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An Impasse in Chiapas Punishes Its People

Mexico: The Zapatistas and the government jockey for advantage while violence and economic problems persist.

July 20, 1998|SERGIO SARMIENTO | Sergio Sarmiento is a television commentator and syndicated newspaper columnist in Mexico

MEXICO CITY — The faithful who attend Mass at the Cathedral of San Cristobal de Las Casas, a small, picturesque town on the Chiapas highlands of southern Mexico, are used to hearing Bishop Samuel Ruiz speak about politics. So they were not taken aback last month when Ruiz used one of his Sunday sermons to publicly announce his resignation as the mediator between the government and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN).

Ruiz blamed the Mexican government for his decision. This was not surprising. From the start of the Zapatista rebellion on Jan. 1, 1994, the bishop has defended the positions of the EZLN. Subcomandante Marcos, the leader of the rebellion, made the designation of Ruiz as a mediator a condition for negotiations with the government. When officials complained that Ruiz was partial toward the EZLN, the bishop responded: "One cannot be impartial in the face of injustice."

The resignation of Ruiz is likely to aggravate an impasse that has existed since February 1996, when the signing of the San Andres Larrainzar agreements on Indian rights appeared to be the first step toward a definitive peace agreement. In spite of the optimism generated by the accords, the government and the Zapatistas have been unable to come up with mutually acceptable constitutional reforms. In December 1996, the EZLN broke all negotiations alleging that the government was reneging on the agreements. There has been no contact between the two sides since then.

The resignation of Ruiz must be taken with a grain of salt. There is little doubt that Ruiz will continue to be the ex-officio representative of the guerrillas. The bishop's resignation is more a protest against the government than a decision to end his role as a mediator. It is also a nod to pressure from the Vatican and from other Mexican bishops, uncomfortable with Ruiz's openly political role.

Any attempts to circumvent the bishop's mediation are likely to be unsuccessful. In late June, members of Cocopa, a congressional committee, took the long trip to La Realidad, one of the Chiapas towns controlled by the Zapatistas, and delivered a letter urging the Zapatistas to start negotiations again. Marcos did not dignify the request with even an acknowledgment.

The impasse in Chiapas has not been a peaceful one. Intermittent violence has left hundreds of people dead. The most noted episode was the December 1997 Acteal massacre, in which 45 Indians, mostly women and children, were slain by an anti-Zapatista group. Other less publicized clashes have made it clear that, even if there is a formal truce, the Chiapas war rages on.

The appointment of Francisco Labastida as interior minister in early 1998 is part of a government strategy to break the impasse. Labastida has stopped beseeching Marcos to put an end to his prolonged silence. He has decided not to allow the Zapatistas to continue establishing unelected municipal governments under their control. He has ordered police and army units to dismantle some of the Zapatista municipal administrations already in existence. Labastida, in fact, has a major personal stake in the outcome of these moves, since he is a likely candidate for the presidential elections of the year 2000.

President Ernesto Zedillo, meanwhile, has stopped looking for an endorsement of the EZLN on legal reforms of Indian rights. He has sent a bill of his own to Congress, although he has been unable to get the necessary votes to push it through the committees.

Nothing in the present strategy seems capable of breaking the impasse. Zedillo, like his predecessor Carlos Salinas de Gortari, is convinced that he cannot attempt a military solution in Chiapas. Using the army to obliterate the Zapatistas would cause thousands of deaths in Indian communities. The price for Mexico's public image would be too high.

But the Zapatistas are not interested in a negotiated solution that would fall short of the government's unconditional surrender. They are unwilling to give up their arms and become a political party. They know that they could not win election in Chiapas, much less in the country as a whole. They are far more influential as a guerrilla movement.

While the political players--from Zedillo to Labastida, from Marcos to Ruiz--maneuver for their best advantage, people in Chiapas continue to suffer. They are the victims of the impasse, the ones who pay the price for the lack of investment, for the violence and for the persistent state of war.

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