HomeNewsAnalysisHow Mexico's Guerrilla Army Stayed Clear of Organized Crime
ANALYSIS

How Mexico's Guerrilla Army Stayed Clear of Organized Crime

MEXICO / 9 JAN 2012 BY GEOFFREY RAMSEY EN

Mexico's Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) is distinct from most other rebels organizations in Latin America, having remained within a democratic framework without getting involved in organized crime to secure funding.

Because of its status as a major theater for proxy conflicts during the Cold War, Latin America has a long history of leftist insurgencies. Over the past two decades, however, these left wing groups largely abandoned armed struggle as a means of gaining power, turning instead to peaceful electoral politics. In some countries they have been immensely successful. Indeed, the current ruling parties of Nicaragua, El Salvador, Brazil and Uruguay can all trace their roots -- at least in part -- back to guerrilla insurgencies of the 1970s and 80s.

Nevertheless, a handful of guerrilla movements persist in the region. The most well-known examples are in Colombia, which is home to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and (FARC) and the National Army of Liberation (ELN). In Peru, two factions of the Shining Path still carry out deadly attacks on security forces, though the group is not the threat that it was at its peak in the early 1990s.

These three are generally cited as the most relevant insurgent groups in Latin America, and they have worked hard to maintain this status. All three have adopted illicit means of obtaining funding, including drug trafficking, bank robbery, kidnapping and extortion.

In this context, the high profile of Mexico’s largely indigenous Zapatista Army of National Liberation is incongruous. Although much of the organization’s social and political work is supported by international and domestic NGOs, the full nature of its funding is unclear. What is clear is that despite rising up in arms against in the southern state of Chiapas in 1994 and having since declared sizable parts of southern Mexico autonomous from the government, the EZLN has largely managed to refrain from criminal activity to support itself.

When criminal allegations have been leveled against them, such as when the group was suspected of carrying out the kidnapping of Mexican politician Diego Fernandez de Cevallos last year, the Zapatistas have vehemently denied them, and a congressional commission even acknowledged that the kidnapping didn’t fit the Zapatistas’ profile.

Their eschewal of crime is due largely to the fact that the EZLN is not a traditional guerrilla army. After their initial uprising in 1994, and the resulting San Andres peace accords in 1996, the group has largely refrained from illegal activity. Instead, they have become more of a grassroots social movement, establishing EZLN-affiliated autonomous communities in Chiapas and attempting to link far left community organizations throughout the country under the banner of a nationwide movement called the "Other Campaign."

Indeed, the Zapatista’s most public spokesperson, alias “Subcomandante Marcos,” has actively denounced armed groups which have attempted to ally themselves with the EZLN. Through well-publicized letters and communiques, he has castigated groups like the FARC and Spain’s ETA for killing civilians. Marcos has voiced aversion to armed struggle inside Mexico’s borders as well, distancing the EZLN from the small, Guerrero-based People’s Revolutionary Army (EPR), which is known for carrying out attacks on security forces and bombings of infrastructure targets in southern Mexico.

The fact that the EZLN refrains from armed and criminal activity likely has as much to do with self-preservation as it does with the group’s ideology. Since the 1994 uprising, the Mexican government has drastically increased its military presence in Chiapas. According to a 2004 study by the Center for Political Analysis and Social and Economic Research (CAPISE), there are at least 91 military bases in the state, many of which are located near Zapatista communities.

In more recent years, the military presence has increased even more in response to President Felipe Calderon’s crackdown on drug trafficking organizations. The Sinaloa Cartel and Zetas are deepening their activities in neighboring Guatemala, a trend which Mexico is fighting by increasing the number of military checkpoints along the southern border (with mixed success).

Considering the high level of militarization of armed forces in the Zapatistas’ main area of influence, their cessation of military activity is not surprising. If they were to attempt another uprising, it would doubtlessly end in a devastating defeat.

The disincentive for the EZLN to mix itself up in criminal activity is just as strong. The Calderon administration’s security strategy has given the government a powerful policy narrative to justify dismantling drug traffickers’ community control. If provoked, the state could easily turn it against the Zapatistas.

By turning away from armed struggle, the group has also been afforded a certain amount of political legitimacy. Unlike their guerrilla cousins in Colombia and Peru, the Zapatistas have widespread support both from the Mexican left and on the global stage, where they are known as a spearhead of the anti-globalization movement. It should also be noted that the Zapatistas eschew conventional politics with the same ferocity. Ever since their inception they have rejected the notion of joining the Mexican political system, which they view as hopelessly corrupt.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Tags

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

HOMICIDES / 16 AUG 2011

In the tenth and final installment of a series of "myth-busting" blog posts, the Mexican government pointed out that…

MEXICO / 11 NOV 2010

Three warning banners were hung yesterday in various locations around Culiacán, the capital city of Sinaloa, each them…

ELITES AND CRIME / 17 APR 2017

The capture of a fugitive ex-governor shows that Mexico is capable of netting its most wanted if there is sufficient…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime Tackles Illegal Fishing

15 OCT 2021

In October, InSight Crime and American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS) began a year-long project on illegal, unreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing in…

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime Featured in Handbook for Reporting on Organized Crime

8 OCT 2021

In late September, the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) published an excerpt of its forthcoming guide on reporting organized crime in Indonesia.

THE ORGANIZATION

Probing Organized Crime in Haiti

1 OCT 2021

InSight Crime has made it a priority to investigate organized crime in Haiti, where an impotent state is reeling after the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, coupled with an…

THE ORGANIZATION

Emergency First Aid in Hostile Environments

24 SEP 2021

At InSight Crime's annual treat, we ramped up hostile environment and emergency first aid training for our 40-member staff, many of whom conduct on-the-ground investigations in dangerous corners of the region.

THE ORGANIZATION

Series on Environmental Crime in the Amazon Generates Headlines

17 SEP 2021

InSight Crime and the Igarapé Institute have been delighted at the response to our joint investigation into environmental crimes in the Colombian Amazon. Coverage of our chapters dedicated to illegal mining…