ALTAMIRANO, MEXICO — THE armed peasant rebellion that emerged in south Mexico over the past weekend has a chilling d vu quality. The rhetoric and actions echo the leftist guerrilla movements of the 1980s in Central America.
``We've taken up arms to change the capitalist system that exploits the masses,'' declares ``Captain Arturo,'' the 21-year-old masked indigenous leader of a subgroup of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN). The EZLN still controls this rural municipality and a stretch of highway leading to nearby Ocosingo. As of press time Jan. 4, it had withdrawn from two other towns, including San Cristobal de las Casas, the largest.
Heavy fighting continued in the streets of Ocosingo on Jan. 3. Outside of San Cristobal, a Mexican journalist was wounded when his vehicle was caught in the crossfire between government and rebel troops. Official government estimates, considered conservative, put the death toll at nearly 100 people since the uprising began Jan. 1.
``The only way to end this war is to get rid of all the rich people and arrive at socialism,'' says Arturo, who carries a new, sophisticated General Electric walkie-talkie radio and an old but well-kept AK-47 rifle. In a written declaration of war issued earlier this week, the Zapatistas called for the end of the ``dictatorship'' of Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
In this poverty-stricken state of Chiapas, Arturo claims the recent agricultural reforms and general economic policies of this government - including North American Free Trade Agreement - are hurting Mexican campesinos (peasants). ``The No. 1 problem here is exploitation of the indigenous people. Salinas is selling us out. He's selling Mexican oil, he's selling electricity, he's selling the telephone company. Gringo imperialists are becoming the owners of our country.''
The short Indian leader abruptly breaks off his discourse as the drone of three approaching airplanes sends the rebels scurrying for cover beneath nearby trees and the porch of a shuttered roadside restaurant.
Stepping out of the shadows, Arturo answers some of the many questions that have arisen over the emergence of the little-known EZLN. He explains that the Zapatista attacks are the result of years of planning. He claims to have joined the EZLN eight years ago and has trained with his men in secret mountain camps. He flatly rejects the suggestion that the EZLN is in any way connected to or assisted by Guatemalan leftist guerrillas. ``We are pure Mexicans,'' he says.
The beginnings of the movement
Some 12 miles away, past the burned-out hulks of five trucks and several roadside stands, a jittery ``Lieutenent Jesus'' agrees to an interview in the central plaza of Altamirano (popuation 10,000). ``I joined the EZLN about five years ago, when I found out there was an armed movement,'' he says. ``I did political work - explaining to the campesinos how the government exploits them and that this was a secret organization. Bit by bit we've grown into a force of thousands.'' Both Jesus and Arturo claim the EZLN is a national organization with support in other states besides Chiapas.
The interview is interrupted by a steady stream of United States-made Mexican Army helicopters thumping past, high overhead, bound for Ocosingo. Beneath the cover of the trees in the central park, Jesus continues, noting that there were seven founders of the organization that began in 1969. In 1983, the EZLN was formed. The army name comes from Emiliano Zapata, a leader from the days of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-17 known by the bullet belts that crisscrossed his chest and his ardent fight to return land to Mexico's indigenous people. ``Commander Marcos'' is the acknowledged leader of the EZLN now, but is not one of the founding seven, Jesus says.
Dressed in guerrilla garb, a black ski mask, and speaking from the second floor balcony of the town hall in San Cristobal on Jan. 1, Marcos said one aim of the rebel takeover was to produce a transitional government, because the upcoming presidential elections lacked ``the conditions for legitimate and democratic elections.'' Marcos also said that the taking of five Chiapas towns was ``not a classic guerrilla tactic of hit and run, but of hit and advance.''
Towns returning to normal
Mexican state and federal government officials emphasized that with a pullout of EZLN forces from the towns of San Cristobal and Las Margaritas, life in Chiapas is returning to normal. But as Mexican Army troops patrolled downtown San Cristobal, many merchants kept their shops closed. ``Even with the soldiers, people are afraid of looting. They're not sure this is over yet,'' says one drug store owner who was open on Jan. 1.
On Jan. 4, government officials planned to visit Chiapas to set up a commission that would develop new programs to combat the root causes of the conflict: poverty, poor health, and insufficient land. But Secretary of Social Development Carlos Rojas noted that Chiapas is already the No. 1 recipient of funds from the federal Solidarity antipoverty program, receiving 8 percent of the total national disbursement. The state has only 4 percent of the national population.
Top Mexican officials also continue to advocate a peacefully negotiated solution to the crisis. Three local Roman Catholic bishops have been invited by the government to try to mediate negotiations.
But the EZLN, or at least these two EZLN commanders, reject negotiations. ``We have agreed among ourselves not to negotiate. We've seen what happened in El Salvador when they negotiated. We won't make the same mistake,'' Arturo says. It's not clear yet whether the EZLN has the military power or civilian support to sustain a civil war here, but Jesus insists ``Communism is the best system. This won't be like Guatemala or El Salvador. We will die fighting for it.''