Reforms falter for Mexican Indians

Tension is again rising in Chiapas, and the government has opened 12 new military posts there.

Mexican President Vicente Fox boasted during his presidential campaign that he could solve the seven-year-old Zapatista Indian rights insurgency in the southern state of Chiapas "in 15 minutes."

But a recent setback has observers in this mountainous state, and analysts in Mexico, saying a settlement of the lingering conflict is further away than at any other point in Mr. Fox's nine-month-old administration.

As Fox called on legislators to join him in a national political accord and back wide-ranging reforms during his state-of-the-union address on Saturday night, he was reminded of his failure to keep his ambitious promise by legislators who held up a banner echoing a widely held sentiment: "I will Resolve the Chiapas Conflict in 15 Minutes, Bla, Bla, Bla."

Talks with the rebels and their enigmatic leader, Subcomandante Marcos, have completely broken down, and as a consequence, tension is rising again in troubled Chiapas. Rights activists allege the government has opened 12 new military posts in Zapatista areas in the past four months.

The break between the government and the Zapatistas has been caused by a package of constitutional reforms on indigenous rights that does not meet the expectations of the indigenous group. The reforms, drafted by the government's peace commission for Chiapas, were demanded by the Zapatistas as a precondition for negotiations, and Fox sent them to Congress two days after being sworn in last December - a major overture to the Zapatistas. Congress, however, feared the "Balkanization" of Mexico and watered down the reforms.

The original draft on indigenous rights, which Fox sent to Congress, would have granted indigenous people control over natural resources on their lands, the right to use traditional courts to resolve disputes, and some financial and political autonomy.

But Congress, concerned that the reforms granted too much power to indigenous groups at the expense of individual rights and national sovereignty, dramatically reduced the rights to be granted in the package. In a statement, the Zapatista's labeled the revised reforms a "call to war."

"The only thing this has accomplished is to push the Zapatistas and the government further apart," says Juan Carlos Paez, an official at the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center in Chiapas, which has been trying to broker peace virtually since 1994, when the Zapatista insurgency began with a brief occupation of this picturesque colonial city.

While analysts don't expect a fresh Zapatista offensive, they warn that other radical groups in the heavily indigenous states of Oaxaca and Guerrero, which had been following the Zapatista example, may become more active.

"The Zapatistas convinced other, more radical groups that there could be political solutions," says Andres Aubry, a historian and Zapatista expert in San Cristobal. "Now, maybe that strategy is losing credibility."

Mexico's 10 million indigenous people are among its poorest, and their mistreatment over the past 500 years is at the heart of the insurgency.

Mr. Aubry points to the bombing of three Mexico City banks in August by a radical organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of the People, as a symptom of impatience.

Now, analysts say Fox's strategy for dealing with the Zapatistas is to invest heavily in the south, which he expects will create prosperity and ease grievances.

Mexicans in the north earn about $4,000 a year on average - about twice the income of southern Mexicans.

In a recent speech, Fox said his economic plan for the south, called Plan Puebla Panama, "is 1,000 times more important than the Zapatistas or any single indigenous community in Chiapas.' Francisco Yanez, a Fox economic adviser, says the plan is to invest about $4 billion in the southern half of the country in the next six years.

"Fox's mistake is to think that he can solve this situation with money," says Aubry. "The low-intensity conflict will continue."

That's why Chiapas needs a peace deal. The status quo leaves space for the communal conflicts over land and politics that have rent Chiapas for the past seven years, Aubry says.

Rightist paramilitary groups are still active, and though acts of violence are sporadic, the fear of them hangs over the towns and valleys like a constant mist.

"They should have given them what they wanted," says Hortensia Perez, owner of the modest Diana Laura Taco shop in the market town of Chenalho. "People are still afraid to go out at night." Ms. Perez was one of the few people in her town willing to talk to an outsider.

The atmosphere couldn't be more different from five months ago, when a carnival-like trek of Marcos and 23 masked rebels from Chiapas to Mexico City ended in a triumphant address before Congress.

Many Mexican's felt that Fox would be able to cut deals on land rights and autonomy for Mexico's indigenous people that the government he replaced, which had ruled for 72 years, couldn't.

"After the March, we were the closest we've ever been to peace," says Mr. Paez.

Observers say the Zapatista call to war is figurative. Since the 1994 fighting, the group has focused almost exclusively on political means to reach their goals.

"They're not going to fight. They're a political force now, seeking political solutions," says Aubry.

Still, there are broad risks for Mexico in leaving indigenous demands unresolved, analysts say.

"The Zapatistas aren't just about Chiapas. They gathered together indigenous and farmers' movements in a way that's never been done before," says Ernesto Ledesma, a Chiapas-based indigenous rights activist for the US group Global Exchange.

Within Chiapas, he says, municipal elections scheduled for October could spark violence between Zapatista sympathizers and the paramilitaries.

There's still a chance that the reforms will go back to the drawing board. Supreme Court challenges to the new law are being mounted.

With hindsight, some in the province say the euphoria of earlier this year was bound to turn to disappointment. "I voted for change, and I still think we're going to get it," says Perez, the taco shop owner. "But 72 years of problems don't just go away."

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