Struggling on: Zapatistas 20 years after the uprising

By Will Grant
BBC Mundo, San Cristobal de las Casas

Zapatista National Liberation Army leader Subcomandante Marcos smokes a pipe during peace talks on 24 February, 1994, in San Cristobal, Mexico
Image caption,
The EZLN's charismatic leader with his pipe and balaclava soon became iconic for the indigenous struggle
Image caption,
The speed with which the uprising spread caught the security forces by surprise
Image caption,
Women played a key role in the movement, with many becoming female commanders, or comandantas
Image caption,
The army was quickly sent to Chiapas to restore order

There is a single bullet-hole in a banister on the second floor of the municipal palace in the southern Mexican city of San Cristobal de las Casas.

It is all that remains of events on New Year's Day 1994, when armed rebels stormed the building and caught the colonial city off guard.

But it was not just the mayor's office that was taken by surprise. The military and the federal government were, too.

There had been rumours for some weeks that the disparate indigenous groups in the region had been organising to form a rebel army.

Now, in a matter of hours, the EZLN, better known as the Zapatistas, took control of much of the southern state of Chiapas.

The fighting was short-lived as the army was sent in to restore order. Less than two weeks later, the Catholic Church negotiated a shaky ceasefire.

Basic demands

"These are all the newspapers from the time", says Concepcion Villafuerte directing me towards several boxes marked 1993-6.

Inside are stack upon stack of jumbled copies of El Tiempo, the left-wing publication she ran for many years with her husband.

After some searching we discover the edition closest to the date of the guerrilla uprising.

Hers was the newspaper in which the Zapatistas chose to publish their demands.

"The first six were very basic: land, a home, food, health, education and work," Ms Villafuerte recalls.

Image caption,
Concepcion Villafuerte says none of the Zapatistas' aims has been achieved

"The others were more general, for all of Mexico: justice, democracy and freedom. They were basic needs for everyone, for all poor people, not just Indians."

I ask her how many of those aims she thought had been achieved 20 years on.

"By the EZLN, none of them," she remarks grimly. "But then, nor have they been achieved by other Mexicans."

"We have a greater economic crisis today than in '94. And it's not just an economic crisis, it's [a crisis] in education, in healthcare."

Since the fighting ended, she explains, the Zapatistas have created their own autonomous municipalities, called caracoles, which are independent of local government on land they took back from large land-owners in the 1990s.

"I think the Zapatistas are better off than we are," Ms Villafuerte adds.

Rebel communities

After several days of petitioning, we were granted exclusive access to one such Zapatista municipality called Oventic, located just outside of San Cristobal.

The people of Oventic remain deeply wary of outsiders. Our guide, his face covered by a black balaclava, refused to tell us his name and only answered our questions in basic, monosyllabic Spanish.

Image caption,
Residents of Oventic remain deeply suspicious of outsiders

We were not permitted to film anyone without their balaclava on and the collective leadership, known as a Good Government Junta, would not talk on camera.

However, we did get a glimpse of how these secretive and closed communities are run.

We saw their new school, daubed with pro-EZLN graffiti and images of Che Guevara and the Zapatista leader, Subcomandante Marcos.

Image caption,
Oventic has its own small health clinic
Image caption,
Its school is emblazoned with Zapatista mottos and imagery

The residents have their own healthcare clinic and several second-hand ambulances.

Women have a much more equal role in decision-making than in other indigenous or rural communities.

In the fields, the men work to produce coffee, maize, chilli and beans. Some crops are sold to generate funds for the community, but mainly they are for consumption by the cooperative.

The Zapatistas ask for no help from the state, and are generally left to their own devices in return.

At one point, I peeled away for a moment to chat to some young people playing basketball.

That was enough to bring our visit to an abrupt end as our guide quickly led us back to the main gates.

'Just demands'

But a little further into the Chiapas countryside, we met an indigenous community who were keen to talk.

Image caption,
Almost 50 people were killed by paramilitaries in Acteal in 1997

Residents of the small village of Acteal set up an indigenous rights group called "Los Abejas" in the early 1990s. They agreed with the Zapatistas' basic demands, but did not support their use of violence.

Despite that crucial distinction, scores of paramilitaries entered Acteal in December 1997 and massacred 47 unarmed people, including children and pregnant women.

Elias Gomez lost seven family members in the attack, including his brother and his father. He showed us the site where the violence took place, which the villagers are turning it into a permanent memorial.

"When the Zapatistas rose up, we supported them because their demands were just," says community leader, Antonio Vazquez.

"It's what the people want, demand and cry for. In Mexico there is no justice. The government is completely deaf: they don't want to hear or listen."

Image caption,
Residents of Acteal are proud of their indigenous traditions

The governing party, both in San Cristobal and at the federal level, is the same today as it was in 1994: the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

"The PRI now has more of a social conscience", says San Cristobal Mayor Francisco Martinez, insisting that the state has invested heavily in indigenous communities.

But the levels of poverty and marginalisation in Chiapas are among the highest in Mexico, particularly for indigenous peoples, who make up roughly 65% of the local population.

But these days, although they nominally remain at war with the Mexican state, the rebels' struggle is more ideological than armed in nature.

Image caption,
Subcomandante Marcos now takes to the airwaves rather than call to arms

Whatever they may or may not have achieved in the two decades since their uprising, few would disagree that the Zapatista rebellion has irrevocably shifted the relationship between the authorities and the indigenous population in Chiapas.

It is a sentiment neatly summed up by the sign at the entrance to Oventic: "You are in Zapatista territory in rebellion: here the people rule and the government must obey."