A federal judge in Mexico has decided to drop terrorism and rebellion charges against iconic Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos after a more than 20-year manhunt that never took place.
Marcos, a swashbuckling, pipe-smoking rebel leader who captured the world’s attention as a modern-day Zorro during the Zapatista uprising in 1994, is now officially off the Mexican government’s wanted list.
But whatever happened to the mysterious masked man? And did Mexican authorities ever find out the true identity of the man behind the iconic ski mask and plume of pipe smoke?
On New Year’s Eve, 1993, a ragtag indigenous rebel group calling itself the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN in Spanish) declared war against the Mexican government and captured several municipalities in the southern state of Chiapas. The Zapatistas opposed Mexico’s newly ratified North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the United States and Canada, arguing the international treaty would issue in a new era of unfair globalization depriving the already marginalized indigenous communities from their lands.
The uprising caught the world’s attention for its audacity —not even Mexico’s most violent cartels have openly declared war against the government— and for its incredible knack for public relations, an effort headed mostly by Marcos.
Then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari quickly mobilized the army, fearing the uprising would spread into a larger rebellion. But the fighting was short lived. The Zapatista rebels, a group of indigenous Mexicans armed with old rifles and whatever other makeshift weapons they could find, were easily pushed back into the Chiapas jungle. But Marcos, the movement’s savvy and college-educated spokesman, knew the real battle would be waged with words and images.
Marcos, who never removed his ski mask and insisted he was not the top rebel leader (hence his title as subcommander), became the darling of European intellectuals and the international media who gobbled up his image as a folk hero among the ranks of an army of the poor. The Zapatista cause also won strong support from Mexican society, which was both intrigued by the mystique of Marcos’ army as well as the cause they backed. Zapatista civil society groups sprung up across the country.
Marcos became a type of faceless sex symbol that Mexicans reportedly fantasized about.
Having won the battle for public opinion, the Zapatistas forced the government to negotiate a series of peace accords, even though they never represented any serious military threat. And Marcos, who Mexican intelligence identified as former left-wing college professor Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente (an identity Marcos denied), escaped martyrdom by simply fading into obscurity.
In 2014, after a few final media interviews, Marcos announced he was going to step down amid structural and generational changes in the Zapatistas’ leadership.
Since then his whereabouts are unknown. He’s reportedly been seen from time to time in the Zapatista town of San Cristobal de las Casas, but mostly his image now is limited to T-shirts and posters.