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12 Foreigners Among 21 Arrested in Chiapas Raid

April 13, 1998|JAMES F. SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — In an apparent hardening of the Mexican government's approach to the 4-year-old conflict in the southern state of Chiapas, more than 800 soldiers and police this weekend raided a village where peasant leaders had set up an autonomous government loyal to Zapatista rebels.

Authorities said they arrested 21 people--nine Indian leaders and a dozen foreign sympathizers, among them at least three Americans--during the operation Saturday in the village of Taniperlas in Ocosingo municipality, east of the regional center of San Cristobal de las Casas.

On Friday, village leaders had declared the community autonomous, renaming it Ricardo Flores Magon--after a turn-of-the-century anarchist--saying they no longer recognized the government-designated municipal authorities and appointing rival officials.

While peace negotiations between the government and the rebels have languished, more than 30 such "autonomous villages" sympathetic to the Zapatistas have been established in Chiapas over the past year, angering those in the region loyal to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which has long controlled the municipal power structures and the patronage that accompanies them.

Those tensions apparently played a role in the December massacre of 45 villagers in one of the autonomous communities by vigilantes linked to the PRI.

Saturday's was the second large-scale military operation in Chiapas in four days. On Wednesday, soldiers and police conducted a sweep on the outskirts of San Cristobal in search of arms and contraband.

Human rights activists and peace mediators criticized the raids, saying they will merely provoke more confrontations.

The increased policing has taken place amid renewed efforts by President Ernesto Zedillo to try to reactivate the peace process while at the same time stepping up public relations pressure on the Zapatistas, whose initial, 10-day uprising began when they seized several cities in Chiapas on Jan. 1, 1994.

Government officials say the peace talks they subsequently entered into with the rebels have stalled because of Zapatista intransigence compounded by the meddling of foreign activists and of allegedly biased Roman Catholic Church mediators.

The government had already rounded up and deported seven foreigners and clerics this year for supposedly supporting the rebels, but this weekend's arrest of a dozen foreigners in a single case was unprecedented. On Sunday, the 12 were bused to the Chiapas state capital, Tuxtla Gutierrez, and loaded onto a plane bound for Mexico City. Government officials said at a news conference that the 12 will be deported, Associated Press reported late Sunday.

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While raising the pitch of his verbal attacks on the rebels, Zedillo also recently sent Congress a new set of proposals to restart negotiations. The Zapatistas respond that the government still has failed to live up to commitments it made in the San Andres accords of February 1996, a framework that was supposed to have led to a comprehensive settlement.

Chiapas state Gov. Roberto Albores Guillen, who was appointed a month after the December massacre, told reporters that he ordered the action in Ocosingo because the government will no longer tolerate the undermining of the rule of law.

"We are breaking the vicious circle of impunity," he declared.

He said the autonomous communities are illegal, and in fact, most exist only in public statements by the rebels.

Father Gonzalo Ituarte, a senior peace negotiator and human rights activist for the Catholic Church in Chiapas, told reporters that the military is acting against Zapatista supporters while "impunity is maintained for the paramilitary groups and those who kill in Chiapas."

He also criticized the government's recent verbal assaults on San Cristobal Bishop Samuel Ruiz, who has served as a key mediator in peace efforts since the 1994 revolt.

The governor's office said the operation Saturday was carried out before dawn and lasted just 30 minutes, as soldiers entered homes and arrested targeted individuals.

Gilberto Lopez y Rivas, head of the congressional Commission for Harmony and Pacification, said actions such as last week's sweeps will merely raise tensions and serve as provocations for further conflict.

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