The motto “Justice and Dignity” appears in almost every letter and comunicado of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). The two concepts lay at the heart of the peasants’ uprising in Chiapas.

The Mexican State of Chiapas has 3.4 million people, 35 percent of whom arc Indians speaking 18 different languages. The land is blessed by great natural wealth. Thirty percent of all the territorial water of Mexico runs through here, generating 5 5 percent of all hydroelectric energy used by the nation. PEMEX, the federal agency that controls Mexican petroleum, drills 92,000 barrels of petroleum from here each day, and 516 billion cubic feet of natural gas every year. However, only 57 percent of the people of Chiapas enjoy running water, and over 30 percent of living quarters lack electricity. Half of the territory of Chiapas is forests, including the famous “Selva Laeandona,” one of the most valuable biological reserves in the world because of its precious woods and biological diversity. However, in the last three decades, 30 percent of its trees have been lost to the logging industry or to domestic use, at a faster rhythm of deforestation than in the Amazon basin.

Although Chiapas occupies the first place in the nation in coffee production, the second in cattle raising, and the third in corn, its population ranks close to the top in malnutrition, hunger, and disease. Illiteracy in Chiapas is three times the national average for people over 15 years of age, of whom only 1.12 percent finish high school. Thus, in the midst of immense wealth, most of the population is the victim of artificial poverty, social marginality, and political oppression.

For the Mexican upper class, especially those who promote NAFTA and take pride in calling themselves part of the “First World,” this image is embarrassing, if not contrary to reality, which they consider firmly established in the urban, industrial, and modern world. But for 80 percent of the Mexican population, the heavy-laden women and children of the Mexican countryside reveal the most characteristic feature of reality, not only the Indian’s, but also their own. The Mexican poor, the unemployed, the working poor, the small bureaucrat, see themselves like the Indian carrying the heavy loads of “progress,” thus paving the tribute that continues to be exacted from the Mexican economy by the conquistadors of today. “Take a mirror and see yourselves,” writes Subcommander Marcos, the visible head of the rebellion.

The conditions of injustice and indignity that prevail in Chiapas help explain the people’s uprising that began on January 1, 1994. Despite its limited military strength, the uprising precipitated a “crisis” that had been brewing for a long time and which could no longer be ignored. There are three aspects to the conflict.

The first involves consciousness-raising among the Indians. Economic and sociological factors have contributed to this, as significant numbers have been forced to become seasonal workers in neighboring coffee and sugar plantations, thus enlarging their understanding of the economic connections behind their suffering and enabling them to establish links with plantation laborers and urban poor, both mestizo and ladino, and with their leaders. But even more important has been the role of religion. The campaign of Archbishop Méndez Arceo of Cuernavaca in the early 1960’s to make the Bible accessible to the common people, the influence of the Second Vatican Council and of liberation theology with its “option for the poor,” to the present identification of the dioceses of Chiapas and of its bishop Samuel Ruiz with the defense of human rights—all have affected how the indigenous people view their socioeconomic condition. Bishop Ruiz is recognized nationally and internationally as a champion of human rights, and through his leadership as Director of the Center of Human Rights, “Fray Bartotomé de las Casas,” and as president of the National Negotiating Commission, the bishop has become a strong force.

Secondly, the number of Indian and peasant organizations has increased considerably since the 1970’s. The first Indian Congress, convened in 1974 by Bishop Ruiz, became the seedbed of several organizations, having as a common denominator the Indian social base and the condition of the poor. Today there are 280 organizations affiliated to CEDIC, the state-level Council of Indians and Peasants. Despite their great diversity of perspectives and goals, the central issues of justice and dignity give unity to them all, emphasizing agrarian policy, land, respect for individual and communal human rights, politics free of corruption, just prices for their products, and public services such as running water, electricity, schools, health care, sanitation, roads, etc. This upsurge of organizations “from below” parallels, and to a certain extent reflects, the increased repression from the top, as rich ranchers, landowners, plantation owners (sugar and coffee) have organized private armies known as guardias blancas, which, although clandestine and illegal, operate freely throughout Chiapas.

Thirdly, there is the clash of rising expectations and increasing demands, especially among the Indians, which the politically powerful totally ignore. The Indian communities saw NAFTA and the entire “neoliberal” project imposed by the Salinas administration as a mere scheme by the political elite to garner international capital, which in turn produced the Chiapas conflict.

For the natives of Chiapas, as for most of the world’s poor, the globalization of the economy is a disaster that has already happened. With the ability of transnational corporations to relocate their plants around the world, the global economy forces all workers, communities, and nations to become competitors for the corporation’s favors; and as governments wish to attract investments, they also seek to pulverize ethnic communities that persist in their traditional economies, thus making the poor vulnerable to corporations as sources of cheap labor. This explains why Chiapas’ poor, especially the Indian communities, have regarded the NAFTA agreement as their own death sentence. During 1993, when the agreement was being negotiated, the Salinas administration used the power of the state to break down the institutional protection of the native communities (Article 27 of the constitution) in preparation for Mexico’s entry into NAFTA. Through its total control of the senate, the government approved a constitutional revision that prohibited further expropriation of large landholdings under the agrarian reform laws while allowing for the breakup and sale of ejidos, the peasants’ cooperative farms. Thus, one of the key achievements of the Mexican revolution was sacrificed at the altar of the New Economic Order, thus aggravating the plight of Indian peasants all over Mexico.

After the initial attempt to wipe out the rebels militarily, the federal government came to its senses, agreeing to negotiate a solution, a process that has dragged on for over a year and a half. Meanwhile, the federal army and other security forces carry on a parallel strategy taken from the textbooks of counterinsurgency training at the School of the Americas, of which the three generals in charge of the Chiapas operations are graduates. It is known as “low intensity conflict,” which was successfully applied in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. In this well-structured war plan, the target is the civilian population. It involves the careful management of the “image of the army,” making it appear friendly, giving public concerts, carrying on social service activities, passing out candies to children and food to the communities. Meanwhile, sporadic but systematic violations of human rights occur: the sudden search of a peasant home, another peasant leader tortured, a young woman raped, another local leader “disappeared,” a sudden takeover of a certain village. The fact that these violations are not generalized enables the army to portray them as isolated cases, “excesses” or “abuses” to be investigated later. The timing of the operations is also carefully considered. In the Altos de Chiapas, for example, military penetration took place during the critical weeks when the peasants were preparing their plots for planting beans and coffee, the staples of their diet. In some cases, the meager food reserves were destroyed or sprayed with insecticide. The end result was to leave the entire population dependent for its survival on food distributions by the army. In some cases, even the water tanks were contaminated with petroleum. Thus, the “low intensity conflict” strategy in fact intensifies the human rights crisis which the poor and especially the Indian population of Chiapas has suffered for many years.

Different from most Latin American guerrilla wars of the Cold War period, the Chiapas rebellion, whose social base comprises Indians and small farmers or campesinos, is not aimed at toppling the state, but at achieving respect (“reconocimiento“), and gaining a say in how their lives are governed. It is the search for a sustainable Mexican society “with room for everyone,” where the “little ones” are guaranteed the right to speak “the truthful word” and to be heard and taken into account; for a community of life gathering the traditions of a people yearning for equality, justice, and the ancestral democratic structures of the rural population that are based on dialogue, consensus, continuous consultation, and persistent vigilance of local leaders through communal assemblies, what the Tzeltal Indians call wojk ta wojk (“to throw and gather the word”).

Every struggle for “dignity and justice” is frail and uncertain. Its outcome is linked to, and to a large extent depends on, structural changes in the economic, social, political, and cultural fields, which threaten recalcitrant habits, established forms, and vested interests, and in the case of the present Mexican crisis, the interests behind the NAFTA agreement. The leaders of the Chiapas rebellion are very aware of this, as shown by the fact that the denunciation of NAFTA is a central feature of EZLN’s platform. In the end, EZLN does not see itself as a pressure group, but as the militant conscience of the country as a whole.