YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Many in Southern Mexico Villages Wary of Peace Plan : Revolt: Rebel backers fear promises won't be kept. Proposal's legalese is a problem for them too.


IBARRA, Mexico — The government peace proposal to southern Mexico guerrillas, received with great fanfare last week in the colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas, may prove a tougher sell in the rebels' jungle strongholds.

After their first look at the proposal, supporters of the Zapatista National Liberation Army here and in neighboring Santa Helena were skeptical. In weekend interviews shortly after the 32-point document was announced, they said the government promises are vague, with few guarantees that commitments will be kept.

"It looks to me as if they are trying to get us to halt the armed struggle and go back to voting and naming delegates," said Oralia, an outspoken rebel supporter. "Well, we tried that and didn't get anywhere. Arms are the only way."

Zapatista spokesman Subcommander Marcos said delegates to the peace talks are visiting communities this week to consult with grass-roots rebels on whether to accept the government proposal. The delegates had not yet arrived in either Ibarra or Santa Helena--both villages at the edge of the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, a four-hour hike from the nearest dirt road--so the guerrilla supporters here had not formally decided their positions.

Villagers qualified their opinions by pointing out that most of them do not read well and normally speak Tzeltal, an Indian language. As a result, they found the legalistic, Spanish-language copies of the proposal that reporters gave them difficult to fathom.

Sitting in a circle of benches outside their palm-roofed safehouse, a score of rebel supporters--including four rifle-toting men in the Zapatista uniform of brown shirts, green pants and red bandannas--listened intently as Oralia read aloud the government proposal. Two pages into the document, she paused and looked up at puzzled faces.

"You can't understand a word of this," she said, laughing.

The laughter grew when reporters noted that they had the same initial reaction to part of the reply, which deals with demands for clean elections and representative government.

Rebel delegates said they have translated both their demands and the government's answer into the four Indian languages spoken in Zapatista communities. But language may prove less a barrier than basic distrust of a government that has reneged on commitments for decades.

"The government has treated us like dogs," said Horacio, a community-level rebel leader. "We are tired of begging. All we get is tricked."

The government is offering democratic reforms, limited autonomy for Indian communities, the country's first anti-discrimination law and major investments in social services. The proposal resulted from nine days of talks aimed at ending a rebellion that began on Jan. 1 and left at least 145 people dead.

By calling attention to the corruption and desperate poverty in Mexico's most southern state, the uprising embarrassed an administration that has polished a modernizing image internationally.

While some rebel demands were for political reforms, most involved basic services, such as education, water, health care and roads.

One point in the rebel demands and the government reply deals with women's issues, promising community mills to make the cornmeal that women now grind by hand every day, as well as bakeries and child care centers. "We won't have any more work to do," Oralia joked.

The proposal includes timetables and transition periods that range from one month to three years. Zapatistas here said that while they like the sound of many government offers, they want specific details before giving an opinion. "Let's wait 90 days and see how much they actually do," said one rebel supporter in Santa Helena.

While Zapatistas were skeptical, villagers who did not join the rebellion--59 of the 82 families here--were worried. "What does the agreement say about turning in their guns?" asked schoolteacher Pedro Perez. He shook his head when told that arms are not mentioned.

Guns and uniforms are far more evident among the village Zapatistas now than they were three weeks ago. Tensions between rebels and pacifists are growing as supplies run short because guerrilla roadblocks prevent goods from entering the area.

Non-rebel villagers here seem far more worried about guns than do government officials, who refuse to comment on the issue.

"It was difficult enough to convince people who were prepared for a prolonged, armed struggle to start thinking about peace so quickly," said one source close to the talks. "The arms will come in time."

The Zapatistas are adamant about keeping their weapons. "If the government wants us to have faith in it, it should have faith in us," said a young woman who identified herself as Cecilia. "Our guns are our only defense in case the government tricks us and sends in the army."

Horacio added: "We are never giving up our arms. Even if Subcommander Marcos orders us to, we are not turning them in."

Los Angeles Times Articles