Chiapas is Mexico’s southernmost state, bordering Guatemala to the East and the Pacific Ocean to the West. The state is marked by a wealth of natural resources, including hydroelectric power and other water resources, oil and natural gas, fertile land, and biodiversity. Despite this, Chiapas has one of highest levels of marginalization in Mexico. Over a quarter of the population has no access to running water; almost a third sleep on dirt floors. Of people over the age of 15, 40% have not completed primary school and 20% cannot read or write.

These problems manifest especially clearly among Chiapas’ indigenous population. The state has one of the highest proportions of indigenous people in Mexico, over 30%. Like any other country, Mexico has a mix of ethnicities. Most of Chiapas – and the vast majority of Mexico – are “Mestizos,” or people of mixed indigenous and European descent. But outside of this majority, there are a number of indigenous cultures, such as the Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Ch’ol, Zoque and Tojolabal peoples who make their homes in Chiapas. As a whole, these people face racial, economic and lingual disadvantages within the greater Spanish-speaking, Mestizo culture. In Chiapas especially, economic marginalization has tended to fall on ethnic lines.

This disparity has led to what is perhaps the most well-known aspect of Chiapas’ history: the Zapatista uprising:

Some History

For most of the past hundred and thirty years, the primary occupation of most indigenous men was as seasonal farmers, working on European or Mestizo owned farms and plantations. Many of these workers had been forced off their homelands in the more fertile lowlands by plantation owners and now had to work those same lands as sharecroppers. Starting in the 1960’s, however, the plantation system started to fail. A switch to smaller farms meant a drop-off and eventual plateauing of indigenous employment. Meanwhile, between 1970 and 1990, the indigenous population doubled from 100 thousand working men to 200 thousand. In order to cope with expanding populations, many migrated eastward into the Lacandon Jungle, where managing their personal crops on the infertile land became even more difficult.

By the 1990’s, things had reached a tipping point for many indigenous, but several factors helped lead to the eventual uprising that occurred in 1994:

  • In 1989, the price of coffee, one of the only cash-crops grown by farmers in Chiapas, plummeted, leaving many farmers with no income.
  • In 1992, Article 27 of the Mexican constitution was amended, in preparation for NAFTA, to allow previously protected communal farmlands (Ejidos) to be split up and sold, making the indigenous even easier targets for large buys aiming to take fertile land.
  • In 1994, The North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA was adopted by Mexico, allowing for an influx of cheap, American-subsidized corn. This left many Chiapan corn farmers unable to compete.

The Conflict

On January 1, 1994, around 3,000 militants, many modestly armed and trained peasant farmers, swept over the highlands and northern jungles of Chiapas, taking over a number of cities, among them the former capital, San Cristobal. Using the celebrations of the New Year as cover, and the official start of NAFTA as context, the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional or Zapatista National Army of Liberation), made its public debut. Its charismatic (and somewhat impromptu) spokesman, Subcomandante Marcos, explained the motivations of the army, making an appeal for “work, land, housing, food, health, education, independence, liberty, democracy, justice, and peace,” for the indigenous of Chiapas, as well as the people of Mexico on the whole. After 12 days of fighting with the Mexican Army and hundreds of casualties, a ceasefire was declared and negotiations began.

While the attack itself took many by surprise, the makings of an uprising in Chiapas had their roots in the events of the past thirty years. In the years leading up to 1994, partially as a result of their migration to the less regulated regions of the Lacandon Jungle, many independent peasant organizations were able to form. The EZLN, originally the efforts of a Marxist militant group from Mexico City, was successful mainly by taking advantage of these strong indigenous connections and modifying its message to be less about revolution and more about the immediate needs of the Chiapan people.

It was these needs that were the subject of the negotiations between the EZLN and the Mexican state, chief among them autonomy, the ability for indigenous groups to govern themselves within the greater Mexican government. These negotiations, however, failed to yield any results. In 1995, the Mexican army broke the cease fire, making a failed attempt to assassinate the EZLN leadership, but successfully reclaiming a number of the territories first captured by the EZLN in their original surge. The EZLN, however, remained nonviolent (as they had been since the original conflict, and remain so today).

In October of that year, a new negotiating body called COCOPA was formed by the Mexican government, which found some success. By February of 1996 the San Andrés accords were signed by both parties, accomplishing many of the goals of the EZLN and reducing the possibility for violence in the region. Despite having been official signed, the accords had yet to pass through the Mexican congress. In less than good faith, President Zedillo was simultaneously negotiating with the EZLN while attempting to undermine them and their supporters, who called themselves Zapatistas. Using a combination of federal aid programs available only to non-Zapatistas and unofficial paramilitaries funded and trained by the government to harass and intimidate Zapatista supporters, he successfully split the population’s loyalties. These attacks came to a head in 1997, when 45 unarmed men, women and children were slaughtered in the village of Acteal by a paramilitary because of their non-violent support for the Zapatistas.

Things started to change in 2000, when the PRI – the political machine that had dominated Mexican politics for the past 70 years – lost the presidential election (as well as the gubernatorial election in Chiapas). The newly elected President Vicente Fox quickly moved to pass the San Andrés accords through congress; however, the resulting legislation was largely watered down and failed to address many of the concerns of the Zapatistas (most notably, autonomy). Seeing negotiation as having for the most part failed them, The EZLN switched strategies, electing to form its own autonomous government. These “Good Government Juntas” became the civil branch of the EZLN, which continue to govern their various “Caracoles,” or Zapatista municipalities today.


The headlines surrounding the Zapatistas have largely faded out, in favor of the more pressing issues of the Mexican drug war. The organization has begun what it calls the “Other Campaign,” an effort to convince Mexicans to seek change through their own communities, rather than the Mexican government, which they see as corrupt. The ultimate goal is to unite a wide variety of civil groups to change Mexico for the better.

Though the Zapatistas do not have as loud a voice as they once commanded, more and more civil groups in Chiapas have taken up the task of solving the many problems that remain. The Zapatista demands for “work, land, housing, food, health, [and] education” are still ring soundly as vital issues. Subsidized corn continues to present a large problem for the many Chiapans who make their living as farmers. Many, though, have abandoned their fields in order to feed their families, seeking better opportunities in Mexican cities or in America. This kind of emigration tears families apart and desolates villages. Chiapans also face the problem of immigration from Guatemala, making competition for land and jobs even more difficult, and the encroachment of foreign corporations on Chiapas’ natural resources remains a threat to many landholding indigenous.

It would be disingenuous, however, to think of Chiapas as a “problem.” For the past forty year, Chiapas has represented one of the strongest struggles for progress on behalf of indigenous and marginalized people. That tradition continues on today, as more groups spring up to fight for those in need.

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This map details the locations of the prominent indigenous ethnic groups, as well as highlighting the major battle locations of the 1994 uprising.


Behind this field is the Lacadon Jungle, which Ch’ol farmers had to clear away before they could plant. The jungle is not well suited to kinds of agriculture that its new residents brought with them, leading to poor crop yields and deforestation.


Subcomandante Marcos has become a folk hero of the Zapatista movement. His eloquent writings and his skill with the international press helped earn him and the movement vital attention during the initial uprising.


Three EZLN leaders in negotiation. The masks that they wear have become largely symbolic, representing (by one interpretation) the facelessness of the indigenous people.


Outside the village of Acteal stands a Pillar of Shame, memorializing the massacre that occurred there.


The “School of the Earth,” right outside of San Cristobal is one of the most striking examples of how Chiapans are combatting the adversities they face. The school takes in indigenous students and teaches them practical life skills at no charge.