The Zapatistas appeared
to have the wind at their backs in March. They had just made history
by riding triumphantly into Mexico City, culminating a two-week,
12-state tour in which they spoke to hundreds of thousands of Mexicans
from all walks of life.
The insurgents from Chiapas hoped their tour would compel the Mexican
Congress to pass an indigenous rights bill based on the San Andres
Accords, an agreement the rebels and government negotiators reached
in February 1996 (see "Zapapalooza,"
April 16). The accords laid the groundwork for amending the Mexican
Constitution to guarantee local indigenous self-rule in accordance
with traditional customs, regional indigenous autonomy on issues
such as native languages, and collective control of community land
and natural resources in indigenous territories.
The Zapatistas viewed these proposed changes to the constitution
as crucial to
ensuring justice for Mexico's 10 million indigenous people, and they
went to the capital with their hopes pinned on a bill that a nonpartisan
legislative commission had drafted and President Vicente Fox had submitted
to Congress immediately after his inauguration in December 2000.
Subcommandante Marcos is
incense during a celebration in Oventic, Chiapas. Thousands
attended the April 1
event to welcome home the Zapatistas.
But after Congress finished with the bill, it scarcely looked like
what the rebels had envisioned. The revised bill passed by legislators
at the end of April left to state legislatures the responsibility
of defining the terms of local self-rule for indigenous communities,
omitted provisions for regional autonomy, and added protections
for private land holdings in indigenous areas. The legislation also
said indigenous communities would have preference, but not exclusive
rights, to natural resources in their territories.
While Fox praised the revised bill, calling it a positive first
step toward renewing peace talks with the Zapatistas, the rebels
denounced it and cancelled plans to restart direct dialogue with
The Zapatistas contend that Congress--perhaps with Fox's tacit
approval--has made a mockery of the San Andres Accords. "With these
reforms, federal legislators and the Fox government are closing
the door on dialogue and peace, since they are preventing a resolution
of one of the causes which led to the Zapatista uprising," read
a Zapatista public statement. "They give a raison d'être
to armed groups in Mexico by invalidating a process of dialogue
Many members of Congress argue that they had to defend property
rights and prevent the balkanization of the country, but some politicians
joined the Zapatistas in rejecting the legislation. Chiapas Gov.
Pablo Salazar called the bill a "triumph for conservatism."
Since the measure involves amending the constitution, 17 of the
country's 32 federal entities must ratify it. Although southern
states with large indigenous populations, such as Chiapas and Oaxaca,
will likely reject the measure, its chances of becoming law look
Seven state legislatures have approved the bill so far, despite
demonstrations. In Puebla, 200 protesters from indigenous groups
shouted "Traitors!" and "Racists!" at legislators who voted in favor
of the bill, according to the Mexico
Solidarity Network. In Queretaro, local indigenous people and
representatives of more than 30 non-governmental and indigenous
organizations threw coins in protest at state deputies after they
ratified the measure. If the bill becomes law, members of Mexico's
National Indigenous Congress
have vowed to set up road blocks and occupy government buildings.
In Chiapas, the low-intensity war--which has caused the deaths
of hundreds and displacement of tens of thousands of indigenous
people in the past seven years--continues. In Polho, a Zapatista
stronghold sheltering 11,000 displaced rebel sympathizers, residents
tell Dave McConnell of Pastors
for Peace that anti-Zapatista paramilitaries--who operate with
impunity in the conflict zone--are still active in the state's central
McConnell says people have little faith in the government. "There's
some sense of a sliver of hope," he says. "But there's also cynicism
about the political situation."
Freelance writer Rick Mercier accompanied the
Zapatour to Mexico City.