Chiapas Ranchers Vow to Take Law Into Their Own Hands

Amid rising tensions, Mexico's peace negotiator calls the Zapatistas back to the bargaining table

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE Chiapas caldron, on a low simmer since a preliminary peace accord was signed in early March, is now starting to boil again.

``The situation is deteriorating. We have no support from the authorities. We're desperate,'' says Jose Luis Aguilar, president of the Altamirano Cattleman's Association.

Ranchers in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state and the site of a New Year's Day indigenous uprising, say their cattle have been stolen and about 80,000 hectares (197,600 acres) of land are now in the hands of peasants directly or indirectly supported by the Mayan Indian rebels known as the Zapatista National Revolutionary Army.

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Angered by the government's kid- gloves approach, cattle ranchers are starting to take matters into their own hands. On Monday, some 400 ranchers blocked the main road out of Pichucalco and began a sit-in in front of the town hall. The ranchers in the northern Chiapas town say they will prevent anyone from entering the government offices until the governor ``guarantees the safety of small property holders.''

On Sunday, the president of a local human rights organization, Enrique Perez Lopez, supposedly mediating between ranchers and peasant land invaders, was kidnapped by 80 armed landowners near Comitan, in southern Chiapas. According to statements made by peasant farmers who were with Mr. Perez, the ranchers beat Perez and fired bullets at the ground, before taking him to a nearby ranch.

Last week, the ranchers say, two of their own were kidnapped near Altamirano by the Zapatistas. Mr. Aguilar says that landowner Arturo Espinoza Macedo fired his pistol at several Zapatistas who allegedly came to take his land and rape his wife. One Zapatista was killed. The Zapatistas left but took Mr. Espinoza's brother and sister-in-law hostage. The leader of a Chiapas cattleman's group and president of the ruling political committee in Altamirano asked the Roman Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia on Monday to mediate the release of all three hostages.

Ranchers seek `other methods'

A statewide meeting of ranchers is planned for April 15.

``We're giving the government until April 20. If there's no positive solution, we'll adopt other methods,'' says Aguilar in a phone interview, declining to define ``other methods.''

Amid the rising tensions, the government's peace negotiator, Manuel Camacho Solis, has sent a letter to the Zapatista hideout in the mountains asking their leaders to return to the negotiating table. Mr. Camacho says he hopes to receive a reply by next week. Adding to the uncertainty of the situation were rumors that Camacho would be leaving to accept an ambassadorship abroad. On April 8 at a press conference, Camacho quashed the rumors and committed himself to the peace process.

The preliminary accords, signed on March 2 between the Mexican government and the Zapatistas, called for a range of measures for Indians in Chiapas, including electoral reforms, better health care, basic infrastructure services, new schools, and a development program. The Zapatistas were discussing the proposals with peasant supporters when ruling party presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was assassinated on March 23. The rebels then suspended the talks and went on ``red alert,'' fearing the government might blame them and mount a new ``law and order'' offensive against them.

During Sunday's celebration of the 75th anniversary of the death of Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, rebel leader Subcommander Marcos told his troops, ``Until we see positive signs from society and the government, our consultations remain suspended, and we remain on red alert awaiting an attack from federal troops.''

The Zapatista rebels take their name from Zapata, who led indigenous peasants seeking land during the Mexican revolution that lasted from 1910 to 1917. He was killed in 1919. In Mexico City, some 20,000 to 30,000 campesinos or peasants marched in the central square to celebrate Zapata's anniversary, to protest government agricultural policies, and to express solidarity with the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas.

The Zapata anniversary celebration was also used as a rallying cry for land and town hall invasions in other states on Sunday. In San Luis Potosi, campesinos occupied an estimated 3,000 hectares of land and a town hall. In Guerrero State, about 1,500 farmers took over the town hall in San Luis Actlan, demanding changes to agricultural laws. In Oaxaca state on Monday, some 2,000 members of indigenous and farmer groups protested in the streets and took over the government offices, demanding roads and the completion of promised development projects.

Human rights abuses questioned

Meanwhile, Mexican and international human rights groups are questioning a report released by the federal attorney general on five people killed in Ocosingo during the January uprising. Five bodies were found in the central market, face down, in a row, with their hands tied behind their backs. The bullet wounds were made by various caliber guns. The April 7 report says they were summarily executed. But the report absolves the Mexican Army, saying, ``It was determined that there was no crime to prosecute under military law.'' Two of the 5 were not Zapatistas, according to the attorney general's office.

``If it wasn't the Mexican Army, who was it? It's absurd to think the Zapatistas killed their own or that the residents of Ocosingo did it. So who did it?'' asks Rocio Culebro Baena of the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights.

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