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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

The rebels' ideology is still amorphous. But notably absent are the Marxist-Leninist rhetoric and yanqui- bashing that are pro forma in Latin American leftist tracts. Rather, the EZLN embraces a kind of peculiarly Mexican Indian nationalism, more closely related to Zapata's populist exhortations than the oratory of Marx and Mao. "They follow a very Mexican form of socialism," said Andres Aubry, a French anthropologist who has worked in the region for 20 years.

In an extensive interview with Mexican reporters deep in the jungle, the poncho-clad Marcos--sporting his trademark black ski mask, red bandanna and belts of scarlet shotgun shells--returned to the rebellion's seminal preoccupation: la tierra . President Salinas' revision of constitutional safeguards protecting the ejido system and its guarantees of land to peasants in need, he told them, was a "powerful catalyst" for the events of Jan. 1. "The companeros say land is life, that if you don't have land you're dead, so why live?" Marcos explained. "Better to fight and to die fighting."

FROM THE RAIN FOREST TO the highlands, la tierra is indisputably the central preoccupation in the Chiapas countryside. "There is no more land for our sons," said Olivio Hernandez, an 80-year-old great-grandfather who pondered the matter outside his home of wooden slats in El Nuevo Momon, a white flag rising from the roof. "Our sons want to work, not fight. Our people have always worked the land."

Nearby, remaining residents gathered in front of Nuevo Momon's looted government store. Belisario Jimenez Lopez, a 40-year-old agricultural union leader from the nearby ejido of Cruz del Rosario, was urging them not to abandon their lots.

"Our land is not allowed to grow, but of course our families do," said Jimenez, a father of eight who represents the Union of Ejidos of the Forest, one of the region's many independent organizations. Most of his fellow unionists resisted Zapatista entreaties to join the armed conflict, Jimenez said, because they opposed violence. Nonetheless, like others here, he sympathized with the rebels' complaints. "The men in our village who went with the Zapatistas are the ones who have the most severe land problems. It's as simple as that."

An allied unionist, Mario Hernandez Juarez, also called the Zapatistas' cause a just one, while disapproving of violence. "I must admit a certain amount of admiration," he noted as he recounted the events of Dec. 31, when columns of Zapatistas arrived here in hijacked trucks, bound for Las Margaritas. "These are campesinos like us, ready to die and take a stand for what they believe in."

Now, with uncertainty and warfare gripping the valley, the 24-year-old father of three was hopeful that something good would arise from the tumult. "We want peace and tranquillity," Hernandez said. "But this time, officials should be forced to keep whatever promises they make. The government cannot be allowed to break their promises this time."

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