Indigenous population joins rebel fight against Mexico

Netza Smith

In the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 1994, masked rebels of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation attacked major towns in the Mexican state of Chiapas.

The Zapatistas moved out of their base in the Lacandona jungle into the important towns of Ocosingo, Rancho Nuevo and San Cristobal de las Casas. The plan of the rebels was to take over towns but withdraw before the Mexican army could decisively engage them and, during the withdrawal, seize additional towns.

The EZLN recognized its advantages in the topography of Chiapas – underdeveloped infrastructure, mostly rural, poor transportation and rugged terrain.

Along with the physical landscape of Chiapas, the rebels counted on the support of the large indigenous population of Chiapas who were disillusioned with the government and resentful of their poor living conditions. Thus, the indigenous from Chiapas made up most of the Zapatistas’ Army.

The modus operandi used by the EZLN was to raise a black flag with a five-point red star and the letters “EZLN” in key places of the towns they took over, which had included town halls and central plazas. At the height of the insurgency, the rebels had taken control of 38 municipalities.

The Mexican government first responded with local and national police, but within days had committed 17,000 federal troops to the insurgency area. The goal of the government’s military operation was to minimize the damage of the insurrection by taking control of counties that had not already been taken over by the rebels and to cut off the rebels’ lines of communication.

According to figures by the Mexican news agency, Proceso, the clashes between the EZLN and the Mexican military had produced 193 dead, of which 150 were rebels, 24 police and 19 military in 12 days of battle. Other figures reported by foreign agencies, which include civilians, calculate 150 dead just in day one.

Rancho Nuevo and Ocosingo were the zones of highest level of confrontation between the rebel and federal armies.

On Jan. 6, the rebels made their first public announcement from the jungle. In the announcement, the rebels communicated the insurgency’s objective and their position with regards to the government; “The formation of a democratic government, which guarantees fair elections across the whole country and at all levels of government.”

The Zapatistas’ message also expressed their wish for the outcome of the war, and why they believe they are protected under the constitution in an effort to change government.

Although the Zapatistas had acquired the sympathy and support from Mexicans, the military success at the operational level forced the government to negotiate with the rebels in a position of parity. On Jan. 12, both parties in conflict agreed to a cease-fire and begin negotiations.

During the negotiations between the government of Salinas and the EZLN, the human cost of the insurgency continued to rise despite the cease-fire agreement, mostly due to non-combat killings.

While some of the post cease-fire deaths came as a result of a shoot-out after the rebels had taken over additional municipal buildings, most were in cases when the Mexican military or paramilitary groups killed civilians without cause.

The most notable is the massacre at Acteal, where a paramilitary group and landowners assassinated 45 indigenous people, including women, children and elders. In another case, 45 people were killed when the military opened fire on a group of Tzotzil Indians inside a church.

Presently, the insurgency zone is much more tranquil. This is not saying it is combat free. Both parties are still present. The EZLN continues to have control over several municipalities and the military forces still occupy the area. According to the Global Exchange, the government in 2001 underwent 259 military operations, from checkpoints to detentions.