History of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation

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The flag of the EZLN.

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, or EZLN) was founded on November 17, 1983 by non-indigenous members of the FLN guerrilla group from Mexico's urban north and by indigenous inhabitants of the remote Las Cañadas/Selva Lacandona regions in eastern Chiapas, by members of former rebel movements. Over the years, the group slowly grew, building on social relations among the indigenous base and making use of an organizational infrastructure created by peasant organizations and the Catholic church (see Liberation theology). The Zapatista Army of National Liberation appeared on the national and international scene on January 1, 1994, the same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement between Mexico, the United States and Canada became operational, as a way of stating the presence of indigenous peoples in a globalized world.

Indigenous fighters wearing the black ski masks (pasamontañas) or red bandanas (paliacates) that have since become the group's trademark, some of them armed only with fake wooden rifles provided by their leaders, took hold of five municipalities in Chiapas. There was token resistance in four of those and hundreds of casualties in and around the city of Ocosingo. The Zapatistas officially declared war against the Mexican government, and announced their plans to march towards Mexico City, either defeating the Mexican Army or allowing it to surrender.

After just a few days of localized fighting in the jungle, the army defeated the rebels. President Carlos Salinas, then in his last year in office, offered a cease-fire agreement and opened dialogue with the rebels, whose official spokesperson was Subcomandante Marcos. After twelve days, the fighting stopped.

The dialogue between the Zapatistas and the government extended over a period of three years and ended with the San Andrés Accords, which entailed modifying the federal constitution in order to grant special rights, including autonomy, to indigenous people. A commission of deputies from different political parties, called COCOPA, slightly modified the agreements with the acceptance of the EZLN. However, the new President of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo, said Congress would have to decide whether to pass it or not. After the Mexican government violated promises made at the negotiating table, the EZLN went back into the jungle, while Zedillo increased the military presence in Chiapas to prevent the spread of EZLN's influence. An unofficial truce accompanied by EZLN's silence ensued for the next three years, the last in Zedillo's term.

After the dialogue ended, the Mexican Army and associated right-wing paramilitary groups received widespread criticism due to the killings, detentions and prosecutions of Zapatistas and supporters. One such incident was the Massacre of Acteal, where 45 people attending a church service were killed by people that the survivors say were paramilitaries.

In 2000 President Vicente Fox, the first from the opposition in 71 years, sent the COCOPA Law (constitutional changes) to Congress on one of his first acts of government (December 5, 2000), as he had promised during his campaign. After seeing the criticism and proposed modifications by notable congressmen, Subcomandante Marcos and part of his group decided to go, unarmed, to Mexico City in order to speak at congress in support of the original proposal. After a march through seven states with substantial support from the population and media coverage (and escorted by police to protect the EZLN members), representatives of the EZLN (not including Marcos) spoke at Congress in March 2001, in a controversial event. The march was nicknamed "Zapatour", and on the day of their arrival an unrelated concert for peace was held. During their stay they visited schools and universities.

Soon after the EZLN had returned to Chiapas, Congress approved a different version of the COCOPA Law, which did not include the autonomy clauses, claiming they were in contradiction with some constitutional rights (including private property and secret voting); this and other changes were seen as a betrayal by the EZLN and other political groups. These constitutional changes still had to be approved by a majority of state congresses. Many political and ethnic groups filed complaints both against and in favour of the changes, which were finally approved and went into effect on August 14, 2001. This, and the still recent electoral victory of President Fox in 2000 slowed down the movement, which had less media coverage since then.

As a last recourse to void the changes, a constitutionality complaint was filed to be resolved by the Supreme Court of Justice, which ruled on September 6, 2002 that since they were constitutional changes made by Congress and not a law as it was wrongly called, it was outside its power to reverse the changes, as that would be an invasion of Congress' sovereignty.

Until 2004, many people believed Marcos had fled Chiapas. Attempts to contact him failed or were answered by email or internet publications. Marcos denies being the head of the Zapatista movement, instead presenting himself as a spokesman, but he is by far the most prominent figure of the EZLN to the public. The collective leadership of the EZLN is made up of 23 commanders and one sub-commander. This is one of the unique characteristics of the Comité Clandestino Revolucionario Indígena or Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee (CCRI).

The communiques of 2004 list accomplishments and failures of their movement. From their own point of view, the Councils of Good Government, or Juntas de Buen Gobierno have been successful, as well as efforts to keep the violence between them and the military to a minimum. Their efforts to increase the role of women in cultural and political matters were not as successful.

He also reiterated the EZLN's long known opposition to what they see as a worldwide movement towards a neoliberal globalized economy, claiming that the current trend in government policies disempowers the people and establishes a de facto corporate government. The United States' "war on terror", International Monetary Fund/World Bank sponsored economic policies, and free trade agreements are seen as an application of these policies.

In October 2004, Subcomandante Marcos issued communiqués explaining the problems that the EZLN had with the federal government. Soon after, some Zapatista communities were expelled from their homes by government forces. The EZLN claims that this is an attempt to gain control of an area rich in natural resources. These communities were relocated with great difficulty due to lack of resources, something that the EZLN intended to alleviate by calling for international help.

However, the relevance of the EZLN to the national political agenda diminished. The Zapatistas maintain that this silent period of their uprising has been an extremely rich effort, centred in organizing their own "good government" and autonomously organized lives; in particular the establishment of an autonomous education and healthcare system, with its own schools, hospitals and pharmacies in places neglected by the government.

There are currently 32 of the so-called "rebel autonomous zapatista municipalities" (independent Zapatista communities, MAREZ from their name in Spanish) in Chiapas.

In the late months of 2002, Subcommandante Marcos wrote a letter to a Spanish supporter on October 12, the date Columbus arrived to the Americas in 1492, (according to EZLN, the day marked as the beginning of the suffering of indigenous suffering). In that long letter, Marcos calls Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón a "grotesque clown" for, among other things, banning Batasuna, an independent Basque nationalist party on claims it was supporting the Basque terrorist group ETA, and then calling Garzón's attempt to try Chilean General Pinochet for human rights violations against Spanish citizens a "fool-deceiving tale". Marcos also criticized the Spanish monarchy and then Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar. After the publication of the letter by the press on November 25, Marcos and Garzón exchanged many more via the international press, in a not-so-elegant duel of words, which included Marcos' joking acceptance of Garzón's challenge to a debate, betting to reveal his secret identity if he lost against Garzón's commitment to the EZLN cause if he won. The whole incident caused much debate among many of Marcos' supporters. Some were upset about Marcos devoting his time to other causes; others thought the tone of his letters was improper of the official spokesman of the EZLN and finally others interpreted his letters as supporting ETA.

In February 2003, Marcos wrote yet another letter. This one condemned the congressmen of the only party that supported the Zapatistas to some degree, the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Marcos claimed they agreed to approve a modified version of the EZLN-sanctioned COCOPA Law the previous year. That letter and the replies that followed left many of EZLN's strongest and most influential allies ill-disposed toward Marcos. It was not a surprising move, however, since the PRD had dismissed the San Andrés Accords.

Aside from criticism of political actors, Marcos described EZLN's ongoing work in its zones of influence and changes in its internal organization.

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