How many Canadians remember waking up on January 1, 1994, a little more than 16 years ago, to the news that Mexican rebels had launched an insurrection to mark the first day of the North American Free Trade Agreement? I certainly do.

I was in Ottawa at the time, after working with the anti-NAFTA organization, Action Canada Network, a coalition of more than 50 organizations across the country — auto and steel workers, First Nations, artists, farmers, nurses, teachers.

We had tried unsuccessfully to stop the deal from going through. We feared that the trade agreement, signed by blatantly pro-business governments (Mulroney, Bush Sr., Salinas of Mexico) would wipe out years of legislation designed to control the actions of those who put profits ahead of just about everything else — from workers’ rights to the environment.

We knew there were many people who felt the same way in Mexico because NAFTA meant the opening up of that country to cheap, mass-produced, and subsidized farm produce from the U.S. — something poor, unsubsidized peasants couldn’t compete with.

The trade agreement also terminated a key clause in the Mexican Constitution which protected land for indigenous groups under the ejido system of agricultural co-operatives. This precious commodity was being thrown into the marketplace.

Yes, we knew there was anti-NAFTA sentiment, but had no idea how deep it ran until shots rang out across the poor, southernmost state of Chiapas.

A hitherto-unknown guerrilla group known as the Zapatista National Liberation Army (after agrarian reformer Emiliano Zapata) emerged from the pine-covered hills to occupy the mountain valley town of San Cristobal de Las Casas — the state capital, as well as other towns and villages in the region.

After several days of fighting and too many deaths, the Mexican army pushed the rebels toward the jungle and a fragile ceasefire was declared. But the popularity of the Zapatistas flourished internationally.

That was because they had expressed — with more force than most — the concerns of many, as we watched globalization (under the guise of free trade) exposing country after country to corporate power.

Although the Mexican government eventually negotiated the San Andres accords, allowing more indigenous rights and autonomy, it never actually ratified them — and turned a blind eye as paramilitary groups spread fear and death throughout Chiapas. Thousands of villagers, most of them Mayan, were forced to flee from their homes.

In spite of this, the Zapatistas and their many supporters have managed to create more than 30 autonomous municipalities, establishing health clinics, more than 60 schools, and fair trade coffee co-operatives, along with participatory rather than representative government, which they distrust.

I thought of this history while I sat in a bus a few weeks ago, as it wound its way for several hours up, up into the mountains of Chiapas. We passed small Mayan villages, clinging precariously to the rocks beside the road. I saw cornfields where you wouldn’t think a weed could grow and women in bright, embroidered blouses.

On the outskirts of San Cristobal de Las Casas, I shuddered as we passed a military zone with a barbed wire fence which seemed to stretch for half a mile. What was going on now in this almost mythic place?

For the most part, what I found came as a heartening surprise.

Although the colonial town itself was obviously a popular tourist centre, with a well-disguised Burger King on one of the main streets, the influence of the Zapatistas was everywhere.

A pretty shop full of folk art and handicrafts sold pro-Zapatista posters, postcards, artwork, videos, gun-toting dolls with faces half-covered by bandanas, and more.

In a central restaurant, with its floor covered with pine needles for Christmas, there were pro-Zapatista paintings on the walls — folk art done by the “Cooperativas Autonomas Zapatistas.” Even my placemat was decorated with quotes from Gandhi to Che to Subcomandante Marcos, the former professor turned Zapatista leader.

Sadly, there has been a Canadian element to the struggles in this area. A tent city had been set up in the town’s main square by local miners protesting against a Canadian mining company.

In fact, in December, three men linked to Blackfire Exploration Ltd. were arrested for the murder of an anti-mining organizer. The company has also been charged with bribing local officials.

Many Chiapas communities want already established mines closed because they contaminate groundwater, destroy fragile ecosystems, and make people ill. In spite of this, there is talk of Canada’s Mexican “gold rush” — supported by the Harper government, which is eagerly backing destructive mining ventures around the world.

Yes, Chiapas 16 years later is still a volatile region of Mexico. Two years ago, human rights groups reported an intensification of military activity in the area.

Little wonder that an important aspect of the Zapatistas’ efforts to survive is to maintain a public profile. They probably realize that, if they become invisible, the Mexican government might quietly and systematically destroy them.

After all, they have seen other governments around the world deal murderously with rebellious elements (both internally and externally) — and get away with it.

Kathleen O'Hara

Kathleen O’Hara has been a print, radio and television journalist for 15 years. She worked as a producer for national programs, including “As It Happens” on CBC radio and “The...

Alex Samur

Alex Samur

Alexandra Samur was’s managing editor from 2010 to 2012, books and blogs editor from 2007 to 2012. Alex’s career in independent media spans more than a decade and includes stints...