A POPULAR joke making its rounds in Mexico says that President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon was unsatisfied with just devaluing the peso, so he decided also to ''devalue'' the Zapatista guerrilla leader, Subcommander Marcos.
Watching his popularity plummet since the peso's 40 percent devaluation in December, President Zedillo is hoping that his Feb. 9 announcement revealing the face and identity of the charismatic rebel leader will demystify Marcos and give his own public standing a much-needed boost.
But Zedillo's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party appeared to take a hit yesterday after exit polls showed the PRI lost Sunday's race for governor in the important state of Jalisco, home to Mexico's second-largest city, Guadalajara.
The apparent winner, the center-right National Action Party (PAN), gave Zedillo his first electoral loss since he took office Dec. 1. If PAN wins officially, it would be only the fourth governorship the PRI has lost in 65 years of unbroken national rule.
Many PRI sympathizers blame Zedillo's bungled peso devaluation and his promises of greater democracy for their woes. But others say PAN's victory gives Zedillo an important conservative ally in his efforts to stop the unrest in the southern states of Chiapas and Tabasco.
Mexicans, meanwhile, are trying to come to terms with the magnetic man the government says is behind the black guerrilla ski mask: Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente, a former communications professor and son of a furniture magnate from the Gulf port city of Tampico.
Marcos led the armed peasant rebellion of the Zapatista National Liberation Army in a struggle for equality in the state of Chiapas in January 1994. The rebels surprised the Mexican leadership by taking several Chiapan towns.
So far, wiping away the myth and fascination of the disguised modern-day revolutionary hasn't been easy.
''Many see the Zapatistas as a threat to social peace and economic stability, so they applaud Zedillo,'' says Fernando Estrada, a PAN senator. ''But just because we finally see what this man looks like does not mean the justice of his cause is wiped away.''
Like Marcos himself, who has used theater and good writing to draw millions of Mexicans to the Zapatista's cause, aides to the attorney general unveiled a picture of the rebel leader on national television wearing his trademark black ski mask, and then proceeded to theatrically remove a transparency that revealed the moustached face of Mr. Guillen.
''Now that the mask is off, the magic surrounding this man has been removed,'' says Juan Roman Rodriguez, an economist with the Chiapas State government.
But even as a detailed profile of Guillen -- with a master's degree in philosophy and guerrilla training in Nicaragua -- was relayed to the news media, many Mexicans remained unconvinced that Guillen is really Marcos.
''I don't believe that's him,'' says Humberto Lopez, owner of a construction company in Comitan, Chiapas, an agricultural center that borders Zapatista territory. ''This seems to be a strategy to trick the people and take away the public's support.''
A poll conducted by the newspaper Reforma showed that 43 percent to 50 percent did not believe that the photograph presented by the government was the Zapatista leader.
But regardless of who the man is behind the mask, Zedillo charged Marcos, and others allegedly part of the Zapatista leadership, with preparing to launch new attacks in Chiapas and elsewhere in the country. Citing the discovery of two caches of weapons in the homes of Zapatista supporters, Zedillo called for Marcos's arrest, all but declaring war on the peasant army.
Since that announcement, the Mexican military has entered many Zapatista strongholds in the Lacandon jungle in Chiapas. Rather than risk a direct confrontation with the much better-armed military, the Zapatistas completely abandoned the Lacandon jungle town of Guadalupe Tepeyac, and the adjacent camps the rebels have used as their base for more than a year, shortly before Zedillo's speech.
Although the number of armed confrontations remains unclear, at least two soldiers, including a colonel, have been killed. No reports of Zapatista deaths or casualties have been reported.
Nonetheless, the man known as Marcos remains at large.
For Zedillo, the political risks of going after Marcos are high. If the elusive rebel leader cannot be found, or large numbers of Zapatistas are unwilling to lay down their arms, Zedillo risks creating a blood bath or suffering the frustration of being unable to locate the Zapatista leader.
''It's a big mistake not to continue efforts to negotiate an end to the conflict,'' says Luis Javier Garrido, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. ''The risks of war have become very serious and ultimately will not help the lives of the poor in Chiapas,'' he says.
Just why Zedillo decided to forsake a negotiated settlement in favor of ending the 13-month conflict by force has been intensely debated over the past week by the Mexican people, a country often given to political conspiracy theories.
Some here argue that Zedillo had exhausted attempts at a peaceful settlement, and that information that the rebels were planning other attacks in Chiapas and elsewhere led the president to make a firm decision.
Others see the move as analogous to former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's 1989 decision to arrest oil- union baron Joaquin Hernandez Galicia, to demonstrate he could be a strong president. Perceived as a weak leader since taking office Dec. 1, Zedillo has been under fierce pressure to make a big political splash.
And yet another theory says that Marcos's arrest was a condition placed by the US government in exchange for the $50 billion international- aid package organized last month by President Clinton.
But is this really the man who enchanted and sometimes infuriated the public with witty letters about life as a guerrilla?
''Marcos has been viewed with great sympathy by many Mexicans,'' says Cesar Morones, director of the Center for Opinion Studies at the University of Guadalajara. ''The thing people don't like is the arms struggle, and that is what Zedillo is betting on.''