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The Roots of Rebellion : The current land revolt in southern Mexico involves a mysterious guerrilla army, a divided church and a nervous government. A journey on the rebels' road in Chiapas.

March 06, 1994|Patrick McDonnell | Patrick J. McDonnell is a Times staff writer who recently worked in the Mexico City Bureau

Two days after an uneasy cease-fire began, tension gripped Las Margaritas, a usually tranquil coffee and ranching center 25 miles north of the Guatemalan border. Government soldiers eyed all movement warily, emptying vehicles and patting down men for arms. Hundreds of dazed refugees wandered through the neat zocalo, or central plaza, their next destination unknown. Officials were overwhelmed, lacking food, blankets and other necessities for the evacuees; some were housed in a hall where a mural of Emiliano Zapata, the revolutionary icon, presided over their troubled repose. War had come to this drowsy place, and no one quite knew what to make of it. "We don't know if we'll ever go home again," lamented Roselia Mendez, a shop owner whose hamlet was in the battle zone. "What will become of us? "

The lives of most everyone in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, had been abruptly jarred. In a stunning New Year's Day offensive, a scruffy peasant army of perhaps 2,000 fighters launched a surprise attack and caught security forces off guard, ultimately seizing three major towns, including Las Margaritas, and the city of San Cristobal de las Casas. The rebels invoked the legendary name of Zapata, whose cry of Tierra y Libertad! stoked the Mexican Revolution of 1910-17. The insurgents, their show of force accomplished, had since retreated to their strongholds in the Lacandon forest and environs.

For 10 days, the army had mounted a bloody offensive against the retreating rebels, sweeping through villages and arresting scores of peasants, most of whom protested their innocence. Helicopter gunships launched rockets and sprayed machine-gun fire on rural enclaves. A column of some 2,000 troops, backed by tanks and aircraft, had moved through Las Margaritas, intent on delivering a deathblow to rebel bastions in the jungle beyond. Official estimates put the death toll at about 100, though many believe it to be much higher--the evidence is concealed in common graves throughout the region. The Mexican army, it appeared, was emulating the scorched-earth tactics so popular among nearby Central American regimes.

"We don't understand why this happened," said Manuel Sanchez Perez, a 65-year-old grandfather from San Antonio de Los Banos, a pine-shrouded Tzotzil Indian village in the hills above San Cristobal de las Casas. Speaking in front of his palm-roofed adobe hut, Sanchez gestured toward his adjoining cornfield, now seared black from bombing. But crops were not his only loss: Governmetn troops, he said, had taken away his son; he hadn't heard from him since. "The soldiers say there are bad people around," the disbelieving man explained in broken Spanish.

But as national and international condemnation of military abuses arose, the Mexican government opted for conciliation, at least for now. A tense cease-fire took hold on Jan. 12 and the army beat a hasty retreat. authorities announced that they would negotiate with the guerrillas who presented a long list of grievances--economic, social and political.

The rebel offensive--Mexico's most serious insurgency in two decades--shocked a nation whose leaders prided themselves on political stability and their unwavering march to modernity. Some say the revolt triggered Mexico's gravest social crisis since the Revolution. Yet relatively little was known about the rebels, their roots, the underlying upsets that had led an army of Mayan peasants to take go to war with rifles and machetes. The clues were to be found in the hardscrabble mountain and jungle villages where this insurgency was born and nurtured.

Past the final army checkpoint, heading northeast from Las Margaritas toward the guerrilla heartland, there was scarcely anyone on the gravel road. Most homes were abandoned. Deep potholes remained where the retreating rebels had gouged out trenches, attempting to slow the pursuing troops. Military debris--Tootsie Roll wrappers, foil packaging of Made in U.S.A. rations--littered former army campsites along this principal route to the the Lacandon region. Spray-painted black graffiti on a wall demanded: "Stop evictions of indigenous communities." The plea echoed the many long-ignored cries that had spurred this conflict--the latest chapter in a bitter, centuries-long tradition of Indian revolts in Chiapas, one of Mexico's states. Woven into the dense social fabric of the state are violent land feuds and forced relocations of villagers--usually at the bidding of cattlemen, political bosses or religious rivals responding to fierce tensions between the Catholic Establishment and Protestant evangelists.

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