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The Awakening: The Zapatista Revolt and Its Implications for Civil-Military Relations and the Future of Mexico

Authored by LTC Stephen J. Wager, Dr. Donald E. Schulz. | December 1994

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Summary

This study examines the origins and nature of the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, the response of the Mexican government and military, and the implications for civil-military relations and the future of Mexico. It places the armed forces' reaction within the context of the institution's resonse to the country's accelerated transition to democracy and analyzes the implications of that democratization for the army. The main findings are as follows:

On the Zapatista Revolt.

  • The Zapatista rebellion is not primarily a "military" problem. Rather, it is the product of a convergence of economic, social and political problems that exist not only in Chiapas but in much of rural Mexico.
  • Unlike most traditional guerrilla movements, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) did not seek to destroy the state or take power itself, but rather to force a democratic opening. In this, it has been at least partially successful. Indeed, the Zapatistas may have done more to accelerate the process of Mexican democratization than the previous 5 years of dramatic economic reform under the Salinas administration.
  • Nevertheless, since the breakdown of peace talks last spring, there has been little progress in terms of defusing a potentially explosive situation. The Zapatistas have assumed an uncompromising stance with regard to the issue of democratic reform. At the same time, they remain very weak militarily. They are largely surrounded by the much stronger Mexican army (with Guatemala being their only escape route), and any attempt to resume their offensive would likely prove suicidal. This has led to a classic standoff. Neither side wants to resume the fighting, yet their negotiating positions remain incompatible. And so unable to move forward and unwilling to surrender, the rebels risk being indefinitely consigned to limbo.
  • This is dangerous, for as long as the deadlock continues, violence could break out anew; thus, the need to bring the rebels in from the cold. One of the priority tasks of the Zedillo administration should be to explore ways to co-opt the Zapatistas and their supporters, both economically and politically. That means fulfilling the promises that have been made to alleviate the poverty and desperation that drove so many people to support the guerrillas. It also means reforming state and local power structures to assure the rule of law and the access of those who have been shut out of the system in the past. Nor are these requirements limited to Chiapas. Many other areas of rural Mexico suffer comparable problems which, if neglected, may lead to social explosions.
  • It is also imperative that the process of national political reform be deepened and consolidated, for without democratization other gains will likely prove ephemeral.

On Democratization and Civil-Military Relations.

  • Due to a massive intelligence failure, the Zapatista uprising caught the Salinas administration by surprise. The Mexican military had ample warning of the guerrilla presence, but government officials had other concerns (most notably, NAFTA) and tended to ignore or downplay the evidence that trouble was brewing. Subsequently, civil-military relations were strained when army leaders perceived that they were being used as scapegoats for the government's failure.
  • The acceleration of democratization has also strained civil-military relations, resulting in a certain amount of mutual distancing between the army and the governent. With the opening of Mexican society to more pluralistic influences, there has been much greater criticism of previously sancrosanct subjects (e.g., the president and the military). The army has increasingly become a target of criticism with regard to corruption and human rights abuses and President Salinas has not always been willing to defend it. Thus, the military has become more aggressive in its own defense, especially through the use of public relations. At the same time, the army has distanced itself somewhat from the government and the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) . It is becoming a more politically neutral institution, and appears to be much more open to the idea of an opposition electoral victory than in the past.
  • In spite of Chiapas, the mission of the Mexican army will not change drastically in the foreseeable future. While improvements will be made in its counterinsurgency capabilities, the military will gradually return to its traditional missions of narcotics interdiction and civic action, with the latter being the mission of preference.
  • The authors recommend the introduction of mandatory human rights training at all levels of the military.