OVENTIC, MEXICO — Clouds roll in from the mountains, low and heavy, and cover the rebel stronghold. Two young men, their black ski masks tossed carelessly beside them, sit at the Collective Cafe of the Resistance sipping grapefruit soda and chatting softly in the indigenous Tzotzil language.
In a shack between the church, the clinic, and the Collective Music Store (where a summer sale of "revolutionary CDs" is under way) a three-person welcoming committee, faces covered, offers a glimpse into the secretive and confused state of Mexico's Zapatista movement today.
Eleven years after the rebels first emerged from the jungle to oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement with an armed revolt - seizing several towns in southeast Mexico and inspiring an international cult following among the antiglobalization set - they are trying to stage a comeback. But as what?
Subcomandante Marcos, the elusive Zapatista leader - a white academic whose real name, Mexican officials say, is Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente - is putting out one contradictory communiqué after another, scattering mysterious clues as to what he and his followers are plotting.
Think of it as a rebel movement having a midlife crisis.
"Everything will be made clear in the next communiqué," says one welcoming-committee rebel in jeans and a bandanna.
The rebel beside him, with long braids hanging from the back of her ski mask, puts her head down on the wobbly wood table and takes a nap.
"We don't know more," says the third in the group, speaking languidly. "What we know, we don't say," corrects the first. "There is a new direction, yes," the third posits, changing his gambit. "There might be a communiqué about this," the first sums up. As they walk outside, they peel off their masks.
It's all a far cry from the heroic beginnings in 1994, when the mostly Mayan Zapatistas emerged on New Year's Day, fighting against capitalism on the first day that NAFTA came into effect. They were confronted by government troops and an estimated 145 rebels, soldiers, and civilians were killed, before a cease-fire was signed. But the truce was an uneasy one, with the Zapatistas remaining armed and the government stationing some 100 camps around the rebel territory.
During the ensuing years, the Zapatistas were credited with putting native rights on the national political agenda and embarrassing the government into improving infrastructure, healthcare, and education in the region. But Chiapas, and the villages under their control, continued to languish in the same abject poverty Marcos had pledged to fight. The movement faded from the stage.
Then, suddenly, on June 19, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) declared a "red alert" - recalling its top commanders to hold high-level discussions in the jungle; shutting down the five strongholds they have established in Chiapas, including Oventic; calling on Zapatista troops and sympathizers to go into hiding; and warning outsiders to stay in rebel territory "at their own risk." Major newspapers in Mexico City speculated that the Zapatistas were preparing a new armed offensive, coinciding with the unofficial start of the race for the 2006 presidential elections.
After four weeks of silence, Marcos sent word from his jungle hideout to end the red alert. The announcements that followed, however, did little to shed light on what was going on.
In one statement the rebel leader announced a move toward politics and away from armed conflict. In the next communiqué, Marcos boasted that the Zapatistas had completed a military reorganization begun in 2002 and that "we have the capacity to survive ... any attack or enemy action that tries to stop our leadership or totally annihilate us."
Later, in a rambling missive on the Internet, Marcos called for a peaceful nationwide leftist civil movement and said the rebels would send a delegation across the country to unite leftist workers, advocates, and students, and push for a new constitution to "defend the weak."
Finally, the latest communiqué, released last week, announced that the rebels had designated a new mascot: a chicken named "Penguin." "Penguin has become part of the General Command of the Zapatista army," wrote Marcos. "We are all like Penguin, forcing ourselves to rise up and make our way in Mexico, in Latin America and the world."
One explanation of what is going on comes from the Latin America Report, an intelligence research group based in London. They attribute the scattershot issue of communiqués as proof that a leadership struggle is under way.
The rebels are divided, says the July report, between hard-liners, led by Marcos's former wife, Commander Ana Maria, who wants to radicalize the rebellion, and moderates, led by Commanders Zebedeo and Tacho, who want to spread the example of the Zapatistas communities and influence the creation of an "indigenous-worker" alliance.
Others see a rebel movement trying to mature into a political organization and find its voice.
"The  elections have opened up a space and a debate is reawakening," says Duncan Earle, an anthropologist at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., who has been working in Chiapas for 25 years. Marcos, he argues, needs to do something "bold" to avoid being eclipsed by the upcoming political process.
This may be why Marcos has spent the past few weeks slamming the most prominent figure in left-wing Mexican politics, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who is leading in the polls.
"It's transparent," argues Rosanna Fuentes-Berain, managing editor of Foreign Affairs en Español magazine. "Marcos is positioning himself to negotiate for power and a new role." If the rebel leader were to remain silent now, she says, "he would become totally irrelevant."
Back at the Oventic cooperative - where Che Guevara T-shirts and Zapatista bumper stickers are sold alongside colored clay turtles with nodding heads - a fresh group of tourists is at the gate. They want an audience with the welcoming committee. The three rebels wearily pull down their ski masks and begin anew. "It will all be made clear," they begin, "in the next communiqué."
Oventic, Mexico - In what some might consider a strange pairing, not to mention an uneven one, Italy's premier football club, Inter Milan, and the soccer team of Mexico's ragtag Zapatista movement are gearing up for a fall face-off.
It is a match hatched out of mutual respect. The Italian club has both vocally and financially supported the Zapatista rebels, countercapitalists who have become icons to Italy's own passionate antiglobalization movement. While Subcomandante Marcos, the pipe-smoking, poetry-writing, ski-mask-wearing Zapatista leader, who, like many in this region, is more of a basketball man, has developed a particular soft spot for Inter Milan lately.
It all started with a lighthearted letter in May from Marcos to Inter Milan's president, Massimo Moratti, suggesting two games: one at the stadium of Mexico City's National Autonomous University, a stronghold of pro-Zapatista sentiment, and the other in Milan, with Argentine legend Diego Maradona officiating.
The Milan leg of the plan could create interesting airport issues as the Zapatistas wear ski masks in public, use noms de guerre, and rarely have passports.
That aside, Luis H. Álvarez, President Vicente Fox's envoy to head up negotiations with the guerrilla group, said he saw no problem, theoretically, with the scheme.
"My personal opinion is that it's fine," he told El Universal, a local paper, last month. Mauricio Zavala, spokesman for Mexico's soccer federation, was also unfazed. True, he admitted, the Zapatistas don't actually have a formal soccer team, but "football is football, anyone with a ball can play it."
The relationship between Inter Milan and the Zapatistas goes back to the decision by Italian team captain Javier Zanetti last year to send money raised from fines to the Mexican insurgents. When the pot reached $5,000, Bruno Bartolozzi, manager of Inter Milan, flew to Chiapas to deliver it personally, along with a load of soccer balls and an ambulance.
"I told them that there are people in Europe and in other parts of the world that support democracy and the Zapatistas," says Mr. Bartolozzi by phone from Italy.
"Soccer," he continues waxing philosophical, "is like the fight of resistance - full of surprises.... Sometimes the small can win against the big."
• Ms. Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today. Eloise Quintanilla contributed to this report.