The Shadow War

Basta! Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas

by George Collier and Elizabeth Lowery Quaratiello, foreword by Peter Rosset
Food First Books, 183 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Rebellion from the Roots: Indian Uprising in Chiapas

by John Ross
Common Courage Press, 424 pp., $29.95; $14.95 (paper)

EZLN: Documentos y comunicados

A collection of the writings of Subcomandante Marcos
Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 326 pp., $13.20 (paper) An English translation of many of the documents in EZLN: Documentos y comunicados has recently been published in the US: Shadows of Tender Fury: The Letters and Communiqués of Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, translated by Frank Bardacke, Leslie López, and the Watsonville, California, Human Rights Committee; introduction by John Ross, afterword by Frank Bardacke (Monthly Review Press, 1995).

Ernesto Zedillo
Ernesto Zedillo; drawing by David Levine

The peasant uprising in Chiapas that began in January 1994 has already generated many books, and more are in preparation. Most of the books, understandably, are fast turn-around jobs written in Spanish, and aimed at a local audience: round-ups of the first spate of newspaper articles and photographs; brief—often apocryphal—histories of the rebel movement; breathless I-was-there chronicles of mysterious interviews in the jungle; passionate attacks on and defenses of the rebels.

Fortunately for readers in the United States, some of the most interesting new books about Chiapas are in English. There is George Collier’s Basta!, a scholarly investigation of the Zapatistas against the background of the explosive social tensions in Chiapas produced by land struggles, ethnic conflict, the inroads of modern capitalism, and an indolent, often cruel central government. This provides fertile ground for revolt. John Ross’s Rebellion from the Roots is a lively, detailed, and—given the speed at which it was written—surprisingly accurate journalistic account of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, or EZLN. This is the group that spent ten years organizing into an army thousands of the Maya peasants Collier writes about, and that, having organized them, declared war on the Mexican state and demanded the resignation of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari on New Year’s Day, 1994.


January 1 marked the beginning of a year full of astonishing and horrid events. There was the assassination of the official—that is to say, virtually elected—presidential candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, on March 23, and then, on September 28, the assassination of the head of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI, whose candidate Colosio was, and which, in its sixty-five years in power, had presided over occasional bursts of violence, but until last year never suffered any itself. There was also the shaky candidacy of Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León, the man appointed to replace Colosio, followed by the August 21 elections, in which, despite all disasters and with just a little fraud, the nerdy-looking Zedillo won handily. Finally, there was the apotheosis, the farewell to power of Mexico’s modernizing president, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, on December 1, followed almost immediately by the collapse of the peso and of the Mexican stock market. But no event was as unexpected, as dreamlike in its sheer implausibility, as the assault by skimasked, poorly armed columns of Zapatistas on six of the larger towns in Chiapas—one of the most mountainous, thinly populated, poor, and rural states in Mexico.

The rebellion that turned Mexico upside down started in the former capital of Chiapas, San Cristóbal de las Casas, a town of some 100,000 people, beloved of European tourists, and not much visited by other outsiders, including other Mexicans. There is a stringent quality to the town; the crisp mountain air, the straight, narrow streets with whitewashed houses that abut directly on sidewalks built high to allow for frequent pouring rains, the austere colonial…

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