At the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation took over six towns in the southern Mexico state of Chiapas, launching an uprising that has highlighted the country’s mistreatment of aboriginal people.

The group, which goes by the Spanish acronym EZLN, consists of peasants descended from the ancient Mayans and demands an end to “an undeclared genocidal war against our people.”

The Mexican army mobilized 12,000 soldiers, helicopter gunships and tanks to quash the uprising. The death toll is not easy to confirm, but human-rights groups say some 400 people have died, including many aboriginal non-combatants killed in air raids.

Ovide Mercredi, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, flew to Mexico as part of a Canadian delegation to look into human-rights violations in Mexico. Mercredi blamed the violence on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and on a recent Mexican constitutional amendment that allows the sale of indigenous lands to private interests without the consent of the inhabitants. “It explains, in part, one of the root causes of the violence that erupted in that part of the country that would be the equivalent to the Canadian government saying that the Indian reservations can be sold without the consent of the Indian people.”

After two weeks of fighting, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari ordered a ceasefire and promised amnesty to rebels who stopped fighting.

The EZLN timed its uprising to coincide with the January 1 implementation date of NAFTA signed by Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. The group says NAFTA will harm Chiapas’ already-poor economy.

The rebels named themselves after a famous Mexican freedom fighter, Emiliano Zapata, murdered by the government in the early part of the century. The EZLN promises to raise the indigenous Mayans out of poverty by overthrowing the government. They also call for a return of land to the mostly Mayan peasants of Chiapas. They complain that the Mexican government has backed away from land reform efforts that would have given the Mayans more land. Virtually all the farmland is now in the hands of a small group of powerful ranchers. (See Zapatista Declaration on page 21)