Book Report: The Zapatista Netwar in Mexico

Book Report: The Zapatista Netwar in Mexico

Ronfeldt, David F., John Arquilla, Graham E. Fuller, and Melissa Fuller. The Zapatista “Social Netwar” in Mexico. Santa Monica, CA: Rand, 1998.

Authors: David Ronfeldt, John Arquilla, Graham E. Fuller, Melissa Fuller.

About RAND:  This book came out of an institute called RAND, which is “a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis.” One aspect of RAND involves military research, which includes the given book as noted by the statement “prepared for the United States Army” in the opening page. Coming out of the World War II military research apparatus, RAND adopts “its name from a contraction of the term research and development.” For more information and the full history of RAND visit


The Zapatista Social Netwar in Mexico (1998) is a study on how new organizational structures were emerging along with the dawn of the information age in the 1990s. Specifically, the book uses the appearance of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in Mexico in 1994 as a case study to examine the concept of “Netwar.” Perhaps a misnomer by today’s standards, the term “netwar” refers to a shift in organizational structure and approach as opposed to “war waged on the Internet” or “information-oriented military warfare” known as “cyberwar” (8). Netwar is best described as: “an emerging mode of conflict (and crime) at societal levels, involving measures short of traditional war, in which the protagonists use network forms of organization and related doctrines, strategies, and technologies attuned to the information age” (9). While communication technology and media are modes through which Netwar can manifest, the authors emphasize that the concept of netwar extends beyond an innovative use of new tools.

Brief Chapter Breakdown

I will briefly provide concise single sentence summaries of each chapter, followed by an in depth breakdown of the key concepts during our class. It must be noted that these sentences will be highly condensed and simplified. The book contains seven chapters and two appendices. Chapter 1 briefly covers key topics and concepts that will be used in the discussion of netwar, such as introducing readers to the case of the EZLN in Mexico and how they used an extensive network local, national, and international NGOs in their defense from the Mexican government and military. Chapter 2 provides the theories and schematics behind the concept of netwar, even providing visual diagrams that explain “chain networks,” “star or hub networks,” and “all channel networks.” Chapter 3 delves into the background of the EZLN, providing information on the conditions and organizational structures among indigenous communities in Chiapas that made netwar a possibility. Chapter 4 covers the evolution of guerrilla tactics used by the EZLN, shifting from the Maoist “War of the Flea” to the netwar enabled “War of the Swarm.” Chapter 5 covers the characteristic “information operations” of netwar by grounding the discussion in concrete examples from the EZLN’s campaign in Chiapas. Chapter 6 examines how the EZLN’s emergence has been accompanied by a “diffused” approach to guerilla warfare and insurgency in Mexico, and an assessment of the Zapatista Movement within the context of Netwar is provided. Chapter 7 highlights the likelihood of the rise of netwar in the coming years of the information age (1998), and also discusses implications for the military in responding to crime and insurgency that use netwar with counternetwar. Appendix A provides a timeline of the EZLN’s netwar Campaign, while Appendix B examines the stability of Mexico in light of netwar emergence.

Chapter 1: An Insurgency becomes a Netwar

  • “Mexico’s Zapatista movement exemplifies a new approach to social conflict that we call social Netwar” (1).
  • The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN, Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional) broke to scene on January 1, 1994 in response to NAFTA, among a list of many other issues.
  • The EZLN is credited with providing the world with the 21st Century prototype for information-age social Netwar. (1)
  • The reaction of the Mexican Government was to suppress the EZLN.
  • Mexico stance: project an image of stability to the world.
  • The authors mention the central presence of “spokesman” Sub Comandante Marcos.
  • EZLN was able to harness a “swarm” of NGOs to its aid as part of its information strategy.
  • In 1998: The Netwar aspects of the EZLN seemed “past their peak” to authors.
  • A proposition to develop counternetwar is given.

Chapter 2: The Advent of Netwar: Analytic Background

  • Two ways that Netwar is altering conflict: 1) favoring networked forms of organization and challenge hierarchical models and 2) “conflicts increasingly depend on information and communications matter” (7).
  • Centrality of Knowledge: Who knows what, when, where, and why.
  • Information Operations and Perception Management are key practices in netwar.
  • “Psycho-social destruction may become more important than physical destruction” (8).
  • Info Age Threats: diffuse, dispersed, non-linear, and multidimensional.
  • Cyberwar: “information-oriented military warfare.”
  • Netwar: ““an emerging mode of conflict (and crime) at societal levels, involving measures short of traditional war, in which the protagonists use network forms of organization and related doctrines, strategies, and technologies attuned to the information age” (9).
  • “Shift from the nation-state o the transnational level of “global civil society.”
  • Groups likely to engage in Netwar: urban gangs, terrorists, insurgents, guerrillas, and peaceful NGO activists.
  • Caveats about the role of technology: 1) “new technologies are not the only enablers of Netwar” and 2) “Netwar is not simply a function of the ‘net’” (10).
  • Organization Design Models: Netwar is the combinations of many “nodes.”
  • Chain Network: “information moves along a line of separated contacts.”
  • Star of Hub Network: “Sets of actors are tied to a central node or actor.”
  • All-channel Network: “everyone is connected to everyone else” (12).
  • Acephalous and Polycephalus: netwar organizational structures can seem both headless and Hydra-headed in their leadership.
  • Netwar: “depends on the existence of shared principles, interests, and goals-perhaps and overarching doctrine or ideology” which can lead to “all of one mind” dynamic (13-14).
  • Swarming, blurring, and blending are characteristics of Netwar.
  • Swarming: “forces can converge on a target form multiple directions” (15).
  • Blurring: difficult to determine offense and defense.
  • Blending: mix strategic and tactical levels of operations.
  • Challenges for Counternetwar: Networks > Hierarchies.
  • There are many types of netwars, and social netwar refers to the activists of militant activists and generally non-violent in their approach.

Chapter 3: Emergence of the Zapatista Netwar

  • The EZLN largely lacked access to information and communication technologies.
  • The technological elements of the Zapatista netwar were undertaken by NGOs.
  • Chiapas was ripe for a social movement because of the social, political, and economic layers of oppression that were present.
  • Three layers lead to the network organization of the EZLN: 1) Social base: indigenous culture and political structures were egalitarian, communitarian, and consultive. 2) Middle: The EZLN’s educated and highly trained Ladino leadership. 3) Top: Highly networked alliances with national and international NGOs.
  • Conditions were ripe among the indigenous communities of Chiapas to resort to armed revolution.
  • “Mixture of vertical and horizontal designs of the EZLN” (31).
  • “The indigenas disapproved of hierarchical command structures. They wanted flat, decentralized designs that emphasized consultation at the community level” (32).
  • Global, regional, and local networks of NGO’s were focused on Chiapas and indigenous issues decades prior to the EZLN emergence.

Chapter 4: Mobilization for Conflict

  • The Maoist “War of the Flea” approach of the EZLN, and the influences of Ernesto Guevara and Emiliano Zapata.
  • War of the Flea: consists of small surprise attacks by small units.
  • “EZLN leaders quickly became aware of the flaws in their traditional strategy, and they promptly began adapting” (47).
  • Reform Agenda vs. Overthrow Agenda è switching to a netwar framework.
  • Example: pg. 49, third paragraph.
  • Instead of constant isolated attacks in different regions to overextend military forces, netwar focus on the swarming effect, which are the concentrated efforts of all forces on a single of multiple points simultaneously.
  • The War of the Swarm: information warfare through the swarming of allied NGOs through non-violent means. Much of the efforts included drawing attention to the conflict zone and shaping the discourse surrounding the EZLN.
  • Issue Oriented and Infrastructure Building NGOs are both key players in netwar.

Chapter 5: Transformation of the Conflict

  • “The physical –and electronic- swarming of the activist NGOs into Mexico rapidly transformed the context and conduct of the Zapatista conflict” (61).
  • Zapatista Movement > EZLN
  • A shift occurred in which a greater emphasis was placed on “information operations” among Zapatistas.
  • A shift in the military approach: from offense to dialogue.
  • “In this conflict, “global civil society” proved itself for the first time as a key new actor in relations between states and vis-à-vis other non-state actors” (63).
  • The “power of the word”: “The EZLN’s agenda began to sound for reformist than revolutionary” (64).
  • Domination of “information space” became the central focus of the conflict.
  • NGOs presence: “prevent violence and promote negotiations” (65).
  • The central role of Marcos (according to the authors) in developing conferences.
  • The Continental Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism in August 1996.
  • “Zapatista information operations were directed at both the Mexican government and public, and at foreign governments and publics” (68).
  • Communication technologies were more central to NGOs than to the EZLN.

Chapter 6: The Netwar Simmers – and Diffuses

  • Indefinite suspension of negotiations with the government: described as tactics that refresh the power of the EZLN.
  • The EZLN has been confined to an isolated conflict zone by the Mexican military, which makes netwar all the more important.
  • “Since 1996, much of the Mexican public has tired of the Zapatista story and begun to doubt that it benefits Mexico, even though it has raised important reform issues” (92).
  • Public interest of the Zapatista Movement in Mexico has been on steady decline since 1996, and the EZLN returned to the “War of the Flea” and a violent approach to regain pubic attention.
  • Indigenous rights are still at the core of the EZLN cause, which has been overall positive in terms of NGOs attention among such issues in Mexico. “These issues have limited appeal in the urban, economically more advanced parts of Mexico” (93).
  • The method of episodic theater: from actors to the social and political stage in Mexico. “Zapatistas tried to diffuse their netwar onto the global stage by means of the “Intercontinental Encounters” in 1996 and 1997, where they called for the creation of global “networks of struggle and resistance” (94).
  • The role of scope: should the significance of the EZLN be measured purely on scope regarding national attention?
  • In the EZLN’s national call for people to rise against oppression, the EPR emerged as a more violent form of netwar.
  • Struggle to maintain national attention.
  • Popular Revolution Army (EPR): Guerrero and Oaxaca armed uprising more violent than the EZLN. The EPR has been shunned by most NGOs.
  • “The Zapatista netwar is diffusing—and in more violent directions” (99). è EPR War of the Flea.
  • “Network of Hope” è “horizontal, self-organizing, and without centralized coordination” (101).
  • EZLN becomes self-conscious of its own netwar capabilities (101). However the term “network” was more metaphorical than “structural” description.”
  • The purpose and importance of networks were continually discussed and examined by the EZLN. “The aim should be, as an American noted, “to weave a variety of struggles into one struggle that never loses its multiplicity” (103).
  • Activism over the Internet was present long before the EZLN: PeaceNet, Anti-Gulf War Movements. (103).
  • An assessment of the EZLN’s campaign is also provided, weighing in netwar tactics and also negative aspects, such as violence and casualties.
  •  *Later in the book, the role of Marcos is gradually increased to the point where he becomes the figurehead for the EZLN. This is not the case, and contradicts many notions of netwar.

Chapter 7: Beyond Mexico

  • EZLN: The world’s first post-modern insurgency or movement?
  • Daniel Nugent refuses the claim of a post-modern EZLN because of their modern language and pre-modern approach.
  • Chris Hables Gray, however, highlights the hybridity of the EZLN’s approach, which is post-modern (114).
  • Regardless of post-modern or not, the centrality of information operations makes the EZLN a unique guerrilla movement.
  • The Zapatista Effect: the global spread of Zapatista-like netwar tactics.
  • Both the rise of NGOs and communication technology has created ripe conditions for netwar.
  • The Association for Progressive Communications (APC) is one of the many NGOs in the EZLN network that emphasizes communication technology in their approach.
  • While information technology is not the sole condition that enables netwar, it certainly accelerates its proliferation (117).
  •  In 1998, however, access to communication technologies such as the Internet was largely limited to highly developed nation and among relatively affluent groups.
  • Netwar “depends on the emergence of ‘swarm networks’” (119).
  • Three tenants for effective netwar among NGOs: 1) Centrality of “Global Civil Society” 2) Make “information operations” the “key weapons” and 3) Make “swarming” the main practice for overwhelming opponents.
  • Electronic Civil Disobedience: the emergence of new digital practices was predicted to potentially alter netwar even further (120).
  • The “favorable conditions for netwar” are: 1) growth of global civil society 2) relatively open governmental structures, as opposed to authoritarian 3) Local NGOs able to ally with National and Transnational NGOs 4) The government in question must be accountable to the world and “care” about its global image 5) Strong audiences and supporters outside of conflict zone 6) The “CNN Effect” that amplifies theatrical information operations 7) “issues should be amenable to social activism.
  • Because of these needed conditions, only some societies will produce netwars.
  • However, new technologies and the information age may present particular threats to authoritarian regimes that will struggle to control the free flow of information.

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