Salinas Visits Chiapas, Promises Social Reforms

Trip comes amid charges of continuing Army abuses. GOVERNMENT PEACE OFFERING

AMID emerging reports of human rights abuses, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari flew to Chiapas Tuesday to personally guarantee indigenous groups that the Mexican government is committed to curing the social problems it considers are the source of the New Year's Day uprising.

President Salinas promised about 280 local Mayan Indian and campesino or peasant organizations a peaceful resolution to the armed uprising that has paralyzed the impoverished coffee-producing state for almost a month. Salinas, in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas' capital, pledged to fulfill a series of social demands ranging from emergency provisions for war-zone refugees, judicial reforms, and a coffee-growers fund to ``a dialogue with each one of you'' over land disputes between ranchers and poor peasant farmers. ``We want peace, but not by returning to the situation before. We want peace, but by entering a new stage,'' he said.

In the series of open meetings with government officials that has led up to Salinas's first visit to Chiapas since the rebel insurrection began, campesino groups have expressed their support for the rebel's aims, if not their methods.

``We recognize the courage of the members of the Zapatista National Liberation Army [EZLN].... It's not right to blame them for the violence. The government is to blame. It's sad, but the EZLN thought they had no other way,'' said a statement released by campesino organizations on Jan. 23.

The estimated 2,000 Chiapas rebels are largely Indian farmers living off corn and beans and working the coffee plantations and cattle ranches in one of Mexico's poorest and most agrarian states. Chiapas has been rent by social conflict for years. The rebels, most of Mayan descent, claim they have been repressed by wealthy landowners who have the support of the state government and security forces. About 100 people died in fighting between the Mexican Army and the guerrillas during the first two weeks of January.

A cease-fire is now being respected by both sides. Salinas has responded to the crisis by offering amnesty to the rebels, reshuffling his Cabinet, firing the governor of Chiapas, and promising sweeping social reforms in the state. But peace talks have not begun yet, and there are increasing reports of human rights violations.

As Salinas arrived in Chiapas, the London-based human rights organization Amnesty International released a report condemning Mexican security forces for dozens of cases of torture, at least nine extrajudicial executions, 15 other suspicious killings, and large numbers of arbitrary detentions, based on information collected from Jan. 18-22. The rebels were also criticized for holding Absalon Castellanos, a rancher and former governor of Chiapas, hostage.

In Chiapas, Amnesty official Morris Tidball-Binz said that ``what we are seeing are patterns of arbitrary mass detentions.'' There are also individual reports of the Army torturing prisoners by beatings, electric shock, and underwater dunkings. The US-based human rights organization, Americas Watch, reports similar findings.

Alexander Watson, US Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, said Tuesday that the United States is``terribly concerned by these reports.'' He encouraged the Mexican government to investigate the allegations as ``aggressively as possible.''

Salinas told the groups that the quasi-independent Mexican National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) is ``acting with full objectivity and impartiality'' and ``won't hide anything.''

CNDH officials say they are continuing their investigations. A Jan. 25 press release states that of 131 people captured by the Army, 58 have been released. It has received reports of 400 missing persons, 278 of whom have been found. The CNDH condemns prison conditions in Chiapas, citing overcrowding and a lack of food, beds, and health care. But the CNDH finds some of the criticisms leveled against it by several nongovernmental human rights groups ``profoundly strange.''

A Jan. 20 rebel communique published by Mexican newspapers on Tuesday states that the EZLN has found Mr. Castellanos guilty in a ``people's court'' for human rights violations, assassination, robbery, corruption, kidnapping, and plundering. But the group will free him in return for the release of all EZLN soldiers and civilians captured by Mexican government forces.

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