THE armed Indian rebellion in southern Mexico - coupled with new attacks in central Mexico - may scare off the foreign investors that President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has worked so hard to attract, analysts say, and could undermine the ruling party's prospects for reelection in August.
``This shakes up the whole political firmament,'' says Federico Estevez, a professor at the Mexican Autonomous Technological Institute here. ``Great damage has been done already. But it's hard to judge now how it will play out. The key question: How long can the rebels keep this up?''
The rebels invaded six towns in the Mexican state of Chiapas on Jan. 1. More than 100 people have died. Mexican officials now estimate the rebels have some 2,000 armed men and women scattered throughout the mountains east of Tuxtla Gutierrez, the state capital. Mexican Army troops in Chiapas number at least 15,000, according to local press reports.
If the Mexican government can reach a settlement with the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) before elections, Mr. Estevez says, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) would recover lost political ground. ``It could show Mexicans and foreign investors that the country is in capable hands and restore investor confidence,'' but ``it's a heady bet.''
Mr. Salinas, in a national address Jan. 6, offered amnesty to Indian rebels ``living in poverty who have participated because of deceit, pressure, or even despair.'' Leaders of the major opposition parties are calling for an immediate, unilateral cease-fire.
The only hint that the EZLN might consider a settlement came in a fax sent Friday to at least two Mexican newspapers asking that Roman Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz, Mexican journalist Julio Scherer Garcia, and 1992 Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, a Guatemalan Indian rights activist, act as mediators in a ``written dialogue.'' The authenticity of the fax has not been confirmed.
As the attacks continue, the financial community is becoming worried. After two days of heavy buying, concern that the violence might spread to other states sent the Mexican stock market tumbling 2.2 percent on Friday. The trigger for the sell-off was the toppling of three high-voltage electric utility towers in the central states of Michoacan and Puebla.
Early Saturday morning, a car bomb exploded in a Mexico City shopping mall's parking lot. One person was slightly injured and 20 stores suffered damage. No one claimed responsibility for the attacks. But graffiti on nearby buildings reportedly said: ``We've arrived. EZLN.''
In Acapulco, a grenade was lobbed at a federal office building on Saturday. Damage was minor. The Clandestine Revolutionary Workers' Party-Union, an underground leftist group known for attacks made in the 1980s, claimed responsibility. And an estimated 8,000 and 5,000 Zapatista supporters demonstrated in two Mexico City marches on Friday and Saturday.
``The country is supposed to be entering a new era of protecting and attracting investment,'' says economist Roberto Salinas Leon of the Center for Free Enterprise Research. The North American Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect Jan. 1, is seen as a major drawing card for foreign investors. ``But if this goes on another week, it's going to start scaring a lot of investors,'' Mr. Salinas Leon predicts.
In addition to giving investors pause, the Zapatistas will likely prompt presidential hopefuls to change their message and focus more on factors considered to be the root causes of the rebellion, some analysts say. For example, government social spending programs aimed at reducing poverty may get more emphasis now than under the Salinas administration. The center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party may win more support if the Chiapas crisis focuses discussion on how to reduce tension by narrowing the gap between the rich and poor, analysts say.
``Chiapas is an important lesson which will change the discourse of the PRI,'' predicts Federico Reyes Heroles, editor of Este Pais, a monthly news magazine. ``We Mexicans were very proud we didn't have the social explosions after 10 years of economic adjustment that we've seen elsewhere in Latin America. But in Chiapas we're seeing the limits of the economic adjustment - it is the weakest link. If you analyze health care, education, and other social services in Chiapas, you'll see they are more or less 50 years behind Mexico City.''
Reports of human rights violations, principally by the Army, may also hurt the ruling party in upcoming elections.
Estevez says the core of the campaign debate may depend on the tactics of the guerrillas. Social issues could play second fiddle to security issues if the violence spreads. ``A continued rural guerrilla movement without urban incidents, may create solidarity and sympathy in other sectors of Mexican society,'' he says. ``But if you get urban terrorism, that's different. In Guatemala, in the zones of highest violence, people vote for order, security, stability, and the far right.''
Political scientist Jorge Castaneda puts yet another spin on what the Chiapas rebellion means for Mexican politics. He says the principle causes of the uprising are not economic but political. Chiapas is very poor. But under Salinas it was the recipient of more social spending than any other Mexican state. The insurrection occurred because the ``authoritarian, corrupt, oligarchical structures that have characterized Chiapas for decades were left untouched - or even strengthened,'' he writes in a newspaper column.
``In Chiapas you see the worst side of the Mexican political system,`` agrees Reyes Heroles.
Mr. Castaneda warns, ``Political change must occur, and soon, or more incidents such as those of the past few days will occur.''