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Zapatista Army of National Liberation: Creation & History

Instructor: Harley Davidson

Harley has taught university-level History classes and has a Ph.D. in History

The Zapatistas are one of Latin America's most provocative revolutionary movements. This lesson explores the origins, political philosophy, evolution, and impact of the Zapatista movement.

The Zapatista National Liberation Army

The Zapatista National Liberation Army (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, or EZLN) is one of the most prolific and influential revolutionary groups in modern leftist politics. The EZLN was founded on January 1, 1994 and based in the state of Chiapas in Mexico. Compared to other Mexican states, Chiapas had higher levels of poverty and a larger indigenous population. The Zapatistas drew inspiration from Emiliano Zapata (1879-1919), an important leader in the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Zapata advocated for the rights of Mexico's peasants against Mexico's entrenched elites, the plantation owners. Eighty years after the Mexican Revolution, Mexico remained torn by similar kinds of economic and political strife that Zapata had combated.

Emiliano Zapata provided an ideological blueprint for the EZLN almost a century later.
Emiliano Zapata

The Beginning of Conflict

Leading up to the launch of the EZLN in 1994, Mexico teetered on the edge of economic turmoil. For many poor Mexicans, one of the most polarizing economic issues was the impending North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) among Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Set to go into effect on January 1, 1994, NAFTA would force Mexico to privatize the country's ejidos, or indigenous communal farms. The ejidos were supposed to be protected by the Mexican constitution. Many Mexicans also feared that NAFTA would be one-sided in the United States' favor and make Mexican industry uncompetitive.

The enigmatic Subcomandante Marcos, pictured left, acted as the public face of the EZLN.
Subcomandante Marcos

On January 1, 1994, the same day NAFTA went into effect, the EZLN launched armed insurrections in four towns in Chiapas. The EZLN was led by Subcomandante Marcos, whose real name was Rafael Sebastián Guillén Vicente. Subcomandante Marcos called for revolution against Mexico's ruling political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partído Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI) and advocated for land reform and redistribution as Emiliano Zapata had done decades before. The EZLN did not seek the overthrow of the Mexican state but wanted local autonomy. As the uprising spread to neighboring states, battles between the EZLN and Mexican troops led to the deaths of more than 100 people.

A Shift Toward Peace

Between 1994 and 1997, relations between the EZLN and the Mexican government remained strained. Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari tried to make peace with the rebels but found no success by the time he was succeeded by president Ernesto Zedillo in late 1994. The Mexican government and the EZLN agreed to the San Andrés Accords in February 1996, honoring the requests of the EZLN. But Zedillo eventually rejected the San Andrés Accords and reignited armed conflict, sending covert paramilitary units to battle EZLN forces and terrorize Zapatista-held communities. This campaign culminated in the massacre of civilians in the Zapatista town of Acteal. The conflict between the government and the EZLN was unsustainable, leading to the next phase of EZLN's history.

The Zapatistas' New Look

The Zapatista movement shifted gears in the late 1990s, taking on a more peaceful, political character. Armed conflict with the government largely ceased. Within Zapatista regions, the administration was rebuilt in the image of the Zapatista movement with indigenous autonomy and increased indigenous involvement in government. The EZLN also sought to expand its ideology outside Zapatista territories by sending Zapatista activists and academics across the country to give talks. Relations between the Mexican government and the EZLN warmed to such a degree that, in 2001, Mexican president Vicente Fox's administration approved a revised version of the San Andrés Accords. But EZLN did not agree to the revisions and announced in 2003 that the original San Andrés Accords would apply in its territories. In the years since 2003, tensions between the EZLN and Mexican government remain unresolved.


This sign marks the beginning of Zapatista territory and outlines its political and economic policy well. It reads: You are in Zapatista rebel territory. Here the people command and the government obeys. North Zone. Council of Good Government. The trafficking in weapons, the planting and use of drugs, alcoholic beverages, and illegal sales of wood are strictly prohibited. No to the destruction of nature.
Zapatista Sign


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