Salinas Shifts Strategy on Rebellion

Mexican president reshuffles Cabinet in conciliation bid as bombs hit in and near capital

CONCILIATION, not confrontation, is the latest tactic tried by the Mexican government to bring an end to the armed Mayan Indian insurrection in southern Mexico.

In ``recognition of what is not working,'' President Carlos Salinas de Gortari announced on Jan. 10 that he had accepted the resignation of hard-line Interior Minister Jose Patrocinio Gonzalez Blanco Garrido and reshuffled his Cabinet.

President Salinas named Attorney General Jorge Carpizo MacGregor the new Interior Minister. Mr. Carpizo is the former head of the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH), a quasi-independent government ombudsman. And Foreign Minister Manuel Camacho Solis was appointed to the new post of peacemaker: officially, the ``Commissioner for Peace and Reconciliation in Chiapas.''

The moves are intended to ``strengthen the law and respect for human rights and open channels of conciliation without abandoning for a moment the task of guaranteeing the security in Chiapas,'' Salinas said.

Mr. Gonzalez, a former governor of Chiapas, Mexico's southern-most state, last year denied there was any guerrilla activity there. He was also criticized for allegedly allowing rights violations to occur while governor.

The Cabinet shuffle comes as the rebellion, begun on Jan. 1, shows little sign of ending. Bombings in and around the nation's capital have spread fear and prompted criticism of the government's handling of the leftist uprising. Worried investors dumped stocks, knocking 6 percent off the value of the Mexican stock index on Jan. 10.

Taken together, the new appointments indicate a change in government strategy.

``The combination of Carpizo and Mr. Camacho is a very good sign,'' says Arturo Sanchez, political scientist at the Mexican Institute of Political Studies, a private research group. ``Carpizo is sensitive to human rights issues, has dealt with the violent drug traffickers, and recognizes the plight of the indigenous.''

Camacho is recognized for his abilities as a negotiator, particularly for his handling of conflicts - sometimes violent - between political groups in Mexico City, where he served as mayor during most of the last five years.

A close friend of Salinas, Camacho has been given the task of creating an agenda and the next steps for resolving the Chiapas crisis. He will have direct access to the president, Salinas says.

Analysts say the appointment of Camacho and Carpizo goes against the political grain and is a sign of the magnitude of Salinas's concern. ``Salinas must think things are so bad that he has to go with his own men rather than someone on the new team,'' Mr. Sanchez says.

Neither appointee is considered part of the political team of Luis Donaldo Colosio, the ruling party's candidate for the August presidential elections. Indeed, Camacho was openly upset when Salinas chose Mr. Colosio over him.

If the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) wins the elections, many analysts expect Camacho to be excluded from a Colosio Cabinet. But Camacho's peacemaker role - if successful - could give him bargaining power for a position in the next government.

HOW soon Camacho will get a chance to test his negotiating skills with the rebels is uncertain. On Jan. 10, rebel leader Commander Marcos called again for dialogue in a letter delivered to a Chiapas newspaper. For talks to begin, the Mexican Army must stop ``indiscriminate bombing of rural communities,'' withdraw the troops from the towns once occupied by the guerrillas, recognize the Zapatista National Liberation Army, and declare a cease-fire, the letter said. If not, the rebels would march on Mexico City, it warned.

The letter corrected the media, saying Mr. Marcos is a ``subcommander,'' not a commander. Marcos also denied any foreign involvement in the Zapatista forces.

In Chiapas, the Mexican Army is keeping the roads leading into the conflictive zones closed, effectively sealing off one-quarter of the state. Civilians, journalists, International Red Cross workers, and human rights groups are being kept out. Some civilians say they just want to check on their families. Human rights activists and Roman Catholic Church officials worry the Army is covering up human rights abuses.

``We have information that they're cremating bodies so as not to leave behind any evidence,'' says Marcos Arana, director of the Campesino Ecology and Health Center.

A caravan of 14 Mexican and international nongovernmental organizations and some 120 journalists were firmly turned back on Jan. 9 when they attempted to breach the Army blockade.

The road blocks ``give the impression that they're hiding something, and that is of no benefit to the country,'' says Samuel Ruiz Garcia, bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas.

Even the quasi-governmental CNDH sent to the scene by Salinas has been denied access to the towns held by the Mexican Army for ``security reasons.'' The CNDH has begun preliminary investigations into attacks on journalists, the alleged execution of four guerrillas, and the shooting of passengers in two buses near the Rancho Nuevo Army base.

Expressing some frustration over the situation, CNDH president Jorge Madrazo Cuellar issued a statement on Jan. 9, saying that beyond the Army barricades are towns where ``people are without blankets or in a state of fear.''

Since no official state of war exists, Mr. Madrazo notes that Chiapas is in an ``abnormal'' situation of armed conflict, yet all the rights and laws established by the Constitution and international human rights treaties still apply.

There is an expectation among human rights groups that the Cabinet shuffle may result in greater access to the area.

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