The Zapatista Social Netwar in Mexico

David Ronfeldt, John Arquilla, Graham E. Fuller and Melissa Fuller, RAND, 1998, $15.00. (Also available online:

By Rick Mercier (reviewer) | 1999-07-01 12:00:00

In The Zapatista Social Netwar in Mexico, scholars commissioned by the U.S. Army contend that a peasant uprising in southern Mexico represents an emerging form of political struggle "involving measures short of traditional war, in which the protagonists use networked forms of organization and related doctrines, strategies, and technologies attuned to the information age."

The insurgent Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) rose up in Chiapas state in 1994. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reacted electronically to defend the EZLN against the Mexican army's counteroffensive, dispite the fact the United States may have wanted a crackdown on the rebels.

After only 12 days of fighting, the Mexican government had to announce a unilateral cease-fire, and the global Zapatista movement was born, converting a military defeat for the EZLN into a chance to reshape the political landscape. The insurgency by a small indigenous force in an isolated region "was thus transformed and expanded, within weeks, into a nonviolent, less overtly destructive, but still highly disruptive movement that... had both foreign and national repercussions for Mexico."

There were precursors to the Zapatista netwar. In the 1980s, activists in North America mobilized to oppose U.S. policies in Central America. And in the 1990s, when the North American Free Trade Agreement became a hot issue, NGOs formed a transnational network in an attempt to block its passage in the U.S. Congress.

But activists armed with computers and fax machines did not alone give shape to the Zapatista movement. The indigenous communities in Chiapas with a history of egalitarian, community-based decision-making, deserve credit for the nonhierarchical, decentralized nature of the movement.

Of course, any study sponsored by the U.S. Army on social netwar would be incomplete without recommendations for how to conduct counternetwar. Two of the authors' assertions stand out. One is that, even in the age of the Internet, "a war's conduct and outcome will normally depend mostly on what happens in the 'real world;'" the other is that "it takes networks to fight networks."

The Mexican army has learned these lessons, flooding Chiapas with 70,000 troops in small detachments whose mobility and ability to communicate with other units has been enhanced by U.S. military aid.

Federal army and state police paramilitaries carry out their acts of terror inside areas cordoned off by federal troops. The government, meanwhile, portrays the violence as a civil conflict, and uses the mayhem as validation of its policy of saturating indigenous communities with the supposedly peacekeeping soldiers. Thus the Mexican government's information strategy seems to show respect for human rights, while turning up the heat on Zapatista communities.

The authors of this book do not seem to buy the completely benign image fashioned for the Mexican army, and caution the U.S. military "to be wary of a very close association" with it, given that it "seems likely to revert at times to heavy-handed policies and strategies."

The authors promote a nuanced and, if possible, bloodless plan of action for counternetwarriors. These days you have to take into account the "CNN effect," whereby the media - alerted to a situation by netwarriors - deprive a local government of "the luxury of controlling who knows what about a conflict." A hard-line approach to the conflict becomes "less feasible."

Sophisticated counternetwarriors are advised to coopt willing NGOs. In addition, the researchers urge greater surveillance of cyberspace to stay abreast of what netwarriors and would-be netwarriors are up to.

The passages on counternetwar make this book especially worth reading. Moreover, the authors deliver an accurate analysis of the particulars of the Zapatista movement, though they are a little hasty in drawing general conclusions from this one example. Zapatismo is a unique convergence of elements not easily reproducible in other contexts or in support of other struggles. Whether the Zapatista movement really turns out to be a seminal case of netwar, or just a singular one, remains to be seen.

Reviewed by Rick Mercier, a freelance writer based in Japan.

Peace Magazine Summer 1999

Peace Magazine Summer 1999, page 28. Some rights reserved.

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