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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Mayans in Mexico

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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 Mayans demonstrate three factors that increase the likelihood of future rebellion: persistent protest in the past decade; territorial concentration; and a high level of organization and cohesion behind the EZLN. However, four factors decreasing the likelihood of rebellion are also present: (increased democratic stability under recent administrations; a bigger commitment by recent administration to meet indigenous demands, which has been backed by immediate action; the widespread public and ideological support of Mexican indigenous groups by the numerous foreign governments and transnational NGOs; and a lack of serious armed conflicts in neighboring Guatemala.

Prospects for peace in Mayan regions are very good. However, protest is likely to continue. After the Mexican government agreed to a scaled down version of the Zapatistas demand for full autonomy rights for all of Mexico’s indigenous the Zapatistas simply declared de facto autonomy of 30 municipalities. The areas area under the control of the Zapatistas have their own educational, medical and political systems. Mayan grievances have mainly centered on the government’s neoliberal political thought that have put the Mayans livelihood of farming at risk. The Zapatistas have also protested oppression of indigenous peoples, globalization and the corruption in Mexico’s government. The leader of the Zapatistas movement, Marcos denounced all of the 2006 presidential candidates as weak.


Analytic Summary

Mayans in Mexico are located in the southeastern part of the country, specifically in the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Coahuila, Michocan, Nayarit, Quintana Roo, Sinaloa, Sonora, Yucatan and Zacatecas (GROUPCON = 3). The principal Mayan subgroups are Maya, Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Chol, Tojolabal, Zoque and Lacandón, each of which possesses a unique, living language of the same name. Maya is most common and spoken by 1,490,000 people, accounting for approximately 14 percent of all indigenous speakers in Mexico. Despite these tribal distinctions, religious (Mayans are predominantly Catholic) and important political values are shared by most Mayans. They traditionally controlled native lands through the ejido communal land system until government efforts to privatize indigenous 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.

Mayans have a long history of resistance to centralized rule, revolting repeatedly against Spanish rule in the 16th and 17th centuries. They rebelled against the fledgling Mexican government during the mid-19th century during the Mexican caste wars and controlled an independent mini-state until the early 20th century, with the last village falling to Mexican armed forces in April 1933.

Under the administration of General Lazaro Cardenas (1934-1940), Indian policies were centralized under the Mexican state. Cardenas established policies which separated Indians from peasants because the large number of Indians offered political strength and support for his administration. In 1940, the Autonomous Department of Indigenous Affairs was established and the First Inter-American Indian Congress was held. This "indigenismo" was a form of state cooptation through which Indians were assimilated into a broader Mexican culture. After the Cardenas administration, the Indian movement further developed. This was primarily due to Mexican state policies of privatizing agricultural lands which were populated by Indians. At this time, Indians began to mobilize in response to government policies on a local and regional level, calling for more participation in the national system. Their demands were for land, fair pay, natural resources defense, and the right to self-determination.

It was also during the post-Cardenas period that the INI (National Indigenous Institute) was formed. In 2003, the INI was replaced by the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (CDI), designed to take over and better manage all the functions of the old INI. It is the official government agency for indigenous affairs and coordinates more than 3,000 indigenous organizations. This coordination is facilitated through the government agencies of the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Agrarian Reform, the Office of the Agrarian Comptroller, the Ministry of Social Development, the Ecology Institute, the National Commission for Human Rights, and the National Institute for Anthropology and History. In response to INI programs during the post-Cardenas years, other indigenous organizations formed nationally, such as the National Union of Indigenist Organizations (UNOI), the National Federation of Indigenist Youth (CNJI), and the Mexican Association of Indigenous Professionals and Intellectuals (AMPII).

Mayans, along with Mexico’s other indigenous groups, were represented by the state-sponsored Autonomous Department of Indigenous Affairs, beginning in 1940 and, later, through the INI (now called the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, or CDI), the official government agency for indigenous affairs. The National Council of Indigenous Peoples (CNPI) formed in 1975 to work with the state on indigenous issues, but later staged protests against state policies. The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), which advocates the rights of Mayans and all Indians of southeastern Mexico, emerged from the 1994 Chiapas uprising as a militant organization, but has since favored political forms of mobilization and is currently the most widely recognized pro-indigenous organization in Mexico. Mayan and indigenous causes are also supported in Mexico by numerous smaller organizations, both militant and conventional, including the People's Revolutionary Army (EPR) and the Revolutionary Army of Insurgent People (ERPI) (GOJPA06 = 3).

A law passed in mid-December 2002 guaranteed that indigenous language speakers would be provided a bilingual judge. However the Humans Rights Commission in 2004 released a report the Mayans were often abused by local authorities and were put into court systems with few if any translators for their languages. It also reported that Mayans still live great poverty, with many Mayan children suffering from malnutrition. Mayans have been demographically marginalized by a history of social exclusion, land struggles, poor health conditions and periodic natural disasters (POLDIS04-06 = 3; ECDIS04-06 = 3).

The Zapatista movement has received a strong foreign following from groups that sympathize with the groups against globalization and for more rights. Most of the Zapatista municipalities have survived because of foreign financial support. While they have had no major violent conflicts with the Mexican government since 1994, they have promised to continue their fight for Mexico’s indigenous. In 2003, Marcos announced that the Zapatistas would no longer focus on revolution but would turn their attention to more politics in a more peaceful way. Fighters were withdrawn from roadblocks and travelers were no longer charged to pass from the group. No rebellion has been reported in recent years (REB04-06 = 0). However, violence between non-Zapatista supporters and Zapatista supporters over land has increased over the years. Protest has also continued in recent years (PROT04 = 3; PROT05 = 2; PROT06 = 3). The Zapatistas believe that the government has not put the 1996 agreement into effect and has refused to accept any government funding for Mayans.



Coe, Michael D. 1987. The Maya. London: Thames and Hudson.

Collier, George A. 1987. "Peasant Politics and the Mexican State: Indigenous Compliance in Highland Chiapas." Mexican Studies. 3:1. 71-79.

Del Popolo, Fabiana, Ana Maria Oyarce, Bruno Ribotta and Jorge Rodriguez. 2007. Indigenous peoples and urban settlements: Spatial Distribution, Internal Migration and Living Conditions." Latin American and Caribbean Demographic Centre (CELADE) Population Division.

LexisNexis. Various news reports. 1990-2006.

National Commission for the Development of Indigenous People. 2000. "Poblacion indigena (1) por lengua (2), porcentage de hablantes de lengua indigena y ubicacion geografica, Mexico, 2000.", accessed 4/25/2008.

Panagides, Alexis. 1994. "Mexico." In G. Psacharopoulos and H.A. Patrinos, eds. Indigenous People and Poverty in Latin America. The World Bank.

Reed, Nelson. 2002. The Caste War of Yucatan: Revised Edition. Stanford University Press.

Tresierra, Julio. 1994. "Mexico: Indigenous Peoples and the Nation-State." In Donna Lee VanCott, ed. Indigenous Peoples and Democracy. New York. St. Martin's Press. 1994.


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Information current as of December 31, 2006