Reviving memories of a revolutionary

The peasant uprising in Mexico was in the name of the legendary Emiliano Zapata, the guerilla hero of the Mexican revolution.

Published: Tuesday 15 February 1994

THE REBELS who struck in the early hours of 1994 in the Mexican state of Chiapas named themselves after the hero of the Mexican revolution of 1910, Emiliano Zapata. The old guerilla hero is still revered as the spiritual leader of the revolution.

A portrait of the revolutionary -- in the house of his grandson, Diego Zapata -- shows a solemn, handsome young man sporting a droopy moustache, bandoliers, sombrero and sword. And, everyone in Mexico calls himself a follower of this legendary hero who mobilised the masses for revolution before he was assassinated in 1919.

The ideals of the revolution were forgotten, leaving Mexico in the hands of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, which turned the country into one of the oldest one-party states.

Though many large ranches were handed over to the peasants after the revolution, the cream of the agricultural land stayed in the hands of the wealthy. Zapata's cry of "Land and liberty" still strikes a chord with Mexico's downtrodden and dispossessed. And it was this sentiment that brought together the peasants in the 1994 rebellion.

However, the rebels in Chiapas were equipped poorly and did not pose much of a military threat to the Mexican government. It was obvious that the Zapatistas did not have the firepower to overcome a 150,000-strong federal Mexican army. After a bloody battle in Ocosingo town, guerilla corpses lay in pools of blood, scattered in the streets and market, still clutching outdated, small-calibre rifles and machetes.

The rebels wore homemade uniforms and carried backpacks sewn from feed bags. Many captured rebels said they had been conscripted.

However, the Zapatistas were well organised and their takeover of the towns in Chiapas was well-coordinated. In the first week of the New Year, the peasants showed that despite being a ragtag force, they could harass the government.

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