PICHUCALCO, MEXICO — DESPITE President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Les stated willingness to negotiate with Mexico's Zapatista rebels, the peasant guerrillas remain skeptical. They have moved deeper into the thick Lacandon Jungle, where they are widely supported by the Indians whose cause they champion.
Ever since Mr. Zedillo gave an order Feb. 9 for the capture of the rebel leader Subcommander Marcos, the Zapatistas have been almost unreachable.
After the announcement, the roughly 2,000 Zapatistas hastily abandoned more than 15 jungle villages that had served as their bases and took refuge in a largely inaccessible jungle.
But on Sunday, the rebels issued a communique rejecting peace talks and threatening guerrilla warfare unless the Army withdraws to the outskirts of previously held Zapatista territory.
A legislative commission visiting Chiapas on Saturday was unsuccessful in attempts to restart negotiations, squelching hopes for a settlement.
Flying into the jungle and tromping eight hours though thick vegetation, this reporter located a band of some 30 soldiers near the abandoned town of Pichucalco.
The town is some 120 miles east of San Cristobal de las Casas and 40 miles north of the Guatemala border.
Heading up the soldiers was a Zapatista company commander, who used the name Miguel. He sounded confident that the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) could outlast the Mexican military's forays and Zedillo's flip-flopping policies.
``We will not lay down our arms just because they agree to talk,'' said the Tzeltal Mayan Zapatista who wore a black cloth mask revealing only his eyes. ``We want the military to withdraw, but if they don't, we are ready to attack.''
The Mexican Army has used Blackhawk helicopters and parachuting units to take over formerly held Zapatista towns such as Guadalupe, Tepeyac, Ibarra, and San Quintin. Painfully embarrassed by the Zapatista's successful surprise attack New Year's Day 1994, the Army has made it clear to Zedillo that they will not easily withdraw from their new jungle positions. Meanwhile, the peace commission headed by Chiapan Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia continues to warn that confrontations are imminent.
Confounding observers, Zedillo adopted a more conciliatory posture late last week by offering amnesty to Zapatistas who lay down their arms. He claimed the military would not attack unless provoked. But the rebels are taking no chances. A Zapatista soldier named Alfredo explained that they would try to avoid contact with the military.
``When the Army approaches, we leave for another place,'' Alfredo said. ``We don't trust the government when they say that if we surrender, they will give us all that we ask for. We have seen this tactic many times before, and know that what they say is only lies.''
The 2,000-member EZLN, comprising mainly of Indians from poor Chiapan towns, is demanding autonomy for Mexico's indigenous peoples as well as sizable government investments in roads, education, and health.
Since Feb. 10, when the military began moving armored vehicles into the region, no rebels have been reported killed, confirmed Miguel. But one Mexican colonel was killed by sniper fire.
For the rebels, the attention and wide public support won during the past year has been a momentous victory for a people long exploited or forgotten by the federal and state government.
In Salvador Allende, a village of 37 people located near Pichucalco, Sabastian Jimenez Clara, a Tzeltal Indian, said the Zapatistas are widely supported among the poor Indian farmers who grow coffee and corn.
Mr. Jimenez, who holds title to 1,250 acres of land with nine other men, raised the question of why the peasants couldn't have an armed group when he says the state's large coffee and cattle ranchers have maintained armed squads to ensure control of the region's resources.
``We don't condemn the Zapatistas,'' said the farmer, who spoke before a group of men in one of the village's dirt-floor huts. ``The government has never had interest in us, in the poor of Chiapas.''
Beside the more elusive demands of democracy and justice, Jimenez said that Salvador Allende, like hundreds of others villages strewn across Chiapas State, needs medical services and a road, even a dirt one, to transport their crops. Education for the mostly illiterate children would also be welcomed.
``We're not Zapatistas,'' said Jimenez, emphasizing a difference between the armed rebels and those that work within `civil society.' ``But if they came to our ranch needing food, we would feed them because they are poor like we are.''
Zedillo is trying to break the trust between such villagers and the rebels. In recent days, the Army has been giving away food and other supplies to communities that have not been abandoned either for fear of fighting or in support of the rebels.
Although on the run and militarily outmatched, the Zapatistas are proudly defiant. ``We're not afraid, because we're in our villages, we're in the jungle,'' said Miguel, his voice rising.
``The Army is the one that should be afraid because they don't know this land, or the people,'' he said.