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 churches—all these seem to enhance the visitor’s clarity of thought.

Befuddlement, however, was the dominant state among most of the people—including some who were very hung over, for it was New Year’s Day—who passed by the Cathedral square that morning and witnessed the debut of a group of rebels who were about to become media stars. What were those ski-masked youths doing, standing around with their weapons—and in some cases with roughly carved wood imitations of weapons—chatting among themselves in Tzeltal and Tojolobal? Was a movie being filmed on location? A local landowner with a reputation for fairness was called over by one of the masked men, who announced himself as one of his occasional day laborers. It was not a movie but an uprising, he said, and this was also the message of a pamphlet left by the retreating rebels to explain what was happening. It consisted mostly of a lengthy text titled “Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle”—the first of what was to become an outpouring of communiqués by the EZLN that ran in the Mexico City press at the rate of at least one a day.

Brother Mexicans:

We are the product of five hundred years of struggle: first against slavery, then in the War of Independence against Spain led by the Insurgents, then in order to avoid being absorbed by United States expansionism, then to be able to promulgate our Constitution and expel French imperialism from our soil. Then the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz denied us the just application of the [1857] Laws of Reform and the people rebelled, forging their own leaders. [Francisco] Villa and [Emiliano] Zapata rose up, poor men like us, who have been denied the most elemental instruction, in order thus to use us as cannon fodder and loot the wealth of our country without any care for the fact that we are dying of hunger and curable diseases; without any care for the fact that we have nothing, absolutely nothing; no roof worthy of the name, nor land, nor work, nor health, nor food, nor education; without the right to elect our authorities freely and democratically; without independence from foreigners, without peace or justice for ourselves and for our children.

Today, we say ENOUGH!

For readers in Mexico City and around the more prosperous parts of the country, the proclamation struck home with the force of self-evident truth. Out of the country’s total population of 90 million, almost half are estimated to live below the poverty line. The 10 million or so indigenous peoples of Mexico are the most shamefully neglected of all the country’s poor. Mexico’s Indians are irrelevant to its wealth; and, in turn, the worthier achievements of a regime that claims descent from the 1910 revolution of Villa and Zapata have bypassed the Indian campesinos, whose land this once was. Nowhere is the native population’s situation more unjust than in Chiapas. The river-rich state provides one fifth of the country’s electricity and a third of its coffee production, but none of this wealth trickles down to the various Maya peoples known by their language groups as Tzeltales, Tzotziles, Choles, Zoques, Lacandones, Mams, and Tojolobales. Thirty percent of the state’s population of about 3.2 million is illiterate, and half live in houses without running water. Alcoholism is rampant, and so are parasitic diseases among children.


The extensive redistribution of land that was made law by the revolutionary constitutional convention of 1917 was largely ignored in Chiapas. It took a visit to the region by President Lázaro Cárdenas in 1940 to force the recalcitrant Chiapas gentry to accept the notion of land reform in the state, but it is doubtful that many peasants would have acquired land had it not been for the fact that cattle ranching was becoming a much more appealing alternative for the rich than the old system of self-sufficient haciendas with large populations of indentured serfs.

Cárdenas and his successors encouraged the freed serfs to settle the Lacandón jungle region. Over the years they were joined by large numbers of landless peasants from other parts of the state, and even from states further north like Oaxaca and Guerrero, where peasant guerrilla movements were defeated by the army in the 1960s and 1970s. The Maya peasants’ legal situation changed, and, nominally, they were incorporated into the Mexican state’s patrimonialist system: in exchange for rudimentary health clinics and rural schools that were often abandoned within a year or two of their inauguration, the PRI-dominated government—the PRI/gobierno—extracted solid blocks of votes. In election after election, in fact, local politicians delivered for the count ballot boxes stuffed with many times more votes than there were registered voters.

It is important to stress that, while the legal system did change, most of Chiapas’s whites did not become more democratic. With another reporter, I once talked to a public-school teacher in San Cristóbal about the uprising. We were standing on a crowded sidewalk, surrounded by Maya Indians, but they might as well have been invisible. Loudly, the schoolteacher explained in textbook racist clichés how lazy the Indians were, and how greedy. “You have to force them to work,” she said. “And they always want more. I guarantee you that if the government gives in to their demands and builds houses for all of them, they’ll soon be asking why they can’t have a car, too.”

I had not seen her like before in Mexico, but only in the bitterly race-and class-divided societies of Guatemala and El Salvador. It was not surprising that the local Catholic Church, taking up the cause of the Indians in the 1960s as the Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas had done four centuries before, should have become radicalized in their defense. Led by Bishop Samuel Ruiz, the Church preached its liberation gospel most effectively among the migrants from northern Chiapas and other parts of Mexico who had settled in what is now the almost completely deforested Lacandón jungle. In time, Bishop Ruiz’s followers came to believe that this area, whose center is a region known as Las Cañadas—the canyons—was a new promised land, where a society free of what liberation theologists call “social sin” could be brought forth. It was in this aspiring utopia that the EZLN first took hold in the early 1980s.

The totally unthreatening nature of the insurgency was clear to all by the end of the first week of January 1994. Having trashed the municipal building that sits catty-corner from the Cathedral in San Cristóbal’s central square and covered the town walls with graffiti, the rebels moved on to the local military barracks, where they were successfully turned back. Other rebel columns attempted to take the towns of Ocosingo, Altamirano, and Las Margaritas, and the villages of Chanal, Huixtán, and Oxchuc. In every case they were swiftly crushed by the army. As armored helicopters began strafing the hillsides around Las Cañadas at the end of the first week of January, it seemed obvious that the next act of this improbable revolution would involve the wholesale murder of all villagers in the area suspected of supporting the insurgents.


In the capital and other major cities around the country, tens of thousands took to the streets to protest against attacks on the Zapatistas. To the astonishment of the demonstrators—and, no doubt, even more so of the rebels, not to mention the army high command—President Carlos Salinas de Gortari called for a unilateral cease-fire on January 12. Within days, the EZLN—which in the second part of the Declaration quoted above had vowed to take Mexico City by force and depose the “usurper” Salinas de Gortari—agreed to talk with the government. Under the terms of an unofficial pre-talks agreement, the rebel army retrenched in and around Las Cañadas, an area which continues to function, de facto, as the zone under Zapatista control. Most press reports put the total number of dead in the twelve days of fighting at 150. According to the Zapatistas, the death toll of the fighting was 9 Zapatista soldiers and 12 lost in action, plus 27 confirmed army dead and possibly 30 more.


The huge, and life-saving, outpouring of support in favor of a group that was essentially unheard-of less than two weeks earlier, and that espoused the violent overthrow of the state, was almost as astonishing as the rebellion itself. It would have been inconceivable without the communiqués and declarations of the man who at the time professed himself to be merely the “spokesman” of the insurrection, Subcomandante Marcos. A collection of his writings from January 1 to August 21 was published in December 1994 by Ediciones Era under the straightforward title EZLN: Documentos y comunicados, and it is a truly fascinating book.

Very little is known about the subcomandante, and all of that has been reported endlessly in the press and on television. He is hazel-eyed, light-skinned, about 5’8″, broad-shouldered, probably in his late thirties. His English is fair. He is witty, and highly urbane. For all we know, he may be quite bald: he has never been photographed without the Zapatistas’ trademark ski mask. He has declared in interviews that he has lived in northern Mexico, and he told me that he and five comrades arrived in Chiapas twelve years ago with the intention of starting a guerrilla movement. A rumor that he is a former priest seems purely speculative; another, that he might have been a medical student, and that he spent some time in the United States, possibly in San Francisco, seems more reliable. What is most definitely known about him is that he is a writer, even a compulsive one. The three hundred or so pages of text compiled in the Era book were produced at the same time that he was giving dozens of interviews and coordinating all aspects of EZLN activity, down to the green “war correspondent” press cards that are issued to journalists allowed into the Zapatista zone.

It should be noted that Marcos writes under his own pseudonym and also, in a neat ventriloquist’s trick, in the voice of the Indian community he leads. In that voice, he puts out the EZLN’s terse official communiqués, which are signed by him and by a body called the Comité Clandestino Revolucionario Indígena-Coordinadora General, the CCRI-CG, which is—officially, at least—the Zapatistas’ highest authority. In the past, Marcos has explained that in the communiqués he simply puts into written, mestizo, Spanish the ideas and programmatic statements the CCRI-CG dictates to him (also in Spanish, since, by all accounts the subcomandante’s command of the Maya dialects is shaky, and he often needs a translator).

The Era book is arranged chronologically. The CCRI-CG communiqués at the start efficiently announce new policies, denounce cease-fire violations, express thanks for solidarity given, state terms for negotiations and press accreditations, and announce upcoming events. In his own voice, Marcos writes the cover letters for the communiqués to be delivered to the press, answers personal mail, and sends off poems and short stories. Over the months, the voice of the cover letters becomes more confident, more authorial, and more expansive. In January, the letters are a couple of paragraphs long. By March, they are often longer than the communiqués they are intended to present, and the subcomandante’s trademark postscript, which is often playful, and sometimes pages long, is an established part of all missives. By March, also, he is using Maya turns of speech much more freely in the official CCRI-CG communiqués, often to great stylistic effect, often also in a kind of Tonto-speak, but increasingly in a voice that is, despite the impersonation (which he sometimes announces with a “through my voice speaks the voice of the CCRI-CG” at the beginning of a letter or speech), undeniably his.

Here he is at his most brisk, in the voice of the CCRI-CG, on January 17:

On January 16, 1994, at 11:30 hours, approximately, 35 troop transport military vehicles, with approximately 400 members of the federal army, stormed the Oxchuc municipality and arrested more than twelve civilians…. These repeated violations will bring the incipient dialogue process to ruin.

Here he is, also, as the CCRI-CG, addressing an indigenous congress in the state of Guerrero, now in a more lyrical vein, on February 1:

We left behind our lands, our homes are far away, we all left everything, we took off our skins in order to dress ourselves in war and death; in order to live, we die. Nothing for ourselves, everything for all, everything that might belong to us, and to our children. We all leave everything to all…

…Do not abandon us, brothers; take our blood for food, fill your hearts with it, and the hearts of all men of good will of this land… Do not leave us alone.

And here is Marcos, making a first, timid, appearance as himself, on January 13, in a three-page cover letter for six communiqués:


The CCRI-CG has put out a series of documents that may be of interest to the national and foreign press. The compañeros of the CCRI-CG of the EZLN have asked me to see if there is any way that these documents may find their way to the addressees and be made public. This is why we are appealing to you… I mention this because in order to reach you the packet of documents has traveled for days, through dirt roads, high roads, footpaths and gullies, traversing mountains and valleys and leaping over war tanks, military vehicles, thousands of olive green uniforms and all the rest of the arsenal with which they would like to frighten us…

…We are well still… I won’t take up any more of your time… A question: Will all of this at least make “Mexicans” learn to say “Chiapas” instead of “Chapas,” and “Tzeltales” instead of “Setsales”?…

Salud, and an abrazo, if indeed there is a way and means for one still.

The giveaway is the phrase “We are well still.” No one has asked, but Marcos needs to phone home. Indeed, after a long exposition of the hardships the EZLN members know how to endure, and the uselessness of any military attempt at intimidation, Marcos signs off to people he has presumably never met by sending an abrazo. Within days he is joking, bantering, teasing his unseen interlocutors. “Salud and an abrazo—what with this cold weather, both things are welcome (I believe), even if they come from a ‘professional of violence,’ ” he writes on January 18. And on February 6 he includes these among the eight postscripts to a letter addressed to the always radical and effervescent University Student Council (or CEU, by its Spanish initials) of the National University:

P.S. to the previous P.S. As long as we’re on the subject of postscripts, which of all the CEUs is it that’s writing us? Because when I was a gallant youth of 25 (Hey! Pass the word to the secret police computer so it can take note!) there were, at the very least, three CEUs. Have you gotten together at last?

Nostalgic P.S.: When I was young (Hello? Secret Police? Here’s more information!) there was a sparsely wooded area more or less between the Philosophy School Central Library, the Humanities Tower, Insurgentes Avenue and the University ring road. We called that space, for reasons initiates will understand, “The Valley of Passion,” and it was visited assiduously by diverse elements of the fauna that peopled CU after 7 PM, the hour at which the good consciences drink their chocolate and the bad consciences get like water for chocolate [that is to say, very hot].

The letters sound as demanding of affection as any written from prison, and if one did not know better, one could guess that they had been written by someone starved for company and conversation. But Marcos is the sort of writer for whom readers are, precisely, the best kind of company for conversation, and it is readers the guerrilla commander was starved for until January 1.


Once Marcos started writing postscripts, only the press and the interior ministry bothered with the official CCRI-CG communiqués. This is too bad, because they contain much that is highly pertinent to the debate about the Zapatistas which should be taking place in Mexico. For this debate to make any sense, certain key questions have to be addressed: What are the EZLN’s ideology and long-term goals? How much executive power does Marcos have, and how is it shared with the Clandestine Committee, or CCRI-CG? How does the EZLN’s ten-year history intersect with that of the numerous other left-wing political organizations which have been organizing in the rural areas of Chiapas for much longer, and how did the organization coincide or conflict with the efforts of Bishop Ruiz? Marcos’s book provides helpful answers to at least some of these questions if one is willing to go on the assumption that, like any real writer, he believes in the value of words and uses them to convey his intention rather than to betray it.

Thirteen months into the conflict, it seems impossible to believe that the EZLN ever seriously intended a military takeover of Mexico. The largest EZLN military parade staged for the press’s benefit had some four hundred people in arms, and that is a fair count only if one accepts that men carrying carved wooden rifles qualify as arms-bearers. (Clearly, there are many more troops—as few as three thousand or as many as fifteen thousand, of whom perhaps a fifth are women—but in any event an army that cannot supply weapons for even a small contingent has serious logistical problems.) Most of the EZLN’s peasant soldiers live with their families in Las Cañadas, which has been more or less surrounded by government troops since the cease-fire. To think that they can fight their way out of there and stay alive is absurd.

How, then, can one believe that taking Mexico City and overthrowing the Mexican government was Marcos’s serious intention? In interviews after the rebels’ January 1994 military debacle, Marcos said that the EZLN’s take-over of Mexico City had, in effect, already happened; that its symbolic presence in the capital was achieved within days of the January 1 uprising in Chiapas. He has also implied that the Chiapas uprising was merely supposed to be the spark of a national insurrection, whose military actions the EZLN would then coordinate and lead. But the very first set of communiqués in the book—which appeared in the pamphlet that was distributed in San Cristóbal on January 1 last year—sounds as if the EZLN’s intention of overthrowing the government by force of arms was dead serious.

The First Declaration of the Lacandón Jungle, which starts with the paragraph quoted at the beginning of this article, ends with instructions to the troops to

advance on the capital of the country defeating the Mexican federal army, protecting the civilian population in its liberating advance and allowing the freed townships to elect their own administrative authorities freely and democratically.

The troops are also instructed to “respect the lives of prisoners of war and turn them over to the Red Cross,” to begin courts-martial “of all soldiers and police who have received training abroad,” and to demand “the unconditional surrender of enemy barracks.”

The declaration of war ran together with a brief editorial and, on the inside pages, a series of laws and regulations—on war taxes, women, “the rights and obligations of the people in struggle,” among others.

From the instructions to EZLN officers:

For troop supplies, forage, fuel and vehicle parts, [officers] must contact the democratically elected authorities of the place… Absolutely no one can celebrate an interview with the oppressor government or its representatives without prior authorization of the EZLN General Command.

These do not sound like instructions intended merely to have a symbolic impact.

From the Agrarian Reform Law, which is “valid for all the national territory”:

Three: All landholdings greater in size than 100 hectares for poor quality land and fifty hectares for good quality are subject to agrarian reform [one hectare equals 2.471 acres]. Owners of landholdings larger than the aforementioned…will be allowed to remain as small landholders or to join the peasant movement of cooperatives, peasant societies or communal lands.

Five: The lands affected by this agrarian law will be distributed among landless peasants and journeymen who apply for them, as COLLECTIVE PROPERTY to form cooperatives, peasant societies or livestock and agricultural collectives.

And so forth. How was it that in Mexico, a country that defeated its last guerrilla uprising twenty years ago, and that is increasingly linked to the United States through finance, television, and trade, a half-dozen guerrillas convinced thousands of campesinos to dream so wildly?


Three government actions are most commonly cited as key in the campesinos’ decision to take up arms; one was the 1974 decree signed by President Luis Echeverría granting seventy Lacandón Indian families control of a vast expanse of land as guardians of the Lacandón jungle ecological preserve. The Lacandón jungle decree deprived the land-starved settlers of further room for expansion. The other two were the initiatives of Carlos Salinas de Gortari. He had Congress amend Article 27 of the Constitution, on agrarian reform, to free ejidos—communally owned farms—for sale, and he refrained from stepping in with subsidized prices for coffee when the world coffee market collapsed in 1989, dealing a devastating blow to the small coffee farmers in Chiapas, who produce a third of Mexico’s coffee exports.

The revisions of the Agrarian Reform Laws threatened peasants with the possibility that their land could be repossessed when crop failures forced them to default on their bank loans, and also doomed the numerous lawsuits the campesinos of Chiapas had filed to obtain more unclaimed land or land held illegally by latifundistas. (A latifundio, or holding of over 800 hectares or 500 head of cattle, is illegal under the terms of the much violated 1917 Agrarian Reform Law, which was drafted under pressure from the original Zapatistas.)

The Salinas administration’s willingness to abandon the coffee growers was particularly offensive in Chiapas, since the campesinos had either started growing coffee or greatly expanded their acreage (often on government loans) in response to strong official encouragement. However, none of this explains why the peasants saw armed struggle as the only logical response to these offenses, or how they came by their utopian convictions.

To understand that response, one has to take into account the many groups with strong ideologies which spent years in the extensively deforested area that was once part of the Lacandón jungle. Two are particularly important: the Catholic Church, under Bishop Samuel Ruiz, and a loose body of agrarian activists who for many years defined themselves as Maoists (many still do), and who worked through peasant organizations with constantly changing names.

Samuel Ruiz was named Bishop of San Cristóbal de las Casas, with responsibility for overseeing the Lacandón jungle region, in 1960. Shortly afterward, and years before a 1968 Latin American episcopal conference in Medellín, Colombia, adopted the social concerns of liberation theology as its own, Bishop Ruiz decided that the only Christian thing was to devote his energy to the neglected, impoverished Maya peoples of Chiapas. Bishop Ruiz, a garrulous man with a penchant for hideous neckties, has energy to spare. When a new outbreak of war between the EZLN and the army looked imminent in December 1994, he and several dozen other people went on a seventeen-day hunger strike for peace. While younger, fitter strikers visibly weakened and took to wheelchairs, Bishop Ruiz worked throughout the fast and emerged from it looking refreshed and renewed.

The Bishop is also a man of forceful vision. Throughout the 1960s, and with even greater energy in the 1970s, he organized peasant cooperatives and Christian communities, and preached—in San Cristóbal and in wretched hamlets two days away on horseback—that Indians were the equal of whites, that their languages were beautiful and should be preserved, that radical egalitarianism was the only road to salvation in this kingdom and the next. He set up a human rights office in the archdiocese and organized what was known as the First Congress of Indigenous Peoples in San Cristóbal in 1974, attended by some two thousand indigenous delegates from all over Mexico and Central America. Soon he and his followers had earned the hatred of the white smallholders and cattle ranchers of Chiapas. His indigenous parishioners called him Tatik: Little Father.

Nowhere was his work more effective than in Las Cañadas, an area near the border with Guatemala with a population now of about 80,000. He and his followers saw Las Cañadas as providing a clean slate for social action. By a process of natural selection, the settlers who arrived there were the most proud and enterprising members of the communities they left behind, true pioneers willing to listen to a new gospel and experiment with radically different ways of doing things. In effect, they were Maya Indians in the process of becoming Mexican peasants.

Bishop Ruiz and the few priests working in Las Cañadas translated the book of Exodus into Tzeltal, preached the tenets of liberation theology (whose social vision could be summarized in the Zapatista motto, “Nothing for ourselves, for everyone, everything”), and trained native-speaking deacons in almost every settlement. According to those who followed Bishop Ruiz in his evangelical work, Las Cañadas in its early days seemed truly the promised land: no corrupt government institutions stood in the way of progress, the land was fertile, there was plenty for everyone. Ruiz’s followers were not agronomists; they had no way of knowing that jungle land is utterly unsuited to corn farming, or that the population growth rate in the new settlements—estimated to be around 6 percent, one of the highest in the world—would create a new land hunger in a matter of decades.

The tensions generated by the new need for land were not unique in Mexico in the 1960s and 1970s, but the intensity of church work among settlers in an isolated, virgin stretch of land probably was. And so was the concentrated nature of the organizing (or “consciousness raising”) carried out by the groups of radicals who called themselves Maoists. The chapter John Ross devotes to these organizers concentrates on only one of the many diverse currents in the process of radicalizing Las Cañadas, but his story of how and why the activists who preceded the Zapatistas, and who created the political organizations from which the EZLN would later recruit, arrived in Chiapas is particularly thorough.2

Ross begins his account with a young economics professor, Adolfo Orive (the son of a cabinet minister in the regime of former president Miguel Alemán and a “top-level manager” for President Luis Echeverría), who studied in France with the Maoist philosopher and economist Charles Bettelheim. During the tempestuous year of 1968, Orive organized the Emiliano Zapata brigades at the National Autonomous University of Mexico,

patterned on his personal blueprint of control from the bottom up—in which all decision-making was made by “popular” (in the sense of “proletarian”) assemblies of students, workers, and campesinos. The assemblies later became the cornerstone of Orive’s “Política Popular” movement.

Orive moved to northern Mexico, where a struggle over increases in student fees at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León made the state capital, Monterrey, attractive. His brigadistas

began organizing house by house, block by block, colony by colony, particularly in the improvised, impoverished squatter settlements on the edge of this rapidly modernizing industrial giant of the north. Massive, violent land takeovers resulted in the creation of the Tierra y Libertad (an old Zapatista cry) encampment in Monterrey.

The movement spread to other northern cities like Torreón, where Orive’s Política Popular movement impressed priests who, in the spirit of Medellín 1968, “were immersed in parallel organizing efforts among the newly-urbanized poor.” The Bishop of Torreón was so enthusiastic about the work of the Pepes (for Política Popular’s initials) that he even urged the visiting bishop from Chiapas, Samuel Ruiz, to invite a brigade to the jungles of the Lacandón.

Orive has now left radicalism behind: he is the Coordinator of Advisers on Social and Rural Policies for the presidency. But back in 1978, when he traveled to Chiapas at the bishop’s request, Orive was very much on the left—so much so that he and his fellows soon clashed with the local Church. For the Jesuits and Dominicans in Chiapas,

the conflict was an ethical one—the padres’ commitment was to “accompany” the poor, the big city radicals wanted to “direct” them.

Bishop Ruiz, Ross writes,

was suspicious about the brigades’ motives…but did not force them to leave. The Bishop noticed the organizational advances made by the leftists and figured they served the Church’s purposes, which Ruiz had defined as dismantling “the structures of domination.”

The leftists concentrated on creating associations of ejidos. These formations followed basic Política Popular principles: “The assemblies made all the decisions and there were ostensibly no leaders”—nonetheless, a Jesuit priest, Mardonio Morales, accuses the leftists “of manipulating the assemblies and of utilizing the Church to enforce assembly decisions. In some communities, Mardonio insists, priests, under the leftists’ spell, refused sacraments to those opposed to ‘The Organization,’ ” thus preparing the way for a wave of Protestant evangelical conversions which was also, Ross concludes, a product of the ideological ferment in Las Cañadas in the 1980s.


Subcomandante Marcos is believed by some members of the government to be from Torreón, and by his own account he arrived in Las Cañadas in 1983 with a varying number of comrades (he told me five, Ross says eleven). Ross speculates that Marcos acquired his political vision and training in a group descended from Política Popular. This is a reasonable speculation, but not the only possible one. There is, for example, the possibility that the EZLN founders are descended from a group of pro-Cuba would-be guerrillas—the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional—who set up a short-lived training camp near the town of Ocosingo in the early 1970s.

Collier seems to think that Marcos and his comrades were already in the region in the early 1980s, and only began organizing to go underground in 1983. In any case, no Zapatista will refute or confirm any of these theories, because the rebels appear to be under orders not to give details about the history of the EZLN. This much seems to be true: it took many years for the ideals of the radical white “foreigners” to mesh with the most cherished values of communal Maya culture, but by the time Subcomandante Marcos and the other (white) founders of the EZLN appeared on the scene, the joint efforts of the Church and the secular radicals had created a distinctive political mentality among the people of Las Cañadas.

The Maya communities’ notion that no one person should be above any other, the Church’s goal of empowering all members of a community, and the secular organizers’ belief in political mobilization—all translated into a working, if cumbersome, democracy. Women were brought into discussions, children were given a voice. So successful were these efforts that decisions took hours, or weeks, or months of debate, some of the organizers now say, because everyone had a right to express his opinion, and no decision could be taken until absolute consensus was reached. If some priests refused Communion to those who didn’t join “The Organization,” one can imagine that there were severe restrictions on the range of opinions allowed. But the interviews and conversations reporters have been able to have with families in Las Cañadas leave no doubt that such intense and egalitarian discussions were a new experience for the Indian communities, giving them for the first time a sense of their own potential power.

It is not easy to give a full or accurate picture of the Zapatista troops or of the campesino supporters who live in the territory now under EZLN control. Many of the campesinos speak very little Spanish, and even those whose Spanish is fluent are shy, distrustful of outsiders (“foreigners”) and of their ability to communicate with them in a way that does not reveal their own self-doubts. For our part, we reporters are miserably equipped to write about the campesinos in Chiapas in a way that does not make every interview seem the same: we know nothing of their languages or how they interpret liberation theology, nor do we know the character of the bitter power struggles and generational rivalries and land disputes that tend to accompany the rise of political movements in a rural setting. Then there is the fact that the EZLN denies access to its control zone to reporters whom it deems unfriendly. This makes for stories noticeably lacking in information.

Most of my understanding of how the EZLN operated and grew in Las Cañadas comes from the Zapatistas’ bitter rivals—“reformist” Maoists, who were pragmatists when it came to issues like the advisability of war and the need for establishing a working relationship with the Mexican government. Last year, a few months into the new, confounding situation generated in Chiapas by the uprising, I had several conversations with an activist who had worked during much of the 1980s as a legal adviser for one of the peasant organizations descended from the original Política Popular. The adviser also claimed to be a Maoist but did not seem to associate this definition with the cataclysmic horrors brought upon China by Mao Zedong. Rather, the activist felt the organization was taking its faith in mass-based movements from the Maoist texts (as opposed to traditional Marxist-Leninist Party vanguards).

The adviser said that the largest of the peasant alliances, called Unión de Uniones, was formed under the joint stewardship of the leftists and the Church. Although the Unión de Uniones was initially predominantly Maoist, it became enough of an institution to serve as the testing ground for all the currents of thought in Las Cañadas that were struggling for ascendancy. Over the years, the Unión de Uniones split several times: one side saw their primary demand as land; the other saw that, given the rate of increase of the population, land alone would not solve the community’s problems in and of itself. What was needed were marketing and credit mechanisms and skillful negotiations with the government.

The first side, in which Church influence was predominant, was utterly distrustful of the government, and tended to see negotiations and reformist measures as treasonous dealings with the enemy. Paradoxically, the second, more “Maoist” side was reformist. In 1988 the reformist side of the Unión de Uniones took up the name of the Rural Association of Collective Interest, after the legal name for credit unions with both ejido and smallholder members—ARICs, according to the Spanish initials. The two sides had, in effect, split.

By that time the EZLN had made great progress in its own clandestine efforts. Infiltrated among the leaders of the Unión de Uniones, and independent of both sides—according to another former member of the organization—were the EZLN militants, proposing self-defense training as protection against the brutality of the State government and the white cattle ranchers’ paramilitary patrols. Many youths in Las Cañadas had already gone up to the mountains to receive this clandestine training, and now the guerrillas told the campesinos of Las Cañadas that the only way to obtain a true, permanent change in their situation was through armed struggle.

In the process, at least by their own account, the members of the EZLN had also been much changed. They had started out, one of them told me, as a more or less traditional guerrilla group, but they learned to appreciate the achievements of the Church and Maoist organizers in the area. They learned to be patient, and they learned to listen. (One of their worst mistakes, according to several campesinos who were once members of either ARIC or the EZLN, was to question the existence of God and the authority of Bishop Ruiz. There is even a rumor that they once tried to kidnap the bishop.)

Above all, they say, they became convinced of the moral wisdom of respecting the opinion of those they wished to lead—a virtue not often found among armed vanguards. In praise of themselves, the EZLN members claim that they never tried to impose the war on the campesinos, but simply offered it to them as an option should they ever tire of their legal attempts to find redress. When the Unión de Uniones split and one side became the ARIC-Unión de Uniones, they say, the other side—perhaps six thousand families out of the ten thousand living in the region (there were perhaps two thousand more evangelicals with no connection with the Unión de Uniones)—decided to join the EZLN.

The real story is surely more tangled than that. It is essentially unknown to outsiders and very probably little understood by the participants at this early stage. What several sources did tell me, though, is that, starting around 1988, the old unity of the Unión de Uniones dissolved in several ways—the Church did not approve of taking a military road to utopia; many community elders felt their authority supplanted; many of the well-to-do peasants (a highly relative term in this impoverished context) felt threatened; and many people simply decided that they did not want to take up arms. How many people were involved in each of these many sides is impossible to estimate.

When I visited the Zapatista control zone last April, Marcos himself appeared in the dead of night and gave a long and patient interview in which he presented his own account of events. I asked him about the process of radicalizing the Las Cañadas peasantry, and about the differences between the EZLN and the guerrilla organizations Latin America has known in the past.

When the original founding nucleus of six “outsiders” took up residence in almost inaccessible, bat-infested caves in the heart of the jungle in 1983, he said, the group had a traditional, verticalista notion of how an armed vanguard should operate (that is, an enlightened vanguard setting off the insurrectionary spark), but they had already decided that they would not impose their vision on the community. Rather, they used their one initial contact, a church deacon, to spread the word that arms and military training were available if the community should ever decide to go to war to defend their right to justice.

During the heyday of the Unión de Uniones in the early 1980s, when the people of Las Cañadas could hope that organized political action would redress their many demands, the guerrillas’ contact with the villagers remained sporadic, Marcos says. But things did not improve in the region. First came the collapse of coffee prices, then the changes in the agrarian section of the Constitution, along with a resurgence in violence by the army and the Chiapas cattle ranchers against the campesinos who were daring to organize. “In 1985 there were twelve of us,” Marcos recalled. “In 1986 there were forty, and we thought the world was ours—we felt as if we were already taking the National Palace!” In 1989, following the split in the Unión de Uniones, a majority of the communities of Las Cañadas apparently voted to call the armed outsiders and tell them that they were ready to start preparing for war. At that point, Marcos says, “We began to reach the limit of the traditional military ways of making decisions.” He explained:

Armed struggle has to take place where the people are, and we faced the choice of continuing with a traditional guerrilla structure, or masificando, and putting the strategic leadership in the hands of the people. Our army became scandalously Indian, and there was a certain amount of clashing while we made the adjustment from our orthodox way of seeing the world in terms of “bourgeois and proletarians” to the community’s collective democratic conceptions, and their world view. Here, the image of the fighter is closely linked to the idea of “the men of truth” or “those who speak the truth. …”

But we found that people here had a way of explaining the struggle with their own traditional symbols, and using a language that is so clear that one cannot possibly look for hidden meanings. This language allowed us to find the subterranean frequency that so many Tzeltales, Tzotziles, Choles, are tuned in to. For its part, the EZLN contributed to the communities a different notion of nation-hood. It’s crazy when you think about it!

Indeed, the Eighties must have been a time of extreme intellectual and spiritual ferment for the people of Las Cañadas. To all appearances they lived in a closed world where absolutely nothing ever happened except the season’s agricultural cycles and the deforested land’s increasing stinginess. But there were the ARIC and non-ARIC Unión de Uniones, the discussions of which side to take, of how to determine if peaceful change was better than violent change, even if peaceful change was so slow as to be virtually imperceptible.

There were the missionaries from various Protestant fundamentalist sects, who preached with increasing success to their own constituencies that they should abhor all warfare, and behave in a fashion that would guarantee them a life in Paradise after the Apocalypse. Then there were the Catholic priests discussions of the nature of evil in this world, the social sins of the government back in Mexico City, the sinful indifference of the haves to the have-nots, and the deep conviction of liberation theology that the Chosen, the spiritually pure and worthy, are those who have nothing—that in this particular case they were, in fact, the people of Las Cañadas.

And then there were the guerrillas, who offered the people a vision of apocalypse and redemption, of just revenge, tempestuous change, and the egalitarian justice they had dreamed about. One can only try to imagine the intoxication of the rebellion for the people in Las Cañadas; for although their situation was far from static—they were pioneers, after all, who had made the transition in a couple of generations from landless indentured servants to frontier men and women transforming the landscape and themselves—their pace of change could not compare to the swift evolution of Mexico in the high-flying, deal-making 1980s. Cable television and megamalls and corporate takeovers and the North American Free Trade Treaty were taking urban Mexico by storm, but the Tzeltales and Tojolobales of Chiapas were still living without electricity and planting their puny corn crops with a pointed stick.

The Maoist who did organizing work for the reformist ARIC-Unión de Uniones thinks that the tension between the great changes that had in fact taken place at the grass-roots level in the Indian communities in Chiapas and the lack of change in the government’s and white society’s response to the Indians provided the revolutionary tinder for the EZLN’s spark. The reformists I talked to guess that by 1993, more than half of ARIC’s own people—the very ones who had opted years earlier for a nonviolent, slow solution to their desperate problems—had signed up for the Zapatistas’ military training. It is worth remembering, then, that some 40 percent of the ARIC campesinos, and all the evangelicals, decided that, despite everything, they did not want to face the horrors of war.

It is also worth remembering that of all the options being offered to the campesinos, every one was essentially radical. Even the ARIC membership was linked to the EZLN by a thoroughgoing distrust of the Mexican state that was rooted in generations of betrayal. The evangelicals were fundamentalists; the liberation theologists could not conceive of justice under the present regime, or any reformed variation of it; the Zapatistas were for war.

But why choose war? In the communiqués Marcos writes for the Indigenous Clandestine Committee—the CCRI-CG—the rebels refer repeatedly to themselves as “we, the dead of hunger, the ones with no name, the ones with no face.” Hunger is indeed a promoter of death in Las Cañadas; official statistics show that in 1989, 98 infants died of “nutritional deficiencies” in southeastern Chiapas. In 1990, 136 died of the same cause. But the evidence is that where hunger is a leading cause of death its victims do not take up arms for the overthrow of capitalism. In Las Cañadas children and adults die much more frequently of pneumonia, the flu, and other respiratory ailments, which are the diseases not of famine but of neglect. In one of the more prosperous hamlets I visited in the Zapatista control zone the children were sturdy, but they had no school, and were dressed in tatters. The children marveled at our food, our bottled water, our battered Volkswagen beetle, and at one point, I turned to see a child scampering away from our trash bag with two trophies: an empty can of tuna and an empty fruit juice carton.

Here, too, the campesinos told me that they had joined the rebellion because they were dying of hunger, but I understood the phrase as a metaphor. In 1993, the peasants of Las Cañadas were dying not so much of hunger as of despair, anger, and neglect. When people feel like that, they often commit suicide; when a community feels like that, I thought, and when, after centuries of pent-up rage, it is offered the option of a heroic death that may make it live in the awareness of the nation, indeed, even redeem the entire nation that has rejected it—the option “to die in order to live,” as Marcos put it—there is the possibility that this community will accept the choice.

And it is really not surprising that in the months following the New Year’s Day revolt, the majority of the ARIC members who had earlier voted not to take up arms now voted, in formal sessions, to join campesino organizations friendly to the EZLN. Now the reasons for supporting the rebels were different. Success was on the EZLN’s side, after all: they had taken up arms, and now they were getting the government to give serious attention to their list of demands, demands which were shared by all the peasants of Las Cañadas, and which are best summed up in Clause 15 of the Agrarian Reform Law issued by the Zapatistas on January 1, at the end of their long list. The law is formulated in words that seem, more than many others, to have been dictated to Marcos by the CCRI-CG. It is not really a program but an act of desperate dreaming; it has little to do with ideology and everything to do with the campesinos’ needs (to be heard, to be taken into account, to be prosperous, to be modern):

Fifteen: For the benefit of the poor landless campesinos and agricultural workers…commercial centers will be established to [buy and sell] at a just price. Communal health centers will be established with all the advances of modern medicine, with able and socially conscious nurses and doctors. Amusement centers will be created so that campesinos and their families may enjoy a dignified rest without cantinas or brothels… Service centers will be established to guarantee that campesinos will have electric light, piped and drinkable water, sewers, radio, television and everything necessary to make housework easier.


Neither the EZLN nor the government has fired a shot since the cease-fire, and no peace agreement exists. The standoff is explained by an inescapable truth: the government cannot afford the political cost of attacking troops who repeatedly, in Marcos’s communiqués, offer their blood for sacrifice; the Zapatistas cannot afford the military costs of violating the cease-fire. And yet the war goes on, according to Marcos. But what kind of war? The only kind the EZLN can afford, a symbolic one, fought with communiqués, bellicose gestures, and elaborately staged theatrical events. The shadow war springs from and plays on a native Mexican tradition of ritual gesture that is shared by warriors and audience alike, and with Marcos as stage manager, it has proved as effective as the blood shed in January, and Marcos’s postscripts, in keeping the Zapatistas politically alive for a very long year, against all the odds.

The use of theater was the product of the EZLN’s military disaster last January and the paradoxical nature of its political triumph: What was to be made of the fact that, while thousands of Mexicans seemed willing to defend the Zapatistas against the “oppressor government,” the sympathizers themselves did not feel sufficiently oppressed to even dream of taking up arms? Marcos had shown already that he was capable of giving in to consensus; when the Indian communities objected to the white guerrillas’ Marxist-Leninist orthodoxies, the EZLN “made an adjustment from our way of seeing the world…to the community’s collective democratic conceptions, and their world view.” Now heeding the voice of what he called Mexico’s “civil society,” he told the campesinos’ urban defenders several weeks later, “We do not want to and cannot impose our ideas by force of arms on Mexican civil society, as the government does do, imposing by force of its arms its national project. We will not stand in the way of the upcoming electoral process.” And, two days later, also in an official communiqué:

Our form of struggle is not unique, and for many perhaps it is not even the right one… In fact, we organized ourselves in this way because it was the only form they left open to us. We do not pretend to be a historic, true and only vanguard.

The central topic of these communiqués was the upcoming round of peace talks whose details were then being worked out between Bishop Ruiz—the mediator approved by the EZLN—and Manuel Camacho Solís, the government peace commissioner appointed directly by Salinas de Gortari. Skillfully, Marcos sidestepped the EZLN’s military inadequacies as a reason for the talks: they were, simply, the rebels’ way of heeding the national will.

The cease-fire took effect on January 12, 1994. On February 20, four hundred euphoric members of the “sociedad civil” linked arms around the gorgeous sixteenth-century Cathedral of San Cristóbal and waited. Precisely at noon, a procession of jeeps unloaded in front of the human fence that had formed to protect the lives of those who were about to meet inside. Dressed in white, a beaming Bishop Ruiz shook hands with each new arrival: a tiny woman in combat boots, ski mask, and an embroidered huipil, whom newspaper readers knew from interviews as Comandante Ramona; a wiry man wearing a bandanna across his face, a dark wool poncho, and a Chamula beribboned hat; and, one after another, eighteen other dark-skinned, hooded members of the Comité Clandestino Revolucionario Indígena’s Comandancia General. Towering above them, producing an electric thrill in the crowd, and instantly recognizable by his widelegged stride, crossed shotgun bandoliers, and his amused glance, came Marcos. Bearing arms and the Mexican flag, the rebels entered the Cathedral. A conference table had been set up for the occasion in front of the altar and there the rebels shook hands with Camacho Solís, who was the former appointed mayor of Mexico City, a close friend of Salinas de Gortari, and a front-runner to succeed him as president barely three months before. The greeting was broadcast live. In a year full of horrors and wonders, it seemed as unlikely an event as the televised reapparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe might have been.

Its dramatic impact guaranteed that viewers tuned in every night of the following days of peace talks for the press conferences in which Marcos predominantly and the members of the CCRI-CG—the intense, articulate Ramona, in particular—made the views of the EZLN known to the Mexican public. Addressing a national audience live for the first time, Marcos instantly took control. Each evening he bantered with reporters, alerted them when the tape was about to run out on their recorders, and then, saying that “through my voice speaks the voice of the CCRI-CG,” changed his tone.

We have come to ask the homeland, our homeland, why did it leave us abandoned for so very many years? Why did it leave us with so many deaths? Why is it necessary to kill and to die so that you—and through you, the world—can hear Ramona say such terrible things as “Indian women want to live, want to study, want hospitals, want respect, justice and dignity”?

The speech did not demand more from spectators than emotion, as if it really were theater, and as if the act of listening itself could change the situation of Indian women.

On March 2, the television lights were turned off, the performance space in the Cathedral was dismantled, the last interviews were given. It is difficult, now that Mexicans are sunk in financial distress, political dread, and the unaccustomed gloom of having no idea what new nightmares the future might bring, to remember the dizzying optimism of those days of peace talks. War had been averted and the peso was strong. The Zapatistas were about to redeem the nation. Indeed, much had already happened that would have been inconceivable before the rebellion: electoral reform laws were being pushed through Congress in Mexico City, while in Chiapas entire chapters of local legislation were being revised.

Patrocinio González Garrido, the former governor of Chiapas, whose taste for brutal forms of repression had done so much to strengthen the EZLN’s arguments, had been removed from his new job as interior secretary and sent on a long vacation to Europe. The peace commissioner was giving serious and detailed answers to the Zapatista’s ambitious list of negotiating points; plans for roads, health programs, and education reforms were being worked out down to their budget allocations. Only the first two points on the Zapatistas’ agenda were not up for discussion: “free and democratic elections” and “the overthrow of the usurpers of the powers of the Union and the states of the Federation,”—in other words, the resignations of Salinas and the state governors.

The EZLN delegation headed back to Las Cañadas to see if its constituency accepted the government’s offer. The answer would be long in coming, they warned; the proposals would have to be translated into four languages and presented to each community individually for discussion, and, as usual, only a full consensus would be considered valid in each case. Somehow, the points concerning the overthrow of the state did not appear as insurmountable obstacles. In the archbishop’s offices, T-shirts went up for sale with Samuel Ruiz’s portrait, announcing his candidacy for the Nobel Prize. Peace was at hand.

How are we to understand the process in Las Cañadas that three months later led to the Zapatistas’ resounding “No” to the government’s proposals? Did Marcos heavily influence the vote? Was he outflanked? What were the discussions like? Was the outcome ever in doubt, given the sticking point on the overthrow of Salinas?

Only a few journalists were allowed into Las Cañadas to witness some of the discussion on how to respond to the government’s offer, among them Gloria Muñoz of the weekly newspaper Punto, who told me recently, “People laughed when they heard the government’s promises, because they’d heard them all before. There wasn’t that much disagreement. Children were allowed to vote, because their opinions are taken into account.” But children are also highly susceptible, which is one reason why adulthood is a requirement for suffrage rights in most places. Were entire communities, numbering perhaps as many as 20,000 people, willing to cast aside the most significant, and possibly sincere, proposal for change ever offered them by the State in order to pursue the war they had committed themselves to? How many people voted, anyway?

At the moment, no one outside the Zapatista sphere of influence has the answers to these questions. On June 12, two lengthy Marcos communiqués in the voice of the CCRI-CG announced that the vote had been cast against the proposal. Among the announced reasons:

…The government continues with its economic policy that increases unemployment and underemployment and reduces workers’ buying power.

The demand to put a stop to the looting of our national wealth is ignored, and the government’s response is confined to the ecological problem. There is no national policy of defense of the natural wealth of our country.

According to the communiqués, “97.88 percent” of the total vote was against the proposal, and in a second-round, “96.74 percent” voted for a new series of peace talks. For the new talks, the EZLN increased its list of demands, this time to include a “democratic government of transition.”

It is hard to know what is more disturbing about the vote-count figures. They seem to be making fun of the finely tuned, not-quite-100-percent vote tallies the PRI habitually claimed in Chiapas (though not in Las Cañadas—hardly any of the inhabitants there were on the national voters’ register). It would be a clever joke, except that these are the EZLN’s official results on a matter of life and death.

But perhaps the results are not a joke. Perhaps only 2.11 percent really did vote to accept the proposal, and 3.26 percent voted to go back to war. Perhaps the CCRI-CG, with its belief in the absolute value of consensus, finds the results exemplary. I once asked a Zapatista soldier what happens when there is no consensus. “We continue talking with the compañero until we can all agree,” he said. Consensus rule gives the Indian communities strength under siege, but it does not give them flexibility, and one imagines that if their approach were elevated to the national level the results could resemble forced “re-education.”


By the time the Zapatistas’ “No” vote was announced, their struggle had receded to the back pages of the newspapers as the result of the murder on March 23 of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the PRI’s presidential candidate. For the first time since 1929, when the party that now bears the name of Partido Revolucionario Institucional was created, its absolute hold on power looked shaky. But its single-minded devotion to retaining power had not weakened. The PRI and its presidents will do, and in the past have done, just about anything to remain in control.

Colosio’s assassination, however, left the party at a loss. Salinas de Gortari, who, until the previous December had been registering 80 percent popularity ratings in the polls—and this in the end of his fifth year in power—stumbled. First there was the rebellion in Chiapas, then there was the assassination, and then, because of a series of circumstances that narrowed his choices to one, there was his appointment of Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León—a lackluster, if highly qualified, economist—to succeed Colosio as candidate. For the first time in memory, there were widespread rumors that the president was not in command, that the army was restless about Chiapas, that the PRI seemed on the verge of rebellion against Salinas and his team of foreign-educated technocrats. And yet, for weeks on end, the situation remained oddly stable.

In the wake of Colosio’s assassination, Marcos appears to have been afflicted by the same kind of stagnant uncertainty as the rest of the country. Apparently thinking that the murder might signal the beginning of a right-wing coup, the EZLN went on red alert, but as the weeks went by and nothing happened, reporters and solidarity delegations were allowed into the zone again and Marcos returned to his computer. Some of his shakier literary efforts date from this period, for example this farewell (he has written several over the last twelve months):

Salud, brother Zapatista moles. We have shone thanks to your patient work…. We promise you to shine brightly, until we blind the sun, before we disappear for good. Farewell beloved moles, have the flag ready….

It was around this time that conservative wits, forced to read this kind of stuff every morning in the papers, took to calling the subcomandante the subpoeta.

The political confusion generated by Colosio’s murder seemed to present a golden opportunity for Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, the candidate of the leftist Partido de la Revolución Democrática, or PRD. No one thinking about the upcoming elections could forget that six years earlier Salinas had been declared the winner in disgraceful circumstances. He was perhaps the most unpopular candidate in the PRI’s history (although this is hard to know, because earlier elections were such purely ceremonial occasions that sometimes there was no opposition candidate at all). Salinas ran against the candidate of a Christian-Democrat-like party called the Partido Acción Nacional and against Cárdenas, a breakaway candidate from the PRI, whose father, Lázaro, was president from 1934 to 1940. The elder Cárdenas, a committed populist with strong socialist convictions, did much to improve the lives of the poor—particularly, the rural poor.

The younger Cárdenas campaigned in 1988 on his father’s name and on an anti-corruption, anti–one-party platform. On election night, the first votes to be counted, from Mexico City, overwhelmingly favored Cárdenas. Shortly after these first, stunning votes, the computer system at the Federal Electoral Institute “fell,” and it did not rise again until the end of a news blackout which lasted forty-eight hours, and which was lifted in time to announce that, although Salinas de Gortari had lost to Cárdenas in Mexico City and three other states, he was the winner. Whether this was the truth will never be established, because the ballots were destroyed in 1991.

Against all predictions, Salinas turned out to be a strong president, and a popular one too, an uncomfortable fact that the EZLN’s assaults on the “usurper in the National Palace” did not take into account. But now, in 1994, he was weak, and a victory by Cárdenas once again looked possible. In Chiapas, however, the party that the younger Cárdenas founded soon after his 1988 defeat was a feeble thing. It was disorganized and, some say, plagued by corruption; it had few members and hardly any leaders. In fact, its proposed tentative candidate for local governor was the former private secretary of a hated PRI governor, and its confirmed candidate for the Senate was Irma Serrano, “La Tigresa,” a one-time ranchera singer who was principally known for her intimate relationship with Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, who was president from 1964 to 1970.

There was also the risk that, at the national level, the PRD’s commitment to nonviolence at this particular moment might alienate hundreds of thousands among its voters. The PRD’s considerable constituency—urban workers, rural poor, intellectuals—loved Cárdenas, loved the party’s funky rallies, loved its more or less social-democrat platform, but mostly they hated Salinas and his neo-liberal economic policies, which had ruined so many of them. They hated the PRI, and no one shared their hatred more clearly than the Zapatistas.

The EZLN had also been thinking about what role to play in the upcoming elections. On May 15, in a desolate hamlet called La Realidad deep in Las Cañadas, Cárdenas and a large PRD delegation met with Marcos and the CCRI-CG after they both watched the by now familiar ceremonial parade of poorly armed masked peasants. While Cárdenas, a tall impassive man with strongly Indian features, stood by calmly, Marcos praised his honesty and commitment to democracy, and then attacked the PRD: “We have seen with concern that the PRD tends to repeat those vices which poisoned the party in power from birth. Those who struggle for democracy practice inside-the-party palace intrigue, agreements at the top, eternal betrayal, lies …”

It was a shrewd display of political jockeying, as John Ross notes.

Marcos was directing his remarks…at the PRD’s growing base of the disenfranchised and landless…the forgotten ones who come to the Party of the Democratic Revolution to make change and then discover that they have no voice at all in what their party says. This army had been marching diligently behind [Cárdenas] for six years now but their allegiances [the day after the elections] could be crucial for the transformation of the EZLN from a regional foco to a national army.

Evidently, the PRD also had the same interpretation of what was at stake. Shortly after the meeting at La Realidad, it replaced its unconfirmed candidate for the governorship of Chiapas with Amado Avendaño, a genial, radical, enthusiast who had defended Indian causes for years, and whose daily paper, Tiempo, was a regular forum for Marcos’s writings.


In August, less than two weeks before the elections, the Zapatistas staged their culminating theatrical event. This was the Convención Nacional Democrática, held in a forest clearing that was baptized Aguascalientes, in honor of the 1914 Constitutional Convention at which the original Zapatistas were the dominant force.

It was supposed to be a watershed event. In one letter after another addressed to the convention’s organizers and to the luminaries Marcos invited—Carlos Fuentes, Cárdenas himself—he explained his hope that the convention would remove from the EZLN’s shoulders the burden of leading the movement for radical change in Mexico. He hoped that the delegates to the convention would form a nationwide leftist movement that would either lead a radicalized PRD to victory at the polls or lead the protests against fraud if the PRI should once again claim that its candidate was the winner. Both scenarios took for granted (as, indeed, Cárdenas himself stubbornly did) that Zedillo had no chance of winning, particularly if Mexicans turned out to vote in unprecedented numbers.

The convention was over almost as soon as it began. After two days of preparatory sessions in San Cristóbal, several thousand delegates from all over Mexico traveled in cars and buses through endless Zapatista checkpoints, unpacked their sleeping bags at Aguascalientes, watched the largest armed-and-silent masked Zapatista parade to date, listened to Marcos’s speech, and then ran for cover as a rainstorm of bibilical proportions flooded the convention site. The next morning, arguing that the possibility of further rain made working sessions impossible, the Mexico City radicals who largely organized the convention packed the delegates back into their tour buses and declared the meeting over. The most committed leftists and popular activists in Mexico came and went and failed to reach an agreement on whether the convention should, for example, endorse Cárdenas for the elections or even on who should be elected to the presidium: that was the real reason the convention was suspended, a bitter Marcos later claimed.

The convention had no lasting impact, but certain events surrounding it were memorable. The Zapatistas built a theater. For twenty-eight days, working fourteen-hour shifts, six hundred men and women labored to build “a library, a presidium that looked like a ship’s bridge, twenty guest houses, fourteen hearths, a parking lot, and even an area for assassination attempts,” Marcos told the delegates. And also, of course, the absurd, monumental amphitheater in the jungle with a proscenium large enough for a military parade, a makeshift podium the size of the one in the chamber of deputies in Mexico City, and a hillside transformed into a theater, where before the downpour thousands of delegates sat in August on benches made of slender trees split down the middle. Viewed from below when it is empty, as it almost always is nowadays, the stepped, triangular hill has the exact contours of a Maya pyramid.

Marcos called it something else at the convention’s opening on August 8: “Fitzcarraldo’s ship in the jungle, the delirium of neozapatismo, the pirate ship.” And it provoked one of the more disconcerting passages in the Era book, a hallucinatory postscript to a letter Marcos wrote a few days before the convention, often referring to himself in the third person:

Now the afternoon has followed the last of the journalists… When they are alone, the Sup [the subcomandante] makes a sign… Everyone, including the Sup, tears off their ski masks and their faces. A multitude of fierce-looking sailors appears, the Sup reveals an austere patch on his right eye and begins to limp ostentatiously on his wooden leg… The awning is in reality a sail, the benches oars, the hill the hull of a mighty vessel… There has to be order on the deck. I order that the helmsman be thrown to the sharks. No one listens to me. I cut the throat of the first sailor I find handy. The ship is foundering. I take the helm…at last the ship seems to straighten its course and return to the bay that my hopelessness brought us out of this dawn… Now I am a pirate. A pirate is tenderness that explodes in fury, is justice that has not been understood, is disconsolate love, is a sad battle and shared solitude, is an eternal navigating toward no port, is perennial torment, is a stolen kiss, is always unsatisfied possession, is no rest.

He signs the letter, “Pirate without bearings, professional of hope, transgressor of injustice, robber of sighs, owner of the night, lord of the mountain, man without a face and with no tomorrow…”

Six days later, as the conventioneers were piling into the last buses, someone asked Marcos how the organizers had decided whom to exclude from the guest list. “We didn’t exclude very many,” Marcos replied. “Only the sons of bitches.” Taking the EZLN’s own estimate of 8,000 delegates present, and assuming, generously, that each one of those delegates represented another 1,000 people who would have liked to attend, that left, in a country of 90 million people, 82 million who might not have qualified for admission to the convention. It was this kind of mathematics, the refusal to recognize those who whole-heartedly voted for the PRI or the conservative PAN, that led to such a bad miscalculation of the outcome of the elections two weeks later.


Although Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas won heavily in Las Cañadas, he placed a distant third nationally, winning only 17 percent of the vote, in an election in which 70-odd percent of the electorate turned out. An ultra-conservative, Diego Fernández de Cevallos, placed second, with 27 percent of the vote, and Ernesto Zedillo—probably to his own astonishment—won with 50 percent. The national vote seems to have been plagued by irregularities but overall fairly free of fraud—at least in contrast to previous elections. In Chiapas itself the official total for the PRI candidate was 51.2 percent, and the PRD candidate, Amado Avendaño, placed second, with 34.1 percent. There were some two thousand reports of irregularities, but, although these reports put the validity of the election in doubt, they do not necessarily suggest that Amado Avendaño won a majority of the vote.

There are several reasons for his defeat, not the least being that less than six weeks into his campaign, the car he was riding in was hit head-on by a trailer-truck; his nephew and a campaign aide were killed, and Avendaño emerged from the hospital half-blind, in mourning, and in no physical shape to campaign. People die on Chiapas highways with regularity, but, given the state’s history of murderous intolerance, Avendaño is justified in believing that the crash was, in fact, an attempt on his life. (The driver of the truck is under arrest.)

But there is also the question of what Avendaño represented as a candidate: he has identified himself unequivocally with the cause of the Zapatistas, and, in nominating him, the PRD made a fateful choice. The PRI, always wily, selected a rather personable candidate, Eduardo Robledo, who surrounded himself with leftist, non-PRI advisors, and campaigned offering reconciliation and much social spending. The PRD (which is divided, roughly, into social-democrat, former Communist, former PRI, and radical factions) had selected Avendaño, who was mostly known in Chiapas for his often intemperate editorials in favor of the poor. The party shifted to the left because it was afraid of losing the disaffected millions who might elect instead to march with the Zapatistas. In exchange, it lost the potential vote, in Chiapas and throughout the nation, of those who, faced with the PRI’s tired promises and the EZLN’s threat of war, were on the whole inclined not to go to war.


At this writing, two thousand private farms in Chiapas, many of them illegally oversized latifundios, have been invaded by campesinos. They identify themselves as PRD militants; nearly all voice their sympathy and admiration for the EZLN. The PRI governor, Eduardo Robledo, presides over a bankrupt state, and holds public audiences in the capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, in which he tries to convince cattle ranchers and smallholders who are losing their crops and businessmen who are going bankrupt that war is not the solution to the social upheaval in Chiapas. In San Cristóbal, the tourists have disappeared, and only the hotel where journalists stay does much business. On the outskirts of town, in an occupied government building, Amado Avendaño presides over a “Popular Government in Rebellion,” and works on legislation for the future with his advisers and fellow members of the PRD.

In November, in Aguascalientes, Marcos was the center of a Maya ceremony near the Zapatista pyramid: his troops lined up in a spiral formation around him and the CCRI-CG gave him a ceremonial cane to grant him absolute powers during the state of emergency decreed by the EZLN when Robledo took power. In early January, Marcos met with Ernesto Zedillo’s new interior secretary, Estebán Moctezuma, and agreed to renew a truce that may eventually lead to a new round of talks. Robledo’s bankrupt and virtually powerless government, Avendaño’s government-in-rebellion, and the subcomandante’s shadow army—all are performing their symbolic gestures on the national stage, while in Chiapas civil war is brewing.

On January 10 I went with other reporters to the town of Chicomuselo, near the border with Guatemala, where peasants had taken over the municipal offices and held them for twelve hours. The action resulted in the deaths of the police chief and his deputy, of the takeover’s two leaders, and of two others. Since the elections the PRD has sponsored dozens of similar actions, but none had resulted in fatalities until Chicomuselo. It wasn’t until I traveled to the town that I understood just how miraculous this bloodlessness was. Campesinos from another town, Amatenango, had set up a roadblock on the way there to demand the eviction of their PRI mayor. We all milled about on the highway—angry peasants, federal troops, impatient truck drivers, reporters, the black-clad members of the Policía Judicial, notorious for their brutality. A rock thrown in someone’s face, a weapon fired accidentally, could have led to disaster, but somehow the event ended peacefully. (Two days later there was a referendum in Amatenango which the PRI lost to the PRD, 892 to 1,098.)

In Chicomuselo, someone fired first. It is not clear whether this was the deputy police chief or the leader of the campesinos. What appears to be certain is that the campesinos tortured and scalped the police chief before executing him (we were not able to see the body). In the town, what local reporters call guardias blancas, or hired guns, were everywhere, except that they were not hired. They were backward, white, racist, and venomously angry cattle ranchers and corn farmers who seemed itching to go out and shoot someone. With the corpses of the police and the campesino leaders still lying in the municipal offices, the State attorney general arrived on the scene to propose a dialogue, but the campesinos refused it, and fired off several shots as he left the building.

The attorney general is a former journalist and political prisoner who crossed over to the government, presumably out of the conviction—shared by other non-PRI members of Governor Robledo’s cabinet—that someone had better occupy the middle ground, and that in these strange times, the PRI is the only institution offering it. But the shots fired in his direction made him decide that war had been declared. While we were there he authorized the white ranchers of Chicomuselo to arm themselves, and as we left town, we were startled to see how many automatic weapons they produced. (Chicomuselo is a white town, but since the EZLN uprising similar confrontations have taken place between indigenous communities, over issues of religion, land, and politics.)

“Welcome to the nightmare,” Marcos wrote Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León just before his inauguration. How prescient he was. Barely a month into the new administration, the devaluation of the peso led to the collapse of the Mexican stock market.

President Clinton has now organized a $47.8 billion emergency loan to steady the peso and allow Mexico to restructure its short-term debt. But stability is still the principal guarantee demanded of Zedillo’s administration by would-be lenders and investors alike, and the new president does not seem to be in a strong position to offer that, even as he calls for dialogue with the opposition and with the guerrillas. In the southeastern state of Tabasco, as a result of post-electoral turmoil arising from evidence of fraud in the elections for governor last November, the PRD and Zedillo agreed to hold new elections. When PRI loyalists heard that the deal might include the resignation of their governor-elect, they shut down highways, schools, banks, and shops and ran the PRD protesters out of the Tabasco capital’s town plaza. In Chiapas, events like those at Chicomuselo revealed just how badly things could continue to get out of hand.

The greatest mystery regarding Marcos and the Zapatistas remains the extent of their commitment to armed struggle. Marcos gets very upset at those who criticize him for his utopian beliefs. “Is it utopian to want justice?” he says. It is utopian to believe that perfection is the only acceptable alternative to injustice. And it is foolish, or disingenuous, to believe that the PRI will withdraw voluntarily from power in response to the EZLN’s demands. What is most troubling is that utopians tend to believe that any method—including self-immolation—is justified to achieve a dream. It is hard for Mexicans to know which of the many voices of Marcos—the wisecracking, self-mocking one, the voice of the rapturous letter writer, or the voice that speaks for a visionary community—they should take the most seriously.

Bishop Ruiz, who was present at the meeting last month between Interior Secretary Moctezuma and Marcos and the CCRI, had this report of the extraordinary conversation that took place, according to an article in the Chiapas daily Cuarto Poder: “You know we won’t rest until we throw you [the PRI] out of power,” Marcos told Moctezuma, according to the newspaper. “But we can’t achieve that through military means.

“We want to overthrow you and you want to make us disappear; in this mutual agreement that we have that you have to withdraw from power as a party and we have to dispense with our weapons as rebels—levantados—there is only one path: dialogue, and the convergence to reach a political and not a military solution.”

“But when are you going to put down your arms?” Moctezuma asked. “Some people say that you don’t want war but you don’t want peace either, that you’re going to hang on to your guns so you can be threatening us constantly during the sexenio” (six-year presidential term).

“That is an inadequate reading,” Marcos replied. “Because you are the ones that want to make us disappear, and you are the ones who can use politics to block the military path for us.”

It isn’t a clear answer and it wasn’t intended to be.

February 2, 1995

This Issue

March 2, 1995