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Masked Rebel Cuts Swath Through Mexico : Revolt: Society matrons are said to swoon over the Indians' spokesman. But an army officer says: 'People hide their faces to commit crimes.'


SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico — Mexicans love a masked hero.

From Zorro, the nobleman who righted wrongs in colonial California, to Superbarrio, the modern-day wrestler looking out for the rights of the city's poor, disguise enhances the legend.

So it's little wonder that a sharp-witted rebel in a ski mask has become a celebrity as Sub-commander Marcos, the voice of the revolution in southern Mexico.

The society matrons that columnist Guadalupe Loaeza satirizes in the newspaper Reforma are all in love with the mysterious guerrilla, she claims.

"I am attracted to him because he is unknown, unreachable," Loaeza recently quoted one friend as saying.

Another keeps a poster of him in her closet, where her husband cannot see it, the columnist wrote.

The urbane, and admittedly urban, Marcos has created a bridge of sympathy between Indian guerrillas and university students, shop clerks and taxi drivers throughout the country.

"His is a struggle born of the problems in Chiapas," said Juventino, a 44-year-old Mexico City environmental consultant, who would not reveal his last name. "The people have no liberty in their own country. I believe he is doing what the people want him to do."

Other rebels also wear ski masks, which are as much a part of their uniform as red bandannas and fatigue pants. Nevertheless, it is Marcos who has made the mask his trademark.

Marcos emerged as the most quotable rebel during the New Year's Day guerrilla occupation of this colonial town and four other county seats in Chiapas, Mexico's most southern state. Mexican reporters who visited him at city hall came away with observations of his such as, "Now we will see whether those (expletives) keep on saying there are no guerrillas in Mexico."

Since the Zapatista National Liberation Army, as the revolutionaries call themselves, retreated to the jungle, Marcos is the name that has been signed on messages to the government and the news media. His communiques intertwine lampoons of Televisa, the unpopular television semi-monopoly, and intellectuals close to President Carlos Salinas de Gortari with graphic descriptions of the desperate poverty in rural Mexico.

Rebels do not want Televisa present at the pending peace talks with the government, he said, "because they do not need to look for news; they just make it up."

His reaction to the government offer of amnesty: "What are they going to pardon us for? For not dying of hunger? For not keeping quiet in our misery? For not having humbly accepted the weighty historic burden of scorn and abandonment?"

Then, he will refer to the military strategy of Mexican Revolution hero Francisco Villa or that of Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortez.

Marcos has revealed that he is a city boy who set out for the jungle, disillusioned, sometime after the 1988 presidential election, which was widely reported to have been rife with fraud.

"No one can say: 'You ought to try elections' " as a method for change, he told reporters from the independent daily La Jornada who interviewed him in the jungle.

Marcos claims to be one of only three non-Indians among the Zapatistas and to take orders from an Indian high command, called the Clandestine Indigenous Revolutionary Committee. Nearly seven weeks into the rebellion, authorities may know less about him now than they thought they did Jan. 2, when he was granting interviews in San Cristobal de las Casas. Based on a description of him as light-skinned, green-eyed and about 5 feet, 8 inches tall, with a prominent nose, the army mistakenly arrested three different men, including a Smithsonian Institution biologist. Since then, La Jornada journalists who interviewed Marcos have said that he actually has light brown eyes.

And there is always the possibility both could be right. After all, three different men are known to wear the Superbarrio costume to march in demonstrations and wrestle symbols of evil and oppression wherever they are found.

On New Year's Day in San Cristobal, Marcos said, "This masked man may be called Marcos here and tomorrow be Pedro in (Las) Margaritas, or Josue in Ocosingo or Alfredo in Altamirano," naming other towns then held by rebels.

Ironically, Marcos claimed then that the ski mask, which has become his symbol, was meant to prevent the creation of personality cults among the guerrilla leaders, by making them indistinguishable from each other.

In lighter moods, he has offered other explanations for the mask, from:

"Those of us who are the most handsome have to protect ourselves," to:

"We started wearing them because it was cold."

Of course, not everyone is amused or intrigued by the mask.

"People hide their faces to commit crimes," said Gen. Miguel Angel Godinez, army commander of Mexico's southeastern region, where the rebellion took place.

But for the public in general, the mask clearly adds to the Marcos mystique. As Nobel Literature laureate Octavio Paz wrote in "Labyrinth of Solitude," his study of the Mexican character, "The mask is the Mexican's true face."

If that is true, the growing popularity of Marcos-like ski masks could be an additional concern for an already worried government. At recent demonstrations in Mexico City, marchers have taken to wearing masks to symbolize their support for Marcos and the Zapatistas.

And the mystique of the mask seems to have taken over the man. Marcos described himself in a recent interview as "Just a ski mask with a prominent nose."

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