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  The Call of Zapata

Masked rebel/Reuters A masked rebel celebrates the fourth anniversary of anti-government Zapatista uprising in Chiapas. (Reuters)
By Aileen S. Yoo
Washingtonpost.com Staff
Updated August 1998

On New Year's Day 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Army, formed mainly by Indian peasants, led a rebellion against the military in the southern state of Chiapas. The conflict, which killed an estimated 150 people, highlighted the plight of Mexico's native population and became a thorny issue that continues to plague the government.

The Zapatistas named themselves after Emiliano Zapata, a key figure of the 1910 revolution that shaped the ideals and spirit of modern Mexico. Frustrated with the deteriorating economic and social conditions, Zapata led peasant rebellions against government troops in the name of agrarian reform.

Chiapas map

Sparked by circumstances similar to those leading to the revolution, the modern-day uprising revealed the dire straits of Mexico's native Indians, whose ancestors – including the Mayans and the Aztecs – flourished until Spanish colonization. Living in one of the poorest regions of Mexico, the Zapatistas claimed that years of government neglect left the Indians in poverty. The rebels demanded better social services, more jobs and the ultimate autonomy of Mexico's native peoples.

Before the insurrection. the government, controlled by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), faced criticisms that its domination perpetuated the corruption, violence and the widening disparity between the elite and the poor.

"There are two very different Mexicos living side by side," said Mexico City economic and political analyst Jonathan Heath. "In one is the top 15 percent who have the purchasing power; then we have a massive, very-low-income, poverty-stricken population, mostly concentrated in the south."

Anger finally boiled over. Fearing the North American Free Trade Agreement would hurt the local economy, the Zapatistas revolted on the day NAFTA went into effect.

Anthropologists said the insurgency was no surprise given the conditions brewing in Mexico at the time. "There have been a lot of incidents where the underlying pressures were voiced and not listened to" by the government, said June Nash, an American anthropologist who studies the Tzeltal Indian group.

"I see this [revolt] as a sort of scream of desperation," said cultural anthropologist Gary Gossen at the State University of New York in Albany.

Both sides signed a partial peace accord in March 1994, but talks faltered when the government balked at the autonomy issue. Peace talks continued stalling and the rebel movement seemed stagnant until December 1997, when armed gunmen stormed Acteal, a small village in Chiapas state, and killed 45 Indian peasants. The attack, by a group said to be aligned with the PRI, pushed the Zapatistas and their cause back into the limelight.

The Chiapas uprising reportedly fueled the birth of other guerrilla groups, like the Popular Insurgent Revolutionary Army, the Mexican Peasant Worker Front of the Southeast, the Popular Movement of National Libertation and the Revolutionary Insurgent Army of the Southeast.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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