The hills of Mexico's impoverished southern states have sprouted a new rebel movement. The guerrillas of the Popular Revolutionary Army recently raided police and military posts over a broad swath of territory, from the State of Mexico, near the country's capital, to Chiapas in the far south. They showed a more pronounced inclination toward violent tactics and hard-line Marxist rhetoric than the Zapatista rebels who, until now, had been the only Mexican insurgents making headlines.
What does this latest turbulence bode for Mexico, whose social, economic, and political upheavals send ripples into the rest of Latin America and, inevitably, northward to the United States?
Mexico is, after all, a neighbor whose commerce and culture are intertwined with that of the US. Armed rebellion there could affect everything from immigrant flows to stock and bond prices - and perhaps even electoral politics, though both major US presidential candidates have been supporters of the North American Free Trade Agreement and closer ties to a liberalizing Mexico.
The sudden surfacing of the Popular Revolutionary Army (known by its Spanish acronym, EPR) raises fresh questions about the pace of economic and political reform in Mexico. President Ernesto Zedillo has made such reforms - from continued privatization to eliminating the electoral fraud long practiced by his own Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) - the theme of his administration.
His task is immense. He faces entrenched opposition from within the PRI itself, with many party operatives determined to hold onto what they've gained through patronage, or corruption. While Mexico's economic woes have eased of late, middle- and low-income Mexicans are still reeling from the currency crisis and greatly reduced purchasing power. Deprivation is deepest in the southern regions, far removed from the commercial vibrancy of the northern border states.
The soil for grass-roots rebel movements is there, and sympathy for such movements springs easily from Mexico's long revolutionary tradition. But the current corps of revolutionaries is not likely to attract anything like a national following. For starters, the EPR may well be linked to an older group, which goes by the acronym Procup, that has a reputation for ruthlessness even toward its leftist rivals.
Beyond that, Mexico's slow transformation continues, altering the grounds for discontent and the means of expressing it. The economy is opening, and so is the political system - though it seems to have opened more readily for the rightist, free-market opposition than for the less organized left. The PRI's monopoly on power is loosening; at the state level, anyway, other parties are winning top posts.
But, predictably, economic and political change has caused backlash - of which the guerrillas are but one manifestation. The huge gap between rich and poor, and such corrupting influences as pervasive narcotics trafficking, sow instability.
Still, Mexico is on the move, despite stumbles and developments like the EPR's explosive emergence. The country's progress depends on ongoing, far-reaching reform - and, to a lesser extent, on continued partnership with its neighbor to the north.