Political Violence During the Zapatista Uprising

Overview of the Zapatista Uprising: Causes and Results

The Zapatista uprising commenced on January 1, 1994, in the Chiapas Federal District, Mexico. It was launched by a guerilla group called the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), comprised of the members of the indigenous population dwelling in Chiapas. The EZLN declared war against the Mexican government who neglected the indigenous community for a long time. This lack of interest in the well-being of the Chiapas Indian population was the major factor predisposing to the unfolding of the conflict.

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According to Vargas, by engaging in the rebellion the EZLN demanded improvements in living conditions, better education and healthcare, general respect for their ethnic identity, the democratization of the local political system as a whole, and fulfillment of other basic needs (2). Noteworthily, the uprising commenced when Mexico was about to enact NAFTA (Vargas 5). The indigenous people of Chiapas regarded the new law as a threat to their interests as the act was going to exclude them from the local market, making their situation even worse.

Initially, the Mexican government responded to the armed rebellion with military aggression, yet credible data on the number of deaths and injuries during the 12 days of fighting is not available. Consequently, the government agreed to review the EZLN’s list of thirty-four specific “Demands and Engagements to Achieve a Dignified Peace in Chiapas” and started negotiations (Vargas 4). As a result, indigenous peoples of Mexico were granted “legal equality,” which however did not contribute to the improvement of their economic, legal, or political situation drastically (Vargas 40).

Some minor social programs were initiated by the government as well. Nevertheless, Gilberth and Otero consider that the uprising contributed to the development of a vast civil movement that has become “a driving force in Mexico’s democratization” (7). However, it is valid to say that the overall outcomes of the Zapatista uprising can be regarded as unsuccessful because indigenous people in Chiapas are still discriminated and their quality of life remains low. Due to this, tensions between the parties involved in the conflict continue up to date.

Theoretical Analysis

The Zapatista uprising can be analyzed by using the rational choice theory and the social identity theory which provide different perspectives on the causes that led to the escalation of the political violence in Mexico. The origins of the rational choice model have their roots in the field of economy and the work of a famous economist, Adam Smith, who argued that self-interested competition is the driver of economic development in the free market (Paternoster et al. 2).

Consequently, the rational choice theory was employed in the fields of criminology and social psychology to analyze different types of violence, including terrorism. The theory suggests that any form of violence is a result of “a self-interested appraisal of the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action, with the action taken being the one with the greatest perceived utility” (Paternoster et al. 2). The core arguments of the theory are as follows: a person/group decides to commit a crime rationally, their decision-making involves the weighting of potential costs and benefits, and their final decision to engage in violence/offense is affected by the immediate contextual factors (Paternoster et al. 3). Overall, self-interest can be regarded as a primary theoretical concept in the given framework.

It is valid to say that the costs of non-involvement in the political conflict were immense for the EZLN and the members of the indigenous community in Chiapas. According to Vargas, since the colonial era, they have been exposed to discrimination from another ethnic group, caciques, based in the same southern state, who often used violent and illegal means to deprive Indians of their land and property (8).

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To fight these injustices, indigenous people of Chiapas occasionally rebelled before 1994 as well, yet their actions did not lead to any improvements (Vargas 8). Thus, the whole of their previous experiences could lead them to rationalize that larger-scale actions should take place and involvement in violence was in their best interest. Otherwise, everything would remain the same or would become even worse under NAFTA.

Ethnic and social discrimination is the major cause of the Zapatista uprising as per the social identity theory as well. As noted by Cuhadar and Dayton, the theory is based on the assumptions that “human beings are, by nature, a pattern recognition species and that the human ability to distinguish between objects, circumstances, and behavior is a functional cognitive process necessary for survival” (274). As a result of this categorization pattern, people create in-groups (us) and out-groups (others) (Cuhadar and Dayton 274). It is valid to say that others are frequently regarded as a threat, especially when inter-group interactions are characterized by inequality.

Since its very formulation, the social identity theory focused on the investigation of intergroup discrimination and stereotyping. As reported by Gilbreth and Otero, findings of the studies that employed the social identity theory concepts revealed that high-status groups tend to be more discriminatory than lower-status groups and demonstrate an elevated rate of in-group favoritism (2). At the same time, it is suggested that individuals become more aware of those identities that are under a perceived threat (Cuhadar and Dayton 275).

These observations explain why caciques strived to maintain their privileges, exclude the indigenous people from politics, and maintain their low social status. Caciques’ in-group favoritism is the main reason why indigenous people lived and continue to live in poverty and lack such basic resources like water and electricity and why caciques are among the wealthiest populations in Mexico (Vargas 8). The core theoretical arguments also explain why Indians fought for the rights of their ethnic group. The experience of constant discrimination from caciques and the Mexican government obviously humiliated them. Therefore, the engagement in political violence may be regarded as the EZLN’s efforts to restore a positive in-group image.


The introduced theories are complementary in the analysis of the Zapatista uprising as they help to compensate for each other’s shortcomings in explaining the sources of violence. For instance, while focusing on the concepts of social status and group identity, the social identity theory touches upon the issues of ethnic and cultural prejudices, which often lead to institutionalized discrimination in the first place. Since cultural values and beliefs frequently become the root cause of various conflicts, the inability to address these factors is the primary deficiency of the rational choice theory. However, the latter theoretical model explains the multiple facets of the conflict in greater detail than the social identity theory and allows evaluating the continuum of processes involved.

Works Cited

Cuhadar, Esra, and Bruce Dayton. “The Social Psychology of Identity and Inter-Group Conflict: From Theory to Practice.” International Studies Perspectives, vol. 12, no. 3, 2011, pp. 273–293.

Gilbreth, Chris, and Gerardo Otero. “Democratization in Mexico.” Latin American Perspectives, vol. 28, no. 4, 2001, pp. 7-29.

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Oldmeadow, Julian, and Susan Fiske. “Social Status and the Pursuit of Positive Social Identity: Systematic Domains of Intergroup Differentiation and Discrimination for High- And Low- Status Groups.” Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, vol. 13, no. 4, 2010, pp. 1-25.

Paternoster, Ray, et al. “Rational Choice Theory and Interest in the ‘Fortune of Others.’” Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 2017, pp. 1-22.

Vargas, Jorge A. “NAFTA, The Chiapas Rebellion, and the Emergence of Mexican Ethnic Law.” California Western International Law Journal, vol. 25, no. 1, 1994, pp. 1-80.

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