The EZLN – A Look at its History (Part 1): The Guerrilla Nucleus

November 17, 2013, marked the 30th anniversary of the formation of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), and on January 1, 2014 they will celebrate 20 years since their first public appearance. As a form of tribute to the men and women who made that cry of ENOUGH (YA BASTA) echo worldwide, today we start a series of installments which try to look at the history of the actors who linked together to give rise to the EZLN.

“….the human condition … has a stubborn tendency to bad conduct.

Where it is least expected, rebellion jumps out and dignity occurs.

In the mountains of Chiapas, for example.

For a long time the indigenous Maya had been silent.

The Maya culture is a culture of patience, it knows how to wait.

Now, how many people speak through those mouths?

The Zapatistas are in Chiapas, but they are everywhere.

They are few, but they have many spontaneous ambassadors.

Since no one names these ambassadors, no one can dismiss them.

Since no one pays them, no one can count them. Or buy them.”

–El desafío, Eduardo Galeano [1]

Photo by Heriberto ParedesNovember 17, 2013, marked the 30th anniversary of the formation of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), and on January 1, 2014 they will celebrate 20 years since their first public appearance. As a form of tribute to the men and women who made that cry of ENOUGH (YA BASTA) echo worldwide, today we start a series of installments which try to look at the history of the actors who linked together to give rise to the EZLN. To do this, various sources have been used, but especially the writings, interviews and communiqués that the neo-Zapatistas themselves have generated. The text is divided into three sections: I: The Guerrilla Nucleus, II: The Millenarian Resistance and III: The Option for the Poor.

Clarification is needed: it has not been our intention to speak for the Zapatistas, they have told their story and still do so. Our only goal here is to contribute to the dissemination of their experience, which undoubtedly represents the most advanced alternative in the world. Hopefully these lines are also useful to feed the story of another possible world that is now being built.

I. The “Guerrilla Nucleus” [2]

Source: SubVersiones

It is 1968, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the US dispute world hegemony in a disguised war: the “Cold War.” In Czechoslovakia, the “Prague Spring” shows the world the authoritarianism and bureaucracy of the “actually existing socialism.” The protesters are fighting for a “socialism with a human face,” but above all for a democratic one. The response of the USSR and its allies is the invasion of the country. In France the “French May” is evidence – among many other things – of a widespread rejection of the consumer society.

It is 1968 and the Americas are also restless. In Latin America the triumph of the Cuban revolution is still generating expectations, and thousands of young people join the ranks of the revolutionary parties and movements. In the US, Martin Luther King – leader of the civil rights movement – is assassinated, and the demonstrations against the invasion of Vietnam further polarize North American society.

It is 1968, Mexico will host the Olympic Games, and in July one of the most important student movements in its history emerges. The political and social conditions in the country make a seemingly minor conflict rapidly acquire national dimensions. Mexico is again in tune – as it was during the 1910 revolution – with the social discontent walking the world. Gustavo Díaz Ordaz and Luis Echeverría Álvarez – Chairman and Secretary of the Interior of Mexico respectively – order the repression of a student demonstration. On October 2nd , military and paramilitary groups attack the protesters in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, Tlatelolco, Mexico City, causing hundreds of dead, missing and injured.

It is 1969 and the world is not the same after the “Cultural Revolution” of 1968, as Hobsbawm calls it [3]. It is 1969, and Mexico is still hurting: many families have been searching for their children since that October 2nd when they did not return to their homes. Meanwhile, the Mexican government justifies the massacre, arguing that the first attack came from the students, that there were foreigners interested in destabilizing the country, and that the specter of communism was behind the protests.

Hundreds of young people who had participated in the student demonstrations concluded that they would not manage to transform Mexico by the institutional route. For many of them, the peaceful route was exhausted and it was time to move on to the next stage: armed struggle.

On August 6th,1969, in Monterrey, Nuevo León, the National Liberation Forces (FLN) were founded. Leading the group were the brothers Cesar Germán and Fernando Muñoz Yáñez, Alfredo Zárate and Raúl Pérez Vázquez. The group had the strategy of building up its forces in silence and not confronting the state forces. In 1972, Cesar Germán Yáñez was established in the state of Chiapas in the camp called “El Diamante,” from which the “Emiliano Zapata Guerrilla Nucleus” (NGEZ) operated. Five years after its founding, the FLN had networks in Tabasco, Puebla, the State of Mexico, Chiapas, Veracruz and Nuevo León [4].

While the FLN had a Marxist-Leninist ideology, the group was far from falling into dogmatism. Since its foundation, the FLN established the overall aim of the creation of an army and adopted as its motto the phrase of independence fighter Vicente Guerrero: “Live for the motherland or die for freedom.”

On February 14th, 1974, the FLN were attacked by police and military forces in one of its main safe houses, “The Big House,” located in San Miguel Nepantla in the State of Mexico. Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro participated in the operation, one of the major players in the dirty war in Mexico, who was later repeatedly accused of having links to organized crime.

In “The Big House” five guerrillas were killed and 16 others were arrested. The persecution against the FLN extended to Ocosingo, Chiapas, where the camp “El Diamante” was attacked and several members of the NGEZ were killed; some more managed to escape, including Cesar Germán Yáñez. “Newspaper reports – writes Laura Castellanos – say that in mid-April 1974, the surviving group led by Cesar Germán was wiped out by the army in the jungle. His brother Fernando was then transferred to Chiapas and with a brigade searched for him and his group without success. [5]”

From 1974 to 1983 the history of the FLN is somewhat unclear, since there are not many records from that period. During this time the FLN conducted more frequent incursions in the Lacandon Jungle and restarted the recruitment stage. It was a time when many students were recruited from universities where Marxism was very strong, as was the case of the Autonomous Metropolitan University and the Autonomous University of Chapingo. Also during this period (1974-1983), many of the activities of the FLN were in the state of Chiapas. In 1977, for example, they set up a camp in Huitiupán, and a year later they set up a safe house in San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Photo by Heriberto ParedesThe work conducted by the FLN in Chiapas allowed them to build up solidarity networks with local organizations which had done previous work with the indigenous in the region: Maoist groups, people who prompted the formation of cooperatives, and indigenous people who had been encouraged to develop community work by the Catholic Church, primarily driven by Bishop Samuel Ruíz.

The experiences of armed fronts in Central America, such as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in El Salvador, the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua, or the civil war that lasted for more than thirty years in Guatemala, revived the intention of the FLN to form an army – not a guerrilla group, but a regular army – and the successful work in Chiapas ​​since 1980 resulted in the acronym FLN-EZLN beginning to be included in guerrilla documents.

Nevertheless, it is since November 17, 1983, when helped again by a politicized indigenous group with plenty organizational experience – from which later emerged commanders such as Major Mario or Major Yolanda – and reinforced by the new militants from the universities, that the first camp of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, called “The Tick, [6]” was established.

Interviewed by Yvon Le Bot and Maurice Najman, Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos explained that the three major components of the EZLN are “a political- military group, a group of politicized and very experienced indigenous, and an indigenous movement from the Jungle. [7]” The third group to which Marcos refers began to be a crucial part of the organization after 1983, a period when the EZLN began a second phase of “building up its forces in silence;” but this time looking for fighters mainly among indigenous in the region who had no previous experience of political militancy. For this task, the politicized indigenous acted as a bridge, but as well as the cultural barrier – in which language was a major obstacle – the secrecy and mistrust of the indigenous, caused by centuries of oppression and contempt, made it difficult for mestizos to gain access to the communities.

The first members of the EZLN who penetrated into the Lacandon jungle soon began to live a reality very different and quite alien to that which their ideological affiliation allowed them to see. In the early years not only did they not build confidence with the indigenous, it was quite the opposite: “Sometimes they persecuted us because they said we were cattle thieves, or witches or bandits. Many of those who are now compañeros or even commanders in the Committee hounded us at that time because they thought we were bad people. [8]”

Contact with indigenous communities led to a kind of conversion of the original group. Marcos tells of this process in these words:

We really suffered a process of re-education, of restyling. As if they had disarmed us. As if they had dismantled all we were made up of – Marxism, Leninism, socialism, urban culture, poetry, literature – all that formed part of us, and things we did not even know we had. They disarmed us and then armed us again, but in a different way. And that was the only way to survive. [9]

As we said above, the work that the guerrilla nucleus of the FLN developed in Chiapas could only mature and become the EZLN through the cosmovision and tradition of resistance of the different indigenous groups; we will expand on this issue in the next installment.

Translation edited by Nancy Piñeiro.


[1] Galeano, E. (1995) “El desafío. Mensaje enviado al Segundo Diálogo de la Sociedad Civil”. En Clajadep, Red de divulgación e intercambios sobre autonomía y poder popular (“The Defiance. Message sent to the Second Dialogue with Civil Society”).

[2] An earlier version of this section was published in 2012 in the digital newspaper Rebelión. The version published here contains new items.

[3] Hobsbawm, E. (1995) The age of extremes: The short twentieth century, 1914-1991. London: Abacus.

[4] Castellanos, L. (2008) México armado 1943-1981. México: Ediciones Era, p. 244.


[5] Castellanos, L. (2008), op cit., p. 247.

[6] Cf. Morquecho, G. (2011) “La Garrapata en el Chuncerro, cuna del EZLN” (“The Tick in el Chuncerro, cradle of the EZLN”). [Online; Spanish only]. In: Latin American Information Agency, 15 November. Available at: [Accessed 13 November 2012].

[7] Le Bot, Y. (1997) Subcomandante Marcos. El sueño zapatista. Entrevistas con el Subcomandante Marcos, el mayor Moisés y el comandante Tacho, del Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Subcomandante Marcos. The Zapatista dream: Interviews with Subcomandante Marcos, Major Moisés and Comandante Tacho, from the Zapatista Army of National Liberation). México: Plaza & Janés, p. 123.

[8] Ibid, p. 137-138.

[9] Ibid, p. 151.