In 1982, revolutionaries took to the mountains and jungles of Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state, to secretly form the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN). There they found thousands of displaced farmers (many of whom were of indigenous descent) who had been forced from their lands by government policies and the institutional racism of successive regional governments. Chiapas state policy made it impossible for indigenous people to own land, particularly when faced with intimidation and violence from large landowners. This left a third of the population illiterate and landless with no access to potable water or electricity. In this climate, the EZLN evolved into an organisation primarily focused on improving the lives of this marginalised population.1 After quietly organising for over a decade, the EZLN shook the world on 1 January 1994, when 3,000 armed personnel emerged from the jungle and occupied 4 municipalities in Chiapas to protest the North American Free Trade Agreement, which came into force that day, and issued a declaration that amounted to a declaration of war against the Mexican government.2 Public demonstrations in support of the EZLN message and a peaceful resolution to the crisis occurred spontaneously across Mexico in the ensuing days. After over a week of combat, an initial ceasefire was mediated by a local bishop, halting the fighting for much of the rest of 1994, but talks collapsed in October.3 In February 1995, the government forces launched an offensive, forcing the EZLN back into the jungle.
Faced with widespread public protests and opposition from within the administration, the Government of Mexico withdrew its forces and returned to the negotiating table in March 1995. The Commission of Concordia and Pacification was established to facilitate talks, which proceeded until 16 February 1996 when the San Andres Accords were signed.4 Despite such efforts, violence continued in Chiapas, with a 1997 massacre by government forces representing a particular low point.5 This derailed the peace process (which remains unfinished), but efforts to prevent further violence have been carried out by Si Paz, an NGO based in Chiapas and supported by organisations across the world, which serves as a vital monitoring presence in the area, a facilitator of dialogue, and an ever-present conflict resolution mechanism.6 Up to 1,500 people died in the conflict between 1994 and 1997, but the violence has been effectively contained for decades.7