How a Year Changed Chiapas

A fragile atmosphere surrounds the tense peace in Mexico's rebellious state where basic problems remain

MEXICO'S Zapatista rebels celebrated the first anniversary of their peasant uprising with food and song instead of with the gunfire that Mexicans awoke to last New Year's Day.

Yet despite an easing of tensions in the southern state of Chiapas, President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon and Mexico cannot claim to have found their way out of the Chiapan jungle.

Fears of an imminent return to armed confrontation may have eased, but the causes of the conflict have hardly been touched and could still lead to renewed fighting.

``What appeared until the last few days to be a very high risk of military confrontation has subsided, but the new atmosphere remains fragile,'' says Raimundo Sanchez Barraza, member of the Roman Catholic church-based National Intermediation Commission (Conai), which was on Dec. 24 recognized by the government to play an intermediary role in the conflict. ``Tension is still high. Everything depends on whether the two sides can agree on political solutions to very old and complex problems,'' Mr. Barraza says.

Space for talks

The Zapatistas and the Mexican Army have each agreed to stop military activity for the time being and say no new military movement will take place at least until Jan. 6. The government and much of the country hope that period can be used to move closer to setting conditions for taking up peace talks.

``If this lessening of tensions continues, I think an announcement of negotiations within the first 15 days of January is possible,'' says Jesus Gilberto Gomez Maza, Chiapas secretary-general of the pro-Zapatista Democratic Revolutionary Party.

What could still threaten a quick return to talks is the Chiapas issue's increased complexity: New players (in the form of new, sometimes more radical peasant groups), new demands, and a deeper polarization of the state's urban and rural populations have surfaced since the Indian insurgency put Chiapas on the world map a year ago.

Named after Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, the Zapatista National Liberation Army burst onto the Mexican scene New Year's Day 1994, briefly occupying five Chiapan towns in the name of the poor state's Indian peasant population.

Demanding improved economic and educational conditions for the indigenous population and political reforms, the rebels fought the Mexican Army for 12 days, killing about 145 people, before a truce was called and the guerrilla fighters retreated to a remote section of the Chiapan jungle.

The truce - marked over the year by rising and falling tensions and various attempts at negotiations - never seemed closer to collapsing into fresh fighting than in mid-December.

The Zapatistas and loosely connected sympathizers responded to an Army buildup by blocking roads, claiming that several new towns were under their control, and declaring that war was imminent. In response, the Army moved into towns bordering the rebels' territory.

But the alarming movement to the brink of fighting was reversed after concerns over instability shook Mexican stock markets and acted as the trip that sent a weak peso tumbling. President Zedillo is negotiating an economic rescue package with friendly countries.

By Christmas Eve, Zedillo had begun a series of actions that cooled the Chiapas situation as quickly as it had heated up.

First, he accepted a Catholic Church-supported mediation commission, the Conai, as the official intermediary between the conflicting parties, thus meeting one of the Zapatista demands for returning to talks.

He then approved an initial redistribution of land designed to quickly turn over more than 60,000 acres to poor farmers; and ordered the Army out of two towns near the rebels' base.

Government sources cite these actions as proof that Zedillo is willing to go a long way to restart negotiations and ``find a lasting and dignified peace.''

Critics say that by stepping up military maneuvers in the area until Dec. 30, the government has really been following two lines of action - one hard and one conciliatory.

The government counters that it has a responsibility to maintain order in Chiapas and guard the border with Guatemala. The Zapatistas' renunciation of the longstanding truce in early December opened the way for the Army to increase activity, it says.

Those points suggest acknowledgement of what many observers of Chiapas claim: The state has become ungovernable as the conflict has dragged on. Road crimes, road blocks by armed peasants, and forced resignations of elected municipal governments have grown common.

The government says drug trafficking through the conflict zone has increased, as have crossings from Guatemala of everything from arms and guerrillas to illegal immigrants.

Myriad of solutions

Joining in the federal government's rush to offer proposals for solving the conflict's root causes - such as the land distribution project - is the state's embattled new governor, Eduardo Robledo Rincon.

Last week Mr. Robledo, who is rejected by the Zapatistas as the state's legitimate governor, offered a plan for political reform that would increase representation for the state's indigenous groups.

With both sides in the conflict jockeying for public favor, the government strategy now appears to to promote itself as the source of solutions, while painting the Zapatistas as having strayed from their original demands for the indigenous population and holding up progress.

Government sources suggest Chiapas and the Mexican population have tired of the ski-masked rebels and their eloquent leader, known only as Subcommander Marcos.

Some Chiapans sympathetic to the Indian cause agree, but others say that position misses the point.

``People are tired of war and the threat of it, but not of the Zapatistas,'' says Mr. Gomez Maza. ``People on both sides concur that because of the Zapatistas the country is no longer asleep to the problems of Chiapas, and that in itself is progress.''

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