On the dusty and eerily quiet streets of this Indian town in the Chiapas highlands of southern Mexico, people say there are two mayors - one in the old city hall, one in the new.
At the former, facing a town square cluttered with mostly closed market stalls, a self-proclaimed autonomous government holds vigil over the buildings it has occupied since 1996. "Officials" there announce their support for the Zapatista Indian rebels through large banners fluttering outside, while demanding an end to the Army presence in Chiapas, which includes a checkpoint at the entrance to town. The Army, they claim, has ties to murderous paramilitary groups, which in turn are supported, they insist, by the town's other government.
In the new city hall less than two blocks away, officials elected in state-sanctioned voting - representatives of Mexico's long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) - blame the town's division on the "Zapatistas" at the other end of the square. And they insist the Army's presence is necessary.
"The Zapatistas say things are owed to them, but they just don't want to work," says Nicolas Maurilio Alvarez, appointed municipal secretary by the PRI mayor. "If the soldiers weren't at our door, the Zapatistas would take more than the city hall."
The uneasy standoff in San Andrs Larranzar is symbolic of the smoldering conflict that has torn Mexico's southern state of Chiapas since the Zapatista Indian rebellion shook Mexico like an earthquake in January 1994. Although the "war" declared on the Mexican government by the Zapatistas, led by the enigmatic "Subcomandante Marcos," lasted less than a month, no peace has ever been signed. The land conflicts, inter-community killings, and religious strife that spawned the conflict in the first place have continued and in some cases only worsened.
Now a historic double defeat for Mexico's old regime - the PRI's July 2 loss of Mexico's presidency, and Sunday's first-ever loss by the PRI of the Chiapas governorship - has many analysts insisting that prospects for an accord with the Zapatistas and peace for Chiapas are better than ever.
But even with the new optimism come warnings that the Chiapas conflict - at its heart a demand for equal rights and economic opportunities for Mexico's Indians - will continue to unsettle Mexico and smudge its image until violent forces including growing paramilitary groups are disarmed.
For the past two years, Chiapas observers said Subcomandante Marcos's rebuffing of calls from the national government for a return to dialogue reflected a decision to wait and see what would happen in the 2000 elections. With those results in and Mexico widely considered a successful democracy, Marcos can no longer reject negotiating with the new leadership, analysts say.
"The Zapatistas know that peace is urgent if Chiapas is to resolve the many problems that are behind the conflict," says Gilberto Gmez Maza, general secretary for Chiapas of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution. The PRD is the closest of Mexico's major political parties to the Zapatistas. "Peace still won't be easy," he says, but "with the old authoritarianism out and a new way of governing in, the dialogue toward peace should be able to begin."
The new players in the Chiapas equation include Mexico's President-elect Vicente Fox - famous for once saying that as president he could resolve the Chiapas conflict "in 15 minutes." Following Sunday's vote, Mr. Fox quickly committed to working with the new governor-elect, Pablo Salazar, for "peace and harmony" in Chiapas.
Fox says Chiapas is no longer a national - but a regional - conflict, since Mexico has achieved the democracy that was one of the Zapatistas original demands. But he wins points with Zapatista sympathizers by calling for acceptance of a set of Indian-rights accords signed in San Andrs Larranzar in 1996. But outgoing President Ernesto Zedillo refused to enact the laws, out of fear that some traditional Indian practices would run counter to the Mexican Constitution. Fox has also said he is open to a pullback by the Army - estimated to have 70,000 soldiers in Chiapas - as a dialogue-promoting measure.
Mr. Salazar, a political independent representing an alliance of parties including Fox's National Action Party (PAN) and the pro-Zapatista PRD, was a member of the commission that negotiated the aborted 1996 San Andrs accords.
With Fox and Salazar replacing the PRI regime, Marcos - who supported Zapatista participation in the presidential vote, but remained mum from his jungle base on the state elections - loses his arguments against dialogue, some analysts say.
"These are the best circumstances imaginable for dialogue, and Marcos would be stupid not to take advantage of them," says Juan Pedro Viquiera, a Chiapas specialist at the Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City.
Many Mexicans sympathized with the Zapatista uprising in 1994 because they saw it as a necessary wake-up call for a country where social advancement and the democratic process were blocked, Mr. Viquiera says. "But now, if the Zapatistas don't negotiate, they will be viewed poorly as an armed group in a democratic country."
But others say peace in Chiapas is not simply a matter of the PRI's defeat.
Salazar's election is "extremely positive" because his experience negotiating the San Andrs accords gives him a "living memory" of how the conflict came to be and why it hasn't been resolved, says Andrs Aubry, a sociologist and Zapatista specialist in San Cristbal de las Casas, Chiapas. But he says Fox is demonstrating a "versatile discourse" on Chiapas that cannot be reassuring to the Zapatistas. In a recent about-face, Fox suggested that an Army pullout might not happen prior to an accord. On Sunday he said a pullout could occur when "law and order" are reestablished.
Mr. Aubry, who recognizes that the Zapatistas are going through a "difficult period" in jungle living conditions, says he is surprised the usually talkative Marcos did not issue one of his now-famous communiqus on the Chiapas elections. This might portend a long wait for the Zapatistas' position on the new circumstances, he says - perhaps even until January of 2001, after Fox and Salazar take office in December.
But conditions in Chiapas are not improving while the state waits for a return to negotiations. Human rights officials are especially worried about religious conflict - unlike predominantly Catholic Mexico, Chiapas is 50 percent non-Catholic Christian - and violent displacements, sometimes carried out by paramilitary groups.
"These two manifestations of intolerance have us very worried," says Alejandro Sousa Bravo, coordinator in Chiapas of Mexico's National Human Rights Commission.
Where he does see improvement, however, is in the basic but important fact that after six years of a high-profile conflict, the concept of human rights is no longer foreign to Chiapas.
"People now know they have basic rights, and they know they have various avenues for complaints or getting those rights enforced, like government human rights offices or nongovernmental groups," says Mr. Sousa.
"We know more about the problems out there," he adds, "because people are making them known much more quickly."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society