THE first, hesitant steps toward peace in southern Mexico are under way.
A tenuous cease-fire has begun. And an indirect dialogue is starting between the Mexican government and Mayan peasant rebels who mounted an armed New Year's Day insurrection in the southern-most state of Chiapas.
``Things are moving along. The road of concord and conciliation is the right road, as the results show,'' said Manuel Camacho Solis, the Mexican government mediator.
After almost 14,000 Mexican Army troops, armored vehicles, and aircraft slugged it out with an estimated 2,000 rebels in the mountainous jungle for more than a week, the Mexican government abruptly switched tactics.
One of Mr. Camacho's first steps was to publicly recognize the guerrillas as a political and military force - one of the rebel demands. Twice during the past week, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has gone on national television, first to call for a unilateral truce and then to offer a general amnesty covering all violent acts committed by both sides in the previous days.
The government lists 107 dead from the fighting. Officials of various churches claim the death toll could be three times higher. About 200 people have been detained by the government. Among the hostages taken by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) is a former state governor. Human rights groups accuse both sides of summary executions and other rights violations.
``This is the right strategy now. It amazes me that for 10 days the government followed the opposite strategy,'' says Lorenzo Meyer, a historian and critic of President Salinas at the Colegio de Mexico, a private university in Mexico City. ``The military approach was a mistake. The pictures of aircraft bombing civilian Indian communities shows a very insensitive government. It doesn't go over well with the Mexican public.''
By Jan. 17, the change in strategy started to bear fruit. The Zapatista leaders sent several communiques to Camacho and selected Mexican newspapers, cautiously accepting the cease-fire, reiterating their demands, and outlining conditions for talks.
The EZLN's written communiques - dated Jan. 11, 12, and 13 - said its soldiers have been given orders not to attack the Mexican Army, to hold their positions, and not fire unless fired upon. The cease-fire was to ``open space'' for peace talks, said one letter, but then it warned, ``We will not be tricked.'' So far, the truce is patchy. Local media report intermittent aerial bombings, gunfire, and detention of civilians by the Mexican Army.
THE EZLN demands remain essentially targeted toward easing the plight of Indian peasants in one of Mexico's poorest states. They call for land, health care, education, jobs, justice, and political freedom. In one communique, the rebels deny press reports which stated they wanted 1992 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Rigoberta Menchu, a Guatemalan Indian rights activist, as a mediator. But they confirmed their desire to have Roman Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz act as a go-between. They stipulated that any other members of the mediation team be Mexican, honest, independent, sensitive to the region's problems, and not members of any political party.
Mexican government officials now concede that there is little evidence to suggest that the Zapatista uprising is anything but ``fundamentally Mexican.'' ``If you look at the Zapatista proclamation, it is very nationalistic,'' observes Alfonso Zarate Flores, director of the Interdisciplinary Consulting Group, a private Mexico City think tank. ``It doesn't cite Marx, Lenin, or Mao, but historical Mexican leaders such as Father Miguel Hidalgo, [Jose Maria] Morelos, Emiliano Zapata. And it invokes the constitutional right of Mexicans to choose their government.''
The rebels also begged the United States not to ``stain your hands with our blood by being an accomplice of the Mexican government,'' in a letter addressed to President Clinton, the US Congress, and American people. The EZLN claims US helicopters and other equipment loaned or sold to the Mexican government to fight drug trafficking is being used to ``repress the just struggle of the Mexican people and the indigenous people of Chiapas.''
Last week, a US official stated all helicopters provided by the US were used in ``logistical, noncombat'' roles in Chiapas, and as of Jan. 13, the aircraft had returned to normal counternarcotics duty.