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Zedillo Refuses to Pull Troops From Chiapas

February 18, 1995|MARK FINEMAN and JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MEXICO CITY — President Ernesto Zedillo's government made it clear Friday that it has no intention of withdrawing its troops from the embattled southern state of Chiapas, rejecting a key rebel demand to restart peace talks and signaling a potentially prolonged military standoff with the Zapatista National Liberation Army.

Despite the president's calls for dialogue and intensive--though frustrated--attempts by a congressional commission dispatched to the state to entice Zapatista leaders back to the bargaining table, Zedillo's chief of national security announced that the Mexican army will remain in formerly rebel-held territory "under any circumstances."

"The federal government cannot abdicate its constitutional responsibility to preserve sovereignty and guarantee the rule of law in all national territory," Interior Secretary Esteban Moctezuma Barragan said.

He was responding to the rebels' insistence that the Mexican army withdraw about 2,500 troops, light tanks and heavy weapons from almost a dozen key villages surrounding the Zapatistas' jungle stronghold before new peace talks can begin.

As federal troops dug in deeper in Chiapas and residents continued to flee remote villages that the army has yet to enter in the rebel zone, in Mexico City, key federal legislators of the ruling party and conservative opposition also stressed that an amnesty bill they will debate on Monday for the rebel leadership will require the Zapatistas to lay down their arms first.

In the week since Zedillo ordered the arrest of five Zapatista leaders and deployed the military to hunt them, several of the leaders have answered the president's call for a return to the negotiating table by saying they will only talk peace if the Mexican army returns to its barracks. All have flatly refused to surrender their weapons--a position that the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, has said it will support during next week's amnesty debate in Congress.

On Friday, before a large gathering of labor leaders and federal legislators in Mexico City, Zedillo restated his commitment to a negotiation that "excludes no one and could include everyone."

He also stated: "Today I reiterate my firm conviction that, in Chiapas, the solution is through the path of peace, but also through the observance of the law. . . . Today, with total clarity, I declare that the government will never again abdicate its constitutional responsibility to protect the sovereignty of our territory."

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Political analysts and government officials indicated privately that Zedillo's hard-line policy on troop withdrawal leaves little room for negotiation. But they said it was consistent with his commitment to "the rule of law."

And the policy comes at a time when the rebel leaders are at their weakest. They are frozen in place, deep in the Lacandon rain forest, and they pose a vastly diminished threat, analysts said.

That assessment came after Zedillo broke off his hunt for Subcommander Marcos and other key Zapatista leaders, calling earlier this week for renewed negotiations with the rebels.

The armed Zapatistas have remained an almost constant threat to the government and the nation's economy for 13 1/2 months, after a brief, 1994 New Year's Day uprising that left at least 145 people dead and gave way to months of fruitless negotiations.

Reflecting the frustration in restarting talks during a two-day visit to Chiapas that ends today, members of a special legislative commission that Zedillo created last December to negotiate with the Zapatistas confirmed that their task is all but impossible after Zedillo's latest offensive.

"We could say that it would be a physical, legal and even political impossibility to bring one of the parties to the table," said commission spokesman Pablo Salazar Mendiguchia after meetings in Chiapas that lasted well into Thursday night.

Heberto Castillo, another key commission member whose PRD sympathizes with many of the rebel demands, added that just making contact with the Zapatista leaders under current circumstances will be difficult at best.

"We have asked the Zapatistas to communicate with us, if there is any opportunity to do so," he noted. "But we know that this is practically impossible."

The commission's chairman, Bishop Samuel Ruiz of San Cristobal de las Casas, issued a six-page statement underscoring the importance of a Mexican army withdrawal to the peace process.

Among his recommendations to the government and to the Zapatistas, Ruiz listed "the need to separate the two armies, which could begin by the relocation of the Mexican army to positions outside of the towns, assuring that human rights would be respected as well as the free movement of civil observer groups."

But in Chiapas on Friday, there were signs that the Mexican army is planning a long stay in villages and towns that ring the uncharted jungle where the rebels have taken refuge.

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