The Mexican Revolution promised fundamental changes in Mexico’s covenant with its poor and indigenous farmers. The war broke out in 1910, but came to Chiapas  in 1914, when revolutionary forces took control of the state and promptly abolished debt servitude. However the decree served to unite Chiapas’s landowners, both lowland liberals and highland conservatives, who saw much of their work force simply walk off the job. They responded by organizing armed gangs that terrorized revolutionary officials and their supporters, and succeeded in undercutting many of the reforms won by the revolution. In remote areas, particularly eastern Chiapas, powerful ranchers and landowners continued to operate virtual fiefdoms well into the 1930s.
Beginning in 1934, the Mexican government, under the inspired guidance of president Lázaro Cárdenas, finally took up the task of truly enforcing land and agrarian reforms envisioned in the 1917 constitution. Cárdenas undertook a massive nationalization program, claiming the major electricity, oil, and other companies for the state, and created state-run companies like PEMEX, the oil conglomerate still in existence today.
In Chiapas , the federal government seized thousands of hectares of underutilized lands—the Great Depression had dried up demand for many of Mexico’s export crops—and redistributed them to farmers and collective peasant organizations known as ejidos. The policies fomented a robust cycle of homegrown production and demand, and Mexico entered several decades of sustained growth dubbed The Mexican Miracle.
Cárdenas also founded a new government agency, the Department of Indian Protection, which would later become the powerful National Indianist Institute, or INI, and whose first director was Chiapas governor Erasto Urbina. Urbina, in turn, helped indigenous farmers in Chiapas obtain federal land grants and established an indigenous workers’ union to recruit and represent workers in the state’s coffee plantations. While not done simply to curry political favor, these actions did have the effect of cementing indigenous support for the newly formed Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. That support proved crucial, and surprisingly resilient, as the PRI consolidated power and morphed from the enlightened party of Lázaro Cárdenas to a so-called “perfect dictatorship”—deeply corrupt, and holding every major office in the federal government, and most state governments as well, for more than seven decades.
Even today, voting for a non-PRI candidate (like joining a Protestant faith) is a grave offense in many indigenous communities; anyone discovered doing so can be immediately and permanently expelled from their home and the community. By the same token, many indigenous communities in Chiapas do not support the fiercely anti-PRI Zapatista movement.
In the 1960s and ’70s, a boom in energy projects—namely oil drilling and dam construction—sent economic and social shockwaves through Chiapas, in much the same way timber and coffee production did a century prior. Two major dams were constructed on the Río Grijalva in the 1960s, and rising oil prices in the 1970s prompted PEMEX to greatly expand off-shore drilling along the Gulf coast. In Chiapas, as elsewhere, thousands of farmers left the countryside for construction and transport jobs on these massive projects. While the added income was a boon for those who got it, agricultural production fell dramatically nationwide, forcing Mexico to import corn and other staples.
Perhaps more importantly, Mexico’s energy boom altered the social and economic fabric of many indigenous villages. Incomes gaps emerged in longtime egalitarian communities, and traditional farming techniques—which among other things relied on neighbors helping harvest one another’s fields—were disrupted; in severe cases, farmers were forced to sell their land or move to urban areas.
In the 1980s, after reaping huge profits from oil exports during the oil crisis, the Mexican peso suddenly plunged, as much as 500 percent by 1982, prompting then president López Portillo to nationalize Mexico’s banks. Under pressure from international financial institutions, Mexico adopted dramatic restructuring and austerity measures, including virtually eliminating agricultural subsidies to small farmers, like those in Chiapas . The federal government also began a concerted campaign, under the guise of economic restructuring, of undermining the agrarian reform laws dating to the Mexican Revolution.
In 1992, president Carlos Salinas de Gortari succeeded in amending the constitution, eliminating the provision that committed the government to providing all farmers with land, and allowing for the privatization of communal ejidos. This unprecedented action—ending almost a century of land reform—and the adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) shortly thereafter, utterly demoralized many poor and landless farmers, especially in eastern Chiapas, and was a major catalyst for the Zapatista uprising, launched on January 1, 1994—the day NAFTA took effect.
A series of electoral reforms implemented in the late 1980s and through the 1990s paved the way for the historic 2000 presidential election, in which an opposition candidate—former Coca-Cola executive Vicente Fox of the right-of-center PAN—defeated the PRI, ending the latter’s 70-year reign of power. Fox was succeeded in 2006 by another PAN member, Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, in an election in which the PRI finished a distant third. However, the election was marred by allegations of fraud and weeks of post-election demonstrations.
President Calderón’s number one priority has been cracking down on drug cartels, an effort that has succeeded in hampering the drug trade, but has also sparked a cascade of violence among rival cartel members, the police, and military, with prosecutors and journalists being targeted for intimidation and even murder. While most of the violence related to the crackdown has been in the north, Chiapas has also seen increased military presence, particularly in the state’s far east, which is sometimes used as a portal for drug shipments from South America.
The eastern jungles are also where the EZLN (the Zapatista National Liberation Army) is strongest, though the Zapatistas do not appear to be involved in drug trafficking. By the same token, it seems unlikely, as some EZLN supporters claim, that the government is using drugs merely as an excuse to weaken their movement; that may be giving the struggling movement too much credit. For better or worse, the stalemate between the EZLN and the Mexican government shows little signs of change, let alone resolution, especially with Calderón and the country focused on the drug war, the economic crisis, and other matters.
In Chiapas , a number of major projects have moved steadily forward with state and federal support, including several related to tourism. Construction of a toll road between San Cristóbal de las Casas  and Palenque  began in 2009 (projected to be completed by 2014) and plans for an international airport in Palenque are gaining steam. Both changes could greatly increase tourism traffic to the state, but could also risk inflaming conflict between the government and small farmers and communities, whose lands may be affected.