The beautiful old colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas, seems untouched by the events in the last two centuries. Quiet, dignified streets, lined with solemn stone houses -- in front of which Indians in multi-coloured native dress peddle handicrafts, fruits, and flowers -- lie under a sky so translucently blue that the city seems not quite of this world.
It is, however, very much of this world. San Cristobal is one of the main cities of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, which lies on the Mexican-Guatemalan border.
Chiapas is genuinely concerned with Guatemala's ongoing guerrilla insurrection. San Cristobal's economy is largely dependent on the wealth of foreign tourists -- primarily Europeans.
If the conflict in Guatemala intensifies, cities like San Cristobal may be greatly affected. Tourism would suffer. Those especially hard hit would be the poorer segments of Chiapas -- Indian vendors whose existence depends upon a constant influx of tourists.
Mexican leaders say that a severe deterioration in the regional situation could eventually threaten Mexico's stability. In a sense, the possible damage that turmoil in neighboring countries could inflict on tourist towns like San Cristobal embodies Mexico's concerns in Central America.
``Basically, Mexico doesn't care about Central America,'' says one of Mexico's leading think-tank specialists on Central America. ``What it really cares about is Central American instability and how that instability might affect Mexico.''
It was the wave of regional disruption in the late 1970s that pushed Central America to the forefront of Mexico's foreign policy agenda.
Mexico's somewhat passive foreign policy -- which, since the 1910 revolution, had concentrated on nonintervention -- was turned upside down.
But, after the 1979 revolution in Nicaragua and the outbreak of large-scale guerrilla warfare in El Salvador, what emerged was an aggressive policy of uniting the regional Latin American powers in an attempt to both support and temper radical social change in Central America.
This policy, which Mexico hoped would guarantee peace and security on its southern border in the long run, culminated in the Contadora effort, which aims to bring about a peaceful settlement in Central America.
Contadora was formed by Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama in Jan. 1983. Its purpose: to present a Latin American, rather than a United States, diplomatic alternative to the Central American conflict and to support peaceful negotiations in order to prevent a US invasion of Nicaragua or a regional war.
Five Central American countries, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, later became members of Contadora. The main areas of conflict are Nicaragua and El Salvador. In 1981-82, Nicaragua's ruling Sandinistas were aiding El Salvador's leftist rebels.
The US responded by backing anti-Sandinista rebels, known as ``contras.'' Honduran-based contras were increasing their raids into Nicaragua resulting in an expansion of US military presence in the region.
It was generally feared that Nicaragua and Honduras would become embroiled in a conflict, ultimately leading to US invasion of Nicaragua.
Today, Contadora seems stalled in the deadlock between Nicaragua and the US's Central American allies -- Honduras, Costa Rica, and El Salvador.
With an economic crisis leaving Mexico more dependent on the US and its own private sector, Mexico's policy toward Central America appears to be changing. The US and Mexico's private sector appear to be pushing the Mexican government toward a more conservative policy in Central America, though Mexican government officials publicly deny any shift in policy.
Most regional analysts say there has been a distinct move by Mexico toward a more conservative, low-profile policy in Central America in the last year. It is a shift that, in the past few months, has been growing daily more visible.
Academic and diplomatic analysts predict that, short of a US invasion of Nicaragua, this trend will continue. Mexico, they say, will become less involved in Central America.
The near-suspension of Mexican oil shipments to Nicaragua is a sign of the increasing distance that Mexico is placing between itself and Nicaragua. Mexico will relinquish its ruling position in Contadora to other Contadora members which are more sympathetic to US policy in Central America, predict analysts.
Contadora was originally created as a subtle form of opposition to the US by allowing the Latin American countries, rather than Washington, to call the shots on the resolution of the Central American crisis.
Mexico is also expected to continue to cool its once-warm relations with the Salvadorean left and move closer to Salvadorean President Jos'e Nap'oleon Duarte, say these observers.
Mexico hopes that President Duarte will be able to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the five-year-old civil war with leftist guerrillas.
Whatever its policy shifts, Mexico's main concerns in Central America remain the same:
A politically and militarily stable Central America which is not polarized into warring camps nor dominated by either the Soviet-Cuban axis or the traditional right-wing oligarchies.
A relatively demilitarized zone on Mexico's southern border enabling it to keep its Army comparatively small.
``Mexico is slowly returning to its old policy of stressing due process of law and opposing any foreign -- principally US -- intervention in the area,'' says Rene Herrerra, a Central American analyst at a top Mexican think-tank, the Colegio de Mexico.
The US remains the crucial third party in Mexico's Central American policy -- always in the background, but always a factor.
Through all the ups and downs of an often delicate relationship, Mexico has always had to deal with the US. Often, as the only Latin American country that directly borders the US, the Mexicans have felt very alone.
``Our [Mexico's] relations with Central America, like all our relations, are another form of our relations with the US,'' says Lorenzo Meyer, a Mexican academic expert on US-Mexican affairs.
Mexico and the US share two goals. Both want political stability in Central America and the prevention of a leftist takeover. But the way in which the two governments view the region are radically different. These differences set US and Mexican policies at loggerheads in the late '70s.
The US considers the main problem of the region to be poverty, for which money, time, and the free enterprise system are the remedy. Washington is particularly concerned with the threat of a Soviet-Cuban takeover of the area, which it wants to avert.
The way Mexico sees it, rampant social injustice is the key factor in Central America's explosive situation. Social change is the only solution.
Most analysts believe that when the Sandinistas first came to power in Nicaragua in 1979, and the Salvadorean left appeared near victory, Mexican leaders hoped that a bloc of countries would join together. Under Mexican leadership -- and subservient to neither the Soviets nor the US -- these countries would guide the region.
In 1982, a more conservative administration came to power led by President Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado. Mexico became increasingly disenchanted with the Sandinistas.
At that time, Mexico was struggling with the worst economic crisis since the 1910 revolution. President de la Madrid adopted a conservative domestic economic policy to halt the crisis.
The president adopted the International Monetary Fund's austerity plans, encouraged large-scale foreign -- mainly US -- investment and tourism, and attempted to restore the confidence of Mexico's private sector.
The new economic strategy led to a modification of Mexican foreign policy, say policy analysts such as Aguilar and Carlos Frederico Paredes, a former vice-minister of planning, and an expert on Central American affairs.
To succeed, the Mexico's economic strategy needs the wholehearted support of both the local private sector and Washington.
Although such support is not yet apparent, analysts suggest that de la Madrid is changing his country's Central America policy in the hope of placating the US and Mexico's business leaders. Many of those business leaders share the US' dim view of the Sandinistas and the Salvadorean left.
But, despite diminished Mexican support for the Sandinistas and the Salvadorean guerrillas, the gulf between the Central America policies of the US and Mexico remains wide.
Mexico's leaders are, in private, rapidly coming to accept the idea put forth by President Reagan that there should be negotiations between the ruling Sandinistas and the ``contras,'' says Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, a top Mexican expert on Central America.
Mexico continues to reject the idea of US economic aid to the contras and new elections in Nicaragua, which the contras are demanding.
Mexico's leaders still say that US policies in the region will lead to further polarization and conflict.
Mexico fears that the US refusal to reach any sort of accommodation with the Central American left combined with US ignorance of basic social realities in the region will further radicalize both the Nicaraguan and the Salvadorean left, says Mario Arriola, an analyst of Central America and the Contadora peace process for CIDE, a Mexican think-tank.
Mexico's deepest fear is that an impasse in Central America would lead to a US invasion of the area, which Mexican leaders see as catastrophic.
Weakened as Mexico is by its economic crisis, a US invasion -- followed by many years of generalized guerrilla warfare throughout the region -- could endanger Mexico's present political system, say Arriola and other analysts.
Mexicans fear an invasion would bring a wave of refugees across its southern frontier, says Arriola.
At present, according to official figures, there are 50,000 Guatemalan refugees in Mexico. Most of them are concentrated in Chiapas. Most observers say the official figures are far too low. Some estimate the number is closer to 100,000.
The Chiapas area is considered especially vulnerable to insurrection in part because it is one of the two or three most economically underdeveloped states in the country. And any upheaval could have serious consequences since Chiapas is near Mexico's largest oil fields.
If Guatemala's guerrilla warfare intensifies, the fighting could spread to Chiapas, say analysts. Large numbers of Mexican Army troops would be moved into the area creating a destabilizing effect on Chiapas which has a large Indian community.
Politically moderate US experts on rural development who have worked with Indian communities in Mexico for many years say that stationing large number of troops in the province would likely lead to a wave of repression against the Indian population. The local Indian population would revolt leading to further violence.
Other observers and Mexican academic analysts say that it would be a mistake to believe that the discontent fueling Guatemala's massive guerrilla warfare would automatically spill over to Chiapas. These observers stress that the degree of social injustice and repressiveness in Chiapas, although high, is much less than in Guatemala.
Mexico is concerned that political polarization of the right and left in Central America would eventually have a similiar effect in Mexico, say both Arriola and Paredes.
Mexican leaders remember the radicalizing effect which the Cuban revolution and US efforts to combat it had on the Mexican left in the 1960s.
A future US invasion of Nicaragua, analysts say, would have an even more drastic effect. Thousands of Mexican youths might volunteer to help the Sandinistas against US forces. Such a development would, in turn, radicalize the Mexican right, supported by large elements of the private sector.
In a situation where the economic crisis and longstanding business sector discontent with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is already putting a great deal of pressure on Mexico's social fabric, polarization of the right and the left could have serious consequences.
Mexican leaders want to avoid having to enlarge their Army, which has been depoliticized and loyal to the government since the 1920s. But in Latin America, the possibility of a coup is never completely ruled out. An enlarged army in a socially polarized Mexico could prove dangerous.
In the long run, Mexico will attempt to distance itself from a lot of public activity on what it sees as a not-very-hopeful Central American situation, says a Western diplomat. This means among other things abandoning its leadership of Contadora.
Mexico's policies in Nicaragua will probably grow increasingly ambivalent, abandoning its energetic defense of the Sandinistas but probably not adopting Washington's views.
This ambivalence will characterize Mexico's relations with El Salvador. Mexico has replaced its backing of the Salvadorean left with lukewarm support for President Duarte. Mexico would like to see a negotiated solution in Salvador. But it is not confident that Duarte, the US, or the left-wing guerrillas are willing to make the necessary concessions to achieve one.
In Guatemala, Mexico is expected to continue to contradict its policy of supporting social change in the rest of the region and continue to move somewhat closer to the right-wing regime of Gen. Oscar Mej'ia Victores in the hope that the general will manage to keep their common border quiet.
Mexican leaders are concerned about the political future of Central America. They do not greatly trust or respect the judgment of either the ruling Sandinistas or the Reagan administration, the Salvadorean left or the Salvadorean right. Hopes are diminishing for the Contadora peace effort. As Mexico steps back from its activist role of the last few years, its leaders can only attempt to contain the damage and hope for the best.
End of series. Previous articles ran Monday through Wednesday