MEXICO CITY — When the Mexican army rolled troops and armor into the former guerrilla stronghold of Ocosingo on Friday, the blackboard that usually publicizes the day's soccer match announced, "Today: Zedillo vs. Marcos!"
It was a graphic illustration of one of the many dangers President Ernesto Zedillo faces in his new strategy to dismantle the Zapatista National Liberation Army from the top.
The message on the marquee personalized the strategy as a grudge match between Zedillo and the once-mysterious, renegade guerrilla leader still known universally as Subcommander Marcos.
It was a message the president's supporters did not want to see, particularly in Ocosingo, the heart of the impoverished "zone of conflict" where the government's goal now is to win back hearts and minds.
Zedillo himself unmasked and demonized Marcos as a criminal on national television last week.
But "this is not a hunt for Marcos," one senior government official explained, clearly mindful of the failure of such policies in the recent past. America's ill-fated manhunt for clan leader Mohammed Farah Aidid radically altered the international intervention in Somalia last year, and the vilification of Saddam Hussein backfired when Persian Gulf War allies failed to apprehend the Iraqi president.
"The ultimate objective is to get back to the roots of the social conflict in Chiapas," the official said, "to get enough social investment there to correct the inequities that fed the rebellion, and to return the state to the rule of law."
But as federal agents backed by a huge military force continued to search for Marcos and two other Zapatista leaders in Chiapas on Saturday, Mexican analysts, commentators, historians and political opposition leaders in the nation's capital appeared to agree that personalizing the conflict is not the worst of the pitfalls facing Zedillo in the days ahead.
The greatest danger, they said, is war--a guerrilla conflict in jungles and remote villages that would mire the Mexican army for months and cost many lives.
Not surprisingly, that was the spin of Mexico's political left, enraged by the policies that pleased conservatives nationwide.
"Zedillo's decision to take action against the alleged leaders of the Zapatistas now puts our nation on the brink of chaos and war," declared Ofelia Medina, a Mexican actress turned leftist leader who sponsored a 17-day hunger strike over the Chiapas dispute at Mexico City's Independence Monument in December.
Porfirio Munoz Ledo, president of the leftist opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party, agreed, telling reporters, "We would not like to think that the cost of these measures will be the oil and blood of the Mexican people."
Behind the rhetoric, though, Ledo hinted at the potential political costs of Zedillo's policy shift.
Stressing that the president failed to consult Congress before he ordered the Zapatistas' capture, Ledo, whose party agrees with many rebel demands for equal rights, said Zedillo broke a landmark accord on democratic reforms signed by the ruling party and three major opposition groups last month.
If Ledo's party, which controls militant forces in virtually every Mexican state, pulls out of the accord in the aftermath of the Chiapas crackdown, it will be a severe setback for Zedillo's campaign to reform an electoral system that has kept his party in power for nearly seven decades.
Although far less harsh in its criticism, the conservative National Action Party, or PAN--the nation's largest opposition group--also warned the government of the imminent danger of war, appealing to Zedillo to return to the negotiating table.
Reflecting a wide awareness of the danger in personalizing the conflict, PAN Secretary General Felipe Calderon Hinojosa also strongly urged the nation's Congress to grant blanket amnesty to Marcos and four other rebel leaders whom Zedillo named as wanted fugitives last week.
But the PAN, which includes staunch conservatives who privately applauded the president's crackdown, stopped far short of indicating it might withdraw its support of Zedillo's reform efforts.
Zedillo has even won high praise from some quarters that agree with his argument that he is merely enforcing the law against a criminal group suspected of plotting acts of violence.
Some analysts said Zedillo could have faced far greater dangers if he did not act against the Zapatistas.
With one bold stroke, they said, Zedillo closed ranks with his ruling party, particularly hard-line conservatives and their powerful supporters throughout Mexican society who privately have been advocating a crackdown on the Zapatistas for months.
Typical of the conservative reaction was that of Fidel Velazquez, the legendary, 94-year-old leader of Mexico's powerful labor federation.
"Finally, the government recognized that no dialogue is possible with masked criminals," Velazquez said.