MEXICO CITY — Amid official disclosures that Mexico's new ultra-leftist rebels are "urban terrorists" who may have financed an arsenal of modern assault weapons with tens of millions of dollars from a kidnapping ransom, the Mexican government wrestled Tuesday with a new setback in its effort to bring peace to the impoverished countryside.
The Zapatista National Liberation Army and its charismatic spokesman, Subcommander Marcos, announced that they are suspending talks to end their 32-month-old armed rebellion against the government--a decision that officials of President Ernesto Zedillo's government called a "surprise" that "benefits no one."
Marcos has denied that there are any links between the Zapatistas and the Popular Revolutionary Army, known by its Spanish initials EPR. The EPR's recent guerrilla attacks in southern and central Mexico have left at least 16 people dead. But Marcos accused government negotiators of "scorn, racism and arrogance" in the months-long talks aimed at ending the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state.
The Zapatistas stressed that they neither plan nor want to return to armed confrontation, as happened in early 1994 when their weeks of bloody uprising left more than 145 people dead. Marcos wrote to Zedillo to say their decision to leave the peace table was unrelated to last week's attacks by the seemingly more radical EPR.
But Marcos indicated that EPR raids on soldiers and police have left the Zapatistas--who are negotiating demands similar to those of the new guerrillas--in a delicate position. He criticized Zedillo's government for viewing the EPR not as "a new and urgent call" for democracy but as a chance "to lay the trap of a choice between a good guerrilla and a bad guerrilla."
The Zapatistas also assailed the EPR in a separate open letter to the rebels, saying: "You fight to take power. We fight for democracy, freedom and justice. It is not the same."
Zedillo has made a clear distinction between the EPR and the Zapatistas, saying he considers the new rebels "terrorists" who lack popular support. In his Sunday state of the union address, he vowed to keep negotiating with the Zapatistas while using "the full force of the state" against the EPR.
On Tuesday, his aides further distinguished between the groups. They said the new force is rooted in European-style urban terrorism, akin to what occurred here in the 1970s; they linked the EPR to high-profile recent kidnappings, with officials asserting that the group is using its vast war chest to stage its attacks with hired guns.
A senior official also told reporters "there is a high probability" the rebels were involved in the 1994 kidnapping of Alfredo Harp Helu, a multimillionaire banker released after more than three months in exchange for a reported $30-million ransom. No one was arrested in the case, and the ransom apparently was never traced.
The official added that the government suspects that rebel leaders have used ransom money not only to buy huge caches of AK-47 assault rifles but also to pay peasants to stage attacks. He based the theory on autopsies of four rebels killed in the attack that showed their feet were badly blistered from new, ill-fitting military boots. The government offered no new theories on the identity of the rebels, whom they have linked in recent weeks to a clandestine leftist extremist group active since the 1970s.