On Nov. 17, 1983, three women and three men of Indigenous and mestizo origin established the first encampment of the National Liberation Zapatista Army (EZLN) somewhere in the Lacandona Rainforest in Chiapas, southeast Mexico.
The army, modeling itself on a guerrilla insurgency, was founded by former members of the National Liberation Forces (FLN), an armed organization with a presence in several states, including Chiapas. Many of its leaders were killed or arrested in an encounter with the military in San Miguel Nepantla in the State of Mexico, and the FLN eventually disintegrated. Some of its former members remained deep in the Chiapas jungle, mingling with Indigenous communities and learning about their worldview and social issues.
Perhaps, the guerrilla’s biggest success at the beginning of the 1980s was the incorporation of autochthonous Indigenous thought and leadership, with mestizo elements taking a more secondary position. Marxism and libertarian socialism were still a key analysis tool, but the EZLN was founded on Indigenous ideals that reclaimed the principles of Emiliano Zapata, who stood up in arms with Campesinos to reclaim their land and rights during the Mexican Revolution.
The EZLN remained underground for years, gaining support from the local Mayan communities whose agency had been historically denied by the Mexican government. It wasn’t until Jan. 1 1994, the day when the North American Free Trade Agreement was enacted by Canada, Mexico and the U.S., that the army came forth by assaulting San Cristobal de las Casas and other towns in Chiapas. The EZLN then reached an agreement with the government and signed the San Andres Accords, in which the government committed to respecting Indigenous rights across the country. The accords were never enforced, and the EZLN refused to depose arms.
Since then, the EZLN has been a world reference for revolution, supporting anti-capitalist, social, and Indigenous movements, and forming international networks, making use of their distinctive rhetoric that evolves with time.