Mexico's Zapatista Rebel Leader Marcos Steps Down

Mexico's Zapatista Rebel Leader Marcos Steps Down

Subcomandante Marcos, the mysterious masked leader of Mexico’s Zapatista rebels, bowed out as chief of the 20-year-old movement in what he described vaguely as “internal changes.”

Marcos made the announcement one day after making his first public appearance in five years in the southern state of Chiapas, attending a ceremony for a fallen comrade while puffing on his trademark pipe and wearing an eye patch.

The enigmatic rebel, whose movement emerged in Chiapas state on January 1, 1994 demanding greater rights for its indigenous communities, denied rumors that he was sick.

He said his decision to step aside was the result of “internal changes” within the EZLN, but he did not elaborate.

In his statement, Marcos says the “chief and spokesman” of the EZLN is now Moises, who was promoted to “subcomandante” in February.

Marcos reappeared Saturday in front of some 3,000 rebels and supporters attending a ceremony in the town of La Realidad for Jose Luis Solis Lopez, aka “Galeano,” an EZLN member who was reportedly killed in a clash with a farmers’ group.

Marcos signed his statement as “Insurgent Subcomandante Galeano,” suggesting he would now be known as such.

Authorities have identified Marcos as Rafael Sebastian Guillen, a former philosophy professor who was born in the northern state of Tamaulipas and taught at Mexico City’s National Autonomous University.

Marcos said the EZLN had fueled rumors of his illnesses to its benefit.

The impact of his decision on the EZLN remains to be seen.

Once a darling of the international media, Marcos has shunned the spotlight, communicating via statements. He last appeared in public in 2009.

It was not Marcos but a Zapatista named Commander Hortensia who gave the main speech at an event marking the rebellion’s 20th anniversary on January 1.

– Brief conflict –

Taking its name from 1910 revolution hero Emiliano Zapata, the EZLN appeared the same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force on New Year’s Day 1994.

The rebellion sparked a 12-day conflict with the federal government that left dozens of people dead.

A peace pact was signed in 1996 but the Zapatistas’ demands were never met.

Tired of waiting for the government, the Zapatistas created their own autonomous justice, health and education systems in five “caracoles,” or shells, that oversee more than 30 communities.

While NAFTA has transformed Mexico into a manufacturing power, almost half the population lives in poverty and Chiapas remains the country’s poorest state.