LAS CUATAS, Mexico — Barefoot, with pant legs rolled up to their knees, the farmers trudged through mud and tenacious rain to a communal hall of corrugated tin.
There, amid fields of sugar cane, they turned their attention to a short, round man wearing a fine straw hat, a gold watch and a pistol in the waistband of his jeans.
"It's a farmer's legitimate aspiration to own a piece of land," Margarito Montes Parra told the scores of men and women.
They nodded in agreement.
"If it were up to me, there wouldn't be one big landowner left or one peasant without land. But this struggle depends on you," Montes said. "We're not going to deliver land to anyone's doorstep in a flower pot. Those who fight will get results.
\o7 "Viva \f7 Zapata!" he shouted.
\o7 "Viva\f7 Zapata!" they answered, hailing Mexico's revolutionary land reformer, Emiliano Zapata.
This is old Mexico. On communal lands without electricity or running water, the 120 families of Las Cuatas in the state of Veracruz belong to the most backward sector of the economy--agriculture.
Montes belongs to a time-honored tradition of Mexican peasant leaders. He invokes the memory of the 1910 revolution to rally the farmers to press their claims to land promised years ago in the flush of presidential populism but never delivered.
However, Montes also is a shrewd, university-educated engineer who understands that in a changing Mexico, land alone is not the answer. President Carlos Salinas de Gortari wants to modernize the underdeveloped farm economy to make the country self-sufficient in basic foods and increase exports. He is cutting subsidies and withholding credit to unproductive farms and pushing peasants into alliances with big business.
Montes wants to be part of the transition to a modern Mexico. So, while crying Zapata's name, he and his Popular Farmers and Workers General Union also praise competition and free trade.
Through land occupations and hardball negotiations, Montes helps poor farmers resolve longstanding property disputes. He says his organization has "recovered" 98,000 acres from the government and wealthy landowners in the last five years.
His organization also has formed a credit union to fill the void from disappearing government loans. He is helping farmers make deals to process their own rice, rather than turn it over to middlemen who take the profits. His most far-reaching project is to put cows on the newly secured farm land--thousands of head of milk cows, producing for a country that is the world's largest importer of powdered milk.
"We have broken with the traditional peasant organization that only made demands but didn't get involved in production," Montes explained on that rainy day.
But riding on a tractor-pulled cane trailer, Montes can't suppress a smile of satisfaction as he looks over nearly 500 acres of farm land that his followers illegally occupied almost a year ago.
"This is good land," he said. "It's worth the fight."
One of the many contradictions of the Mexican countryside is that the poor peasants of Las Cuatas live on some of the nation's richest farmland. The area, known as the Papaloapan River basin, covers nearly 1,800 square miles over parts of three states, about 275 miles southeast of Mexico City. The basin contains a web of rivers and two major dams with 10% of Mexico's fresh water.
While much of northern and central Mexico thirsts for rain, the Papaloapan basin's annual rainfall is between 58 and 117 inches. If it stops raining for three days residents begin to joke about the drought.
The iridescent lands boast expanses of sugar cane and corn, lush pastures for cattle, orchards of mangoes, plantations of bananas. Unlike the majority of subsistence farmers on lesser lands, Montes said that producers here should be able to integrate into an export economy.
But these rich lands also have a history of violence. Lands worth fighting for are lands that produce bloodshed.
Antonio Kuri, who owns much of the acreage in dispute at Las Cuatas, acknowledges he travels the countryside armed. "I've worked this land for 40 years and had problems for 30 of them," he explained.
Likewise, Montes said, "I carry a gun because they carry a gun."
In the last five years, Montes said, 30 members of his union have been killed in land disputes. When asked, he also mentions four people killed by union members in a shootout in the town of El Porvenir.
The latest victim of violence was Montes' brother, Hector, gunned down on a dark road one night last June in a truck that Montes believes was mistaken for his.
"It would be irresponsible for me to say that the landowners are responsible for the assassination of my brother," Montes said. "But they certainly have participated in press campaigns against me and conspired in meetings where they said they must eliminate the cancer that I represent."
To the large landowners of the region, Montes is a rabble-rousing "crook" and "cattle thief" whose followers represent the worst of Mexican agriculture.