Photos: Mexico's aging rebels

JUAN DIEGO, Mexico — In 1994, the Zapatista rebels put their balaclava-clad faces on the world map. Indigenous peasants from Chiapas disenchanted with the injustice of life in Mexico's poorest state, they fought for equality, peace and dignity.

With the elusive Subcomandante Marcos as their reluctant leader, the movement advanced slowly over the years. The Zapatistas have seen many successes and improvements, tempered by constant challenges and setbacks.

A generation has passed since the armed beginning of the movement. Zapatistas who were once rebels in their prime have grown older and are starting to look back at how far they've come.

In the Zapatista village of Juan Diego, a 66-year-old farmer named Adan (the majority of Zapatistas refuse to give their full names, and request to be photographed with covered faces) said the armed struggle against Mexico's capitalist system was worth the cost.

"They're still screwing us over because we're poor," Adan said. "But it's not as bad as it was before because we've made progress and now we have a place to work."

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation recovered more than 600,000 acres of land from landowners who would hire indigenous peoples to work their fields for next to nothing. Zapatista campesinos now occupy these territories and work the land for themselves.

Even elders like Adan still contribute to the village's communal way of life. Wearing bright blue pants and a cowboy hat, Adan rides a horse along a dirt track every day to care for his livestock and cornfield.

"I'm getting up there in age," he admitted. "But I'm happy because we're here, living in this place, this village. The landowners used to not even let us step over here onto their land. But it's all different now. We have what we didn't before: the land."

Of all the Zapatistas' demands for justice and equality, land rights was always the most important. Although the Zapatistas now control scattered plots of land, their territory is under constant threat from outside forces.

The Mexican military patrols regularly, and maintains a number of bases. Pro-government paramilitary groups with alleged ties to political parties continue to apply pressure, especially in certain communities. A variety of factors, including the attention-suck of the drug war, fading international support, the leadership's unexplained retreat from the public eye and long-dormant negotiations with the federal government, have left many skeptical of the Zapatistas' influence today.

Juan Pedro Viquiera, author of "The Indigenous of Chiapas and the Zapatista Rebellion," believes that as the movement's original leaders fade away, Zapatismo will go with them. In fact, he said the Zapatistas' disappearing act has already begun.

"Since 2006, they've been practically undetectable as far as statistics are concerned," Viquiera said. "You can't distinguish Zapatista zones on a map, and entirely Zapatista communities don't really exist. What's left are a few Zapatistas within some communities."

But in the hilltop former ranch house that now serves as Juan Diego's autonomous school, Zapatistas, young and old, say they're alive and well. Fifty-eight-year-old Pascal, an exuberant jokester with a passion for the cause, said their focus is now on passing along the principles of their struggle to the next generation to ensure community improvement continues.

"My parents and grandparents believed the land is for the campesinos who work it, and they taught us that," he said. "Now we have to teach our children so that we're not exploited again. But we're happy with the fight, and God-willing, I'll keep it up until we've made a new world for my kids."

This knowledge transfer has become an important focal point for the first generation of Zapatistas.

Gustavo Esteva, activist and founder of Universidad de la Tierra, said Zapatistas are actually well on their way to creating their "otro mundo," as they call it in Spanish. In the autonomous schools, Zapatista history is one of four subjects kids now study, ensuring that the torch is passed from the first generation.

"You can go and see and talk with the young people in the communties," Esteva said. "Half of the population in Zapatista communities is under 20 years old, and that means that all their lives have been in the Zapatista spirit, in the Zapatista world."

Armando, 87, is nearly deaf, but he still works in his cornfield, immensely proud of what the Zapatista movement has achieved. He said he and the rest of these aging rebels won't quit, despite the odds against them.

"I'll keep working until God says otherwise," Armando said. "We still have to fight for our food, you know. But I'm good now. My parcel of land might be small, but it's mine."

Additional funding for this report was provided by the Common Language Project.