Southern Mexico Under the Gun

Civilians take cover from bombs and bullets as the government tries to quell a rebellion

LIKE two hunting hawks, the single-engine Mexican government aircraft circled and dove. The sudden staccato burst of high-caliber machine guns raised the hair on the back of our necks as the sound echoed off the jagged saw-tooth mountains.

Just three minutes earlier, we had left Irma Sanchez, a Tzotzil Indian, two other women, and six children in the foothills south of San Cristobal de las Casas, the second largest city in Chiapas, Mexico's southern-most state. They had sat together, as if posing for a portrait in front of Irma's tiny, dirt-floor, thatched-roof home.

``The soldiers came past at about five o'clock yesterday afternoon,'' she recalled while nursing an infant. ``We were scared. I hid in my kitchen. We heard the `bombs' falling, just over there,'' she said, pointing to blue smoke rising half a mile away.

Mexico's southernmost state of Chiapas was thrown on to the front pages on New Year's Day, when an indigenous rebel group called Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) launched a rebellion against the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, demanding land, farm financing, better education services, and the release of Indian ``political prisoners.''

The rebellion coincided with the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which one rebel commander called ``the death certificate of the indigenous people of Mexico.'' More than 50 people have died in fighting between government and rebel forces.

A Mexican government official later confirmed that the planes and helicopters of which Mrs. Sanchez spoke had been called in the previous day to support a company of Mexican Army soldiers who were ambushed by members of the EZLN. There were unconfirmed reports of wounded soldiers, and a US-made Bell helicopter made an emergency landing after being damaged by gunfire.

But before an official version of the events was released, several journalists jumped in a rented vehicles Wednesday morning and raced up the dirt roads to investigate the bombing that had been audible from San Cristobal.

Irma's home was one of the first inhabited homes on the way. After speaking with her, we headed deeper into the hills toward another village. Moments later, an aerial attack began.

We jumped out of the station wagon, taking cover in an adjacent culvert. We watched in horror for 15 minutes as the two Swiss-made, two-seater airplanes made half-a-dozen passes, apparently strafing the knoll where Irma and her children lived. We heard no return fire and saw no rebel troops. The planes made three more passes. This time streaks of smoke etched the cobalt sky as rockets darted from the aircrafts' wings.

The planes stopped firing and flew past our position. We decided that if there was a battle going on, it might be wise to push ahead. We stopped again at El Corralito, a village of 25 families that was almost deserted. Two men carrying white flags walked up.

``I came up from San Cristobal this morning to see if my family was all right,'' explained Augustin Diaz, a bricklayer. ``My wife and two children are gone. Everyone is gone. They probably got scared and went into the mountains to hide.''

The planes were back. Buzzing past about 200 feet above ground, the pilots and the green camouflage paint were clearly visible. We held our hands high, waving notebooks and white handkerchiefs. One pilot waggled his wings in acknowledgment, and we relaxed a bit. We decided to head back.

Fifty feet from Irma's one-room house, the ground was scorched along the road. The Tzotzil women and children were nowhere to be found.

Returning to the hotel, we learned more about the attack. Moments before it had begun, a Mexican television crew had passed us heading out of the mountains. Their red Volkswagon van, like our vehicle, was clearly marked with ``Press'' and ``TV'' in large, block letters on all sides. They had stopped to talk to the Tzotzil family when the aircraft opened fire. They scrambled from the van, seeking cover. Bullets hit the rocky face of the hill behind them, showering them with chips of granite. One of the rockets exploded 40 feet away. ``We definitely felt we were the target of the attack,'' Univision reporter Bruno Lopez said.

Whether the target of the assault was the journalists or the women and children - not easily mistaken for uniformed guerrillas, even from a distance, because of the typical brightly colored woven clothing worn only by Indian women - was not clear.

Interior Ministry spokesman Eloy Cantu Segovia says the ``very lamentable incident'' is under investigation.

In reaction to accusations of human rights abuses that might have occurred throughout the five days of fighting, President Salinas asked Human Rights Commission president Jorge Madrazo yesterday to fly to Chiapas.

But Mr. Cantu insists Mexico is not at war. ``That's an inappropriate term,'' he says. Even as a convoy of troops, nearly a dozen tanks, and six armored personnel carriers rumble through town, Mexican officials deny this is a civil war. Rather the guerrillas are ``transgressors'' of ``judicial order.''

Whatever one calls it, the heavy weaponry now being used presents a troubling threat not only to the combatants but to civilians.

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