On January 1, 1994, the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect, several thousand lightly armed rebels calling themselves Zapatistas (after early twentieth-century revolutionary Emiliano Zapata) occupied San Cristóbal de las Casas, the former state capital and Chiapas’ major tourist destination. The Zapatistas declared themselves staunchly anti-globalization, as well as opposed to local efforts by paramilitary groups to force indigenous people off the land. When the Mexican army recovered from its shock, it launched a violent counterattack, but international solidarity with the rebels soon forced the Mexican government to call a halt.
A ceasefire was agreed in 1995, and negotiations have continued over the years, as yet to conclude in a peace treaty. But eventually the issue of indigenous rights spread beyond the state’s borders, with large-scale disturbances in Oaxaca in 2006 making Chiapas seem relatively peaceful.
Twenty years on, the word “Chiapas” is still synonymous with violent revolution, but while the Zapatistas remain nominally “at war” with the Mexican government, the struggle is now largely ideological. The organization still runs its own municipalities, “caracoles”, on land seized from large landowners, and is largely left alone by the government. Tourists have always visited Chiapas with no problems other than delays due to army (and occasional Zapatista) checkpoints. The government is hostile to foreign Zapatista sympathizers, however, as their presence is considered an illegal influence on Mexican politics – so showing obvious Zapatista support in Chiapas can potentially lead to deportation.