TIJUANA — The Mexican states of Chiapas and Baja California could not be more different.
Baja, an arid region on the northwest border with the United States, is the Mexico that the government wants the world to see: It is urban, comparatively prosperous, industrial and politically pluralistic.
Chiapas, a tropical area on the nation's southernmost border, is another Mexico: a rural, feudal, violent society still dominated by landowning caciques (strongmen).
On the same day that businessmen in the northern border state toasted the start of NAFTA, the impoverished indigenous peasants on the Guatemalan border protested the trade pact with gunfire, launching an uprising Jan. 1 that has shaken all of Mexico.
Since that day, Baja residents have been transfixed by the images from the remote battleground almost 2,000 miles away--the air raids, defiant boy-soldiers armed with wooden rifles, wounded rebels dying slowly in the streets.
"Everybody is talking about it every day," said veteran Tijuana journalist Enrique Garcia Sanchez. "It is the principal issue. And many people agree that the battle of these people is understandable, not justifiable, but understandable."
Despite the distance and the differences, the repercussions of the conflict were powerful in Baja and spilled into Southern California as well. On both sides of the border, the week's events served as a reminder that the explosive sociopolitical realities of Latin America remain uncomfortably close to home.
"You look at it and you say: 'What is going on? This is my country, this is Mexico,' " said a young government official in Tijuana.
"It is a very lamentable moment," said Carlos Castillo Peraza, national president of the opposition National Action Party (PAN), during a speaking engagement at UC San Diego. "It is a high cost not only in image, but in reality as well."
Although the vast migrant communities of Tijuana and Southern California include thousands of members of Mexican indigenous groups, few are from Chiapas. But leaders of Zapotec and Mixtec Indian groups from the state of Oaxaca held pro-rebel demonstrations at Mexican consulates in San Jose, San Diego and Los Angeles last week.
"We do not believe that violence is the alternative," said Algimiro Morales of the Binational Mixtec-Zapotec Front during a San Diego protest Thursday that included Chicano activists. "Nonetheless, we believe the Zapatistas have the legitimate right, their conditions are more than sufficient for an armed struggle."
Indigenous groups in other rural states also suffer systematic exploitation and deprivation, Morales said. Tensions erupted in Chiapas because of extreme conditions, including abuses by the "dictatorial" regime of former state Gov. Patrocinio Gonzalez Garrido, who became Mexico's interior minister last year, according to Morales and other critics.
Tijuana anthropologist Victor Clark Alfaro, director of a trans-border human rights center, said: "I am sure there is much sympathy among the popular classes. The fact that these Mexicans have dared to take up arms merits moral support. . . . The conquest began 500 years ago and continues today in Chiapas. These people can't take it any more."
Many government officials and politicians disagreed vigorously with expressions of solidarity with the guerrillas of the Zapatista National Army of Liberation.
"The worst thing that a political party can do is endorse violence," said Castillo, president of PAN, which controls Baja and two other states. "It is an erroneous path that has pushed other nations to paths of bloody repression. It is the negation of politics."
The press in Baja California devoted extensive space to reports and commentary about the violence and radio talk shows were swamped with callers.
But many journalists, intellectuals and professionals expressed frustration with Mexican television coverage. They accused the national television network, which is known for hewing close to the government line, of restricting and manipulating information. They said they are relying on newspapers, U.S. networks and phone calls to friends and relatives in the south for updates.
"There is a lack of information," Clark said. "The (television) news is distorted."
One inevitable topic of discussion last week was the economy; the northern border region is a prime beneficiary of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was approved after a concerted campaign by the treaty's advocates to portray Mexico as modern, stable and democratic.
Baja business and community leaders expressed concern that foreign investment and tourism, which have been hurt by the U.S. recession, could suffer along with Mexico's international image. At the same time, they dismissed the revolt as isolated and short-lived.
"The civilian population in Chiapas has been turning in rebels," said Pedro Ochoa Palacio, director of the Tijuana Cultural Center. "That shows you there is little social support. . . . It is very localized."