IN the first guerrilla uprising in Mexico since the 1970s, armed peasant rebels took control of five southern Mexico towns by force on Saturday, New Year's Day, in a challenge to the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
The Zapatista National Liberation Army, a heavily armed and virtually unknown group, took over the radio stations, blocked the roads leading in and out of towns, and occupied the mayors' offices in San Cristobal de las Casas, the second largest city in the state of Chiapas. They also took control of four smaller towns. Police said six people were killed and 18 wounded in gun fights with the guerrilla group.
Then, on Sunday, they fled San Cristobal leaving behind messages that their ``revolution'' would continue. According to Dr. Pablo Farias, a psychiatrist and resident of San Cristobal reached by telephone, the guerrillas were in absolute control of the town and did not threaten townspeople. ``They're not threatening the townspeople. Clearly, this was not a spur of the moment act. They are very well organized and equipped. It's an army,'' he said.
The rebel group claims 1,500 members - all Mexican. The Chiapas government says there are no more than 200. Local press reports put the total in all five towns at 800 to 900.
Seeking land, education
The guerrillas, mostly indigenous people with their own language, demanded that President Salinas resign. They say his government has ignored the plight of the Indians in the Lancandon Forest. They seek land, farm financing, education, and the release of ``political'' prisoners. ``We are the product of 500 years of victimization that began with the Spanish,'' said one guerrilla leader dressed in new army fatigues, a red bandana around his neck, and an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder.
``We are dying of hunger and disease,'' he said reading a statement on television. ``We have nothing, absolutely nothing: not a decent roof, nor land, nor work, nor education.... Today, we say: Enough!''
History of land disputes
A statement issued by the Interior Ministry on Saturday evening said that the Mexican Army would seek to avoid confrontation. It called the group's social demands ``valid'' but added ``what is not justifiable ... is the violation of the human rights of those [citizens] who are not the cause of the problems.''
Chiapas, which borders Guatemala, is one of Mexico's poorest states with a high percentage of indigenous people. It has a history of land and religious disputes. The federal government estimates that about 30 percent of all Mexican land conflicts take place in Chiapas, which has only 4 percent of the nation's population.
Violent confrontations between ranchers and feuding peasant groups are not uncommon. As a border state, there is added tension from Guatemalan war refugees, Guatemalan Army and guerrilla incursions, drug running, bandits, and illegal logging. Although this is the first organized attack of this scale, there were hints that trouble was brewing in Chiapas as early as last March.
Two off-duty soldiers disappeared in late March. A week later, their charred remains were found. On May 22 and May 26, the Mexican Army reported that gunmen had attacked two patrols in separate incidents. There were also local press reports of secret guerrilla training camps in the region - perhaps run by Guatemalan guerrillas.
But in mid-1993, Interior Minister Patrocinio Gonzalez Blanco, governor of Chiapas until the end of 1992, flatly denied the reports of guerrilla activity in the state. Salinas critics say the Mexican government was polishing its image, trying to sell the North American Free Trade Agreement. It could not afford to tarnish its image abroad by admitting to the political instability implicit in a nascent armed guerrilla movement, they say.
Roman Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz, based in San Cristobal, continued to voice concerns about guerrilla activity and was privately branded a troublemaker by Salinas officials. In a controversial move widely believed to be politically motivated, Bishop Ruiz was recently asked by the Vatican to take another post.
Opponents of the ruling party are already doling out blame for the crisis. Center-left opposition leader Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano says he does not condone the violence, but he issued a statement blaming the government for allowing the problems in Chiapas to reach a crisis. ``It should not be lost sight of that the social, agricultural, and political problems of Chiapas have been ignored by local governments,'' says Mr. Cardenas, ``which have sought to silence the demands through repression, intolerance, violence, and by provoking confrontations between different social groups, with the intent of defending the interests of a small oligarchy.''
Rumors that the Mexican guerrilla group is trained and backed by Guatemalan leftist rebels are being denied by their leaders. They claim they are merely Mexican peasants. The source of their equipment and expertise remains an unanswered question.
The rebel group is named after Emiliano Zapata, a leader of the 1910 Mexican Revolution who fought to return land seized by wealthy landowners.