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Zapatistas March Peacefully on Mexican Capital

September 13, 1997|MARY BETH SHERIDAN and HELENA SUNDMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MEXICO CITY — In a last-ditch effort to revive their cause, thousands of ski-masked Zapatista rebels and supporters marched peacefully through Mexico City on Friday in one of their biggest shows of strength since the 1994 uprising in Chiapas state.

"Zapata lives! The fight continues!" chanted elated marchers, pumping their fists in the air. The march capped a three-day, 600-mile journey that retraced the 1914 trek of Gen. Emiliano Zapata during the Mexican Revolution.

This was the rebels' first visit to the capital en masse, an effort to win new attention for their campaign for greater Indian rights.

The unarmed rebels were a highly unusual sight, even in a capital long-accustomed to protesters. Tiny Indian women marched in embroidered peasant blouses; men wore traditional black wool tunics, leather sandals and straw hats trailing bright ribbons.

They were joined by thousands of students, union members and leftists in a procession that stretched at least a mile.

"This is very good. They are indigenous people, as we all are," said Jesus Monjaraz, a retired truck driver who was watching the demonstration. "This is the fight of all Mexicans."

The most enthusiastic reception came as the Zapatistas ended their demonstration in the city's central square. Tens of thousands of cheering supporters jammed the colonial plaza, tooting cardboard trumpets and crying, "You're not alone!"

The Zapatistas fought for just 12 days in their January 1994 rebellion, which left more than 145 people dead in the southern state of Chiapas. But led by a charismatic guerrilla called Subcommander Marcos, they seized the world's imagination and focused attention on Mexico's poor Indian population, left behind in the country's economic boom.

Interest in their cause has waned, however, since the rebels' negotiations with the government broke down a year ago.

The Zapatistas became further sidelined when they sat out elections in July that were considered a victory for democracy.

Meanwhile, thousands of troops surround Zapatista villages in Chiapas, keeping the poorly armed rebels in check.

"They're at a dead end," political scientist Jorge Castaneda said. "The fact that their cause is noble, that [Marcos] is talented, that they have support abroad doesn't change the basic equation. They have nowhere to go."

The Zapatistas believe, however, that their luck may be changing.

The left-wing Democratic Revolution Party, which made significant gains in the July elections, has vowed to press authorities for progress on the Zapatista issue.

In their march, the mostly Maya Indian rebels and their supporters demanded that the government withdraw troops from Chiapas and carry out an accord on Indian rights reached early last year.

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