Caracol Morelia, Mexico - Driving deep into the mountains of Mexico's southernmost state, Chiapas, a black and red billboard announces that you have entered Zapatista territory, clusters of tiny villages with withered corn stalks and heavy metal gates blocking passage.
These remote rebel control centers are called "caracoles'' or snails, and just like the snail, the people here have withdrawn inside their protective shells, fatigued with the outside world and its empty promises.
Twenty years ago this Wednesday, Mayan peasants in ski masks rose up to capture six towns, and with them world attention. The EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army) enchanted the global left with its prescient use of the Internet and its charismatic spokesman, the masked and pipe-smoking Subcomandante Marcos .
| A 2005 photo of Subcomandante Marcos [AFP/Getty]
Today, the revolutionaries have recoiled into scattered autonomous communities on land "recuperated" from others. And getting access to these fabled territories is not easy.
After being turned away from three rebel hamlets, a pair of outsiders pressed further into the hills to reach a barricade at this settlement patrolled by teenage girls, who demanded identity papers and then left, not returning for an hour.
Then it was time for three separate interrogations, always with Zapatistas sitting behind heavy wooden desks in a cinderblock room, and always the same three questions.
"Who are you?"
"Why are you here?"
"What do you want?"
Finally, the visitors were ushered into a circle of 18 people, the Junta of Good Government that runs affairs in this wary community. They refused to state their names or be photographed and they answered few questions.
"We can't trust anyone," explained a bearded man in his 30s. "Bad ideas are not welcome here."
'We don't need others'
|Hooded Zapatistas check a visitor's ID before granting him permission to enter Oventik [Alicia Vera/ Al Jazeera America]
The caracoles sport rainbows of murals on wooden buildings that glorify the struggle: Women in masks who form kernels of corn, the Mayan plumed serpent god and the hero of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, Emiliano Zapata , after whom the movement takes its name. But the villages are still poor and are losing numbers to migration.
The bearded man said the Zapatistas decided a decade ago to go it alone after being betrayed so many times before. Heavily indigenous Chiapas has some of the most underprivileged people in the country, who never benefited from the 1910 revolution's promise for agrarian reform. The Zapatistas were further frustrated when the government failed to deliver on a 1996 accord for greater autonomy and rights that was meant to pacify them. So they seized land - some estimates are as high as 750,000 acres - and created their own schools and clinics, and rejected subsidies from the state.
"We don't need others," asserted the man with the beard.
No one can say exactly how many sympathizers are left. The only hint at numbers was their last public appearance a year ago, when 40,000 militants marched through various towns in masks and silence.
Marcos himself has not been seen in public from his haven in the Lacandon jungle. His last media stunt was in 2006, when he zoomed out of the hills on a black motorcycle for a march across the nation. He intended to forge contact with other social movements but little came of the six-month tour.
The only contact most outsiders can obtain is through communiqués on the Zapatista website , and a robust industry of revolutionary souvenirs sold in the more populated outposts.
At Caracol Oventik, which lies an hour from the tourist hub of San Cristobal de las Casas, a colonial town renowned for its handicrafts , a girl who looked around 15 wearing a black ski mask embroidered with the letters "EZLN" turned away several journalists seeking entry at the checkpoint, saying the Zapatistas inside were busy organizing celebrations for the January 1 anniversary.
Instead, she pointed the would-be visitors to the Che Guevara "gift shop" piled floor to ceiling with items bearing the portrait of Marcos and the trademark revolutionary star: refrigerator magnets, mugs, pens, T-shirts, shot glasses and sugar bowls.
A shopper vacillated between a felt doll of a female commander on a horse and a red bandana akin to those worn by the rebels.
"Both are very popular," said the salesman staffing the store.
The biggest threat
|A Zapatista works at the local pharmacy at Oventik Caracol [Alicia Vera/Al Jazeera America]
People who know the communities say the blatant marketing, ironic for a movement that rejects capitalism, does not reflect the deep social changes that have occurred in the 38 autonomous municipalities. The murals declaring "dignity to women" ring true, they said.
"Girls are encouraged to be schooled and assume a more prominent role in society," said Victor Hugo Lopez, director of the Human Rights Center Fray Bartoleme de las Casas .
Zapatista areas also post less crime and human rights abuses than in other parts of the state, he said. And health conditions have improved with the opening of wooden houses in every community staffed by people who can make diagnoses and dispense homeopathic medicine, if not pharmaceuticals. Clinics are closer to where many indigenous peasants live and treatment is delivered in local languages, rather than Spanish as in most of the country.
"We have gone to their health centers as patients, and care is without doubt much better than 20 years ago," Lopez said.
As for education, each community now has a school that delivers lessons in indigenous tongues, which was rare before. The curriculum presents the Zapatista view of history, with a heavy emphasis on colonial exploitation, and also covers techniques of farming.
"We can't really evaluate the quality, but certainly it's more relevant to indigenous people than the government's standard curriculum that talks about things like traffic lights and penguins," Lopez said.
The biggest threat to the Zapatistas' existence, ironically, is not the military harassment that persists or the disputes with corrupt government officials. It is the Zapatistas' own people, who are abandoning the closed society to seek economic fortune elsewhere. For some, a small plot of land on which to grow beans is not enough.
There is a constant weakening of the base of support.
The Zapatistas' rejection of government subsidies on which indigenous villages long depended has made life harder. Youths who were born after the 1994 uprising don't necessarily share the utopian vision of their parents. In some areas entire hamlets of people have left.
People from the Zapatista highlands figure heavily among the 850,000 Chiapas residents who have migrated to other parts of Mexico or the United States, said Miguel Angel Paz, of Voces Mesoamericanas , a nongovernmental organization that looks at migration issues.
"Migration erodes social cohesion as it exposes those who leave to other political views and also to alcohol, which is banned in Zapatista areas," he said. "There is a constant weakening of the base of support. They don't have complete territorial control so Zapatista communities are surrounded by those supported by the government and, bit by bit, are emptying out. There's less hegemonic control than 20 years ago."
The movement is now at a crossroads that will define the next two decades. The Zapatistas have shown a great capacity for transformation, from armed insurrection to accepting dialogue to withdrawal from wider society. They could move in a fresh direction yet again, but plans remain secretive for now.
"They've lost much convening power," Paz said. "They will either become more isolated, or make greater alliances with other indigenous and social organizations on the national level."