Subcomandante Marcos steps down as Zapatista leader

Subcomandante Marcos, the mysterious masked leader of Mexico's Zapatista rebels, bowed out Sunday as chief of the 20-year-old movement in what he described vaguely as "internal changes."

Marcos made the announcement one day after making his first public appearance in years in the southern state of Chiapas, reportedly showing up at a comrade's funeral puffing on his trademark pipe and wearing an eyepatch.

"At 2:08 am on May 25, 2014, at the southwestern combat front of the EZLN, I declare that the one known as Insurgent Subcommander Marcos no longer exists," he said in a statement.

"The voice of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) will no longer come from my voice," Marcos said.

The enigmatic rebel, whose movement emerged in Chiapas state on January 1, 1994 demanding greater rights for its indigenous communities, denied rumors that he was sick.

He said his decision to step aside was the result of "internal changes" within the EZLN, but he did not elaborate.

"The handover of command is not due to illness or death, not to an internal shift, purge or purification," the statement said.

Marcos said the EZLN had fueled the rumors to its benefit.

"The last great trick of the hologram was to fake a terminal illness and deaths," he said in the statement marked by his usual sardonic tone.

"Those who loved and hated Subcomandante Marcos now know that they hated and loved a hologram."

Taking its name from 1910 revolution hero Emiliano Zapata, the EZLN appeared the same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into force on New Year's Day 1994.

The rebellion sparked a 12-day conflict with the federal government that left dozens of people dead.

A peace pact was signed in 1996 but the Zapatistas' demands were never met.

Tired of waiting for the government, the Zapatistas created their own autonomous justice, health and education systems in five "caracoles," or shells, that oversee more than 30 communities.

While NAFTA has transformed Mexico into a manufacturing power, almost half the population lives in poverty and Chiapas remains the country's poorest state.

Once a darling of the international media, Marcos has shunned the spotlight, communicating via statements. He last appeared in public in 2009.