Chiapas Conflict: 1994 Zapatistia Uprising & Aftermath

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we will explore the 1994 Chiapas conflict. We will cover the initial uprising, as well as, the effects the uprising has continued to have on Mexico, and the Chiapas region through the present day.

Enough is Enough

When was the last time you decided that you had had enough? Perhaps you quit your job after being under significant stress, or maybe you broke things off with a friend who wasn't so friendly anymore. These can be important moments, ones which can change the rest of our lives.

Arguably an event which changed the face of southern Mexican politics forever was the 1994 Chiapas Conflict, and its aftermath, where thousands of Mexican natives rose up in rebellion against the state. This lesson will delve into the popular uprising and the resulting political movement it inspired.

Background & Rebellion

The impetus for the conflict was the landmark 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, collectively known today by its acronym: NAFTA. NAFTA was negotiated in the early 1990s between Mexico, Canada, and the United States. The intent was to grease the wheels of commerce between the three countries, removing trade barriers and making the movement of goods and money easier across international borders.

The agreement affected nearly all sectors of the North American economy; often, certain practices in an industry, in one country, were altered to bring them more in line with the practices of other countries. In Mexico, one particular effect was the forced privatization of communal farms, or ejidos, which were common in poorer areas of the country.

Principally in reaction to this change (though others were cited as well), the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) rebelled against the Mexican government. The EZLN chose January 1, 1994, as the date to begin its rebellion--symbolic as the first day when NAFTA came into effect. The Zapatistas, who named their party and themselves after an earlier revolutionary, Emiliano Zapatista, marched into, and seized, four cities in the largely impoverished Mexican state of Chiapas.

Flag of EZLN
Flag of EZLN

Rebellion and State Response

Led by the charismatic and self-styled Subcommander Marcos, the Zapatistas claimed to have been organized to protect indigenous interests since 1983. They further stated the rebellion was in response to NAFTA and the harmful effects the trade deal would have on Mexico's indigenous population. Chiefly, the Zapatistas wanted agrarian land reform and the redistribution of lands held by wealthy landowners. This was in direct contradiction to the policies being put in place by NAFTA.

Subcommander Marcos at EZLN rally
Subcommander Marcos

The several thousand rebels and activists were as ragtag as the impoverished Mexicans they claimed to represent; rebels reportedly carried firearms of poor quality, while others merely carried cardboard cutouts of guns, as they marched into cities like San Cristobal de Las Casas, the first city the rebels seized.

Rather than negotiating with the rebels, the Mexican government sent in the military. Fighting continued between rebels and the army for more than a week, claiming the lives of roughly 100 people. After a ceasefire was declared on January 12, most rebels returned to the jungles of Chiapas to regroup.


The initial rebellion was only the first stage of a movement which continues to influence events in Chiapas and southern Mexico to this day. Immediately, the Mexican government attempted to permanently quell the EZLN militarily. When that failed, President Ernesto Zedillo opened peace talks between the two sides, culminating in the San Andrés Accords, signed by both sides in February 1996.

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