Zapatistas Present Mexico
With an Issue of Peace
When the Zapatista National Liberation Army took up arms against Mexico's
one-party dictatorship on New Year's Day, 1994, the ragged army of Maya Indians
made a preposterous pledge to march on Mexico City. Who would have guessed
they'd succeed? "We've arrived," the charismatic Subcommander Marcos told
the press as he entered the nation's capital last weekend. "Here we are."
They wore their trademark ski masks but left their rifles at home in their
jungle stronghold in the poor southern state of Chiapas.
The fact that a delegation of 24 Zapatista commandantes has arrived
at the center of national power through political mobilization rather than
armed insurrection is a credit to the democratic transition in our neighbor
and NAFTA partner.
Ironically, the Zapatistas are increasingly portrayed in our media as a
moribund movement that has fallen short of its dreams, while Mexico's democratic
opening has been successfully exploited by President Vicente Fox and the
free-market right. But the Zapatista uprising did much to prompt that opening-and
Fox, despite his promises to deliver a peace deal, represents a party that
is intransigent on the rebels' demands for greater rights for Mexico's 10
After rallying in the capital's central plaza on Sunday, the Zapatistas
want to address the Mexican congress in a bid to win approval of their peace
plan, which would change the constitution to recognize the "autonomy" of
Mexico's indigenous peoples. They have pledged to remain in the capital until
the accords are approved. Right now, they don't have the votes. The coming
political battle will highlight whether Mexico's new democracy offers anything
other than continued poverty and marginalization for the indigenous peoples.
The Zapatistas timed their 1994 uprising to coincide with NAFTA taking effect
and declared the treaty a "death sentence" for Mexico's Indians-who stand
to be forced from their traditional lands by the agro-export owners and big
developers. The 12 days of warfare in Chiapas, which followed the 1994 uprising,
forever altered Mexico's political landscape. A large public outcry called
a halt to the government offensive-which largely targeted unarmed Maya communities-and
pressured both sides to negotiate. The talks have lurched forward in fits
and starts since then, with the rebels demanding both guarantees of Indian
rights and democracy for Mexico generally.
Before last summer's elections ended the Institutional Revolutionary Party's
rule, Chiapas was poised uneasily between war and peace. Despite violent provocations,
the Zapatistas continued to struggle peacefully. They did not surrender their
weapons and still faced the organized terror of the PRI-loyalist paramilitary
groups, such as Red Mask, which slaughtered 45 unarmed Zapatista sympathizers
at the hamlet of Acteal on Dec. 22, 1997. But in the court of Mexican
public opinion, the Zapatistas are overwhelmingly perceived as occupying the
moral high ground.
Vicente Fox, George W. Bush's favorite foreign leader, won election in part
by promising to end the Chiapas conflict "in 15 minutes" and has pledged to
support the peace plan-which the Zapatistas hashed out with congressional
negotiators five years ago. But many in Fox's own right-wing National Action
Party (PAN) bitterly oppose the Maya rebels.
Fox is shrewdly tilting away from his own party. But its pro-industry
agenda is inimical to the interests of Indian communities seeking to preserve
their traditional way of life. Even if Fox wins peace with the Zapatistas,
other, more radical armed rebel groups in the south may pick up the ball.
And the Pentagon and CIA have established closer links to the Mexican armed
forces since 1994, mostly under the guise of drug enforcement, and may assume
a growing counterinsurgency role.
One of the Mexican army officers who masterminded the strategy of
grooming unaccountable paramilitaries to terrorize Indians back into submission
despite the official truce in Chiapas was Gen. Renan Castillo, graduate of
a "psychological warfare" training program overseen by U.S. Army Green Berets
at Fort Bragg, N.C.
The newsmagazine Milenio recently published a leaked report on Chiapas strategy
drawn up by Mexican army brass in preparation for the incoming Fox administration
before his December inauguration. The secret report, "Plan Chiapas 2000,"
urged Fox to use the media to portray Subcommander Marcos as a narco kingpin,
thereby creating the proper climate for a military offensive against the Zapatistas.
If the peace initiative fails, Fox may lean toward the hard-liners.
Fox's ambitious "Puebla-Panama Plan" would see a series of inter-oceanic
rail and highway links, oil and hydro development, industrial pods and free-trade
zones stretching from the Mexican state of Puebla to the Panama Canal. The
Zapatistas have decried the plan as a "counterinsurgency" measure aimed at
bringing the restive Indian communities of the Mexican south (and Central
America) under industrial control. If the Zapatistas' peace plan is approved,
the purveyors of such mega-scale projects may face a formidable obstacle:
uncooperative Indian communities with greater political control over their
That's why Fox's own PAN, ensconced in the booming free-trade industrial
elite, has pledged to fight the peace plan. Given this reality, many wonder
if looking to the new president for peace with the Maya rebels isn't letting
that proverbial Fox guard the chicken coop.