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Happy 20th Birthday, Zapatistas!

Today marks 20 years since a previously unknown army emerged from the rain forests of the indigenous highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, and declared war on the government. Here are 20 photographs that Marco Antonio Cruz, one of Mexico’s most respected...

Photo by Marco Antonio Cruz.

Today marks 20 years since a previously unknown army emerged from the rain forests of the indigenous highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, and declared war on the government. It was a landmark day. Even in early 1994, as a 13-year-old middle-school kid living in Southern California, I knew something huge was happening in my parents’ homeland. And I started to pay attention.

That same day, the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. NAFTA was going to launch the hemisphere into the age of the globalized economy, inducting Mexico into the club of developed nations. There was what seemed to be an infallible hope of more and better and cheaper goods would pour in from the United States. We were all supposed to be excited about it.

But the armed group that seized parts of Chiapas that New Year’s Day, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), had a much different point of view.

They declared war—specifically on an army dozens of times larger than theirs. The indigenous and poor of Mexico had apparently had enough. Under the autocratic regime of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), or “dinosaurs” as they were more colloquially known, exploitation, inequality, and neglect were the norm. Nothing was changing, and there was no potential for change on the horizon. Peaceful means of protest were no longer an option for the army that called themselves Zapatistas, in honor of the Mexican Revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata who took up arms nearly a century before.

The new Zapatistas rightly suspected that NAFTA would do little to better their conditions, or could even worsen them. The guerrillas offered a wake-up call for Mexico, but also, I think, for all of Latin America and for Latino diasporas in the United States.

It was the first armed uprising in Mexico since the country’s “Dirty War” against leftist guerillas in the 60s and 70s (a period that’s been erased from Mexico’s official history, and thus is barely mentioned in the national narrative). It was also considered the first armed uprising in history aided and spread by modern technology and organized through the internet (the EZLN’s first declarations, which were distributed via fax). The guerrillas included men and women, mostly ethnic Maya Indians who spoke Mayan languages. They relied on a charismatic Spanish-speaking mestizo spokesman known as Subcomandante Marcos to send their message around the globe. In short time, Marcos’s pipe, machine gun, and ski mask quickly became iconic.

The armed EZLN rebellion lasted 12 days, costing roughly 100 lives, although that figure remains in dispute. A ceasefire was called, and peace accords began. Those went basically nowhere. A stalemate has hung over the two sides ever since, while political violence and disappearances in Chiapas continue to this day.

On January 1, 1994, no one knew how the Zapatista uprising would play out. But we all knew that Mexico—and a few generations of Mexicans—would never be the same again.

Marco Antonio Cruz, one of Mexico’s most respected photojournalists, managed a photo agency called Imagen Latina at this pivotal time. On the morning after word emerged that the EZLN revolt had begun in the mountains, Marco Antonio and a small group of journalists in Mexico City gathered at the airport and wrangled an airline to fly them to Tuxtla Gutierrez, the Chiapas state capital, after all routes there had been halted. He covered the earliest and bloodiest days of the EZLN conflict.

Today Marco Antonio is photography editor of Mexico’s storied investigative weekly, Proceso. The magazine has published some of the most memorable shots from the Zapatista movement. Proceso’s Mexico City headquarters is a modest, white-stucco house on a residential street in Colonia Del Valle. I recently visited Marco Antonio there to recall the EZLN revolt through the lens of the photojournalists who were there to document it.

“For many of photographers Chiapas is a state where the injustice, the neglect, has been historic,” Marco Antonio told me. “Much of what occurred after the triumph of the Mexican Revolution [1910-1920] never reached Chiapas. It’s been centuries and centuries of slavery and oppression.

“[Photographer] Antonio Turok had already been living there for 15 or 20 years, and my first trips were in the 80s when the Guatemalan refugees arrived. I also did a project about blindness in Mexico, so I went to communities in Chiapas where people were affected by blindness. I knew the situation. It is a place where people die from curable diseases. Something like this had to happen, and so, when it did, it really wasn’t all that surprising.”

In his dim office, the photographer went on to remember the fear that gripped him the first time he saw uniformed Zapatista casualties following their skirmishes with the Mexican Army, and then how he shared in the thrill that many of us felt years later upon seeing the Zapatistas’ caravan arriving before crowds of supportive civilians in the symbolic core of the nation—the Zocalo central square in Mexico City.

Here are 20 photographs that Cruz shared with VICE that tell us, paired with his commentary, the story of 20 years of the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional.

Photo by Antonio Turok.

“This is by Antonio Turok, he used to contribute to Imagen Latina, and lived in San Cristobal de las Casas. In the middle of the night on January 1, he came upon the arrival of the Zapatistas and the take-over of the municipal hall in San Cristobal de las Casas. They took the main city halls in the highlands and in the jungle, and the most important one was San Cristobal. And this photo, well, is an icon. It is part of the history of this country, the entrance of the Zapatistas.”

Photo by Antonio Turok.

“This is inside municipal hall of San Cristobal, they are Zapatistas, at this point they were not using ski masks or covering their faces. And it says ‘There is no guerilla, says Godinez Bravo.’ Godinez Bravo was the general in charge of the military zone of Chiapas. Months before the eruption of Zapatismo, they found a guerrilla training camp in the jungle, near Ocosingo. But they found just the camp, never a guerrilla soldier. That’s why Godinez Bravo said that, and of course, there was a guerrilla. This photo is also from January 1.”

Photo by Marco Antonio Cruz.

“After they took San Cristobal, the Zapatistas went into combat at the Rancho Nuevo military base, the nearest base to San Cristobal de las Casas. I was there, this photo is mine. They are dead Zapatistas killed in battle. They were also ambushed. When I took this photo, 20 or so of them died. They were uniformed, they had been killed barely 20 minutes before. We heard the bullets… It was horrible.”

Photo by Marco Antonio Cruz.

“Same scene. Honestly, I took these photos while trembling. I had to calm myself to take them. Death is never an easy subject for anyone, especially since it had just happened. Part of this man’s head is missing, they re-killed him. The bodies lay there for about 15 days, exposed. It was a way to sow fear in the people. It was cold, so the bodies didn’t decompose so quickly. The cold was intense.”

Photo by Marco Antonio Cruz.

“This is the highway from San Cristobal to Ocosingo, held by the Zapatistas. They’d stop us, check our things, as us to identify ourselves, then let us go. This is at a checkpoint.”

“No one was protecting us [as photographers]. I think the situation is actually worse today, with the War on Drugs. You used to have some relative safety identifying yourself as press. And today, you do that, and it could be a death sentence.”

Photo by Marco Antonio Cruz.

“Here are more scenes of combat in Rancho Nuevo. This helicopter dropped down to help the soldiers, and to pick up their wounded. I saw them shooting, but I never saw the Zapatistas, they were well hidden. These were intense moments. It would have been difficult for the Zapatistas to win, but militarily, their first strike was genius, a poem. The fact that they hid a guerrilla army for so long, for years, and the fact they struck on the day Mexico entered NAFTA, all of it was brilliant. In the first days, few people died. Days later, many died, but there really could have been many more dead. Their strategy, as a guerrilla army, was very audacious, very impressive.”

Photo by Benjamín Flores.

“This is from the fighting in Ocosingo. In Ocosingo, the Army surrounded an important group of Zapatistas in the market, so many people died there. This photo is especially important because these five Zapatistas were executed. They are entirely in the position of being executed. They stopped them, they killed them, and that’s a violation of human rights. There are conventions to which Mexico’s military has subscribed that prevent this, and yet it happened.”

“One thing that surprised me so much about the Zapatistas was that from the very first day, they came out in uniform. They were homemade uniforms, their brown shirts, their boots. It had this touch of a formal presentation before the world, their uniforms.”

Photo by Benjamín Flores.

“This is still January, 4, 1994, Ocosingo.”

Photo by Martín Salas.

“What followed all of this was a popular protest [in Mexico] that called for an end to the fighting. The war really lasted less than fifteen days, and due to the protesting, the fighting stopped, and the two sides took their positions, and that’s when the peace accords began. This photo is in the cathedral, during the peace talks, and the main character here is Subcomandante Marcos. The rest are indigenous commanders. They were the true commanders, he was a subcommander. This is February 24.”

Photo by Araceli Herrera.

“The state militarized at an alarming pace. This is a war scene, could be Vietnam, Laos, any place in the world. This is by Araceli Herrera, for Proceso, on January 10.”

Photo by Víctor Mendiola.

“This is by Victor Mendiola, it’s a photo in a place called Guadalupe Tepeyac, in Zapatista territory. It’s one of the few photos that exist of Marcos firing a weapon.”

Photo by Víctor Mendiola.

“Guadalupe Tepeyac represents a lot for Zapatismo. This is around June, when they invited organizations from all over the country for a National Democratic Convention. This is the bastion of Zapatismo.” 

Photo by Juan Popoca.

“This is by Juan Popoca, and this is the inauguration [in the community of] Aguascalientes, where the convention took place.”

Photo by Juan Popoca.

“They are Zapatistas, who knows who they are, but they are the army, supporters. They are indigenous, people from the jungle. Access was always complicated. This photo is also Juan Popoca, and it’s so strong, the military presence… Imagine.”

Photo by Martín Salas.

“This is a very important photo. It is the liberation of Absolón Castellanos. He was general in Chiapas, and at one point, the governor of Chiapas. The Zapatistas kidnapped him and kept him for more than a month. [Bishop] Samuel Ruiz and [politician] Camacho Solis worked to free him. Camacho Solis was the government’s representative to the talks, the representative of [then-President Carlos] Salinas. A historic photo, February 16, 1994.”

Photo by Ángeles Torrejón.

“These are photos of Zapatista training camps, men and women, by Ángeles Torrejón. Ángeles, who is my wife, is one of few women who have been in the jungle, accepted by the Zapatistas, to document them: their training, daily life, women, and more than anything the children.”

Photo by Ángeles Torrejón.

“She lived in the jungle for two years, and was able to achieve this intimacy with them, which was incredible.”

Photo by Ángeles Torrejón.

“And well this is a classic, by Ángeles also, a classic of hers. This is May 15, I was there with her. Look at his paraphernalia, his radio, his pipe, his R-15, his bullets. It’s a very Marcos photo. That’s how he was. I never spoke with him, he kept his distance. Ángeles was close to him.”

Photo by Ángeles Torrejón.

“This is also by Ángeles, the military presence of the Zapatistas, and the civilians, the people of the jungle. It’s lovely.”

Photo by Ulises Castellanos.

“This is the last photo, the arrival of the Zapatista caravan at the Zocalo in Mexico City, March 11, 2001. They came unarmed, surrounded by a chain of civilians to protect them from the day they left Chiapas. This photo symbolizes so much. After the armed uprising of 1994, the fact that the guerrilla arrived to the heart, to the Zocalo, has enormous significance. It represents the passing of great leaders, victors, [Revolutionary hero Emiliano] Zapata has been there, [Francisco] Villa… Well, it’s the second time the Zapatistas had been there, because the first time, they arrived with Zapata.”

Cruz was smiling. After viewing his selection of photos, I asked him what he thought about the contemporary state of Zapatismo and Chiapas at large, from the perspective of a journalist.

Cruz replied with immediate conviction: “The government has never been able to solve this problem, and it remains there. Chiapas is a ticking bomb. And not just Chiapas. There are many states in the republic where situations remain that have not been resolved socially. And at any moment, they could explode.”

The EZLN still controls semi-autonomous territory in the highlands of Chiapas and some towns and communities, organizing themselves around “Councils of Good Governance.” But, as Cruz points out, the Zapatistas live effectively within a “cage,” under watch or harassed by the Mexican Army, while the threat of PRI-aligned paramilitary groups is constant.

The state remains poor, forgotten, and tense. Indeed, 20 years after the EZLN uprising, Chiapas is still the poorest overall of Mexico’s 31 states. An estimated 75% of the population was poor in 2012. Nearly a third of the population lives in what government geographers call “extreme” poverty. Subcomandante Marcos—eventually identified as the estranged sibling of a member of Mexico’s Congress, a rebel to a wealthy family from Tamaulipas state—has basically disappeared. In few statements attributed to him that have trickled online in recent years, he sounds increasingly unhinged. Some even doubt whether Marcos is even alive.

Cruz points out that the EZLN definitely does not begin and end with Marcos. New generations of leaders, although perhaps not as media-savvy as the former pipe-smoking spokesman, are taking the reigns of Zapatismo into the 21st Century. Or so, we’d like to hope.

“In 20 years, we now have generations: kids born in 1994, or kids born with Zapatista parents,” Cruz points out. “These are the new generations of guerrillas.”

Today, while the Zapatistas in Chiapas celebrate 20 years since their uprising, I am unable to say that their rebellion was a total success. I think the legacy of the revolt is evident in wider ways.

In the last three years, self-governing and armed community police forces have sprung up across southern Mexico. These vigilantes are not playing around. The groups are responding to the threat posed to their communities by organized crime: extortion, kidnapping, robbery, and theft. They set up roadblocks permanently at all the entrances to their towns, and banish or jail petty criminals, zero-tolerance-style. The autodefensa police movement in states like Michoacán and Guerrero may not be a direct descendent of the EZLN uprising in Chiapas, but its impetus is exactly alike: Citizens, taking control of their matters, when governments will not or cannot.

When it really comes down to it, wouldn’t you?

Daniel Hernandez is editor of VICE México. Follow him @longdrivesouth.