Frontline World

Mexico - The Deadly Standoff, August 2003
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project
Timeline chapter 1 chapter 2
chapter 3 chapter 4 chapter 5

How a Hot Rebellion Turned Into an Ongoing Low-Intensity Conflict
by Garance Burke

January 1, 1994
  • A group of ski-masked rebels calling themselves the Ejército Zapatista de Liberaci█n Nacional (EZLN) declares war on the Mexican government on behalf of the country's indigenous people. From their base in Mexico's southernmost state of Chiapas, the Zapatistas take the former state governor hostage, seize government offices and occupy thousands of acres of private land.
  • Subcomandante Marcos, the group's spokesman, reads a statement making clear that the rebels had chosen to launch their uprising on this day because it is the date the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) goes into effect.
  • The Mexican army responds by sending troops to the state. Firefights last for 12 days. Representatives of international human rights groups swarm into the state. After a series of pitched battles causing 145 deaths and hundreds of casualties, both sides agree to a cease-fire.
Spring 1994
  • Luis Donaldo Colosio, the presidential candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), is assassinated.
  • Several key cabinet members and high-ranking officials resign from the government of President Carlos Salinas because of their mishandling of the Chiapas crisis. Mexico slides into a political crisis.
August 1994
  • The Zapatistas hold a national forum in rebel territory, inviting others across the country to form a political branch of their movement. The new movement, the Zapatistas say, aims to defeat the ruling PRI in the 1994 presidential elections.
  • The new PRI presidential candidate, Ernesto Zedillo, wins by a landslide.
December 1994
  • The Zapatistas stage another major land takeover and eventually come to control one-third of the state of Chiapas, an area roughly the size of the state of Maryland.
  • The Mexican government announces that it will default on loan payments to the International Monetary Fund. The Mexican peso goes into a free fall, losing half its value.
Spring 1995
  • The Mexican army begins a counterinsurgency campaign to curb support for the rebels. One of the armed civilian groups, Paz y Justicia, receives financial support from the PRI-controlled state government.
  • Several thousand additional troops flood into the area.
Summer 1995
  • The Mexican government and the rebels begin peace talks. They sign a peace agreement called the San Andrés Accords. But talks grind to a halt shortly afterward.
  • The Mexican Congressional Peace Commission drafts an indigenous rights law that would give indigenous communities control over local governance and natural resources.
December 1997
  • A paramilitary group massacres 45 indigenous Zapatista sympathizers in Acteal. The massacre is among the most brutal killings in recent Mexican history.
July 2000
  • Opposition presidential candidate Vicente Fox, of the center-right National Action Party (PAN), wins the presidential election by a landslide, in what is widely hailed as the country's first democratic election.
  • Newly elected President Fox pledges to solve the Chiapas conflict "in 15 minutes."
August 2000
  • Following in Fox's footsteps, Pablo Salazar wins the Chiapas gubernatorial race on a coalition ticket that unites several parties opposed to continued rule by the PRI.
December 2000
  • Zapatistas issue a statement that outlines three conditions for reopening peace talks: (1) the passage of an indigenous rights law, (2) the removal of troops from seven key Army bases and (3) the freeing of Zapatista prisoners from jail.
  • President Fox complies with two of the three demands and says solving the conflict will be a priority for his administration.
Spring 2001
  • Twenty-four ski-masked Zapatista commanders, including Marcos, leave Chiapas on a caravan for indigenous rights, touring the country. The march culminates in Mexico City, where the Zapatistas take their agenda before the Mexican congress.
  • When President Fox refuses to meet directly with representatives of the EZLN, the Zapatistas retreat to the jungle.
Summer 2001
  • The Mexican congress passes a much-watered-down version of the indigenous rights bill. The Zapatistas reject the bill -- and so do 12 state governors.
January 2003
  • Twenty thousand Zapatistas stage a rally in San Crist█bal de las Casas on the ninth anniversary of the uprising. The demonstrators call for an end to an outbreak of hostilities near the Guatemalan border.
  • Tensions increase as 25 people die in village-level conflicts.
Summer 2003
  • President Fox's party, the PAN, takes a beating in state and national mid-term congressional elections.
  • Hooded, armed groups attack 47 polling stations in Chiapas. The PRI regains control in many areas of the state.
  • Subcomandante Marcos announces that the rebel organization will form "good-government committees," whose purpose, in part, will be to oversee townships controlled by the group.

back to top

Vincente Fox
Paramilitary Groups
Indigenous People