Resistance Profile: Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN)

Editors note: this material is excerpted from a Deep Green Resistance  database called “Resistance Profiles,” which explores various movements, their strategies and tactics, and their effectiveness. We encourage you to study all social movements to learn from their successes and failures.


To protect indigenous autonomy, their connection with their hereditary land, and combat forces of globalization. In addition, they are working to build participatory models of government, following indigenous traditions as well as uniting anti-capitalist forces behind “Zapatismo”.


They initially used an armed uprising with a heavy military focus to win some autonomous space. They now work mostly aboveground to create institutions parallel to and in replacement of the Mexican government. They network with other indigenous groups to support autonomy, while interacting as little as possible with the “bad government.”


Their tactics have evolved in the last decades. The EZLN began with a full scale attack on key cities in Chiapas, Mexico, resulting in a war with the government. The war ended with a cease-fire after 12 days, leading to a 1996 peace accord with the government meant to protect indigenous autonomy. Though not actively fighting, they still maintain a formalized underground army with bases of support. The army states that it will not attack nor defend lands with weapons, but is training. If lands are taken by government, the people relocate.

The Mexican government failed to uphold the 1996 treaty, but the Zapatistas have used this period to act as if the treaty is valid, building health, educational, and governmental alternatives to those offered by the Mexican state.

They actively build an international presence to gather donations and support, and also tour Mexico and host large indigenous conferences in the hopes of supporting other indigenous groups in their mission for autonomy. They refuse offers of “aid” and other subsidies from the Mexican government.


The territory is split into 6 “caracoles”, autonomous governments that fall under a larger Zapatista banner, with local community members continuously rotating through positions of power. The “civilian” arm of the group is technically in charge of the “Zapatistas” with the EZLN (the actual army) taking a step back, but there is some debate over how much influence the EZLN commands in reality.


Both. The Zapatistas are run by the aboveground arm, with the EZLN in control of the underground army.


Lots of secrecy around army whereabouts and activities; participants are not openly armed. Everyone wears signature “pasamontana” mask. Borders to territories are protected by unarmed guards and visitors need permission to enter.


Mainly from populations of peasant farmers and indigenous communities. They are struggling to keep recruits because of economic disruption and decreasing crop yields likely resulting from climate change. In addition, the government has engaged in a long paramilitary war with US complicity, using the “drug war” as a ploy to militarize the south of Mexico and undermine autonomy.


Very effective. They have been able to protect lands for the last 20 years. Overall, there has been a resurgence in indigenous movements in Mexico and Central America, largely related to the continuing presence of the Zapatistas.

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Featured image by seven resist, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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