The group takes its name from Emiliano Zapata, the anarchist commander of the Liberation Army of the South during the Mexican Revolution, and thus see themselves as his ideological heirs. In reference to inspirational figures, in nearly all EZLN villages exist murals accompanying images of revolutionaries Emiliano Zapata, Che Guevara, and Subcomandante Marcos. Some consider the Zapatista movement the first "post-modern" revolution: an armed revolutionary group that has abstained from using their weapons since their 1994 uprising was countered by the overpowering military might of the Mexican Army. The Zapatistas quickly adopted a new strategy by trying to garner the support of Mexican and international civil society. They try to achieve this by making use of the Internet to disseminate their communiqués and to enlist the support of NGOs and solidarity groups. Awareness of the Zapatista Movement has also been raised due to support by the band Rage Against the Machine. The Zapatista feature prominently in the band's songs, in particular People of the Sun. Outwardly, they portray themselves as part of the wider anti-globalization, anti-neoliberalism social movement while for their indigenous base the Zapatista struggle is all about control over their own resources, particularly the land on which they live. Their ideology combines Socialist anarchism, Libertarian Municipalism, Libertarian Marxism, and indigenous Mayan political thought.
The EZLN opposes corporate globalization in the neoliberalist sense, arguing that it severely and negatively affects the peasant way of life of its indigenous support base and oppressed people worldwide.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is an example of neoliberal policy that the EZLN opposes. Apart from opening the Mexican market to cheap mass-produced US agricultural products, it spells an end to Mexican crop subsidies and drastically reduces income and living standards of many southern Mexican farmers who cannot compete with the subsidized, artificially fertilized, mechanically harvested and genetically modified imports from the United States. The signing of NAFTA also resulted in the removal of Article 27 Section VII in the Mexican Constitution which previously had guaranteed land reparations to indigenous groups throughout Mexico.
Another key element of the Zapatista ideology is their aspiration to do politics in a new, truly participatory way, from the "bottom-up" instead of "top-down." The Zapatistas view the contemporary political system of Mexico as one that is inherently flawed due to what they claim is its purely representative nature and obvious disconnection from the people and their needs. The EZLN claims, in contrast, to reinforce the idea of participatory democracy or radical democracy by limiting public servants' terms to only two weeks a term, not using visible organization leaders, and constantly referring to the people they are governing for major decisions, strategies and conceptual visions. As Marcos reiterates time and time again, "my real commander is the people." In accordance with this principle, the Zapatistas are not a political party: they do not seek office throughout the state and wish to reconceptualize the entire Mexican political system rather than perpetuating it by attempting to gain power within its ranks.
In an unusual move for any revolutionary organization, documents released by the EZLN (in Spanish) before the initial uprising in 1994 explicitly defined a right of the people to resist any unjust actions of the EZLN. They also defined a right of the people to
"demand that the revolutionary armed forces not intervene in matters of civil order or the disposition of capital relating to agriculture, commerce, finances, and industry, as these are the exclusive domain of the civil authorities, elected freely and democratically."
Furthermore, it added that the people should "acquire and possess arms to defend their persons, families and property, according to the laws of disposition of capital of farms, commerce, finance and industry, against the armed attacks committed by the revolutionary forces or those of the government."
The Zapatistas went public on January 1, 1994, the day that the NAFTA agreement went into effect. The initial goal of the EZLN was to instigate a revolution in all of Mexico but as this did not happen, they used their uprising as a platform to call the world's attention to their movement to protest the signing of NAFTA, which the EZLN believed would only intensify the gap between the rich and the poor in Chiapas. The EZLN does not demand independence from Mexico, but rather autonomy, asking (among other things) that the natural resources that are extracted from Chiapas benefit more directly the people of Chiapas. They aim to implement a form of socialist government that respects freedom and equality by abolishing private property, respecting individual rights, and eliminating any government coercion.
Short armed clashes in Chiapas ended on January 12 1994, with a ceasefire brokered by the Catholic diocese in San Cristóbal de las Casas under Bishop Samuel Ruiz, a well known liberation theologist. Some of the land taken over by the Zapatistas in 1994 was retained, but the territory they militarily held for a little more than a year was overrun by the Mexican army in a surprise raid in February 1995. While army camps were set up along all major thoroughfares, the Mexican army failed to capture the guerilla movement's commanders. After that, the Mexican government instead pursued a policy of negotiation, while the Zapatistas developed a mobilization and media campaign through numerous newspaper comunicados and over time a set of Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle with no further military actions on their part. A strong international internet presence has prompted the adherence to the movement of numerous left-wing international groups. Other groups within Chiapas, such as the pacifist Las Abejas, support many of the goals of the Zapatista Revolution without condoning the use of violence to achieve those goals.
The Intercontinental Encounter for Humanity and against Neoliberalism held in Chiapas in 1996 resulted in various pro-Zapatista support groups emerging outside of Mexico, particularly in the US, Argentina, Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France and Britain.
Government talks with the EZLN culminated in the signing of the San Andrés Accords (1996) that granted autonomy and special rights to the indigenous population. With the new government of President Fox in 2001, the Zapatistas marched on Mexico City to present their case to the Mexican Congress. Watered-down agreements were rejected by the rebels who proceeded to create 32 "autonomous municipalities" in Chiapas, thus partially implementing the agreements without government support but with some funding from international organizations.
The first such declaration, issued in 1993, had amounted to a declaration of war on the Mexican government, which they considered so out of touch with the will of the people as to make it completely illegitimate. Subsequent declarations have focused on non-violent solutions, both through political channels and through the assumption of many of the functions of government in the Chiapas state of southeastern Mexico.
This latest declaration reiterates the support of the Zapatistas for the indigenous peoples who compose roughly one third of the population of the state of Chiapas, and extends the cause to include "all the exploited and dispossessed of Mexico." It also expresses the movement's sympathy to the international alter-globalization movement, and offers to provide material aid to those in Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador and elsewhere, with whom they make common cause. The declaration ends with an exhortation for all who have more respect for humanity than for money to join with the Zapatistas in the struggle for social justice both in Mexico and abroad. In this new Declaration, the EZLN called for an alternative national campaign (the "Other Campaign") in opposition to the current presidential campaign. In preparation for this alternative campaign, the Zapatistas invited to their territory over 600 national leftist organizations, indigenous groups and non-governmental organizations in order to listen to their claims for human rights in a series of biweekly meetings that culminated in a plenary meeting in September 16, the day Mexico celebrates its independence from Spain. In this meeting, Subcomandante Marcos requested official adherence of the organizations to the Sixth Declaration, and detailed a six-month tour of the Zapatistas through all 31 Mexican states that took place concurrently with the electoral campaign starting January 2006.
"Everything for everyone, and nothing for ourselves." ("Para todos todo, para nosotros nada.") is a Zapatista slogan.
Prior to 2001, Marcos' writings were frequently published in some Mexican and a few international newspapers. Marcos then fell silent until 2002, and his relationship with the media declined. When he resumed writing in 2002, he assumed a more aggressive tone, and his attacks on former allies angered some of the EZLN's supporters. Except for these letters and occasional critical "communicados" concerning the political climate, the EZLN was largely silent until August 2004, and COCOPA head Luis H. Álvarez stated in the middle of 2004 that Marcos had not been seen in Chiapas for some time. The EZLN received little press coverage during this time, although it continued to develop the local governments it had created earlier.
In August, Marcos sent eight brief communiques to the Mexican press, published from August 20 to August 28. The set was entitled "Reading a video" (possibly mocking political video scandals that occurred earlier that year). The set began and ended as a kind of written description of an imaginary low-budget Zapatista video, with the rest being Marcos' comments on political events of the year and the EZLN current stance and development.
In 2005, Marcos made headlines again by comparing the then presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador to Carlos Salinas de Gortari (as part of a broad criticism of the three main political parties in Mexico - the PAN, PRI, and PRD), and at the same time contradicting himself (as Andrés Manuel was from the PRD, his former supporter), and publicly declaring the EZLN in "Red Alert". Shortly thereafter, communiques announced that the EZLN had undergone a restructuring that enabled them to withstand the loss of their public leadership (Marcos and the CCRI). A consultation with the Zapatistas' support base led to the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle.
Since the first uprising, the newspaper La Jornada has continuously covered the Zapatistas. Most communicados and many of Marcos' letters are delivered to and only published by La Jornada, and the online edition of the newspaper has a section dedicated to the Other Campaign.
The independent media organization, Indymedia also covers and prints Zapatista developments and communications.
On January 1, 2006 the EZLN began a massive tour - "The Other Campaign" - encompassing all 31 Mexican states in the build up to the year's presidential election, which the EZLN made clear they would not participate in directly.
On May 3-4, 2006, a series of demonstrations protesting the forcible removal of irregular flower vendors from a lot in Texcoco for the construction of a Walmart, turned violent when Mexico State Police and the Federal Preventive Police bussed in some 5,000 agents to San Salvador Atenco and the surrounding communities. A local organization called the People's Front in Defense of the Land (FPDT for its initials in Spanish), which is an adherent to the Sixth Declaration, called in support from other regional and national adherent organizations. "Delegate Zero" and his so-called "Other Campaign" were at the time in nearby Mexico City having just organized May Day events there and quickly arrived at the scene. The following days were marked by violence, with some 216 arrests, over 30 unconfirmed rape and sexual abuse accusations against the police, five deportations, and one casualty, a fourteen-year old boy named Javier Cortes supposedly shot by a policeman. A twenty-year old UNAM economics student, Alexis Benhumea, died the morning of June 7, 2006, after being in a coma caused by a blow to the head from a police-launched tear-gas grenade. Most of the resistance organizing was done by the EZLN and Sixth Declaration adherents, and Delegate Zero has stated that the "Other Campaign" tour will be temporarily halted until all prisoners are released.
In late 2006 and early 2007 the Zapatistas, through Subcomandante Marcos, along with other Indigenous peoples of the Americas, announced the Intercontinental Indigenous Encounter. They are inviting Indigenous from North and South America, and the world, to the gathering on October 11-14, 2007, near Guaymas, Sonora. In the declaration for the Indigenous Intercontinental Conference, it designated this date because of "515 years since the invasion of ancient Indigenous territories and the onslaught of the war of conquest, spoils and capitalist exploitation". Comandante David said in an interview, "The object of this meeting is to meet one another and to come to know one another’s pains and sufferings. It is to share our experiences, because each tribe is different.
"Third Encuentro of the Zapatistas People with the People of the World “ was held December 28, 2007 - January 1, 2008