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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

Americas Watch, the human rights group, noted dryly about Chiapas in a 1990 report: "Evictions are frequently accompanied by warrantless arrests of large numbers of community members, often on trumped-up charges, and without regard for what will become of the persons being evicted." Though home to only 3 1/2 million people in a nation of 92 million, Chiapas accounts for more than a quarter of land disputes pending before Mexico's notoriously corrupt agrarian reform ministry. Police, soldiers and landowners' private militias ruthlessly enforce the will of cattle barons and other powerful interests--not infrequently including drug traffickers. As Mexico hurtles toward the millennium, Chiapas is mired somewhere in a feudal past.

As the gravel road ascended into the pine forests, the parched, rocky landscape of Las Margaritas yielded to a cooler environment. In the valleys below lay expansive fincas (estates), now mostly gone to ruin amid an intractable slump in coffee prices. This was the domain of the Castellanos clan, old-style hacendados who, for generations, counted on the Tojolabal Indians--descendants of the Mayas, like all the state's dozen or so indigenous groups--to provide cheap and plentiful labor.

The Castellanos legacy became a kind of metaphor for the entire uprising. The rebels had entered a nearby family ranch and kidnaped Absalon Castellanos Dominguez, a 70-year-old retired general and stalwart of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which has ruled Mexico for more than six decades. Castellanos had earned a singularly brutal reputation as an enforcer for the landed gentry who had long treated the state as their personal finca. Despite post-revolutionary bans on amassing properties, the wealthy, critics say, retained and expanded their vast holdings through disguised ownership. Zapata's revolution, which radiated from the north, never made it this far south.

In 1980, Gen. Castellanos' troops were accused of massacring more than a dozen Tzeltal Indians who had sought restitution of their lands. Two years later, the PRI bestowed upon el general its gubernatorial nod, ensuring his election in a state where 90% of ballots are routinely cast for the ruling bloc. When 11 Tzotzil Indians were killed in a land dispute during Castellanos' first year in office, the ex-general vowed: "We will take the pertinent measures"--a refrain repeated after subsequent, equally unfulfilled demands for justice.

In abducting Castellanos, the rebels extracted a measure of retribution, convicting him of sundry crimes: "violation of Indians' human rights, robbery, evictions, kidnaping, corruption and murder." He was sentenced to "earn his bread" during a life term of hard labor among indigenous communities. (After six weeks in captivity, he was freed in exchange for the release of suspected rebels.)

Clinging to a steep mountainside rising from the tropical lowlands below was the near-abandoned village of El Nuevo Momon, a community of about 100 families housed in wood and mud-brick homes amid pine and banana trees. A cluster of a half-dozen unarmed lookouts took note of everyone's comings and goings; many rebels had traded in their red bandannas and olive khakis for less conspicuous garb. White flags sprang from still-inhabited dwellings. The tense cease-fire was holding, but revolutionary passions were high.

"Our parents, our grandparents, suffered for years working for the Castellanos hacendados, " said Jorge Vazquez, 36, a slim, severe peasant who spoke of his forefathers' humiliations as though the events were recent. He told a story oft-repeated here: Almost half a century ago, the Castellanos family promised more than 7,000 acres to peasants in exchange for clearing a jungle tract and establishing a new sugar cane plantation. The cane was soon plentiful--but the people ended up with a fraction of the pledged property. When residents protested, pistoleros burned their homes and threatened them with worse. Today, mountains and private estates hemmed in the area's fast-growing families. "Now there is no place for us," said Vazquez. "Our people were fooled, deceived." Such anguish--here and duplicated in scores of other rural communities--helped shape the uprising of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, whose Spanish acronym, EZLN, is now part of the national lexicon.

The rebels' demands for justice--both economic and political--have awakened long-suppressed grievances nationwide, crystallizing peasant and even urban frustration, and exposing the failure of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's much-touted anti-poverty initiative, Solidarity. The uprising has altered Mexico's economic and political landscape virtually overnight, just months before August's presidential elections test the ruling party's hegemony. And the disturbing martial images from the south shattered the president's finely crafted vision of a nation poised on the cusp of modernity.

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