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Mexico Says 2nd Group of Rebels Exists

Latin America: Officials claim that new band of insurgents, while organized and armed, is not as dangerous as Zapatistas.

August 16, 1996|MARY BETH SHERIDAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Officials have acknowledged for the first time that a second armed anti-government group has sprung up in southern Mexico, although authorities said Thursday that the new rebels are not as dangerous as the Zapatistas who waged a shooting war 2 1/2 years ago.

Interior Secretary Emilio Chuayffet Chemor, in a speech late Wednesday, reversed government claims that the group that recently appeared in the state of Guerrero was merely a clutch of bandits.

The new group, which calls itself the Popular Revolutionary Army, or EPR, stunned Mexicans on June 28 when its rifle-toting, brown-hooded members appeared at a memorial for peasants slain by police. Since then, the group claims it has killed 19 soldiers and police officers--an assertion the government denies.

While the government initially downplayed the group's importance, officials have poured thousands of troops into Guerrero and two central states, where they have discovered caches of arms.

Speculating on the background of the EPR has turned into one of Mexico's biggest guessing games--with politicians accusing the group of being everything from a ring of drug traffickers to a front for shadowy former officials opposed to political reform.

Chuayffet, who is in charge of Mexico's intelligence services, said the insurgents can be traced to violent groups that have appeared before. "The information that we have doesn't show that there is a Popular Revolutionary Army but rather a combination of political forces, two or three organizations," he said. "They are well-known . . . with violent strategies which constantly violate the law and pressure and intimidate society."

He declined to identify them. But senior officials said Thursday that the suspected organizations were:

* A guerrilla group--the Revolutionary Workers' Party and Clandestine Popular Union, or PROCUP, which emerged in 1972 and had been inactive.

* Two legal peasants' rights groups, the Organization of Peasants From the Southern Sierra, or OCSS, and the Eastern Democratic Front of Mexico. OCSS has denied having any ties with the Popular Revolutionary Army.

Analysts say EPR poses no serious military threat. And the government says members are nothing like the Zapatistas, who stunned Mexico more than two years ago by battling government forces in the southern state of Chiapas. More than 145 people were killed in early 1994 before weeks of fighting yielded to peace talks.

In contrast, said one senior government official, the new groups "are very marginal and small. . . . they don't have ties with the people of the communities in which they operate."

But Chuayffet's statements indicated the government is taking this group more seriously. And other analysts said EPR could cause difficulties for a government eager to persuade foreign investors that stability has returned to Mexico after two years of political turmoil.

"I certainly wouldn't dismiss this [group] as something that's just a gimmick thought up by somebody, that the government will quickly dismantle," said Jorge Castaneda, a political scientist and expert on Latin American rebels.

In a sign that the group could be more sophisticated than first believed, the left-wing daily Jornada cited a confidential government document saying that the EPR appeared to have urban branches.

"I think the serious threat is the proliferation of armed groups in different areas of the country," said Castaneda, referring to reports--denied by the government--of nascent rebel organizations in other regions.

At a news conference last week, EPR described itself as a coalition of 14 left-wing organizations that operate in different parts of Mexico. One member told the news weekly Proceso that the group's money came from bank robberies and "kidnappings of members of the country's financial oligarchy." EPR has called for the overthrow of the government, agrarian reform and renegotiation of Mexico's foreign debt.

Despite the government contention that EPR is a group of leftists and peasants, some Mexicans are skeptical. Maria Teresa Jardi of Ibero-American University noted that the PROCUP guerrilla group was infiltrated by Mexican security forces. "That continues," she said.

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