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Rebels Resist Putting a Face to Fight for Rights

Debate over whether the Fox administration should give validity to masked guerrillas is just one of the divisive issues in the quest for peace in Chiapas.


MEXICO CITY — The political jockeying these days to restart peace negotiations in the southern state of Chiapas sometimes descends to absurd levels. To wit: Will rebel leader Subcommander Marcos take off his ski mask when he emerges from the jungle and testifies before Congress here next month? And if he doesn't, will legislators walk out on him?

Yet behind such maneuvering lie divisive issues that could derail one of the key initiatives of Mexican President Vicente Fox's 2-month-old administration.

Fox has promised to end the dormant but dangerous 7-year-old uprising in Chiapas. Despite a cease-fire since a brief war in 1994, the conflict has fueled ugly tensions in the state and has embarrassed Mexico abroad.

As he tries to move forward on a pledge to restart talks, Fox at times appears caught between competing forces in Mexican society and within his own government. Some advisors seem willing to take chances and make concessions for peace; other Fox allies refuse to be seen as conceding to a ragged band of ski-masked Maya guerrillas.

Marcos and other leaders of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, in turn, are taking risks after years holed up in the jungle. Marcos welcomed Fox's election in July after seven decades of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party. The rebels called for "signals" from Fox that would justify resuming talks. They also declared that they would make a caravan pilgrimage to Mexico City to seek congressional adoption of Indian rights legislation.

The unarmed "Zapatour," scheduled for Feb. 24 through March 11, is loaded with security and political risks for both sides.

Ricardo Garcia Cervantes, leader of Fox's National Action Party in the Chamber of Deputies, said last week that he will not meet with anyone wearing a ski mask, which he declared would show a lack of respect for democratic institutions.

Marcos responded Tuesday in the Universal daily: "For our part, we are not asking that they take off their pants to talk to us. Where does the law say we can't be there with ski masks?"

The ski masks and bandannas worn by the Zapatistas have become synonymous with the intractable conflict in Chiapas since the uprising began Jan. 1, 1994.

Since taking office, Fox has dismantled dozens of military roadblocks, closed four army bases and released 17 political prisoners, meeting in part the conditions set by Marcos for a resumption of peace talks. The rebel leader, however, insists that seven bases be shut and wants more prisoners released.

Fox also submitted to Congress a bill embracing a deal reached by negotiators in 1996 that had been shelved by the previous government. The treaty would give indigenous people considerable autonomy, resolving a core rebel demand.

These concessions have brought protests from some business leaders and conservative Catholic clergymen. Lately, Fox has also shown impatience with the rebels, saying they need to respond with equal good faith before he can go further.

However, the president told a television interviewer Wednesday: "I am going to seek peace, taking the risks that might be necessary; I am going to be audacious. But in the end, an agreement needs both sides, and this is what we need here: for each side to be conceding a little, offering small displays of goodwill so that we arrive at the great event where peace is declared in Chiapas."

Fox's Chiapas negotiator, Luis H. Alvarez, said Thursday that he wants to meet with the Zapatistas before the caravan to clarify any doubts about the administration's policy. Alvarez also said the government is pleased that the Zapatistas plan to march unarmed.

Still, leading historian Enrique Krauze recently criticized Marcos for resorting to a theatrical caravan rather than merely arguing his case before Congress.

"In the current political environment--with its strange mix of hope, energy, fear and uncertainty--the march is a risky act, a golden opportunity for provocateurs of the most diverse affiliation," Krauze wrote in the newspaper Reforma.

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