Return of the Zapatistas: Are Mexico’s Rebels Still Relevant?

Subcomandante Marcos has re-emerged to remind Mexico that his movement, while slightly faded, is still entrenched in Chiapas

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Ivan Castaneira / AP

Supporters of the leftist indigenous Zapatista movement march in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, on Dec. 21, 2012

At 11:11 a.m. on Dec. 21, the crowds that had flocked from around the world to southern Mexico to mark the end of the Maya calendar’s creation cycle breathed a sigh of relief when the apocalypse never came. But many doomsday tourists witnessed a different sort of news event when tens of thousands of masked Zapatista rebels, all of them descendants of the ancient Maya, marched in silence through towns in Chiapas state in their most high-profile mobilization in five years. The Zapatistas and their pipe-smoking poet leader, a non-Maya Mexican known as Subcomandante Marcos, have always been skilled at generating political theater — and the Dec. 21 Maya mania was a golden media opportunity. “Did you hear it?” a Marcos communiqué asked. “It’s the sound of their world ending. It’s that of ours resurging.”

This Zapatista resurgence wasn’t just meant to coincide with Maya scripture, however. Dec. 22 also marked the 15th anniversary of a massacre of 45 unarmed Zapatista sympathizers by a shady paramilitary group. And the mobilization came three weeks after Enrique Peña Nieto was sworn in as Mexico’s new President, which brought back to power the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that had ruled Mexico as a one-party dictatorship for most of the 20th century. The PRI was the target of the 1994 armed uprising in Chiapas that introduced the Zapatistas to the world and set in motion a string of political and economic crises that led to the PRI’s downfall six years later. The rebels have been in conflict with PRI politicians ever since, and on Dec. 30, Marcos followed with another communiqué calling the election of Peña Nieto an illegitimate  “media coup” and promising a series of initiatives to “resist and fight” it.

(MORE: Mexico’s PRI-vival: How Big a Gamble Are Voters Taking?)

Pundits are mixed on how to interpret the return of the Zapatistas to Mexico’s national stage. Sympathizers are quick to point out that while the indigenous rebels have been out of the media spotlight, they have been highly active at the grassroots. Following the brief 1994 clashes with the Mexican army, the Zapatistas focused on building alternative governments in hundreds of Chiapas villages, taking over farmland and setting up their own schools and medical clinics. Neil Harvey, author of the book The Chiapas Rebellion, estimates that 120,000 to 150,000 people live within Zapatista communities and have made significant progress in education, women’s rights and overall living standards. The new mobilization is largely a defensive measure, Harvey says, to show that a new national PRI government can’t trample on these gains. “The Zapatistas have fought hard to maintain control of the good farmland they took in the rebellion,” Harvey said. “There are always new conflicts brewing that could create a more confrontational situation.”

Others point to the Zapatistas’ role among other global protest movements. When they first came to world attention in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, they offered a new vision of the left that was embraced by many radicals in Europe and North America. Now, as Marcos’ latest communiqué made clear, the Zapatistas want to build bridges with 21st century campaigns such as Occupy Wall Street, the Angry Ones in Spain and Soy 132 (I Am 132), a radical Mexican student movement sharply opposed to Peña Nieto. “The Zapatistas changed the whole language of the left with their radical political imagination,” says Alex Khasnabish, author of Zapatistas: Rebellion from the Grassroots to the Global. “It is impossible to understand the current cycle of [global] protest without the Zapatistas.”

(MORE: Greetings from Zapatista Land)

Officials in the new Mexican administration have initially taken a cautious and conciliatory approach to the Zapatistas’ challenge. “We still don’t know them,” Interior Secretary Miguel Osorio Chong recently told the Mexico City daily La Jornada. But he insisted that Peña Nieto’s agenda pledges “many commitments to the indigenous peoples.” Manlio Fabio Beltrones, leader of the PRI faction in Congress, said lawmakers are willing to look at any Zapatista demands. Mexico’s Congress approved a law in 2001 giving indigenous communities a degree of autonomy over their own laws and customs. But the Zapatistas also want control of mineral resources where they live, a right they say the then PRI government agreed to in a 1996 peace accord.

Critics say the newest declarations by Subcomandante Marcos — who Mexican authorities say is a university professor named Sebastián Guillén — reflect his characteristically egotistical desire to make a media splash. While continuing to wear a ski mask and use only his pseudonym, Marcos has made headlines in the past with controversial statements attacking politicians of all stripes. He has railed against leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who lost July’s presidential election to Peña Nieto, and Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón, who in 1998 issued an arrest warrant for Chile’s former military dictator Augusto Pinochet. “He deliriously changes his position and makes incoherent statements,” says Mexican journalist Sanjuana Martínez. “What have the Zapatistas gained from him?”

(MORE: How Enrique Peña Nieto Won Himself and His Party the Mexican Presidency)

Others view the Zapatista mobilization as part of a wider reaction by Mexico’s hard left against the return of the PRI. A Mexican guerrilla group called the Popular Revolutionary Army also issued a communiqué in December calling for resistance to the PRI government, which it called “fascistic.” Back in Mexico City, protesters threw Molotov cocktails and fought with police when Peña Nieto was inaugurated on Dec. 1. “I think the writing on the wall is clear,” says the author Khasnabish. “Indigenous struggles are increasingly coming to the front line, in Mexico and globally.”