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Indigenous resurgence: Mexico

The Maya Indian rebels of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in Mexico's southern state of Chiapas won international attention with their New Year's 1994 uprising - launched at the precise moment NAFTA took effect. The ski-masked Indian men and women with their antiquated rifles briefly took over four towns in the Chiapas highlands, declared war on the Mexican government and denounced the free trade agreement as a "death sentence" for Mexico's Indian peoples. Audaciously, they pledged to march on Mexico City. Seven years later they fulfilled this pledge - but they arrived in the national capital through political rather than military means.

In 2001, a delegation of 24 Zapatista commandants held a 13-day, 11-state motorcade from their jungle stronghold in Chiapas to the Federal District. They wore their trademark ski masks but left their rifles at home. "We've arrived," the charismatic Subcommander Marcos told the press as he entered Mexico City on March 8. "Here we are."

The Zapatistas rallied in the capital's central plaza in a bid to win approval of their peace plan, which would change the constitution to recognize the autonomy of Mexico's indigenous peoples. The plan is known as the San Andres Accords for the Maya village where Zapatista commandants and federal legislatures had hashed them out over months-of long negotiations. It had been stalled for years by the refusal of President Ernesto Zedillo to sign them. But Mexico's new President Vicente Fox - the first to break the one-party state's long monopoly on power - had immediately signed the Accords, and passed them on to Congress for approval.

Marcos summed up the sense of optimism, telling the press: "We want to stop being what we are. We are people without faces, armed and fighting for what we believe. I think we will have a successful dialogue with the government, that the war will be ended and that we will be able to move on to new work? Zapatistas believe that with people's cooperation it will be possible to build a country in which color, language and culture will not imply superiority nor inferiority between one another."

On March 28, the Maya comandantes - minus Marcos, who is not an Indian - took the nation's highest podium, and addressed Mexico's Congress. The address, prominently featuring Comandante Esther, a Tzeltal Maya woman, was nationally televised. But of Mexico's 648 federal legislators, only 207 attended. Nearly the entire delegation from Fox's own National Action Party (PAN) refused to attend.

These same legislators, in the weeks to come, would gut the Accords of all binding provisions on local indigenous control of land and resources. An April 29 EZLN communiqu? stated that the altered legislation "betrays the San Andr?s Accords." It charged that government hardliners "want to turn the March of Indigenous Dignity into a defeat" and are "closing the door on dialogue and peace." It concluded, "There will be no more contact between the Fox government and the EZLN ... The Zapatistas remain in resistance and in rebellion."

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Indian municipal governments throughout Mexico went to court to challenge the gutted autonomy law, asserting that it failed to conform to the standards for indigenous self-government established by the International Labor Organization's Convention 169.

In September 2002, Mexico's Supreme Court upheld the gutted Accords. The EZLN continued their silence in protest of the decision. But a statement was issued by leaders of a protest march in Chiapas, representing several Indian and campesino groups, including the Emiliano Zapata Campesino Organization, the National Coordinator of Indigenous Peoples, and Civil Society in Resistance. The statement said the Supreme Court decision "definitively closes the doors to a dialogue necessary to construct peace in the state of Chiapas and all Mexico... The 'indigenous law' traitorously imposed by the Congress of the Union and by Vicente Fox, and now ratified by the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation, only serves the great multinational companies that seek to plunder the strategic resources of Mexico..."

These groups have been spreading resistance throughout Chiapas since the 1994 uprising. Civil Indian and peasant groups like the Emiliano Zapata Campesino Organization have taken over land, instating their own "agrarian reform" from below. Municipal uprisings have ousted corrupt local machines, with peasant councils taking the reins of local government. Indian groups across Chiapas have declared their own "pluriethnic autonomous zones," and demanded recognition by the government. One such group, Las Abejas (the bees), a Tzotzil Maya organization explicitly committed to nonviolence, was the target of the Christmas time 1997 massacre at the hamlet of Acteal, in which 45 Indians - mostly women and children - were killed. The massacre was perpetrated by Red Mask, one of several paramilitary groups which have emerged in Chiapas.

Resistance has also spread to neighboring states. Guerrero and Oaxaca have also seen a wave of indigenous land seizures and municipal uprisings, with Mixtec Zapotec and Amuzgo militants seizing official buildings and declaring government by traditional Indian councils under the system known as usos y costumbres. On June 28, 1995, a truckload of Nahuatl militants from the Campesino Organization of the Sierra del Sur (OCSS) were stopped by state police, some 300 thick, on a Guerrero mountain road at a place called Aguas Blancas. The police opened fire, leaving 17 dead.

This region subsequently saw the emergence of armed Indian resistance. At a protest marking the one-year anniversary of the Aguas Blancas massacre on June 28, 1996, a group called the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) appeared from the mountains surrounding Aguas Blancas, took over the stage, read a manifesto - in both Spanish and Nahuatl - fired 17 shots in honor of the fallen OCSS militants, and retreated into the brush. The EPR's appearance sent thousands more federal troops into the Sierra Madre. Since then, numerous other small armed indigenous groups have proclaimed their existence in the Sierra Madre del Sur.

Nahuatl Indians of central Mexico, also drawing inspiration from the Chiapas revolt, have successfully resisted the expansion of development from Mexico City into their traditional lands. In the ancient village of Tepoztlan, plans for a GTE computer complex and golf course sparked a 1995 uprising, in which a Nahuatl council took power and declared itself in rebellion against the Morelos state government. The stalemate only ended after GTE and the developers pulled out. Last year, in the Mexico State village of Atenco, a similar uprising forced the government to cancel plans to confiscate traditional Nahuatl lands for a new international airport.

Since the Supreme Court upheld the gutted peace plan, the EZLN have released only one communiqu? - pledging to resort to armed resistance for the first time since 1994 if the government moves against their zone of control in the Chiapas rainforest. Indigenous groups throughout Mexico are demanding that the Mexican government approve the San Andr?s Accords, opening a new chapter in the history of the country's 10 million Indian people. Until the federal authorities move on this demand, Indian country in Mexico is likely to remain militarized and violently divided.