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Chapter One: 'to open a crack in history'

What may turn out to be the biggest political movement of the twenty-first century emerged from the rainforest remnants of southern Mexico on 1 January 1994, carried down darkened, cobbled colonial streets by 3,000 pairs of black leather boots at precisely thirty minutes past midnight. The owners of the boots carried rifles and the odd AK-47 or Uzi. Those who had drawn short straws carried fake wooden guns.

Three thousand faces, hidden by black woollen ski masks, bore the distinctive features of the Mayan Indians of Central America; a people outgunned, outcompeted, pillaged, slaughtered or simply passed over since the Spanish conquistadores first arrived on their shores in the sixteenth century. Now, half a millennium later, here in Chiapas, Mexico's poorest and southernmost state, 'the ones without faces, the ones without voices' had come to make the world listen.

The people of San Cristobal de las Casas, the old conquistador capital of Chiapas, were still groggy from their New Year celebrations when their town came alive with the sound of marching boots. They heard orders barked in Tzotzil, a local Mayan language, by the black-haired major, carbine in her hands, pistol strapped to her chest, who commanded this uninvited army. And from the picturesque central square, the Plaza 31 de Marzo, its ancient yellow cathedral and colonial government buildings framed by a clear white moon, they heard the sound of gunshots. Those citizens brave or curious enough to venture out into the square were met with a sight they were unlikely to forget: dozens of masked guerrillas were swarming around the Plaza. Some were standing guard with their battered rifles, others were surrounding the police headquarters, while a third group, armed with sledgehammers, pounded on the great wooden doors of the Municipal Palace. There could be little doubt in the minds of the people of San Cristobal about what they were witnessing. It was the first act of a revolution.

By the time the rebels began carrying furniture out of the Municipal Palace and using it to build barricades across the streets, to check the expected approach of the Mexican army, the Plaza was thronging with locals, drunks, tourists and curious spectators. Then, as they watched, a small group of guerrillas raised a flag in the middle of the elegant square - a black flag, printed with four red letters: EZLN.

As they did so, a masked figure emerged on to the balcony of the Municipal Palace. In his hand he held a piece of paper. It was a declaration of war against the Mexican government: one which, on that same morning, would be read aloud to the people of six other towns in Chiapas which this 'EZLN' had also claimed as its own.

'We are the product of five hundred years of struggle,' he read as, in the background, more gunfire and palls of smoke indicated that a rebel column was storming the police headquarters. 'We are the inheritors of the true builders of this nation . . . denied the most elemental preparation so they can use us as cannon-fodder and pillage the wealth of our country. They don't care that we have nothing, absolutely nothing . . . There is no peace or justice for ourselves and our children . . . But today we say: Ya basta! Enough is enough!'

Five hundred miles away, Mexico's president, Carlos Salinas, and his anointed heir, Luis Donaldo Colosio, were celebrating the New Year in an exclusive holiday resort on the Pacific coast. As the midnight bells rang, Salinas and Colosio raised glasses of champagne and toasted the official arrival of NAFTA - the North American Free Trade Agreement - which, at the stroke of midnight, officially came into operation. With the sound of those bells, NAFTA had created, for the first time in history, one great borderless free market between Mexico, Canada and the USA. Mexico had officially entered the modern world, and Salinas was celebrating his legacy.

Two hours later he was on the telephone, listening to news of a development that would shatter not only that legacy, but his successor's presidency and his party's age-old iron grip on Mexican politics; and which, later - much later - would begin to shake the legitimacy of the global free-trade project itself. The Secretary of Defense was calling from Mexico City, and he had bad news. An armed insurgent force, calling itself the Zapatista Army of National Liberation - EZLN - had seized control of seven towns in Chiapas state and declared war on the army, the government - and NAFTA itself.
'Are you sure?' croaked the president.

Back in San Cristobal, a journalist had collared the masked man who had led the assault on the police station. Unlike the other guerrillas, what could be seen of his face suggested not an Indian but a ladino - a Spanish Mexican. The man wore bandoliers across his chest, and a tattered green cap studded with red stars on top of his ski mask. A pipe protruded from his mouth. Ignoring Major Ana Maria, the Indian woman who had led the invasion of the city - which, as an Indian woman, was exactly what she had come to expect - the journalist asked this tall white man with the big nose who he was.
'Who am I?'
'Yes! Are you, perhaps, "Commander Tiger"? Or "Commander Lion?"'
The man with the pipe looked at the journalist with a mixture of weariness and amusement behind the black wool of his mask.
'No,' he said. 'I am Marcos. Subcomandante Marcos.'

It didn't last. That day, around 3,000 Zapatista soldiers took control of seven towns in Chiapas. The government responded swiftly and decisively: 15,000 troops poured into the state; helicopter gunships bombed Indian villages, killing 150 people; specialist assault teams hunted down the Zapatista units. The guerrillas retreated from San Cristobal barely twenty-four hours after they had arrived. Within twelve days the government, responding to an unexpected surge of national support for the masked rebels, declared a ceasefire, and the EZLN melted back into the rainforest from whence it had come.

As revolutions go it was, shall we say, unimpressive. In less than a fortnight, it seemed, the Zapatistas had been crushed, along with their insurgency. An ignominious end to yet another ignominious revolt: the latest in the long line of guerrilla uprisings that Latin America just couldn't seem to grow out of.

And yet. As the truth about these 'Zapatistas' - a grass-roots peasant army who named themselves after the followers of the slain hero of the original Mexican revolution of 1910, Emiliano Zapata - began to emerge, so did something curiously different. These, it seemed, were no ordinary guerrilleros. For one, they claimed that they had no desire to seize state power. Unlike so many Latin American revolutionaries before them, their aim, they said, was not to grab 'power' on behalf of 'the people', but to dissolve power down to the level of communities - to take back what they claimed had been rightly theirs, before governments and private economic interests stole it from them. 'Power is not taken,' they would later be heard to say. 'It is constructed.'

Their language, too, was new. Where was the talk of 'the proletariat', 'the bourgeoisie', Marx, Lenin, Mao, permanent revolution? Why, instead of appealing to 'the workers' to rise up and join them, were they calling on something called 'civil society' to stand between them and the soldiers of their government? Why did they speak not of a dictatorship of the proletariat but of a rebirth of democracy? Why was their uprising directed not just at a government, nor even simply at the usual capitalist stooges, but at an apparently innocuous regional trade treaty?

Why did this Marcos character, who spoke in poetry, stories and riddles, describe his homeland as 'an object of shame dressed in the colour of money'? And why were so many people beginning to describe what had happened that day in the green high-sided canyons of Chiapas as 'the first post-modern revolution'?

The answers to these questions would take a while for the world to figure out. When it did, this tiny indigenous rebellion in an overlooked part of Central America would provide the spark that lit a bigger rebellion all across the world. The Zapatistas would become the unwitting, but not unwilling, forgers of a truly global insurgency against history's first truly global system.

Like most of the rest of the world, I didn't notice the Zapatista uprising at the time. I was at university, writing essays and finding myself dragged into a mini-revolution of my own: the road protest movement which was then spreading like a rash over what was left of the British countryside. Up trees, down tunnels, in squatted factories, padlocked to bridges and balanced on top of digger arms I, like thousands of others, was politicised by the road protests, and began to make the links between what was happening in Newbury, Winchester, Bath and Leytonstone and what was happening to the wider world.

Over the next few years I got involved in what seemed to be a putative but growing mass movement, in Britain and beyond, which was taking those links to the streets. As it occupied motorways, holding street parties where previously there had been traffic jams; invaded the shareholder meetings of oil companies; lobbied parliament; refused to lobby parliament; marched, grandstanded and grew, it talked of the global forces behind the problems it was trying to tackle. It talked of 'neoliberalism' (whatever that was); of powerful, unaccountable corporations, of a grinding-down of democracy, of a global economic machine spinning out of control, eating up the things that people valued and spitting out share prices as it passed.
It began to talk, too, of these Zapatistas. I heard that the EZLN were something new, radical, remarkable. I heard that they had reinvented politics. I heard that Chiapas was the lodestone of a new revolution. I heard that they were anarchists, communists, reactionaries, fools, poets, warriors. I heard that they were none of the above. I heard that Subcomandante Marcos was the new Che Guevara. I heard that they did an extremely natty line in T-shirts.

In September 2000, I went to Prague, and, with 20,000 others, tried to shut down the annual meeting of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. There I saw something extraordinary. Protesters from all over Europe were joined by others from around the world in an unprecedented coalition of the most unlikely, and yet strangely united, forces. And on the streets, among the banners, the flags, the tear-gas, the batons and D-locks and stun grenades, the energy and the ideas, thousands shouted a slogan first heard in the San Cristobal Plaza on that January morning in 1994: 'Ya basta! ' Enough is enough.

Back home, after that, it was difficult not to be disillusioned with the way the world was going, and the people who were running it. The world was changing, further and faster than anyone could remember, and none of the old answers, from left or right or anywhere, seemed to fit the new questions. On the streets, meanwhile, something was massing. At the Ecologist magazine, where I was working, reports were coming in every day, from all over the world, of resistance, rebellion, uprisings against the system. If you added up the numbers involved, it totalled millions of people, in dozens of countries. Few of the stories ever made the mainstream media. Something big was happening out there, and nobody was listening.

I couldn't escape a growing conviction that what I was seeing was the fumbling birth of a genuinely new political movement - something international, something different and something potentially huge. But what exactly was it? Where had it come from? Was it really, as so many claimed, 'global', and if so, what did that mean? Did it have any substantial ideas beyond objecting to the status quo? Was it a flash in the pan or a bushfire across the political landscape? I felt a part of it, whatever it was. I wanted to know.

It took me eight months of travelling across five continents to get near to answering those questions. I knew that to really understand this movement I would have to go and see it at work - not simply in the cities where the highly publicised protests happen, but in the places where the movement was really born, where its strength and numbers lie and where its essence can be found - places which lie mainly in poor countries, away from the camera's eye. Choosing some of the places to visit was difficult, but one decision was easy to make. I knew I had to go to where so many said this whole thing had been born: I had to go to Chiapas.

I knew that whatever had happened, and was happening, in Chiapas, would tell me a lot about this movement, and about the hopes that kept it alive. Hopes expressed by the shadowy Subcomandante two months after he stormed the police station in San Cristobal, in words which, as well as any other, provided an explanation for the hard struggle into the light of something genuinely new:
'In our dreams, we have seen another world.'