Mexico's Challenge

Mexico has won kudos for surging back from its currency crisis of 1994. But it hasn't done nearly so well responding to another crisis from that year - the insurgency in Chiapas State.

Affairs in that impoverished southernmost part of Mexico took a terrible turn in late December when a paramilitary gang murdered 45 unarmed people in the village of Acteal. President Ernesto Zedillo since has gotten rid of Chiapas's governor, who belonged to Mr. Zedillo's own Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and was suspected of condoning raids against rebel sympathizers. Zedillo also switched interior ministers, jettisoning a hard-liner criticized for moving too slowly toward peace with the Zapatista guerrillas. His replacement, Francisco Labastida Ochoa, is seen as sincerely committed to restarting peace negotiations.

A fundamental question, however, is whether even the best intentions of officials in Mexico City can address seething grass-roots tensions in Chiapas. This is not solely a matter of Indian peasants oppressed by landowners and their political cat's-paws in the ruling PRI. December's massacre was preceded by months of killing, during which both pro-PRI Indians and pro-Zapatista backers lost their lives. The grisly events of Dec. 22 may have had roots in a feud between family groups in the area.

The political lines drawn through the middle of villages, separating rebel sympathizers from government loyalists, are deepened by economic competition for the region's few assets. A sand and gravel pit, for instance, has been a point of violent contention.

That's not all. Adding to the tension is friction between traditionally dominant Catholics and growing numbers of Indian Protestants. Throw in the destabilizing influence of drug runners, cross-border guerrilla forces from neighboring Central America, corrupt local politicians who misuse the substantial aid flowing in from Mexico City, and the picture gets even muddier.

Zedillo and his government must persevere. Chiapas undercuts Mexico in the eyes of the outside world. Potential European investors have been repelled by the violence. Resuming talks with the rebels is an important first step. The Zapatistas, too, have to prove they want an agreement more than they want to embarrass Zedillo and the PRI.

Government aid must continue. Poverty and despair underlie the violence. But an influx of pesos may not be enough. One observer of Mexico's troubles suggests that nothing short of "an invasion of social workers" is likely to mend the divided communities of Chiapas. And the social workers would have to be adept at helping villagers develop crafts and other skills into functioning enterprises.

Somehow Mexico has to include backward Chiapas and its neighboring states in the country's overall economic progress.

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