Chiapas, state (1990 pop. 3,210,496), 28,732 sq mi (74,416 sq km), SE Mexico, on the Pacific Ocean between Guatemala and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Tuxtla Gutiérrez is the capital. Chiapas is crossed by mountain ranges rising from the isthmus and extending southeast into Guatemala. They are separated by low, subtropical valleys. Paralleling the coastal plain is the Sierra Madre de Chiapas, reaching 13,310 ft (4,057 m) at Tacaná volcano. The state's principal river valley is the Grijalva, northeast of which are the central highlands. Farther to the northeast are lower ranges, lakes, and valleys, falling away toward the Usumacinta River and the rain-forested plains of Tabasco. This sparsely inhabited region contains valuable but dwindling forests of dyewoods and hardwoods and is also the site of ruined Mayan cities (notably Palenque). The area is also the retreat of the Lacandones, a gradually disappearing indigenous people often thought to be related to the ancient Maya.

The climate of Chiapas, except for the highlands, is hot. Rainfall is heavy from June to November. Subsistence crops are grown, and coffee (of which Chiapas is a leading national producer), rubber, and cacao are economically important, as is livestock breeding. The state's rich mineral resources, especially silver, gold, and copper, remain mostly unexploited, although petroleum production has become significant. Chiapas also has valuable amber deposits. The state is also a major producer of hydroelectric power from dams on the Grijalva River. In general, economic development has been hindered by remoteness and inadequate communication; however, airlines and the Inter-American Highway link Tuxtla with the highland towns, especially the pre-1892 capital, San Cristóbal de las Casas, and are opening up the interior. Tourism and ethnological research are both increasingly important. Interesting archaeological sites have been discovered near the village of Chiapa de Corzo.

Conquered with difficulty by the Spanish, Chiapa, as it was then called, was attached to the captain generalcy of Guatemala. Never part of colonial Mexico, quasi-independent Chiapas was annexed by the republic following the collapse in 1823 of the empire of Agustín de Iturbide. Its people, however, many of them members of highland Maya tribes, resisted the central government in various uprisings. In early 1994 several towns in Chiapas were briefly occupied during an uprising by peasants, who remain on the socioeconomic and political margins in the state. Armed conflict was brief, but the rebels (the Zapatista National Liberation Army) have continued to press for greater autonomy for all of Mexico's indigenous communities, and there have been sporadic outbreaks of violence.

Chiapas is the southernmost state of Mexico, located towards the southeast of the country. Chiapas is bordered by the states of Tabasco to the north, Veracruz to the northwest, and Oaxaca to the west. To the east Chiapas borders Guatemala, and to the south the Pacific Ocean. Chiapas has an area of . The 2005 census population was 4,293,459 people.

In general Chiapas has a humid, tropical climate. In the north, in the area bordering Tabasco, near Teapa, rainfall can average more than per year. In the past, natural vegetation at this region was lowland, tall perennial rainforest, but this vegetation has been destroyed almost completely to give way to agriculture and ranching. Rainfall decreases moving towards the Pacific Ocean, but it is still abundant enough to allow the farming of bananas and many other tropical crops near Tapachula. On the several parallel "sierras" or mountain ranges running along the center of Chiapas, climate can be quite temperate and foggy, allowing the development of cloud forests like those of the Reserva de la Biosfera el Triunfo, home to a handful of quetzals and horned guans.

The state capital city is Tuxtla Gutiérrez; other cities and towns in Chiapas include San Cristóbal de las Casas, Comitán, and Tapachula. Chiapas is home to the ancient Maya ruins of Palenque, Yaxchilan, Bonampak, Chinkultic, and Tonina.

As of the mid 1990s, most people in Chiapas were poor, rural small farmers. About one quarter of the population were of full or predominant Maya descent, and in rural areas many did not speak Spanish. The state suffers from the highest rate of malnutrition in Mexico, estimated to affect more than 40% of the population. "Without roads, cities or even small towns, eastern Chiapas is a kind of dumping ground for the marginalized, in which all of the hardships peasants confront in the highlands are exacerbated."

The increasing presence of Central American gangs known as Maras, and illegal immigration from Central America in general (mostly immigrants on their way to the United States), stresses an already poor state. These immigrants are subject to human rights violations from Mexican authorities.

In 1994, violence erupted between the Mexican Government and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). There are currently 32 Rebel Autonomous Zapatista Municipalities (MAREZ), affiliated with the EZLN in Chiapas.



Chiapa de Corzo, in the central lowlands of Chiapas, shows evidence of periodic occupations throughout pre-history, and of continual occupation since 1400 BCE. The oldest Maya long count date yet discovered, equivalent to December 36 BCE in the Gregorian calendar, was found on one of several monument shards there.

In approximately 800 CE, Mangue-speaking Chiapaneca peoples from the north conquered the native Zoque and Maya towns. The mounds and plazas at Chiapas de Corvo date to approximately 700 BCE with the temple and palace constructed during the Late Formative, perhaps 400 BCE to 200 CE.

The Maya city of Palenque was founded in the early Preclassic, with the first large structures constructed around 600 CE.

The Conquest through the 19th century

See also: Spanish conquest of Yucatán, Captaincy General of Guatemala, Porfirio Díaz
Chiapas was conquered by Spain in the early 16th century, and became part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, administered as part of the Captaincy General of Guatemala (what is now Central America), from Santiago de Guatemala.

When Central America achieved independence from Mexico in 1823, western Chiapas was annexed to Mexico. More of current day Chiapas was transferred after the disintegration of the Central American Federation in 1842. The remainder of the current state taken from Guatemala in the early 1880s by President Porfirio Díaz.

Chiapas remained one of the parts of Mexico least affected by change, with the descendants of the Spanish continuing to control indigenous peoples through such institutions as debt peonage, despite attempts by the central government to abolish those practices.

In 1868, an armed native rebellion, led by the Tzotzil Maya, and also including Tzeltal, Tojolabal, and Ch’ol, nearly captured San Cristóbal, then the state capital, before it was suppressed by the Mexican army.

Late twentieth century indigenous disaffection

In the late twentieth century, indigenous peasant farmers felt that their poor and largely agricultural region had been too long ignored by the Mexican government. One of the chief complaints was that many indigenous farmers were required to pay absentee landlords, despite repeated government promises of agrarian reform. Article 27 of the 1917 constitution guaranteed indigenous peoples the right to an ejido or communal land. As Mexico restructured its economy after the 1982 financial crisis, land reform (long since completed in most of the country) was de-prioritized. The Mexican government under President Carlos Salinas de Gortari sought to liberalize Mexico’s closed economy. As part of this process, Mexico repealed the constitutional guarantee of communally owned ejidos for rural communities.

As the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect on in 1994, indigenous Chiapanecos felt increasingly left behind.

Zapatista Army of National Liberation

Such disaffection led to the rise of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN, “Zapatista Army of National Liberation”, commonly called the Zapatistas), which began an armed rebellion against the federal government on January 1, 1994 as a response to the implementation of the NAFTA. Zapatista rebels are mostly Tzotzil and some Tzeltal Maya, from the central highlands of the state, and the group’s spokesman, the Sub-Comandante Marcos, gained it international attention.

The group is named after Emiliano Zapata, iconic general in the Mexican Revolution of 1910, who is lionized for having defended the rights of poor farmers. Although the EZLN was in principle a peaceful movement forced to arms by the Mexican government, to guarantee the right to ejidos, there have been a number of violent episodes in its history. The movement began in 1994 with the seizure of four cities (most notably San Cristóbal de las Casas), over 600 ranches, and control over about a quarter of the state.

After pushing the Zapatistas out of San Cristóbal, the Mexican army kept them bottled up in their jungle strongholds, cutting them off economically and politically. The Mexican government installed a solidarity program which while “ostensibly designed to alleviate poverty, […] instead became an instrument for rewarding political loyalty and contributed to the anger and frustration expressed through the Zapatista rebellion.” In 1996 both sides signed a peace accord.

Meanwhile, landowner-funded paramilitaries sporadically repressed indigenous communities. A series of massacres, most notably in 1997 in Acteal, where 47 indigenous refugees, mainly women and children, were killed in a church.

In 2000, the EZLN renewed its resistance, autonomizing a number of jungle villages and sending a delegation to Mexico City. While the delegation did not obtain everything it sought, despite some support from President Vicente Fox, the villages remain under Zapatista control. In August 2003, the EZLN declared all Zapatista territory an autonomous government independent of the Mexican state.

The armed EZLN has mostly eschewed armed conflict, in favor of political efforts to build health clinics and schools in their communities. Anti-Zapatista paramilitary and military activity continues on the part of the Mexican government, however, threatening of re-escalation. Zapatista action continues now with the implementation of the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle and the launching of The Other Campaign.


Chiapas is geographically divided into five zones. These are the rainforest, the highlands, the central valley, the Sierra Madre de Chiapas, and the Soconusco.


The tropical rainforest of Chiapas, which includes the Selva Lacandona, is quickly being deforested. This is due to population pressures forcing highlanders into the rainforest. These include ladino (Spanish-speaking) landowners, indigenous and mestizo campesinos of the Ch'ol, Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Tojolabal and other groups. Migrants from Chiapas are being joined by Guatemalans fleeing the Civil War. These colonists constantly compete with one another for land, with the campesinos seizing or squatting on claimed land while landowners respond with the military or police. The economic activities of both groups contribute to the massive deforestation of the Lacandón. Rain falling on the forest drains into the Usumicinta river, which forms the border between Chiapas and the Petén department of Guatemala. The river flows into the sea in Tabasco, and deforestation may be a cause of the floods which inundated Villahermosa in 2007.


The Central Highlands have been the population center of Chiapas since the Conquest. European epidemics were hindered by the tierra fría climate, allowing the indigenous peoples in the highlands to retain their large numbers. Indigenous peoples provided labor for Spanish conquistadors, who also heavily settled the highlands. Indigenous highlanders were conscripted into labor service on plantations, drafted into debt servitude, which was so widely practiced that Chiapas earned the illustrious title of "Mexico's slave state" in the late 19th century.

Since World War Two, the highlands have benefitted from a boom in the energy and petroleum sectors. However, economic growth in these industries did not reach the subsistence farmers of the highlands. High population and land reform pressured the poor and rich alike to move into the eastern rainforest. The highlands are home to the cities of San Cristóbal de las Casas and Comitán. Close to the rainforest, San Cristóbal was one of the first sites seized by the Zapatista army in their attack on January 1, 1994.

Central Valley

The Sierra Madre de Chiapas is cut through the middle by the Río Grande de Chiapas, known outside of Chiapas as Río Grijalva. The river flows from southwest to northeast. This area contains six of Chiapas' seven hydroelectric plants. The construction of these dams flooded hundreds of thousands of hectares, making lakes out of former ejido lands. The capital of Tuxtla Gutiérrez is located in the Central Valley, which enjoys a roughly tierra templada climate.

Sierra Madre de Chiapas

A continuation of the Sierra Madre del Sur, the Sierra Madre de Chiapas runs from northwest to southeast along the Pacific Ocean coast. It is extremely volcanic, resulting in high peaks, occasional eruptions and earthquakes, and rich soils. The mountains partially block rain clouds from the Pacific, a process known as Orographic lift, which creates a particularly rich coastal region called the Soconusco.

The largest city in the Soconusco is Tapachula, site of the seventh Chiapaneco hydroelectric plant, José Cecilio del Valle.


The Soconusco lies in the southernmost corner of Chiapas. It shares many ties with Guatemala, which claimed the territory until 1882. Since it was a part of the Aztec empire, Soconusco has been known for its agricultural products. Then it was cacao, now the main product is coffee, which is grown on large plantations. These plantations were owned by German-Guatemalans and employed indigenous peoples of the Mam group. The tierra caliente climate of Soconusco allowed plantation agriculture to succeed, and in addition to coffee also grows sugar cane, rice, maize, and plantains.


The energy resources of Chiapas include the seven hydroelectric plants on Grijalva and its tributaries and petroleum in the north. Six out of these seven are located in the Central Valley, including the Manuel Moreno Torres plant in Chicoasén, the most productive in Mexico. All of the hydroelectric plants are owned and operated by the Federal Electricity Commission (Comisión Federal de Electricidad, CFE), while the petroleum resources are owned by Petróleos Mexicanos, PEMEX.


The state’s population is about 55% Mestizo, and 40% Indigenous, mostly of Maya ancestry. Around 35% of the indigenous population does not speak Spanish as a first language.

The 20th century saw massive population growth in Chiapas. From less than one million inhabitants in 1940, the state had about two million in 1980, and over 4 million in 2005. Overcrowded land in the highlands was relieved when the rainforest to the east was subject to land reform. Cattle ranchers, loggers, and subsistence farmers migrated to the rain forest. The population of the Lacandón was only one thousand people in 1950, but by the mid-1990s this had increased to 200 thousand.

Chiapas is only 3% of Mexican population. They produce 13% of country's maize, 54% of its hydroelectric power, 5% of the nation's timber, 4% of its beans, 13% of its gas, and 4% of its oil.

Despite its rich supply of natural resources, Chiapas is an economically underdeveloped state, suffering chronic unemployment, below average literacy, and a high infant mortality rate. “Only 11 percent of adults earn what the government calls moderate incomes of at least $3,450 per year (versus 24 percent nationally); less than 50 percent of households have running water (versus 67% nationally); and only 14 percent have televisions (versus 45% nationally).”


According to the limited geography model of the Book of Mormon, Chiapas is the most plausible location of the land of Zarahemla.


Chiapas is subdivided into 118 municipalities (municipios). See municipalities of Chiapas

Major communities



  • Benjamin, Thomas. A Rich Land, a Poor People: Politics and Society in Modern Chiapas. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 1996.
  • Benjamin, Thomas. A Time of Reconquest: History, the Maya Revival, and the Zapatista Rebellion. The American Historical Review, Vol. 105, no. 2 (April 2000): pp. 417-450.
  • Collier, George A, and Elizabeth Lowery Quaratiello. Basta! Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas. Oakland: The Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1994.
  • Collier, George A. The Rebellion in Chiapas and the Legacy of Energy Development. Mexican Studies/Estudios Mexicanos, Vol. 10, no. 2 (Summer 1994): pp. 371-382
  • Lowe, G. W., “Chiapas de Corzo”, in Evans, Susan, ed., Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America, Taylor & Francis, London.
  • Whitmeyer, Joseph M. and Hopcroft, Rosemary L. Community, Capitalism, and Rebellion in Chiapas. Sociological Perspectives Vol. 39, no. 4 (Winter 1996): pp. 517-538.

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