In 1994, Mexico was thrust into the headlines after the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) seized four towns in the poor southern state of Chiapas. The rebellion occurred on the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force. The Zapatistas called on Mexicans to remember their revolutionary heritage and stand up for the values of ‘land, liberty and reform’ for which their grandparents had fought.

The EZLN were almost exclusively of indigenous origin, angered by the erosion of the shared land and water rights of rural Indian communities. The first three years of the rebellion saw brutal massacres and reprisals, though the EZLN retained a strong, positive public image. The presence of international observers and nascent Mexican organizations has begun to curb the illegal activities of the army and paramilitaries in the rebellious states of Chiapas and Guerrero, but internment and even torture still occur under the pretext of the war on drugs.

The Chiapas uprising is part of a long history of regional wars in Mexico, stretching from the divisive struggle for independence, through the secession of Texas and the loss of California to the US in the mid-19th century. The Mexican Revolution (1910-1917) has often been caricatured as a struggle between the old dictator Porfirio Diaz and a ragtag army of peasants and bandits, whereas in reality it too was a series of regional disputes. The fringes of the nation have rarely been effectively governed, and even today there are thousands of drug-runners and human traffickers in the seas and skies under Mexico’s jurisdiction. The way in which the EZLN and other guerrilla groups have raised and equipped armies suggests the Government has had little reach into the hinterland, though recently Presidents Zedillo and Fox have tried to change this by building roads and military bases through the lightly populated forests of the deep south. The Zapatistas could not halt NAFTA, which accelerated the privatization scramble of the 1980s. While the 20th-century state was controlled by party bosses and big business in a centralized market, Mexico post-1994 has been dominated by a booming entrepreneurial class operating outside the traditional hierarchy. The state has had great difficulty in regulating the activities of the new factory owners, telecommunications giants and utility suppliers.

The most obvious post-NAFTA change for many workers has been the explosion of maquiladora factories, especially in polluted, crime-ridden towns close to the US border. Unionization in maquiladoras is minimal, and while rates of pay are often significantly higher than in local Mexican-owned plants, there is little in the way of job security or benefits.

Illegal migration to the US has grown rapidly since the introduction of NAFTA. With rising unemployment in Mexico and a US economy increasingly reliant on low-wage labour, the hand-wringing of both governments about this rings rather hollow. Substantial remittances sent home from a child or sibling working in the US have helped families survive the erosion of the welfare state.

Poverty has particularly affected the development of Mexican children. During the first years of NAFTA, millions had their education cut short and were pushed into child labour. Since 1997 the Government has attempted, with a good deal of success, to reverse this trend. The Oportunidades scheme provides a grant to families whose children remain in full-time education: the longer the child stays in school, the larger the payment. According to some international observers, the scheme is successful both in reducing extreme poverty and in improving basic education.