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Mexican Rebels Ready to Reject Peace Offer


IN THE LACANDON RAIN FOREST, Mexico — From their jungle stronghold here, Mexican Indian rebels are preparing to reject the government's peace offer and to return to the negotiating table--or to fighting.

Parts of the government proposal, at least, are almost certain to be turned down, rebel spokesman Subcommander Marcos said in an interview with four foreign reporters who were allowed to attend some of the insurgents' discussions of the offer.

"We are speaking of a process of dialogue and negotiation that can take six to eight months," Marcos said, noting that the extended period threatens to draw out the peacemaking process until after the Aug. 21 presidential election.

If that happens, it would keep the uprising atop the national agenda, which would continue to damage international perceptions of Mexico and embarrass the government.

The only alternative, Marcos said, would be if the government sends a clear signal that it is committed to democratic change.

A top government official said late Thursday that he would be willing to discuss the guerrillas' latest demands.

Marcos made his comments shortly before dawn Thursday, after guerrillas distributed three communiques that accuse the government of lying by saying that a peace agreement had been reached earlier this month. The documents also take a hard line on the rebels' 34 demands.

"The bad government has said there were accords where there was only dialogue," one communique reads. "The powerful now usurp the truth and try to trick the people (by) saying that peace is only a question of a signature."

Marcos--the guerrillas' ski-masked, pipe-smoking military leader--said the rebels had not spoken out when the offer was presented March 2 because "we were in enemy territory."

The prospect of prolonged negotiations or armed encounters with the Zapatista National Liberation Army, which on Jan. 1 took control of several towns in the state of Chiapas on the Guatemalan border, is hardly a pleasant one for the Mexican government.

The poorly armed rebels quickly retreated to the jungle in January. But their demands for basic services, civil rights and democratic elections shone a spotlight on the economic and political flaws in a country whose leaders are trying to present it as an emerging First World nation.

Attempts to defeat the Zapatistas militarily--including aerial attacks near villages--left at least 145 people dead and provoked an international outcry.

The government briefly appeared to have recaptured the initiative by making a highly publicized peace offer after nine days of talks with rebel representatives in the colonial city of San Cristobal de las Casas.

But the guerrillas and government peace negotiator Manuel Camacho Solis continue to overshadow the presidential campaign. Luis Donaldo Colosio--the presidential candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has ruled Mexico for 65 years--captures attention mainly for his comments about Chiapas and his rivalry with Camacho, who many observers believe is preparing his own presidential bid.

Zapatista demands for democracy are viewed as the main push behind the third reform, announced Thursday, of the Mexican Electoral Institute, a quasi-governmental agency that runs elections.

"It has given an additional incentive to the political parties to try to hammer out an accord," Mexican political commentator Denise Dresser said. "It forces the opposition parties to talk about substantive issues. Otherwise, Marcos discredits them because they are always running behind him."

Marcos said the proposed electoral reforms--which replace political parties with citizen groups on the institute's board--are not enough. He said the Zapatistas were disappointed with the support they have received from political parties in efforts to open discussion of national issues, which the government has refused to discuss with the rebels.

In an interview with The Times, Camacho said that some, but not all, of the government proposals were open to reconsideration.

"There were some limits to the negotiation, and those limits will not change under any circumstances," he said Thursday. Specifically, he mentioned that the government will not recognize the Zapatistas as a belligerent force, which would be tacit to admitting that the country is engaged in a civil war.

That recognition was one of the points that Marcos mentioned. In addition, delegates attending the rebel consultations on the peace offer said they were disturbed that most government proposals would have only a statewide impact.

"The same poverty exists for peasants and Indians in other parts of the country," said a Zapatista delegate who identified himself as Hernan. He spoke in Tzeltal, one of four Indian languages spoken in areas of rebel influence. "Not only Zapatistas have these needs, but also people in other parts of the country."

Delegates are expected to return to their villages next week to present the government offer so that grass-roots rebels may vote on it. They will then bring the results of the vote back to another regional meeting in a process expected to continue into the traditional Easter week vacation and beyond.

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