Mexico Facts
Area:    1,972,550 sq. km.
Capital:    Mexico City
Total Population:    84,486,000 (source: UN, 1995, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

The Zapotecs have three factors that increase the likelihood of future rebellion: (1) persistent protest in the past decade, (2) territorial concentration in Oaxaca and Tehuantepec, (3) and a high level of organization and cohesion as represented in COCEI. However, four factors support the strong likelihood that rebellion will be avoided: (1) increased democratic stability under the Fox administration, (2) the bigger commitment by the Fox administration to meet indigenous demands, which has been backed by immediate action, (3) the widespread public and ideological support of Mexican indigenous groups by the numerous foreign governments and transnational NGOs, (4) and a lack of serious armed conflicts in neighboring Guatemala.

The prospects for peace in Zapotec regions are good, primarily due to President Fox's decisive action upon election in 2000 to scale back military operations in indigenous regions and his commitment to addressing the grievances of indigenous groups. Despite opposition to the Indian rights bill passed in April 2001, there is no indication that there will be an escalation of violence. Though the presence of pro-PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) paramilitary groups in indigenous regions pose a continued threat, such groups are likely to face greater constraints with the PRI unseated in the presidency and in key gubernatorial offices.

Analytic Summary

Zapotecs in Mexico are located in Chiapas, Coahuila, Colina, Oaxaca, and Veracruz. Oaxaca is home to the largest number of Zapotecs, with over 80,000 living in Juchitan, Oaxaca's second largest city (GROUPCON = 3). They are distinguished by the Zapotec language (LANG = 1). The Zapotecs migrated from highland Oaxaca Valley to the isthmus in the 14th Century. They displaced the Huaves, Zoques, Mixes, and Chontals from agricultural land and living areas, which they historically controlled under the communal ejido land system (AUTON = 1) until government efforts to privatize Indian lands, beginning with agrarian reforms in the 1940s and continuing through the enactment of NAFTA, began to subject indigenous populations to increasing land and territory losses. The Zapotecs remained steadfast in their culture and traditions and thus, became the dominant indigenous group of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico (CUSTOM = 1, BELIEF = 2). They are represented by the Worker-Peasant-Student Coalition of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (COCEI), a local, conventional political organization.

Zapotecs experience significant demographic stress due to poor health conditions, periodic natural disasters, and substantial migration. Only 34% of those in indigenous regions have health insurance and access to health care facilities as opposed to the 47% of those living in non-indigenous regions. Food distribution between indigenous and non-indigenous areas appears to be more equitable. Due to the stifling hot and dry weather of the Isthmus, dirt and sand create difficult health and sanitary conditions for many Zapotecs. Conjunctivitis of the eye is common and many people suffer from eye, ear and throat infections all year long. Many Zapotecs suffer from diabetes and alcoholism. Moreover, the mosquitos of this region carry a viral infection from which many Zapotecs suffer. Due to all of these environmental factors, the health standards in the Zapotec regions of Oaxaca are very low. Furthermore, the education levels and sanitation services in this region are below that of non-indigenous regions. There are high rates of unemployment in the Zapotec area of Oaxaca (Juchitan) also. The Isthmus region is a region of settlement for Guatemalan refugees and thus, the population in addition to high birth rates, has increased since the 1980s. Political activity is restricted (POLDIS03 = 3), in part, due to social exclusion, but also to widespread human and civil rights abuses precipitated by the militarization of Zapotec regions. Cultural restriction is not significant, but they do face economic discrimination due to social exclusion (ECDIS03 = 3).

The Zapotecs' primary group demands and grievances include protection of their agricultural lands from oil industry pollution, increased government investment in infrastructure and social services, opposing human rights abuses stemming from militarization and paramilitary opposition, as well as state restrictions of their political freedoms. Until late 2002, Zapotecs faced significant language discrimination in the justice system, where Spanish is used and interpreters were not supplied for non-Spanish speakers. A law passed in mid-December 2002 guaranteed that indigenous language speakers would have a bilingual judge.

Though historically non-violent, the Juchitecos (90% Zapotec) rebelled against the state under the leadership of Che Gomez in 1911. In 1931 a rebellion for autonomy was crushed by the Mexican government. In 1983, the Mexican government impeached the COCEI government in Juchitan leading to a 5-month standoff between Zapotecs and the Mexican military accompanied by several street battles and demonstrations (PROT80x = 4). In August 1996 the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), which was linked by the government to the Zapotec town of Los Loxichas attacked the tourist town of Huatulco, leaving 11 people dead. Since 1974, 20-30 COCEI members (called coceistas) have been killed by the military and police. Additional human rights abuses, including arbitrary arrest, kidnapping, and torture were reported by a 1986 Amnesty International report, most of which resulted from police and military anti-EPR (COMCON96X = 3) campaigns and repression of COCEI political activity. The Zapotecs have not received significant military or material aid from external actors. Government efforts to institute reforms were unsubstantial until the 2000 election of President Vicente Fox, who scaled back the military presence in indigenous regions shortly after the election and submitted legislation to congress containing numerous protections of indigenous rights. However, the Indian rights bill passed by congress on April 28, 2001, has been opposed by indigenous communities because it failed to meet their demands. Opposition has so far been peaceful (PROT01 = 5, PROT02 = 4, PROT03 = 2).


Campbell, Howard. "Tradition and the New Social Movements: The Politics of Isthmus Zapotec Culture." Latin American Perspectives. 20(3): 83-97.

Campbell, Howard. Zapotec Renaissance. Albuquerque, New Mexico. University of New Mexico Press. 1994.

Campbell, Howard, Leigh Binford, Miguel Bartolome, and Alicia Barabas, eds. Zapotec Struggles. Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Institution Press. 1993.

Nexis Library Files, 1990-2003.

Panagides, Alexis. "Mexico." Indigenous People and Poverty in Latin America. Washington, D.C. The World Bank. 1994.

Tresierra, Julio. "Mexico: Indigenous Peoples and the Nation-State." In D. Van Cott, ed. Indigenous Peoples and Democracy in Latin America. New York. St. Martin's Press. 1994.

EFE News Service, May 1, 2001, Mexico-Indians Mexican Indians Reject Indian Rights Bill.

Deutsche Presse-Agentur, July 20, 2001, Indigenous rights bill controversy heats up in Mexico.

The News, December 13, 2002, Congress approves indigenous language provision.

** Reuters News Service, Inter Press Service, and the New York Times

were also utilized for this chronology.


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