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Mexico's Rebels, PRI Both Routed

Election loss hurts ruling party even as Zedillo unmasks guerrilla chief Marcos

By Leon LazaroffSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 14, 1995


A POPULAR joke making its rounds in Mexico says that President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon was unsatisfied with just devaluing the peso, so he decided also to ''devalue'' the Zapatista guerrilla leader, Subcommander Marcos.

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Watching his popularity plummet since the peso's 40 percent devaluation in December, President Zedillo is hoping that his Feb. 9 announcement revealing the face and identity of the charismatic rebel leader will demystify Marcos and give his own public standing a much-needed boost.

But Zedillo's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party appeared to take a hit yesterday after exit polls showed the PRI lost Sunday's race for governor in the important state of Jalisco, home to Mexico's second-largest city, Guadalajara.

The apparent winner, the center-right National Action Party (PAN), gave Zedillo his first electoral loss since he took office Dec. 1. If PAN wins officially, it would be only the fourth governorship the PRI has lost in 65 years of unbroken national rule.

Many PRI sympathizers blame Zedillo's bungled peso devaluation and his promises of greater democracy for their woes. But others say PAN's victory gives Zedillo an important conservative ally in his efforts to stop the unrest in the southern states of Chiapas and Tabasco.

Mexicans, meanwhile, are trying to come to terms with the magnetic man the government says is behind the black guerrilla ski mask: Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente, a former communications professor and son of a furniture magnate from the Gulf port city of Tampico.

Marcos led the armed peasant rebellion of the Zapatista National Liberation Army in a struggle for equality in the state of Chiapas in January 1994. The rebels surprised the Mexican leadership by taking several Chiapan towns.

So far, wiping away the myth and fascination of the disguised modern-day revolutionary hasn't been easy.

''Many see the Zapatistas as a threat to social peace and economic stability, so they applaud Zedillo,'' says Fernando Estrada, a PAN senator. ''But just because we finally see what this man looks like does not mean the justice of his cause is wiped away.''

Like Marcos himself, who has used theater and good writing to draw millions of Mexicans to the Zapatista's cause, aides to the attorney general unveiled a picture of the rebel leader on national television wearing his trademark black ski mask, and then proceeded to theatrically remove a transparency that revealed the moustached face of Mr. Guillen.

''Now that the mask is off, the magic surrounding this man has been removed,'' says Juan Roman Rodriguez, an economist with the Chiapas State government.

But even as a detailed profile of Guillen -- with a master's degree in philosophy and guerrilla training in Nicaragua -- was relayed to the news media, many Mexicans remained unconvinced that Guillen is really Marcos.

''I don't believe that's him,'' says Humberto Lopez, owner of a construction company in Comitan, Chiapas, an agricultural center that borders Zapatista territory. ''This seems to be a strategy to trick the people and take away the public's support.''