Independent documentary about Zapatista movement and autonomy of Mexican indigenous people.

In Mexico’s southern-most state of Chiapas, indigenous Mayan small farmers rose up in 1994 and established an autonomous zone encompassing. In 2018, the Zapatista communities were estimated to have about 300,000 residents.[1] Without accepting any funds from the Mexican government since 1996[2], the Zapatistas have built their own schools, hospitals, health clinics, banks, community centers, and more. They govern their own affairs with a direct democratic governance system, centered in each zone’s administrative center called a carcacol, meaning “snail.” Their struggle has profoundly influenced social movements around the world.

In 2017, even the bourgeois New York Times commented on the movement’s successes at creating a functioning alternative society: “In the following years, the Zapatista-controlled territories exercised de facto autonomy, delivering broad access to education and health services. Organized crime has been unable to penetrate the area.”[3]

On 7 August 2019, the Zapatistas announced they were expanding their territory with seven new caracoles and four new Autonomous Municipalities. This brought the total number of caracoles to twelve and the total number of Autonomous Municipalities to thirty-one.[4]


The Zapatistas have sought to carry out “cultural resistance” to combat consumerist and oppressive elements of mainstream society while both preserving and revolutionizing the traditions of the Tojolabal, Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Chol, Zoque and Castilian peoples in the Zapatista territories. This has involved the preservation of local music, holidays and languages.[5] An important measure has been a ban on alcohol, a measure demanded by many Zapatista women to combat domestic violence and implemented throughout the territories around the start of the 1994 uprising.[6]

As a result of the Zapatistas’s 1994 Revolutionary Law of Women, women have a right to work at any job they choose, to reproductive freedom, and formal gender equality.[7] Comandante Ramona, who drafted the Revolutionary Law of Women, travelled to communities and recruited women to the Zapatista struggle by promising to struggle against patriarchal oppression. Ramona recounts, “The women finally understood that their participation is important if this bad situation is to change. There is no other way of seeking justice, and this is the interest of the women.”[8]

“Before, the women lived below the control of their fathers, and since we respected our fathers, they said if their daughters could work a job or not,” reports the Zapatista woman Eloísa. She notes, “Afterwards, when we arrived as our organization [in 1994] we began to see the distinct areas of work that we have as an organization of the [Zapatista National Liberation Army, or EZLN,] and we began to carry out different jobs as women.”[9] Women make up about a quarter of the EZLN.[10] The Good Government Board in the Zapatistas’ region of La Realidad has seen an increase in women membership. The first term had only one woman out of the 24 members. The second term had 5 women, and the third term had 12 women, or 50 percent.[11]

Sexist tendencies still persist in Zapatista communities, as the anthropologist Neils Barmeyer has observed: “In any indigenous village of Chiapas, women can be seen working from well before dawn until after sunset. This often involves heavy labor such as carrying large bundles of wood, scrubbing laundry, separating corn from the cob, or milling pozól. In contrast, the men usually take the afternoon off after returning from the [corn fields]. After their siesta they can be seen standing around in groups, talking and smoking along the road.[12] However, reports indicate that the situation has been dramatically improving. In ROAR Magazine, Leonidas Oikonomakis writes:

A Basque friend I met in Chiapas a couple of years ago told me that what had impressed him the most during his last visit to the Zapatista communities was the position of women. The Basque comrade had come to Chiapas for the first time in 1996, two years after the uprising, and he could still vividly remember that women used to walk 100 meters behind their husbands, and whenever the husband would stop, they would stop as well to maintain their distance. Women would be exchanged for a cow or a corn field when they were married off—not always to the man of their choice. The situation has been very neatly depicted in the Zapatista movie Corazon del Tiempo.

Almost 20 years later, my Basque friend returned to Chiapas for the first grade of the Escuelita Zapatista. This time he would freely dance with the promotoras after the events, while some of the highest-ranking EZLN commanders—or to be more precise for the lovers of statistics: 50 percent of the Commanders of the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee—are actually women.

In addition, women are now forming their own cooperatives contributing to family and community income; they are becoming the promoters of education (teachers, that is), nurses and doctors; and they serve as members of the Good Government Councils, or Juntas de Buen Gobierno, and as guerrilleras.[13]

The Zapatistas have declared an opposition to heterosexism and all other forms of oppression. Their Sixth Declaration from the Lancondon Jungle expresses solidarity with “women, young people, the indigenous, homosexuals, lesbians, transsexual persons, migrants and many other groups who exist all over the world but who we do not see until they shout [enough already] of being despised”.[14]


The Zapatistas’ autonomous government has three levels: the community, the autonomous municipality, and the region. Over a thousand communities confederate into 29 autonomous municipalities, which confederate into five regions.[15] The Zapatistas also have a structure called the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee, described below in “Revolution” section, which governs the EZLN.


At the community level, people gather at general assemblies to make decisions, elect community administrators, and elect delegates to higher levels of government. Elections are made with a simple majority vote, and anyone over 12 can vote. However, votes are rare, since assemblies strive for consensus.[16] Each community has 3 main administrative structures: (1) the commissariat, in charge of day-to day administration; (2) the council for land control, which deals with forestry and disputes with neighboring communities; and (3) the agencia, an elected, volunteer patrol. These three committees, along with others, form each community’s Council of Authorities.

Barmeyer observed that each community elects three main officials: (1) the comisariado, a delegate to the commissariat; (2) the consejo, a delegate to the council for land control; and (3) the agente, a delegate to the police. A fourth official, the responsible de la organizaction, is a representative of the Zapatista National Liberation Army. Barmeyer reports, “At the time of my research, el responsable was not democratically elected but but the guerilla movement’s command rather presented a community member it deemed suitable, who was then endorsed by the assembly…this practice may or may not have changed with the introduction of” the Good Government Boards in 2003.

In the community of San Emilano, Barmeyer observed the weekly, communal assembly break into ten asembleas chicas. Each group was made of people of the same age. Each asemblea chica would make a decision and nominate a spokesperson called a portavoz to meet in a council of spokes. The council–anarchists would call it a spoke-council–tried to reach consensus. Barmeyer notes: “That this practice is not necessarily democratic is exemplified by the case in San Emiliano, where six men’s groups faced only four larger ones made of women. In case of disagreement along the gender divide, the men clearly had a structural upper hand in the decision-making process.”[17]Decisions at community assemblies include topics such as whether to by a tractor or a truck,[18] whether to establish a vegetable farm, and how to respond to a land conflict with a nearby army camp.[19]

Autonomous Municipalities

The communities confederate into 29 autonomous municipalities. Staffed by biannually elected, instantly recallable and unpaid delegates from the base communities, the municiaplity-level government has a structure very similar to the community-level government. There is (1) the comisariado, similar to the community’s commissariat; (2) the consejo de vigilancia, similar to the community’s consejo; and (3) the agencia municipal, similar to the community’s agencia. As the community has a representative of the military, the municipality has one called the regional.

Barmeyer ovserved several municipal assemblies in 20 de Febrero in 2001. There were 30 to 40 delegatres from 20 communities, representing about 300 families. Each community was represented by its consejo and its responsible. Decisions included whether to contribute to a new production project, and whether to send new guards to a grocery store that had been raided.[20]


In 2003, the Zapatistas established their regional level of government, called the Good Government Boards. The name played off the term “bad government,” the communities’ slang term for the Mexican state government. The members of Good Government Boards serve only 15 days of each month and for only three years. At first the Good Government Board members received a salary, but the Zapatistas quickly abolished monetary compensation to these delegates. Instead, Good Government Board members receive food or some other non-monetary assistance from their communities, such as help with their farmland while they are serving in government. “[W]e realized that the conscience and the desire to serve our community is what is greatest,” explains the Zapatista Lorena.[21] The Good Government Boards help redistribute resources and coordinate regulations between different municipalities. The delegates at the municipal and regional levels in the region of La Realidad work together to coordinate three communal stores and use the profits to fund region-wide mobilizations.


The Zapatistas have built a largely self-reliant economy that, without fully separating itself from the global capitalist system, has provided space for local self-management and community control. Aspects of their economy may be described as somewhere between mutualism and collectivism, with a coordinated network of participatory communities, communal stores, worker collectives and family farmers. Their autonomous government provides low-interest loans, free education and low-cost health care. Without any assistance from the Mexican government, the Zapatistas have built two hospitals, 18 health clinics, and 800 community health houses since 1994. They run 300 schools, with 1,000 teachers, and a center for secondary education. [22]

Hilary Klein describes the Zapatistas’ ‘solidarity economy’ as an alternative to capitalist economics:

In addition to health care and education, the Zapatistas have also constructed an economic infrastructure designed to address the high level of poverty in their communities. Often called a ‘solidarity economy’, the Zapatistas’ autonomous economy offers a grassroots alternative to global capitalism […] Economic cooperatives generate resources that are invested back into the community. Because of the gendered division of labor, there are often men’s and women’s cooperatives. Men, for exxample, have coffee or cattle cooperatives, whereas women have artisan cooperatives, chicken-raising cooperatives, and collective vegetable gardens. Cooperative stores provide merchandise for community members at reasonable prices while also generating income. Money raised by the cooperatives is used to cover shared expenses, for example when the community’s representatives travel to a regional meeting.[23]

Zapatistas farm on communally-owned areas of land called “ejidos”. The community collectively decides how to use the ejido, usually dividing it up so there is a plot for each family. Gustavo Esteva, a former adviser to the Zapatistas, explains, “One thing it’s important to mention is there doesn’t exist private property in the Zapatista communities. In each one of the communities, all of the land is property of the community.” There is no hunger among the Zapatistas, since the communities grow enough food for everyone, and surplus to sell to outsiders. The Zapatistas sell $44 million worth of goods to the world market every year, Esteva reported in October of 2013.[24]

Zapatistas in La Realidad make a living by growing corn, beans, coffee, bananas, sugar, and raising cattle, chicken and pigs, and working at clothing, food, convenience stores, schools and in health care. There are also less common jobs such as veterinarians or blacksmiths. Many work as part of a family unit, while others work in cooperatives coordinated by the communities and by the municipalities.[25] The Good Government Boards coordinate cattle collectives, radio stations, low-interest loans to help people’s health costs, and a fund called BANAMAZ for women’s worker collectives.[26]

Noting the Zapatista communites’ impoverished conditions, Trotskyist Louis Proyect unfavorably compares them to the Cuban revolutionaries, and he asserts the Zapatistas would be better off if they had taken state power and extracted their territory’s natural resources to fund social programs.[27]

The anarchist Andrew Flood argues that the Zapatistas’ economy cannot be called anti-capitalist, since it has not abolished capitalist activity in its territories:

The revolutionary laws produced by the EZLN on January 1st 1994 [30] cannot be called anti-capitalist. They restrict but still very much allow for wage labour, rent and even multi national investment. For example the law states, “Foreign companies will pay their workers an hourly salary in national money equivalent to what would be payed in dollars outside the country.” [29] while a big step forward for many Mexican workers hardly amounts to the abolition of capitalism.[28]

Andrej Grubacic and Denis O’Hearn classify that the Zapatistas’ economy as a significant but incomplete exit from world capitalism:

We describe the economic activities of the Zapatistas as contradictory substantive practices. They are not in direct antagonism to the capitalist law of value, but they are undoubtably transformative. They are capital and state resistant, as they prevent complete incorporation into world-capitalist institutions and processes. They are anti-capital in certain respects or at certain times, but sometimes supportive of capitalism, even simultaneously.[29]


The Zapatistas run 300 schools, with 1,000 teachers, and a center for secondary education. [30] On average, the Zapatistas have more schools than the surrounding indigenous communities governed by the right-wing PRI.[31] In the Zapatista schools, children and their elders together decide on a curriculum, and there are no grades. The schools operate based on the principle, “Nobody educates any- body else, nobody is educated alone”.[32]

Subjects taught in the schools include “autonomy, history, agroecology and veterinary medicine.” Classes are taught in Spanish and in Indigenous languages.[33]

Health Care

“The rebel Zapatista communities, although not all, are the only ones that have free health services” in Chiapas’s indigenous communities.[34]Residents of the Zapatistas’ region of La Realidad maintain that their hospital is better than the surrounding non-Zapatista hospitals. Unlike the La Realidad hospital, surrounding non-Zapatista hospitals lack an ultra-sound machine and have doctors with racist attitudes toward indigenous people. Roel, a former member of La Realidad’s Good Government Board, notes, “The result is that people go to the [Mexican] government’s hospital and need to have an ultrasound study, for example, or a laboratory analysis, and the doctors send them to our hospital.”[35]

Anya Rebrii writes:

Most communities have a local volunteer—a health promoter—who receives training in both traditional and modern medicine in Zapatista-organized regional health centers. These volunteers provide basic services in a local casa de salud (house of health). More advanced treatment is available in clinics located in crossroads and some of the municipal centers. The clinic in Oventic, for example, is one of the most sophisticated: it provides regular basic surgery, dental, gynaecological and eye clinics; hosts a laboratory, an herbal workshop, a dozen beds for admissions, and is equipped with ambulances. Health coordinating committees, just like the education ones, exist on each administrative level, which ensures participation of communities in administering the autonomous health system.[36]

A 2007 study commissioned by the Health Systems Knowledge Network (at the time, a part of the World Health Organization’s Commission on the Social Determinants of Health) praises the Zapatistas’ health care system. It notes improvements like a decline in maternal mortality at two Zapatista clinics and concludes, “This is a model which has proved able to have an impact on what one can call the primary level of health care.”[37]


The Zapatistas have struggled against the extraction of oil, uranium and timber on their lands. The Zapatista’s autonomous government has banned pesticides and chemical fertilizers.[38] In Enemy of Nature, the eco-Marxist scholar Joel Kovel calls the Zapatista rebellion “the first model of revolutionary ecosocialism on a bioregional scale.”[39]

Many Zapatista communities sit on top of or near oil deposits, and the Zapatistas have resisted the oil industry’s extraction. On February 16, 1996, the Zapatistas and the Mexican government signed the San Andrés Accords, which allow the Zapatistas to veto extraction projects, but the Mexican government has often violated the treaty.[40] From 1999 to 2000, the Zapatistas conducted a sixteen-month blockade that successfully prevented the construction of a highway through Armador Hernandez’s Montes Azules bioreserve. The highway would have been used for the extraction of timber, uranium and oil.[41]

In 2007, the Zapatistas declared part of Huitepec a “Zapatista community protected natural area and ecological reserve.”[42]

Javier Sethness Castro, while defending the Zapatista rebellion and its “ecological self-management,” points out certain problems from an ecological and animal liberationist perspective:

A similar critical line of thinking could also bring to light the extensive deforestation which Zapatista communities have produced through their “autonomous” desire to raise cattle en masse in jungle environments, or it could criticize the Zapatistas’s drinking and selling of Coca-Cola and their generally non-vegetarian lifestyles—or at least the ambivalence Marcos expresses as regards the prospect of even discussing this latter point, for he declares vegetarian tactics of moral suasion to be an imposition to be disobeyed. As Mickey Z. Vegan could be expected to point out, the collective Zapatista butcher-shop from the Roberto Barrios region mentioned in volume III may not be the most liberating project to engage in, for either BAEZLN workers or the beasts themselves.[43]


Each community has an elected, volunteer patrol that’s sometimes referred to as a community police agency:

“While Zapatistas still have police, it is quite distinct from how we are used to think of it. As Paulina Fernandez Christlieb documents, they are neither armed, uniformed, nor professional. Similar to other authorities, police are elected by their community; they are not remunerated and do not serve in this function permanently. Every community has its own police, while higher administrative levels—those of municipality and region—do not. Decentralized and deprofessionalized, police thus serve and are under control of the community that elects them.”[44]

Each community also has its own judicial council and, according to Grubacic and O’Hearn, “has the freedom to decide on the specifics of the punishment according to local context.”[45] Zapatistas say they almost never imprison criminals. Instead, they generally assign community service as a punishment. Neils Barmeyer has observed a prominent use of fines as punishment in Zapatista communities.[46]

There is an emphasis “on transformative rather than punitive justice. The parties involved can negotiate on compensation, and when the perpetrator has to take a loan from relatives to pay the fine, the participation of the family helps prevent further transgressions.”[47]

Jails have not been abolished. However, “jail sentences normally do not exceed several days” and “jail is usually just a locked room with a partially open door so that people can stop by to chat and pass food.”[48]

Gustavo Esteva argues that the Zapatista territories are “the safest place in Mexico and perhaps one of the safest in the world.”[49] In the Zapatista communities, land is communally owned and no one goes hungry, so one could argue that there is little to be gained from theft. With a significant degree of control over their work, education, culture and communities, the Zapatistas experience a comparably low level of alienation. “There are only two men in jail in the whole of the Zapatista area today,” Esteva said in a 2013 talk. “And these two guys are in jail because they committed the worst possible crime. They were cultivating marijuana. The problem in that case is not just the use of marijuana. The problem is they can give the government a pretext to attack the Zapatistas and to attack the communities.”.[50]


Gloria Muñoz Ramírez maintains that since their public uprising in 1994, the Zapatistas have combined popular organization with two alternating strategies: fire and the word. Fire refers to “military actions, preparations, battles, military movements.” The word refers to “meetings, dialogues, communiqués”. According to Ramírez, the Zapatistas primarily used fire from 1994-5, the word from 1996-7, fire in 1998 and the word in 1999.[51] The Zapatistas’ refusal to take state power and their commitment to a radically decentralized “world where many worlds fit” signify a commitment to an anti-authoritarian strategy.

The results of the movement have been measurable from improved living conditions at the local level to influencing politics at the national and global level. As described above, the Zapatistas have constructed an entire autonomous zone with significant libertarian leanings. At the national level, the Zapatistas are widely credited as the cause of the right-wing PRI’s electoral loss in 2000, putting an end to the party’s consecutive seventy-one years of ruling Mexico.[52]

The Zapatistas were instrumental in sparking and helping coordinate the alter-globalization movement. At a 1998 conference the Zapatistas organized in Barcelona, participants met and later went on to form People’s Global Action, the network that called for the mobilization which shut down the 1999 World Trade Organization summit in Seattle. The anthropologist and activist David Graeber argues in “The Shock of Victory” that the alter-globalization movement helped bring about the collapse of the Washington Consensus and defeated the ruling class’s proposed Free Trade of the Americas Agreement.[53]

Economists and some leftists contend that the Zapatista uprising helped put the world economy into crisis in 1994-1995. Wikipedia explains that “a violent uprising in the state of Chiapas, as well as the assassination of the presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, resulted in political instability, causing investors to place an increased risk premium on Mexican assets.”[54] Aldo Musacchio’s Harvard Business School working paper also lists the Zapatista rebellion as a primary cause. In January of 1995, the United States government, IMF, Bank for International Settlements and other banks spent a combined $50 billion to bail out Mexico.[55] Libertarian marxist John Holloway concludes, “the impact of the Zapatista uprising on capital (through the devaluation of the Mexican peso and the world financial upheaval of 1994-95, for example) makes it clear that the capacity to disrupt capital accumulation does not depend necessarily on one’s immediate location in the process of production.”[56]

A 13 January 1995 Chase Bank memo displayed both the ruling class’s panic toward the Zapatistas and a willingness to violently “eliminate” the movement: “While Chiapas, in our opinion, does not pose a fundamental threat to Mexican political stability, it is perceived to be so by many in the investment community. The government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and of security policy.”[57]

1994 Uprising

On January 1, 1994, thousands of armed Zapatistas occupied seven cities in Chiapas, freed prisoners, burnerd down police headquarters, and took over City Halls. Their army, commonly referred to by its Spanish initials EZLN, issued a declaration of war against the Mexican state, demanding “work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace.”[58] In the uprising’s first months, Zapatistas seized 1.2 to 1.7 million acres from large landowners.[59]

Although the Zapatistas declared themselves “the product of 500 years of struggle”—a reference to indigenous people’s resistance since 1492—they responded most immediately to the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. Taking effect that same day—January 1st, 1994—NAFTA promised to devastate the peasant farmers’ livelihoods by flooding Mexico with subsidized US corn. Worse, the negotiations leading to NAFTA compelled Mexico to revoke Article 27 of its Constitution, which guaranteed peasants a right to land for communally-owned farms called ejidos. “Enough is enough,” they exclaimed in their declaration of war.[60]

On January 6, the Zapatistas proposed a cease-fire. On January 12, hours before 100,000 demonstrators filled Mexico City’s central plaza demanding an end to government hostilities, Mexico signed a peace treaty with the Zapatistas.[61] Since January 1994, the Zapatistas’ struggle has been almost entirely nonviolent. They retain a military and have occasionally used it in self-defense, for example in San Juan in 1998.[62]


In 1996, the Zapatistas held a Continental Encuentro and then the First Intercontinental Encuentro for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism, where almost 5,000 people from 42 countries met to coordinate and advance the global struggle against neoliberalism. “Encuentro” means encounter in Spanish. [63]

Armador Hernandez

In the 1990s, the Mexican government wanted to build a highway in Armador Hernandez through the Montes Azules bioreserve, which would be used for the extraction of timber, uranium and oil. In August of 1999, the Mexican army entered Armador Hernandez to enable the highway’s construction. For sixteen months, the Zapatistas kept up a twenty-four-hour blockade, preventing construction. When Mexican soldiers tried drowning out the protests with loud noise, the Zapatistas “bombed” the military base with hundreds of paper airplanes. On December 22, 2000, the government ordered military withdrawal, and the highway was defeated.[64]

Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee and the Zapatista National Liberation Army

The Zapatista National Liberation Army, (EZLN), receives orders from the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee (CCRI). Each Zapatista community elects a comite, a civilian delegate to the CCRI. The local CCRI delegates send representatives to the CCRI-General Command, which has 70 to 80 members and is based near La Realidad.[65] The CCRI does not have the power to make major decisions over war and peace. These decisions are made by a “consulta”, a community-by-community discussion referendum process that can take several months. Consultas have been used to make decisions like proceeding with the 1994 uprising and accepting the 1996 San Andrés Accords.[66]

The EZLN itself is organized hierarchically, as Andrew Flood points out:

The Zapatista military structure is not however internally democratic. Rather it is organised as a conventional army with officers apparently appointed from the top down. Some would argue that in a war situation a democratic structure is not possible. I would point to the Makhnovista of the Russian civil war and the anarchist militia of the Spanish Civil War as historical demonstrations that military systems where the rank and file select delegates to act as officers are feasible.[67]

Neighboring Societies

In violation of the 1996 San Andrés Accords, the Mexican government and right-wing paramilitary groups have conducted a low-intensity terror campaign against the Zapatistas and their supporters. In 1997, a paramilitary group murdered 47 Zapatista supporters, mostly women and children, in Acteal, with the tacit support of at least local levels of government.[68] In 2014, paramilitary members attacked La Realidad and killed Zapatista community member Compañero Galeano.[69]

Receiving no assistance from the Mexican government, the Zapaitstas have heavily relied upon international solidarity. Peter Gelderloos writes, “Thousands of volunteers and people with technical experience came from around the world to help Zapatista communities build up their infrastructure, and thousands of others continue to support the Zapatistas by sending donations of money and equipment or buying fair-trade goods produced in the autonomous territory. This assistance is given in a spirit of solidarity; most importantly, it is on the Zapatista’s own terms. This contrasts starkly with the model of Christian charity, in which the goals of the privileged giver are imposed on the impoverished receiver, who is expected to be grateful.”[70]

Source: Anarchy in Action