The Fanfare of Rebellion

Arriving for talks with the government, Chiapas rebels whip up Zapatista mania

SUBCOMMANDER Marcos is back.

fifty-three days ago, under the cover of darkness, the ski-masked rebel and a few hundred rifle-toting Mayan Indians took over this bustling tourist town and turned the Mexican political scene on its ear.

This time, after weeks of security preparations in advance of peace talks with the government, Marcos and his relatively shy Indian men (and one woman) enter San Cristobal de las Casas at high noon. Roads are cordoned off. Federal police escort a Red Cross station wagon carrying Marcos and some of his lieutenants through the streets.

``Viva Marcos!'' screams Graciela as a car filled with Zapatista rebels whisks past. ``Being here today may cost me my marriage,'' confesses the blonde housewife decorated with brilliant blue eyeliner. ``We are Zapatistas,'' she says. ``We can't fight with weapons, but we are here to support them.''

A few hundred people have gathered along the sidewalks of the town square to watch the leadership of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) arrive from their mountain hideouts for peace talks. Residents are kept at bay by a 24-hour, triple-layer human ``peace cordon.''

The inner circle, composed of hundreds of Red Cross workers spaced at 10-foot intervals, encompasses several city blocks around the daffodil-colored Roman Catholic cathedral. Here, secluded from the media, the rebels will spend the next few days living and negotiating political and economic demands.

The second layer of the security ring is comprised of Mexican nongovernmental organization members. The outer ring is composed of stone-faced Mexican military police with black batons. No one steps off the sidewalk, or talks to the peace sentries, or in any way breaks the integrity of the security circle without a reprimand.

The living cordon parts to allow the Zapatista cars in. All but one of the guerrillas move smartly to the cathedral door. It's Marcos who pauses. He playfully lifts a pant leg, showing a little flesh to the throng of media camped near the cathedral entrance.

``Was he carrying a weapon?'' asks one reporter. ``How should I know,'' replies another. ``I was too busy looking at his leg!''

In the hotel entryways, Tzotzil Indian women are doing a brisk business in ``Zapatista'' dolls. Modifying their product to the current market, the typical handmade dolls now sport tiny wool ski masks.

At a shoe shop on one side of the cathedral, Jose Rayos sells ``EZLN'' baseball caps for $2.50 each. How many has he sold? Glancing nervously at the military police just outside the shop entrance, he guesses, ``Fifteen maybe.'' In the back of the shop his wife is sewing ``EZLN'' and ``Marcos'' on to navy blue ski masks.

Mr. Rayos doesn't want to talk about his Zapatista hat sales. ``Some people don't approve,'' he says. Since the Zapatista rebellion, San Cristobal has become polarized. For every Graciela shouting out her allegiance to the rebels, there seems to be another local who wants the government to teach the Zapatistas a military lesson.

``Those Indians aren't dying of hunger, they just don't want to work,'' opines Geronimo Bazar, a doctor and lifetime resident. ``We don't hate the Indians. We treat them like our own, we bring them into our homes. I have four [servants] working for me now.''

Warming to the subject, Dr. Bazar waves toward the cathedral. ``Where's the representation of the people at the talks? Who's looking after the interests of the honest, law-abiding citizens?'' He then points to a billboard erected in the town square. It says: Thanks to the soldiers of our country. ``That's the true feeling of the people in this town. Put that in your newspaper,'' he says.

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