Seven years after stunning the world with their daring uprising,
a delegation of Zapatista rebels
came out of hiding in the Lacandon Jungle and traveled to the concrete
jungle of Mexico City to try to resolve the simmering conflict in
Twenty-four Zapatista leaders, including the rebels' spokesman
and military strategist, Subcomandante Marcos, set out on a 12-state,
15-day road trip dubbed "Zapatour" by the Mexican media. The rebels
hoped to boost popular support for a bill before the Mexican Congress
that would grant indigenous communities greater autonomy, fulfilling
one of the preconditions they set for resuming peace talks with
The Zapatistas have always contended that they do not want to seize
power, and that
their ultimate goal is to disappear. "A soldier, and I include myself,
is an absurd and irrational man, because he has the capacity to resort
to violence to persuade," Marcos said in a television interview on
March 10, the eve of the rebels' triumphant entry into Mexico City,
where they were greeted by 150,000 people in the capital's massive
Comandante Tacho and Subcomandante
enter Mexico City.
Talks between the rebels and government broke down in 1996 after
former President Ernesto Zedillo refused to submit the indigenous
rights bill to Congress for a vote. Zedillo's recalcitrance outraged
the Zapatistas because the bill had been crafted by a nonpartisan
legislative committee to enshrine in the nation's constitution an
agreement on indigenous rights--known as the San Andres Accords--that
the rebels and government negotiators had signed earlier in the
With the election of Vicente Fox as president, many believe it's
time to break the deadlock between the Zapatistas and the government.
"This is a good moment to link the peace process with the political
transformation to democracy," says Miguel Alvarez, former general
secretary of the National Mediation Commission, which helped the
rebels and government reach their 1996 agreement.
Fox, who submitted the indigenous rights bill to Congress immediately
after his inauguration in December, arguably has been the biggest
beneficiary of the rebel movement. Many observers acknowledge that
the Zapatistas and their sympathizers throughout Mexico pressured
Zedillo to back electoral reforms that enabled Fox to beat the candidate
of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had held the
presidency for 71 years.
Many people, including Fox, have compared Zapatour to the big marches
of the U.S. civil rights movement. Former San Diego high school
teacher Peter Brown, who helped build a junior high school in Oventic,
Chiapas, says the Zapatista rebellion "is like having the civil
rights movement alive and well, with Malcolm X and H. Rap Brown
right next to Martin Luther King."
For Brown and the nearly 2,000 others who rode in the caravan,
traveling with the rebels offered a chance to be part of an historic
moment in Mexico. The significance of Zapatour could be understood
not just by observing the size of the crowds at caravan stops (in
all, nearly a quarter of a million people filled town squares to
see and hear the rebel delegation at events held on their way to
the capital), but also by listening to the stories of some of the
individuals who attended the events. One older indigenous woman
from Puebla state started walking from her mountain village at 3
a.m. to get to the town of Tehuacan in time to witness the late-morning
arrival of the Zapatistas. An Amuzgo man from the Sierra Madre highlands
in Guerrero state walked for nine days with 400 people to be on
hand for the rebels' arrival in Mexico City.
In spite of the enthusiasm the rebels generated during Zapatour,
proponents of the indigenous rights bill face an uphill battle in
the Mexican Congress. Since the bill would amend the Mexican Constitution,
it must be approved by a two-thirds vote, and so far most of Mexico's
political establishment has balked at the idea of granting self-determination
to indigenous communities.
Opponents say that establishing autonomous communities throughout
the country could lead to the balkanization of Mexico. But the Zapatistas
have insisted that they do not seek to break away. "It's not true
that we want to separate from Mexico," said the rebels' Comandanta
Susana at a tour stop on the outskirts of Mexico City. "What we
want is for them to recognize us as the indigenous people we are,
but also as Mexicans."
Opponents also argue that autonomy would perpetuate the marginalization
of women in indigenous communities. However, the bill explicitly
mandates gender equality. Referring to this provision of the bill,
Comandanta Yolanda said that Zapatista women want "the law to be
approved because it protects women. The participation of indigenous
women will be in the Constitution."
A more accurate explanation for the opposition may be that autonomous
indigenous communities would have more power to oversee--or block--efforts
to exploit valuable natural resources in their territory. This is
especially relevant to Chiapas, where, according to geological surveys,
large oil and natural gas reserves lie underneath land inhabited
by communities that have sided with the Zapatistas.
Given Fox's strong pro-business beliefs, the Zapatistas remain
skeptical about his commitment to a just peace. Marcos recently
accused the president of wanting to fast-track a solution that would
improve his popularity rating but not ensure the safety of Zapatista
communities. At a caravan stop in Hidalgo state, Marcos said Fox
wanted to turn the dove of peace "into an advertising logo." In
another speech in Hidalgo, Marcos reminded the crowd that a group
of pacifist indigenous people in the Chiapas highlands had signed
an informal peace agreement with government-backed paramilitaries
in 1997, only to be slaughtered two weeks later. "Is this the peace
you want?" he asked the crowd, which responded with a resounding
The Zapatistas have reason to worry about what may lie ahead. Even
if the indigenous rights bill passes and a peace deal is reached,
local PRI strongmen, wealthy landowners, paramilitary groups and
the military could all fight to prevent demilitarization and autonomy
And, as official figures suggest, the general poverty and isolation
of Mexico's indigenous people loom as problems even more difficult
to overcome in the long run. According to recently released government
data, more than half of the country's indigenous children are malnourished.
More than six in 10 indigenous adults are illiterate, compared with
one in 10 adults nationally. And a mere 42 percent of indigenous
homes have running water, compared with 84 percent of all homes
in Mexico. In the indigenous areas of Chiapas, there is one doctor
for every 25,000 residents, a situation comparable to Ghana or Cambodia.
Yet, even with all the obstacles, some are optimistic that the
Zapatistas and the government can achieve a just peace in Chiapas.
The coming weeks "will not be the last opportunity" for peace, Alvarez
says. If the two sides do not find mutually acceptable conditions
for an agreement this time around, he adds, "they will keep looking
for conditions and will try again."
Subcomandante Marcos's speech in Mexico City, March 11, 2001.