Reverberations from a rebellion: political aftershocks split Chiapas

Nearly a year later, Mexico's uprising emboldens peasants to challenge the rich

ON the surface, the town of Bochil, in Mexico's southern state of Chiapas, presents a picture of life unaltered for generations.

A lone pig pokes through a pile of garbage in the village square as boys with homemade shoeshine boxes compete for customers and families finished with the day's work in the surrounding mountains.

But in the 11 months since an armed rebellion by the area's mostly Mayan peasant population rocked Mexico, Bochil, like dozens of other towns in the region, has seen changes that challenge the traditional order.

Landowners and shopkeepers speak of increased tensions and unpunished lawlessness since the New Year's Day uprising. But the indigenous population emphasizes a new sense of dignity and a determination for a larger say in the issues affecting their lives.

``It seems like a long time since we haven't had to think in terms of which side someone is on or what violence is going to hit our town next,'' says Camelia Senteno Ramos, owner of a sweets shop here.

But Miguel Gonzalez Hernandez, a teacher in a Bochil school who speaks Spanish and his native Tzotzil, sees things in a different light. ``What we are seeing here in Bochil is a recovering of the indigenous people's customs, traditions, and culture,'' he says. ``This desire to be ourselves and make our own decisions was fortified by the events of Jan. 1, but it's something that was already in the people's hearts.''

A town of only 6,000 people, Bochil is hours away by winding mountain road from the Chiapas highlands where the rebels of the Zapatista National Liberation Army based their revolt. But the Zapatistas' call for democracy, land reform, and economic freedom for the subservient indigenous people was felt as strongly here as elsewhere in the state.

Two months of roadblocks, marches, and protests that began in May against Bochil's mayor - a member of Mexico's ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) - resulted in the mayor's resignation July 16. He was replaced by a five-member council, three of whose members, including the president, are indigenous.

``The former mayor was from the old leadership, from the rich,'' says Camilo Martinez Diaz, a mestizo [mixed-race] member of the new council, who is also a member of the PRI. ``The new leaders,'' adds the corn and beans farmer, ``are of the people.''

Bochil's new leaders also declared the town an ``autonomous'' zone. ``What we're declaring in Bochil is a freedom from the big and rich, to govern ourselves,'' Mr. Martinez says.

Bochil was something of a bellwether. Takeovers of municipalities by citizens' groups demanding better representation have multiplied in Chiapas over recent weeks. Chiapas Gov. Javier Lopez Moreno last week acknowledged that such councils now govern a third of the state.

But the change in local powers did not end Bochil's struggle. In September, a group of armed campesinos (peasants) demanding land invaded the former mayor's ranch, killing his brother before abandoning the takeover. The assailants were never identified. The former mayor now lives alone and runs his pharmacy.

Such lawlessness is directly related to the federal government's stance of negotiating with rather than cracking down on the Zapatistas, Mrs. Senteno says. ``The people from the [indigenous] communities say, `The [government] doesn't do anything to the Zapatistas, so they're not going to do anything to us.' That's why we have the problems we do.''

Peasant land seizures and landowners retaking their property have led to increased violence across the region.

And frictions are still being felt in Bochil. ``The recent events have left our town divided, but not really better off,'' says Javier Guillen Ramos, director of Bochil's afternoon elementary school.

Mr. Guillen, whose student population is about 30 percent indigenous, faults the idea that ``empowering'' the Indians will make everything right. ``The indigenous are still a very closed people, and most are illiterate,'' he says. ``They, too, have committed errors.''

Riot police were recently stationed near the town square as rumors have circled of renewed trouble in December, when Mexico inaugurates a new president and Chiapas a new governor. Mr. Gonzalez, the teacher, says more land will be seized by campesinos and more municipal councils will be created.

Still, most observers here say the Zapatista uprising was positive and necessary for Chiapas. ``The indigenous people display a new sense of dignity,'' adds an anthropologist with long experience in Chiapas. ``You don't see them running furtively down the street the way they used to, their head tucked into their shoulders.''

Governor Lopez points to a ``vibrant participation of a wider population in civic affairs that didn't exist before,'' as well as to ``a heightened consciousness of longstanding social and economic problems, both here and at the federal level.'' The anthropologist credits Zapatista leader Subcommander Marcos with ``keeping a tension going'' that forces the Mexican government to maintain a focus on Chiapas.

The uprising led to a certain shift in the ``balance of powers'' from ranchers and small landowners to campesinos and organizations representing them.

Martinez says, ``We now have a leadership that wants to serve all the people. If it hadn't been for the Zapatistas, that wouldn't have happened.''

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