MEXICO CITY — The Zapatistas they are not.
The armed rebel group that surfaced in the Pacific coast state of Guerrero Friday is being viewed with caution by both the government and opposition political leaders. But that does not mean the self-proclaimed Popular Revolutionary Army can be ignored by a Mexico still susceptible to suggestions of political instability.
The appearance of as many as 80 masked, uniformed men and women armed with AK-47 rifles in a Guerrero village reminded many of the Zapatista rebel army, which burst onto the scene Jan. 1, 1994, in the state of Chiapas.
The Popular Revolutionary Army, or EPR by its Spanish acronym, interrupted a memorial service in the village of Aguas Blancas for 17 campesinos who were killed there by state police one year ago. Aguas Blancas is a hard-to-reach, dirt-poor village nestled in the mountains behind the glitzy beach resort of Acapulco.
Both the Zapatistas and the EPR made their public debut by declaring war on the Mexican government, calling for a "legitimate," democratically elected government. And in both cases, the government labeled the rebels criminals, and a violent minority opposed to the people's desire for peace.
The Army sent troops searching for them, saying they violated firearms laws. By Sunday morning there were no reports of major confrontations.
But the differences between the two "armies" also suggest why response to the appearance of an armed group inside Mexico was also different this time.
The Zapatistas took over several Chiapas towns, killing soldiers, police, and other government representatives, and proclaiming their intention to march on Mexico City to topple the government.
By comparison, the Guerrero rebels merely fired 17 shots into the air in honor of Aguas Blancas's 17 martyrs, then disappeared.
GOVERNMENT officials are viewing the group doubtfully. "The uniforms were so clean, pressed, and new, they didn't look like a real guerrilla group that's been training hard in the mountains," said one source in Mexico's presidential palace, citing news photos.
The group's existance worries opposition leaders. One of the Guerrero state party leaders of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) called the group's appearance "suspicious," since it could lead people to associate their left-leaning party with armed rebellion. That could be damaging for the party, the official noted, with local elections coming up.
But perhaps the biggest reason for Mexico's initial nonplussed response to the Guerrero force is the gaping change in Mexico's general mental state in the last two years. Mexico was so shaken by the Zapatistas because the country was living the illusion, promoted by the government of then-president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, that it was about to enter the first world. Economic partnership with the United States in the North America Free Trade Agreement also commenced on Jan. 1, 1994. Abject poverty and guerrilla armies were thought to be part of Mexico's past.
Now after 2-1/2 years of the Zapatistas, political assassinations, the violent effects of drug-trafficking cartels, and a peso collapse followed by a deep economic recession, a perception of crisis has replaced 1994's optimism. In that context, an armed antigovernment force in Guerrero, a state associated with violence, no longer surprises.