Rebels Call For More Than Empty Promises From Mexico City

WHILE negotiations with the Mexican government appear imminent, the mostly young soldiers of the Zapatista National Liberation Army remain skeptical that talks would bring action, not empty promises.

``For us to lay down our arms will cost a lot,'' said Maj. Rolando, a top Zapatista commander based in the tiny Lacandon jungle village of La Garrucha just a few miles from Mexican Army positions. ``We want people to have a fair salary, food, shelter, education, and honest representation. We still haven't gotten that.''

The Zapatistas seemingly came out of nowhere a year ago when they attacked five small towns in the southern state of Chiapas on Jan. 1, timed to coincide with the start date of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Walking slowly across a thick grassy field next to a dirt road, Major Rolando says peace talks will not a guarantee an end to the conflict. ``The government has to demonstrate real deeds, real accomplishments rather than just talk about them,'' says Rolando, who wore a black ski mask while seven young Indian men and women carrying automatic weapons stood 10 to 20 yards in a circle around him. ``No one is going to put down their arms for two or three government proposals.''

Anxious to begin negotiations with the rebels, the government recently unveiled plans to seize large land holdings in the state of Chiapas that exceed lawful limits.

Land reform, as much as the issues of poverty, education, and greater access to the political system, lies at the root of the Zapatista uprising.

lthough President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon ordered more than 4,000 troops out of the region after a recent troop buildup in response to a series of raids on Chiapan towns by the Zapatistas and their sympathizers, Rolando says small groups of federal soldiers remain.

``We are waiting for orders from our commanders,'' says Rolando, pointing east to a line of lush mountain hills where he says the soldiers are positioned. ``This does not create conditions for dialogue.''

And neither does military harassment of Zapatista villages, Rolando adds. Buttressed by press reports, he charges that soldiers have been quizzing peasants about their political party affiliation, threatening those who say they support the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party.

Despite his criticism, Rolando still has an optimistic tone when talking of the anticipated negotiations. ``Let's see what happens,'' he says. ``We have heard many promises from the government for years and years - but it's always good to talk. We don't want there to be a high social cost for the country.''

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