When the Zapatistas announced the dismantling of their political system in October of 2023, many were quick to declare Mexico’s iconic anti-capitalist movement dead. But it was not an end; it was a new beginning. The series of communiques that followed inaugurated a transformation of the Zapatistas’ self-governance — brought to life with the 1994 uprising — to further decentralize power and communalize land use. Thirty years after it took up arms, the movement continues reinventing itself to pursue democracy, equality and self-determination. As the crowd of several thousand converged in the misty mountains of Chiapas on New Year’s Eve to celebrate the anniversary, the Indigenous rebels proved they are still a force to reckon with, as well as an inspiration for many all across the world.

In the last hour of 2023, hundreds of uniformed men and women in their symbolic black ski masks appeared out of the dark in front of a bedazzled crowd of spectators and solemnly marched before bursting into dance. The celebration took place on the very land the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) seized from large landowners on the historic night of Jan. 1, 1994, when they took over seven towns across Chiapas. Revolting against 500 years of colonial oppression, masked Mayan peasants with makeshift guns demanded land, self-governance and the democratization of the country. At a time when Mexico’s elites celebrated the signing of NAFTA and capitalism relished the supposed death of all alternatives, the faceless army was a spark of hope for many on the Left. 

Having quickly won national and global sympathies, the rebels forced the state into peace talks, putting indigenous sovereignty on Mexico’s agenda for the first time. But the state could not be trusted. Fed up with its empty promises amidst an insidious campaign to squash them, the Zapatistas eventually turned away from institutional channels of power. They started building a life they wanted autonomously from the state. 

A new roadside sign put up after the 2023 restructuring, announcing a Zapatista community. Photo by Anna Rebrii

A product of a historic encounter between Mexico’s Indigenous peasants and urban Marxist-Leninists, the EZLN reinvigorated the Maya practice of communal democracy in which the village or town assembly is the nucleus of local self-governance. It set up an autonomous political system in which local assemblies sent delegates to the upper layers of authority — those of the municipalities and regional “good government councils”— to coordinate the communities spread out over a third of Chiapas. Rejecting all social services from the historically oppressive and paternalistic state, it built its own institutions of justice, education, health and economy, and showed that “another world is possible,” here and now. 

Though the Zapatistas rarely make headlines these days, they have never given up on building an emancipatory alternative, in defiance of both the Mexican state and global capital. 

In November 2023, in an act of public self-criticism, the Zapatistas announced that the original system they set up did not work. It failed, they said, to ensure the priority of the communal assembly, and thus the people, in the three levels of governance. Hierarchy crept into the same structures designed to disarm it, replacing radical democracy with a pyramid of power. As the movement wrote in one of their latest communiques:

The main problem is the damn pyramid [that the autonomous system has become]. The pyramid separated the [municipal and regional] authorities from the communities … The proposals from authorities did not go down to the communities unaltered, nor did the communities’ opinions reach the authorities. …The authorities tended to want to decide by themselves. 

To redress this inadvertent reversal in the flow of power, the Zapatistas decided to flip the pyramid. The tasks previously handled at the municipal and regional levels are now in the hands of communities and their local structures of autonomy. The upper levels still exist, but with a narrower purview and diminished decision-making authority. 

While it is yet to be seen how the new system will operate in practice, the movement’s supporters applaud the move. As Paco Vasquez, a member of Promedios, an NGO that worked closely with the Zapatista media in the early years after the uprising, told me in San Cristobal, “We have to acknowledge the profound courage of an organization that listened to its base and recognized that it created a system that did not function … For most organizations, it would be very difficult to recognize their mistakes — let alone publicly.” For the Zapatistas, revolution is a trial-and-error process without an end.

Zapatista youth perform a theatre play at the anniversary. A young woman is holding a sign that says in Spanish “women comrades’ collective work.” Photo by Anna Rebrii

They are just as bold and creative when it comes to the external challenges that have hardly decreased over the years. Shocked by the uprising, the Mexican state used every tool it had at its disposal to target the movement: from directly invading the Zapatista territories, to training ruthless paramilitaries, to co-opting movement members with social aid to pitting Indigenous communities against each other. The Zapatistas are now reinventing themselves, at least partly to face the living legacy of the state’s years-long counterinsurgency campaign. 

Instigating land conflicts within and between communities has been a hallmark of the Mexican state’s counterinsurgency campaign to erode the movement’s support base.

One of the movement’s recent communiques intriguingly announced that the land occupied in 1994 will belong to nobody. It proclaimed that private property is at the root of dispossession, violence and environmental destruction faced by Mexico’s Indigenous communities and beyond, so the land will be held “in common.” As an anonymous source from within the movement told me, working “in common” is not a new practice for the Zapatistas. Similar to the practice of Indigenous peoples’ communal self-governance that long preceded and evaded the state, communal ownership of land with individual families’ right of use is a tradition that has survived centuries of colonialism. While the Zapatista families work individual plots of land for personal consumption, various kinds of cooperatives — food production collectives, stores, even banks — are the cornerstone of the autonomous economy. As a woman member explained to me at the Zapatistas’ 2019 Women’s Encuentro, these projects are managed collectively on a rotating basis and their proceeds serve to maintain autonomous institutions like education, health or the costs incurred by authorities.

What seems to be novel in the announcement, then, is that while previously the “common” was practiced only by the movement members, the rebels are now inviting others to join. Parts of the land taken over in 1994 will be now worked in shifts by both Zapatistas and non-Zapatistas, allowing the latter to share in the gains of the uprising without joining the movement and taking on commitments that entails. Voicing a common sentiment, Vasquez hopes that the new approach can address one of the main challenges the Zapatistas have faced since 1994: violent disputes for land. Instigating land conflicts within and between communities has been a hallmark of the Mexican state’s counterinsurgency campaign to erode the movement’s support base. Thirty years on, it continues to foster displacement, dispossession and division of entire communities. 

Starting in December 2019, a group of men who call themselves the “40 invaders” have been gradually taking over the Zapatista community of Nuevo San Gregorio. One of the many villages formed on the land recuperated in 1994, it featured its own autonomous school and health center, with 155 hectares of land worked collectively by Zapatista members from 10 nearby communities. By 2022, the invaders — many of them family members, friends and ex-comrades in arms of the victims — occupied most of the autonomous territory, encircling the remaining Zapatista families on half a hectare of land, cutting their access to means of subsistence and implementing a prolonged campaign of terror to force them out. The Zapatistas have sought dialogue — they have not used their arms since 1994 — offering to use the land collectively. But this was in vain. The invaders appear to know no one would check their misdeeds. As Dora Roblero, the director of the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center (Frayba), explained, the state is responsible for intervening to stop aggressions and displacement. Yet, despite the attention brought to the case by local civil society and human rights organizations, the government has turned a blind eye to a massive act of dispossession in broad daylight.   

The movement’s charismatic spokesperson, known as Subcomandante Marcos, sitting on the stage during the anniversary. Photo by Anna Rebrii

Nuevo San Gregorio is only one of the latest chapters in the long history of violence to which the state’s counterinsurgency war has given rise. Soon after the uprising, the Mexican government realized that using direct violence against the Zapatistas — either through military or paramilitary forces — was too damaging to its public image. Instead, the state turned to more subtle ways of confronting resistance, using social assistance programs to co-opt and divide Indigenous people who refused to support the country’s main political parties. Given the Zapatistas’ policy of total refusal of governmental funds, the counterinsurgent use of aid sowed cleavages within and between communities. The land was at the center of these schisms as the government encouraged and enabled non-Zapatistas and former Zapatistas to lay claim — often violently — to the territories recuperated by the rebels in 1994. 

Armed attacks and land occupations go on unpunished even as 13 new National Guard barracks have sprung up across Chiapas.

Things have changed little since the progressive Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO, was sworn in as president in 2018. Two Zapatista members have been detained on fabricated charges under his watch, with one of them tortured and unlawfully held for almost three years behind bars. Armed attacks and land occupations go on unpunished even as 13 new National Guard barracks have sprung up across Chiapas. The social aid programs introduced by AMLO continue to demobilize the Zapatistas and other communities in resistance. Still used to buy loyalty by state and local authorities, they create discord between those who choose to accept them and those who do not.

While local analysts of the situation in Chiapas are careful not to accuse the AMLO government of a systematic effort to undermine the movement, the recent leaks from Mexico’s Ministry of National Defense (SEDENA) show the Zapatistas to be the most spied-on organization in the country — alongside other perceived threats such as “drug cartels, feminist groups, parents of children with cancer [and] land defenders.” The military appears to be particularly concerned with the EZLN’s potential for disruption of AMLO’s infrastructure megaprojects, such as the notorious Maya Train, which the movement and their allies have denounced for destroying the ecosystems and ways of life of Indigenous communities. Despite AMLO’s progressive discourse, the military has only grown more empowered and the country more militarized. In Chiapas, already traumatized by the state’s counterinsurgency war, more soldiers have meant more violence. For communities in resistance — both the Zapatistas and many others who are also engaged in autonomous struggles — this has meant more adversaries to confront. 

In the early morning of Dec. 17, 2015, Antonio (a pseudonym for security reasons) joined other residents of Ejido Tila in southern Chiapas, together with his wife and three children, to take over the town hall. As the police retreated in the face of an overwhelming crowd, the Indigenous residents tore down the three-floor building and triumphantly burnt whatever documents they found inside. They asserted the people’s autonomy over the municipal government. 

This action was part of the decades-long legal struggle of the townspeople to recover 130 hectares of communally owned land illegally taken over by the municipality. Despite a legal ruling in favor of the community members, the victory only came with the physical act of expulsion of the corrupt local government that stayed in power for more than a decade through fraud and violence. While the Ejido Tila residents do not call themselves Zapatistas, they consulted and got support from the EZLN and EZLN-affiliated National Indigenous Congress (CNI). As Antonio told me when I met him at the anniversary, he and his comrades have been building autonomy based on the traditional decision-making mechanism of assembly, with an autonomous justice system and self-organized municipal services. Today, Ejido Tila is one of the many communities across Mexico that pursue a similar project to that of their masked counterparts. 

Women militias at the anniversary. Photo by Anna Rebrii

The government never returned to Ejido Tila, but the territory is still contested — violently so. One evening in October of 2023, Antonio and other community members were holding a meeting in an assembly building when they heard gunfire outside. After one shot missed him by just a few inches, Antonio threw himself on the floor, trying to evade the bullets that kept coming in. While nobody died in that attack, on Jan. 12, the same armed group called Karma — Antonio and his comrades claim them to be “narco-paramilitaries” — is believed to have assassinated Carmen López Lugo, a former official of Ejido Tila. Just 12 days prior to his death, López Lugo, a CNI member, attended the Zapatista anniversary together with Antonio.

Karma, as Ejido Tila residents assert, is a new armed entity with links to the local government, organized crime, and a regrouped paramilitary organization originally formed by the state in 1995 to fight the Zapatistas. This confluence of multiple interests behind the assassination is the new landscape the communities in resistance have to navigate all across Chiapas. As the Zapatistas warned back in 2021, the state is “on the brink of civil war.” In addition to countless new armed groups that fight for land, economic opportunities and political power, Chiapas has seen the arrival of two major drug cartels, which violently compete for drug and migrant trafficking routes in apparent coordination with the state security forces. 

Roblero of Frayba has no doubt that this state of war that Chiapas finds itself in is a direct consequence of the counterinsurgency of the 1990s. The former paramilitaries —who have never been properly disarmed or brought to justice— now reappear with new names and faces, acting with the same impunity as before. Regardless of other ways the government may be implicated in this explosion of violence, for Roblero, the state is complicit through mere inaction. And so the struggles for autonomy continue to confront the counterinsurgency, 30 years after the Zapatista uprising.

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