GUADALUPE TEPEYAC, Mexico — Indian rebels late Wednesday released a former governor held hostage since Jan. 2, clearing the way for peace talks between the insurgents and the Mexican government.
Seventy-year-old Absalon Castellanos was turned over to government peace negotiator Manuel Camacho and mediator Bishop Samuel Ruiz in the first known meeting between the mediators and the rebels. The hand-over took place in Guadalupe Tepeyac, on the edge of rebel-held territory in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. The town has been declared a neutral zone.
"We are keeping our promises as men of honor," said Maj. Moises as he and four other uniformed rebels released the gaunt but fit-looking Castellanos.
The rebels had said in a communique Tuesday that they were releasing Castellanos "for the purpose of promoting the prompt initiation of dialogue for peace and dignity that all Mexicans desire."
Both Camacho and the rebels have said that delays in starting the talks have been due to the logistics of arranging security. However, the government was also clearly uncomfortable starting negotiations while the rebels held Castellanos hostage.
As a former general and a rancher as well as a politician, Castellanos symbolizes the ruling elite of Chiapas and many of the reasons for the rebellion. He was considered a hard-liner during his term in office from 1982 to 1988, unwilling to negotiate with protesters who wanted ranchers to give over some of their privately held land to expansion of local peasants' semi-communal farms.
The rebels have said that they took up arms only after peaceful means of protest, such as demonstrations, failed to effect change.
Castellano was kidnaped at his ranch in Chiapas, a state bordering Guatemala, the day after guerrillas calling themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army took control of four towns. When the army approached, the rebels quickly withdrew into the jungle, taking Castellanos with them. His family held a press conference demanding that the government take responsibility for any ransom demands. No demands came.
Instead, the Zapatistas issued a communique saying that Castellanos had been sentenced to life at hard labor, hauling wood and water, because he had mistreated people. However, the sentence was commuted, they added, to allow Castellanos to be traded for people then imprisoned under accusations of having participated in the uprising.
Three weeks ago, 38 of the 70 people held in prison in relation to the uprising were released on bail paid by the state government.