LIMAR, Mexico — When he wants to worship, farmer Gustavo Hernandez sneaks out the back of a local grocery store and ducks into a dim storage room, where the Virgin Mary shares space with hundreds of ears of corn and a few scrabbling chickens.
The makeshift altar to the Virgin is only a short walk from this village's imposing Spanish-colonial Roman Catholic church. But Hernandez won't go near that structure.
"If we go to the church, they'll surround it and kill us," the 46-year-old peasant says softly.
Limar is one of several towns in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, that have in effect been taken over by pro-government vigilante gangs. Formed quietly since the 1994 Zapatista rebel uprising in the region, the groups gradually have turned Limar and other villages into islands of fear by their harassment of rebel supporters, especially leftist Catholics.
The Mexican government is desperately trying to curb such armed groups in the wake of the massacre of 45 Zapatista supporters, many at a prayer service, in another Chiapas village last month. But the conflict is so severe that it could be spiraling out of the government's control.
Some Zapatista supporters have taken up arms against the pro-government groups, escalating the bloodshed. Many villages in northern Chiapas have split into opposing camps or, in some cases, have been "cleansed" of opponents.
The violence could make the area ungovernable for years--becoming a more intractable problem than the Zapatista guerrillas, who have abided by a cease-fire since 1994. "There's no reconciliation now," says Demostenes Perez, a church worker in Tila, the county seat, near Limar in northern Chiapas. "The thirst for vengeance is very strong."
Right-wing vigilante groups began to appear in Chiapas in 1995. The left-wing Zapatista rebels had stopped shooting a year earlier, after 12 days of fighting that left at least 145 people dead.
But the Zapatistas' influence continued even after the fighting ended. Inspired by the rebels and their charismatic Subcommander Marcos, Indian peasants began to seize land and proclaim support for the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD. Many fervently backed a local Catholic Church movement that demanded more rights for poor Indians. In some areas, they set up "autonomous" governments or occupied city halls held by the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
Their aggressiveness was a direct challenge to the PRI bosses, large landholders and businesspeople who had long dominated the state. The reaction was not long in coming.
Hernandez, a corn farmer who sympathizes with the Zapatistas, first experienced the terror of the new groups in September 1995. Local men from a pro-PRI group called Peace and Justice kidnapped him and took him to the graveyard in Limar, he says.
Holding a knife to his neck, they accused him of serving Zapatista and left-wing causes through his work as a lay Catholic catechist, he says. "They threatened to kill me if I didn't stop working for the bishop and the pope," says the gaunt farmer.
Today, Peace and Justice's dominance is evident throughout Limar, a palm-shaded village of shacks whose dirt yards are carpeted with drying coffee beans.
The Catholic church, painted a striking robin's-egg blue, has been padlocked since October. Outside, police have set up lean-tos protected by sandbag barriers.
"We closed it because that's where all the problems began," declares Diego Vazquez Perez, a local Peace and Justice leader. He claims that a church campaign to seek justice for Indians became radicalized, with calls for armed struggle.
The toll of the conflict in Limar and other villages is daunting. According to state officials, about 200 people have been killed by pro-government or leftist gangs--a higher death toll than in the 1994 Zapatista rebellion itself. Thousands of people have become refugees, many through a political "cleansing" of pro-Zapatista villages by armed government supporters. Farmers are now so afraid of being attacked that some no longer venture out into their fields. Without crops, they are becoming steadily poorer.
"A civil war has been created," says Father Gonzalo Ituarte, the secretary of a Catholic group that has mediated government peace talks with the Zapatistas.
Catholic, leftist and Zapatista leaders charge that the Mexican army has created the pro-government groups. But although tens of thousands of troops have observed a wary standoff in Chiapas as peace talks have sputtered and stalled, so far there is no conclusive evidence that the troops have either armed or trained the groups.
Still, it is becoming increasingly obvious that state officials in Chiapas have tolerated, and even encouraged, the pro-government bands.