The quarter-century before 1 January 1994 brought seismic upheavals to Chiapas, Mexico. For two generations, Tseltal and Tsotsil communities there had been ruled by government-appointed indigenous political bosses, trained in the 1940s as bilingual schoolteachers (maestros bilingües) by the National Indian Institute. Previously, most native towns had been run by ladino (mestizo) labor agents representing the state’s large coffee plantations. But that arrangement changed when President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–40) and his successors constructed their one-party state. With the maestros bilingües in place, coffee planters had to depend on the government for Indian labor.

By the mid-1960s, this system was crumbling. The maestros bilingües were old or dead; new roads had undermined their control over remote highland villages and fractured their political machines. Even worse, caciques had become anachronistic: the state government did not need them anymore to run Indian municipalities....

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