The Zapatistas, or EZLN, are an outgrowth of peasant negotiations with the central Mexican government in the late 1970s and '80s. The Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion, or Zapatista Army of National Liberation, came to public attention Jan. 1, 1994, the day NAFTA took effect. They seized the Municipal Palace of San Cristobal and declared war on the government; a cease fire was declared 11 days later. The movement grew out of agitation over the exploitation and marginalization of peasants and the native population of the Canadas region of Chiapas. Various groups had arisen over the years advocating either negotiation or revolution, but have fallen by the wayside except the Zapatistas.
The government responded with repression, perhaps understandably in the light of the 1980s problems in Guatemala, etc. Programs supposedly designed to help the (largely indigenous) peasants did not address any real issues, and withdrawal of aid for coffee and grain farming, restrictive forestry regulations and an end to agrarian reform led to increasing radicalisation.
Rural movements (especially adopting the mantle of Emiliano Zapata) are not new, but EZLN was built by consensus groups among the local Indian population, a new concept. Little understood in the US is the extent of the movement's attempts to secure autonomy for native populations (largely Mayan), including bilingual education and Indian courts. The central government claims the groups might try to secede. EZLN has periodically announced their programs in documents termed the Declarations of the Lacandon Jungle.
Construction of a toll road between San Cristobal and Palenque is seen as a threat by indigenous communities, as are increasing exploitation of gas and oil resources, and industrialisation. Eco-tourism developments are also seen as a threat to their way of life. Although little violence has been offered by the Zapatistas, and almost none since 2003, there has been much intimidation by the government, and the picture painted by the central government is that of a violent revolutionary society. Zapatista communities have better health care in terms of pre-natal care and access to tiolet facilities than non-Zapatista communities, very important in areas of great poverty. Zapatista communities in Chiapas have built schools, clinics, and started coffee-cooperatives. Some Zapatista towns have also experienced harassment by non-Zapatista campesino groups as well as the military and policia, but in general the movement is well-respected in rural areas of Mexico, especially those in which the peasant population is largely indigenous. Tourists are welcomed in Zapatista districts, but any large industry is considered suspect.
The main spokesman for EZLN has been one Sub Commandante Marcos, whose identity is unknown. Those who claim they know have identified him as a variety of different persons, including a government official and a Jesuit priest.
Essentially, the EZLN is a radical but democratic movement based on a fairly intellectual understanding of the history, poverty and non-democratic politics of modern Mexico. They have never been reliably connected to the drug businesses, which are largely run by rich urban organizations.