’s rights, too, have improved. The indigenous culture of Mexico is highly patriarchical, with women subordinate to men. Indigenous women are often expected to do all of the domestic chores, which may involve working for 16-18 hours a day. Domestic violence is rife, and women were often forced into marriage. Lack of education compounds the problem; indigenous women are frequently unschooled, illiterate and unable to speak Spanish. The Zapatistas enacted a formal set of Women’s Revolutionary Laws, allowing them reproductive freedom, the right to education, to choose their partner, and to participate in the assemblies, among others. One of the first women’s initiatives was the banning of alcohol in the autonomous communities – drink was a major catalyst for domestic abuse. Nowadays, women can, and do, hold positions of responsibility in the communities; one-third of the EZLN itself is female, with women participating at all levels. Whilst gender equality is still some way off, in the autonomous communities the situation is, at long last, improving.

The threat of a good example

This revolution provided Mexico with ‘the threat of a good example’ – it showed the people that rule by the PRI-dominated government wasn’t necessary for their safety and well-being. The problem that the government had was how to halt this threat to their power before it spread. An attempt to crush the EZLN using direct military force had been tried in early 1995, and had failed – the EZLN had too much political support both inside and outside Chiapas for it to work, so the government was forced to reinstate the ceasefire and the negotiations. Less visible tactics had to be employed to destroy this revolution.

Modern ‘counter-insurgency’ doctrine prefers the deployment of paramilitary groups to harass, attack and assassinate rebel armies and their supporters (or even just ordinary political dissidents). Using these privatised armies has the advantage that they’re not part of the government, so that governments can deflect political flak by painting themselves as neutral agents in some ethnic, political or religious conflict not of their making. In reality, government forces supply these groups with intelligence, training, material support, and immunity from capture and prosecution. It’s a strategy that has been used, to a greater or lesser extent, in conflicts in Columbia, Indonesia, El Salvador, Northern Ireland, Bosnia and elsewhere.

In Mexico, the Zapatista rebellion was followed by the creation of a number of these paramilitary groups in and around Chiapas, mostly by PRI loyalists. These groups launched a campaign of terror against those in the autonomous communites, with many activists being assassinated,fields of crops destroyed and communities being terrorised out of their homes. 20,000 indigenous people became refugees in the wake of paramilitary attacks. The worst incident occurred in 1997, when 45 refugees, mostly women and children from Zapatista families, were massacred in a church in Acteal by a group calling themselves ‘Red Mask’. The subsequent outcry sparked off solidarity demonstrations all over the world, and pressured the Mexican government into prosecuting some of those responsible; evidence was found that the perpetrators were trained by former military and police personnel, and that the killings were ordered by government officials. The massive public outcry over Acteal has probably tempered paramilitary brutality somewhat; while killings and evictions still occur, massacres on the scale of Acteal don’t appear to have been attemped since.

2000 to present

In July 2000, Mexico was finally rid of one-party rule. The new president, Vincente Fox, was ,for the first time in 70 years, not a member of the PRI, but of the right-wing Partido Acción Nacional(PAN). In Chiapas too, the PRI were ousted and an independent member was elected to the post of state governor. The president began by making promising overtures to the EZLN. 10,000 troops and 53 roadblocks were withdrawn from Chiapas, and the Zapatistas marched to Mexico City to resume talks with the government. The negotiations resulted in the reintroduction of the “Law on Indigenous Rights and Culture”, the law implementing the San Andres Accords, to the Mexican legislature, but the parliament watered down the proposal, and the resulting 2001 act was denounced by the EZLN.

The Zapatista revolution still faces many hurdles. The election of president Fox may have broken the PRI stranglehold over the Mexican state, but Fox is still a gung-ho free-marketeer. Fox is one of the main architects of Plan Puebla Panama, a vast project funded by the World Bank to construct roads, dams, power stations across the whole of Central America, in order to help enrich multinational corporations that wish to build sweatshops and plunder the biodiversity of the area. Many of these projects are aimed squarely at the autonomous communities, and are thought by some analysts to be part of a new ‘counter-insurgency’ strategy.

While planning to litter Central America with dams, power stations and oil wells, the Mexican government is using environmental concerns as cover for more repression against indigenous communities. In the Montes Azules region, the army, along with paramilitaries from the Lacandones, a small indigenous group that benefited from a massive land grant by the Mexican government, have been attempting to evict indigenous settlements, sited in the Lacandon jungle nature reserve, for ‘environmental reasons’. The government had been advised by ‘Conservation International‘ – a shady NGO funded by multinational corporations and the US government, to evict the villagers. At the time of writing (July 2003), the paramilitaries have so far been deterred from forcibly evicting the villages by international human rights observers, but the communities are still urgently under threat.

The Zapatista revolution goes on, but continues to face threats from the government, from paramilitaries and from big business. New tactics of resistance have evolved from the struggle, but will no doubt be met by new methods of oppression and exploitation. Solidarity from outsiders, whether Mexicans or foreigners, has been instrumental in keeping the resistance alive so far, and will certainly be needed in the future.

There are more detailed and complete accounts of the situation in Chiapas on some of the sites on our links page.

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