[Maarten Van Horenbeeck] [Information Security] [Information Warfare]

Book Review

The Zapatista "Social Netwar" in Mexico

Originally written by John Arquilla & David Ronfeldt
Reviewed by Maarten Van Horenbeeck


This text has as goal to introduce the reader to, as well as critically review the study 'The Zapatista Social Netwar in Mexico', published by RAND in 1999. This study, written by David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla, particularly attracted my attention in the light of this unit as it is one of a mere few that in detail compares a real-life organization and its actions with the concept of 'social netwar'. This concept is gaining importance in many domains of our every day life, including crime, terrorism, military and even policy and business, for example in activism against improper conduct by companies (Mongoven, 2005).


The text opens with a detailed background on the concepts of 'all-channel networks' and their rise in the concepts of Cyberwar and Netwar. In essence, Ronfeldt and Arquilla clarify and refine a number of concepts initially put forward in their paper 'The Advent of Netwar' published in 1997.

They significantly elaborate on the concept of 'Netwar' as conflict taking place at the societal end of the spectrum (Arquilla & Ronfeldt, 1997). Throughout the document they imply it is necessary to debunk the ongoing popularization of the concept - common belief dictates that cyberwar and netwar is little more than internet based crime. It is perhaps noteworthy that some recent popular literature, such as Michael Crichton's novel "State of Fear" (2004) does place Netwar in its original academic context.

In order to make the concept easier to understand, they include significant examples from real-life organizations that are organized in a netwar form, such as Hamas, while bringing forward the significant issues hierarchical organizations have when trying to counter the rise of a network type organization without becoming at least partly networked themselves.

As of the third chapter, the Zapatista conflict in Mexico is introduced. We learn how the Republic of Mexico, and more importantly the predominantly agricultural state of Chiapas was ripe for a social netwar due to deep social transition. In this environment, the EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army) insurgency started on January 1st, 1994 taking the form of a regular armed insurgency. Shortly after, they declared war on the Mexican Government, and were taken quite seriously with a corresponding response from government (suppression).

What makes this insurgency special however, are the changes that occurred shortly afterwards. By employing their spokesman, Subcomandante Marcos and calling for a press conference, they were able to alter the theatre of operations dramatically. The EZLN claimed that it was at its roots an indigenous organization calling for socioeconomic reforms and true democracy. They called upon local and international peaceful activists to join their struggle.

This call was answered, leading to international and national NGOs swarming to Chiapas. Initially, army forces increased their numbers six fold in response. However, shortly after, the government decided to cease violent response, and began negotiations. While no clear reason was given for this act, it is widely accepted that this was indirectly caused by the media and communications capabilities of the NGOs that had flocked to the scene, presumably linked to the impact use of those capabilities might have on foreign investment.

In the chapter on the mobilization of these groups, the authors introduce two different types of NGOs: issue-oriented and infrastructure-building/networking NGOs. The different motivation of each of the groups was also investigated: some NGOs focused on indigenous rights, human rights or peace; while others focused on building communication networks to support the other NGOs. As Arquilla and Ronfeldt claim, each still aimed to preserve its autonomy and independence; while their cooperation requires that they develop and sustain a shared identity as a network and stress information operations. This clearly matches with the concept of a shared ideology, a requirement for a network to operate successfully. Each of the groups has its own specialization, but they work together to project more power than they could individually.

The document provides significant detail on actions taken by both parties during the conflict. Background detail is given on the origins of the initial insurgency (based on Mao's dictum of centralizing strategic control with tactical decentralization) and brings forward as comparison the Vietnam War where this strategy was also applied. In addition to this, one chapter investigates what makes an ideal breeding ground for such netwar. Based on their Mexican case study, Arquilla and Ronfeldt identified a number of parameters that accommodate the rise of networked actors, and accordingly social netwar: a relatively open society, local NGOs and a region with growing infrastructure, at least one actor that is concerned with its image, an interested global audience and a potent media outlet that can amplify the information. Interesting is that in their research paper they also list it should concern an issue "amenable to social activism". However, as social activism is always closely linked to an interested global audience, I do not believe there is a need for this to be listed separately.

They then applied these principles to a number of countries such as Saudi Arabia and Myanmar, showing why they are less vulnerable to social netwar. They do mention that opportunities in these countries are growing, as they are either opening up, or implementing unmaintainable safeguards to prevent this. They mention that Myanmar's junta has outlawed the unauthorized possession of computers that have networking capability.

An Appendix provides a comprehensive assessment of the stability of Mexico, its current state as a Republic and the ability it has for transformation. This analysis starts from the precept that Mexico is currently a Tribal/Institutional form of system, in the process of migrating to a Market-based society. Four scenarios are presented for the remainder of this migration, major instability, criminalization, a "stuck" system and successful transformation. While the authors do not provide a one-on-one match for any of these systems with Mexico.s future, they are cautiously optimistic, taking into account there is a potential for a "stuck" system to evolve - one that includes halting advances in transformation, interrupted by deeply embedded nationalist and corporatist principles.

At this stage, using the liberty that hindsight grants us, this seems to have been a fairly accurate prediction. The World Bank (2004) states that the gross national income in Mexico has increased from 3,800 US$ to 5,910 US$ between 1995 and 2002. On the other hand, a form of criminalization does seem to be taking place - a variety of media articles and documentaries published in the last years by amongst others, the Washington Times and ABC News, give the impression of an increase in crime, especially in border regions.

This border region issue, while not explicitly mentioned, is also hinted to in Ronfeldt and Arquilla.s study: "Mexico already appears to be the scene of more divisive, stressful netwars - in part because it is a neighbour of the United States".

How well did the study age?

The study has aged quite a bit - since its release in 1999, many interesting developments have occurred of which it would be interesting to review them in scope of contemporary theory on the netwar concept. While a complete review would be outside of the scope of this assignment, some less predictable things worth mentioning have taken place.

In 2000, during the Mexican Presidential Election, the EZLN actually turned into a campaign issue, with presidential candidate Vicente Fox stating he would need merely "15 minutes" (cited in Lupher, 2004) to arrange a deal with Subcomandante Marcos. While this did not materialize, Fox did make significant changes on the ground, reducing the number of soldiers in EZLN occupied area, as well as releasing a number of captured EZLN members (Lupher, 2004). He also referred a key demand of the EZLN, a piece of legislation regarding indigenous rights, to congress (Craddock, 2001). At this stage, the revolution seems to have turned completely non-violent. As mentioned in the study however, Mexico's leadership tends to react fairly volatile to this type of event - shown by the multiple times that army action was engaged while aborted shortly afterwards - and it could as such go either way.

The EZLN is currently focusing on the presidential elections which will take place on July 2nd, 2006. They do not however have a direct candidate in these elections, but are attempting to influence the program of other candidates by organizing a massive, unarmed tour of all 31 Mexican states (Marshall, 2006).

Assessment of the text

The amount of research performed for this document is commendable. All strategies applied during the conflict are clearly explained with the use of examples, mostly from a Mexican but often from an international context. It also provides much better grounding in the concept of netwar than previous texts by the authors as it demystifies the concept by giving it a human face. The theory of social netwar and of the weapons used (such as perception management) is much more visible when applied to an existing group.

It is obvious that the text was published by RAND with funding by the US Army, as much attention is given to the reaction of the Mexican army, and where they may not have performed optimally. This is remarkable as the Mexican army was mostly a player in the initial stages of the conflict - negotiations were soon deferred to the political establishment. Detail is also given on the best way for the US army to interact with Mexico: the interesting idea is launched that US military support to Mexico may in fact discourage them from pursuing innovative operations against similar organizations.

As may be clear from the examples mentioned previously, the text integrates well with this course. In the Zapatista conflict, the main battle is not regarding the territory of Chiapas - both parties know the EZLN is in this respect not capable of maintaining a hold on the territory by force. However, the main goal for the EZLN is to get their message out and to influence government decisions; as such maintaining an information advantage as opposed to its competitor.

In many cases it is obvious that the information produced by either government or EZLN needed to be accurate. A good example from the text, indicating this, is of a US professor, purportedly receiving a call from an activist, who sent out e-mails that the Mexican army was moving in on the EZLN. This story was not accurate, yet the message was difficult to remove from the 'infosphere' - it kept lingering and reappeared six months later. Some organizations saw it necessary to repudiate the message. As Arquilla and Ronfeldt state, the spread of inaccurate information can lead to a 'cry wolf' syndrome.

Information also needs to be timely to be of any use: the insurrection by the EZLN on January 1st, 1994, was by many observers considered to be an .intelligence failure. on part of the government. While the government had known about the EZLN since mid-1993, they had apparently not considered the possibility of, or prepared for, an armed insurgency. Had this information been available earlier on, action may have been taken to prevent it.

On the other hand, when the EZLN realized that an armed insurgency was unlikely to succeed, they regrouped and refocused on getting their message across to who would listen, finding a willing audience in a grouping of NGOs. An armed insurgency may still have been of interest to a small number of NGOs, but a call for reform. eems interesting to most. By reshaping their message, they effectively increased the bandwidth of their communication, attracting a larger following in a more efficient manner. Had this message not reached international media so quickly, what are the chances that the government would, in silence, have taken other action? While such action, presumably military in nature, may not have been considered acceptable to the international community, usually such facts are regarded with less repugnance, or at least willingness to intervene, after the facts. Examples of this are common: had it been known in 2005 that Zimbabwe.s President Mugabe was planning to level homes of over a million people, plenty of action would have been taken against it. As the news only leaked when the events were in progress of taking place, not much could be done to stop it.


The text definitely meets the goal it put forward in its introduction: to examine the rise of the Zapatista netwar, its behaviours and effects. It is a thorough analysis of these events that influenced Mexico and the world early in 1994, while at the same time introducing concepts that can be applied to other groups that may be more actual: Al-Qaeda, or many of the Latin American drug cartels.

The principles of netwar need to be closely understood in order to devise methods of countering them. Analyses such as these allow us to better prepare for a form of conflict which with little doubt will become increasingly important during the next years.


Ronfeldt, D. & Arquilla, J. & Fuller, G. & Fuller, M. (1998). The Zapatista 'Social Netwar' in Mexico. Santa Monica, California: RAND Corporation

Arquilla, J. and Ronfeldt, D. (1997). Cyberwar is coming. In Arquilla, J. and Ronfeldt, D. (Ed.) In Athena's Camp (pp. 23-57)

The World Bank (2004, April). Mexico Country Brief. Retrieved April 2, 2006, from http://web.worldbank.org

Lupher, A. (2004). FOX and EZLN: The Zapatista Rebellion in Mexico [Electronic version]. Harvard International Review: International Trade Vol 26(2). Retrieved April 5th, 2006, from http://hir.harvard.edu/articles/1232/

Mongoven, B. (2005). The evolution of Market Campaigns. Strategic Forecasting: Premium Intelligence Brief. Retrieved March 28th, 2006 from http://www.stratfor.com

Craddock, C. (2001). Is VICENTE FOX a Dreamer or Reformer? Hispanic Magazine. Retrieved April 7th, 2006 from http://www.hispanicmagazine.com/2001/may/Features

Marshall, C. (2006, January 1). Zapatistas start political tour. Mexico City: BBC News. Retrieved April 4th, 2006, from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/4573512.stm


Arquilla, J. and Ronfeldt, D. (2001). The advent of Netwar (revisited). In Arquilla, J. and Ronfeldt, D. (Ed.) Networks and Netwars (pp. 1-25)

Arquilla, J. and Ronfeldt, D. (2001). What next for Networks and Netwars. In Arquilla, J. and Ronfeldt, D. (Ed.) Networks and Netwars (pp. 311-361)

International Crisis Group (2005, August 17th). Zimbabwe's Operation Murambatsvina: The Tipping Point? Brussels/Pretoria

Drug 'War Zone' Rattles U.S.-Mexico Border [Video] (2005) Burbank, CA: ABC News

Seper, J. (2001, April 22). Mexico drug gangs pose huge threat along the border. Washington, DC: The Washington Times