The Zapatistas had a romantic appeal. Isaac Guzman/AFP/Getty Images

February 29, 2024   6 mins

As the early morning mist began to rise over the rainforest thicket, I shook my boots to ensure no scorpions had taken shelter during the night. The black flag with the red star flickered in the breeze. It was New Year’s Day, 2006, and I was in the heart of Zapatista rebel territory, a guest in the autonomous municipality of la Garrucha in the Chiapas region of south Mexico. This particular municipia was the first to open its doors to foreign journalists hoping to learn more about the indigenous insurgent movement, which rose to prominence just over a decade before.

The Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) announced themselves to the world on 1 January 1994, when they overthrew and temporarily occupied various Mexican centres for political power. The timing was symbolic, corresponding with the day the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect. Outraged at the treaty’s effective removal of Article 27 from the Mexican constitution, which guaranteed indigenous peoples their rights to collective lands, they became the first organisation to declare war on an internationally recognised treaty. Their campaign came to resemble a war from February onwards, as Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo launched an offensive to capture or destroy them.

In 2006, I was part of a delegation accompanying the Zapatistas as they returned to the streets of San Cristobal in what they called the “Other Campaign”, a broad movement of protest and civic resistance. Our vehicle followed directly behind their leader, the Subcommandante Insurgente Marcos. He led the rebellious cavalcade out of the canyon on a motorcycle, inevitably recalling the spirit of Che Guevara. For many activists of the Nineties, Marcos had filled a similar space to Che: the exotic radical who combined the roles of intellectual and man-of-action. And like Che’s movement, the Zapatistas’ idealism eventually shattered when it collided with the raw realities of power.

Often described as the “poorest of the poor”, the Zapatistas connected their fight to a broader history of persecution. “We are a product of 500 years of struggle,” their First Declaration proclaimed. Theirs was a fight for dignity, which was inseparable from their demands for autonomy and the constitutional right to self-govern according to indigenous laws, customs and practices. And their name bound their struggle to the nation’s revolutionary past, invoking Emiliano Zapata, who led the Mexican revolution of 1910.

But though the Zapatistas wove themselves into a tapestry of Mexican history, many observers felt what they represented was radically new. My guide in 2006, the late journalist and Beatnik poet John Ross, told me: “If the Zapatistas hadn’t appeared, we would have needed to invent them. There would not have been such a thing as the anti-globalisation movement without them. They were the catalyst.” The Zapatistas immediately became icons of a global Left, largely thanks to the non-indigenous Marcos, who positioned himself as a bridge between the two worlds. Like all revolutionaries, Marcos projected a romantic allure with his trademark military cap, smoking pipe and balaclava. He became a new kind of pin-up for a globally sensitised radical generation. Indeed, perhaps part of his appeal was precisely that he was faceless, the balaclava he wore acting as a kind of leveller, which allowed men at least to dream of the romance of being a revolutionary without the impossible handsomeness of El Che.

“Marcos became a pin-up for a globally sensitised radical generation.”

Beyond his mystical appeal, Marcos’s greatest accomplishment was the originality of his writings. The Zapatistas insisted that words were their most formidable weapon, and Marcos became their most recognised author. Not only did he display an astute reading of global political affairs, but his adaptation of myths and tales with human spirits and fictitious animal characters showed the true power of fabulation. If there were to be a genuine revolution, he insisted, it would need to be written in a different style. Marcos quipped he was a Marxist who, intent on converting the indigenous to his doctrine, found himself being converted to an indigenous way of seeing the world.

But his movement was soon to be lost in translation. The Zapatistas arrived at the dawn of the internet age; some commentators even claimed they were the first internet revolution. Leading security think tanks, such as the Rand corporation, called their struggle “network centric warfare”. And Manuel Castells, among the most prominent social gurus for what he called the “information age”, even fronted one of his books on “The Network Society” with Zapatista artwork. It was hard to read any study of the Zapatistas in which the new language of the digital age — networks, non-hierarchy, connectivity — wasn’t applied. Yet during my visit to la Garrucha, which was widely promoted as the first rebel stronghold to have internet, it was clear that the technology simply didn’t work. The projection of digital language onto the Zapatistas was designed purely to appeal to bourgeois radicals in the West.

What actually set the Zapatistas apart was their ability to surprise, to go into hiding, and the unpredictable and untimely responses they offered that didn’t follow obvious paths. By 1998, they were already writing about the importance of slowing things down and embracing silence. This couldn’t be further from the performativity of a certain kind of radical politics they were made into emblems of. The Zapatistas never asked to become global icons, even if they undoubtedly welcomed the solidarity. Their demands were actually rather straightforward: land, liberty and autonomy for the indigenous of Mexico. Yet at the dawn of the digital age, it was external forces that wanted to momentarily parade them to the world as part of a new revolutionary vanguard — despite the fact they resisted those very terms.

“Western radicals wanted to parade them as part of a new revolutionary vanguard.”

By the turn of the millennium, it was becoming apparent that radicalism in the West was taking a different path. While the Zapatistas had fully embraced non-violence as a political strategy — a position that was most evident during their march upon Mexico City in March 2001 — the previous year’s protests in Seattle at the WTO convention, and in Prague against the IMF and World Bank showed how some Western anti-globalists were willing to engage in violent confrontation. And after 9/11, the attention of Western activists turned to the battles in Iraq and Afghanistan, which gradually pushed the conceptualisation of war back into a more familiar statist direction. This seemed to be at odds with Marcos’s insistence that war was a global state of affairs in which the nation state merely played a militarising and policing role.

In the two decades after 2006, the Zapatistas saw a notable decline in international attention. This was due in part to their own political moves, which included a rather disastrous foray into electoral politics in 2018 that seemed to contradict their previous critique of the state. But something else happened in 2006 that would end up transforming Chiapas, Mexico and the Americas in ways that diverted attention away from the indigenous campesinos.

In December 2006, President Felipe Calderón won Mexico’s election — though many analysts believe the vote count was rigged, and the then-contender Andrés Manuel López Obrador never accepted the result. Ten days into his presidency, Calderón announced an outright assault on the narco-trafficking cartels. The expansive and violent battle that ensued drew international interest away from the conflict in Chiapas, leading to hundreds of thousands of murders and disappearances. In the process, the narco wars pushed the drugs trade into Chiapas. During one of my trips there in 2006, human rights representatives said that Chiapas didn’t have a major drugs problem. That is no longer the case today. In January, more than 700 villagers permanently fled their homes in the communities of Chicomuselo and La Concordia due to cartel violence.

This violence has escalated since smuggling groups moved in to control and exploit the flow of migrants heading north. And the electoral victory of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2019 has further exacerbated the problem. His militarisation of the region hasn’t deterred the cartels: on the contrary, with the links between organised crime, the military and the police, promises of greater profits in this new economic corridor has resulted in open warfare. In response to this instability, a Zapatista communique stated in November they were closing their autonomous municipalities to the outside world.

After this retreat, what legacy do the Zapatistas have today? By emphasising the Zapatistas’ race and identity over their desperate poverty, Western radicals were as complicit as liberals in setting aside the importance of poverty as the defining marker shaping political consciousness. What’s more, their attempt to frame the Zapatista movement to fit the language of digitalisation anticipated the parading of social justice solidarity we continue to see on social media, and speaks less to the indigenous of Mexico than to virtually connected intelligentsia of today. Given the self-serving performativity of it all, is it any wonder the Zapatistas became a kind of fetishised object, openly embraced by techno-optimists to convey an image of “good indigenous” radicals until they too could be neatly set aside?

Ever since the dawn of the 20th century, the lands and people of Mexico have been stereotyped. In their heyday, the Zapatistas fulfilled a Western radical fantasy. And now their country is over-filtered in that familiar cinematic shade of Mexican yellow: dangerous and unforgiving, lawless and ruled by crazed bandits who kill without remorse. This is not the Mexico I know. And the remedy is a better appreciation of the complexities of history, while moving beyond fetishised portrayals of identities that are loaded with prejudice, including the prejudices of radicalism.

Professor Brad Evans holds a Chair in Political Violence & Aesthetics at the University of Bath. His book, How Black Was My Valley: Poverty and Abandonment in a Post-Industrial Heartland, is out in April.