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THE WORLD / MEXICO

Zapatistas Face New Competition

September 22, 1996|Denise Dresser

MEXICO CITY — Just when Mexico seemed to be limping from meltdown to incipient recovery, guerrilla warfare has once again placed the country under the volcano. The dramatic appearance of the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) underscores the disaffection that looms in the Mexican countryside, and the distance that separates the First World Mexico of skyscrapers and cellular phones and the Third World Mexico of shoe shiners, flame eaters and guerrillas. It also raises questions about the viability of the Zapatistas' appeal at a time when peace talks have produced no tangible results for the peasants they represent. Ultimately, the lack of an economic strategy that improves the lot of its poor may render Mexico's trade-based growth strategy vulnerable to social upheaval.

The new guerrillas are an enigma for pundits and politicians alike. Their origins, membership and influence continue to be debated. The Mexican government brands them as terrorists, leftist organizations doubt their legitimacy as a representative social force and many Mexicans wonder whether they might be financed by hard-line politicians intent on toppling the Zedillo administration.

The EPR feeds on the anger of, and finds sympathy among, millions of Mexicans who bear the brunt of an economic crisis largely brought on by mismanagement, corruption and the hubris of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. A recent public-opinion poll revealed that more than one-third of those surveyed support the use of violence to combat injustice. Although numerous Mexicans may not applaud the EPR and its violence-prone methods, they favor combating a government that fails to bridge the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

But poverty is not the only explanation for guerrilla insurgency. The EPR is active in the states of southern Mexico--Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero--saddled with exploitative politicians and corrupt caciques (local power brokers). President Ernesto Zedillo's political reforms have yet to reach the hills and hamlets of rural Mexico, where the worst aspects of authoritarian rule continue to thrive. The EPR erupted on the political scene in Guerrero, at a ceremony honoring 17 peasants assassinated by government troops operating under the instructions of Gov. Ruben Figueroa. Exonerated of all charges, Figueroa continues to be influential in state politics.

The Zedillo government has sought to discredit the EPR by contending that it has no social base. This analysis underestimates the EPR's influence. As with most guerrilla movements, the EPR's social base is fluid and largely invisible. Its members are guerrillas one day, peasants the next. The EPR's mobility and capacity to maintain a presence in several states simultaneously underscores its backing--or the credibility of its threats--in rural communities. This behind-the-scenes support, freely given or coerced, allows the EPR to engage in the low-intensity guerrilla warfare that has become its trademark. It attacks a military convoy or army base, retreats into the hills and melts away into the jungle.

The EPR has made life much more difficult for Mexico's other guerrilla incarnation: the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN). In 1994, the Zapatistas captured the imagination of millions of Mexicans and became a fulcrum for political change. Subcommander Marcos attracted the international media's attention and won praise for focusing attention on the plight of the indigenous. But after two years of inconclusive peace talks and army encirclement, the EZLN's star appears to be waning. Unable to extract any clear concessions from the government at the bargaining table, the EZLN seems to be merely treading water.

The government's strategy to contain Chiapas, place the conflict on the back burner, negotiate ad nauseam and bore Mexican public opinion with a strategy of "negotiation overkill" was working. The EZLN has been geographically contained and pushed deeper into the jungle. It no longer controls the towns that it took over during its last military initiative in December 1994. By wresting away a significant portion of Zapatista-controlled territory, the government has diminished Marcos' ability to influence and lead civilians in the towns. By unmasking and transforming him into Salvador Guillen Vicente, the "urban terrorist," the government had been able to soften Marcos' popularity.

The emergence of the more radical and confrontational EPR has highlighted what many believe is the EZLN's perennial weakness: its incapacity (or unwillingness) to use weapons to advance its cause and pose a real military threat.

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