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Internal Strife Menaces Mexico's Agenda

February 04, 2001|F. ANDY MESSING JR. and LEONARDO HERNANDEZ | Retired Army Special Forces Maj. F. Andy Messing Jr., executive director of the National Defense Council Foundation, has advised President Bush on defense and foreign affairs. Leonardo Hernandez, a Mexican citizen, is a visiting fellow to the foundation

The latest political changes in Mexico have brought hope to many Mexicans that their country is moving away from corruption and toward a cleaner democratic system. However, to fulfill these expectations, President Vicente Fox must deal with Mexico's complex internal security issues.

On this score, the Zapatista rebel movement in Chiapas, known as the EZLN, is receiving most of the attention, but the guerrilla activity in the southwest states of Oaxaca and Guerrero is as complicated and more dangerous. Each of the rebel groups in its own way also affects the economic and physical security of the United States.

Oaxaca is a state full of contrasts. It has large cultural and linguistic resources that make tourism one of its main attractions. Yet more than half its houses are without sewage facilities and a third are without clean water. Drug trafficking, highway assaults and large quantities of illegal weapons in the hands of unsavory people also plague this area.

In 1996, the Popular Revolutionary Army, or EPR, attacked the towns of Tlaxiaco and Santa Cruz Huatulco in Oaxaca, signaling an upsurge in that regional conflict. Since its start, the EPR has killed 36 people, according to official sources, although the EPR claims almost three times that number of deaths. Recently, to show that it means business, the EPR sent the body of a soldier in pieces to a military installation.

A splinter unit of the EPR, known by it Spanish acronym, FARP, last December commandeered the central square of the town of Nazareno Etla, 15 miles from the city of Oaxaca. FARP rebels caused this disruption without being challenged by the local authorities, then quickly dissipated into the countryside. This act of defiance happened just before the scheduled arrival of President Fox in a nearby Oaxaca city.

In the state of Guerrero, known for the tourist city of Acapulco, the same abysmal economic conditions exist as in Oaxaca. Compounding that, insurgent activities that date back to the 1970s, when many guerrilla suspects were arrested without warrants and sometimes tortured or killed, foment turmoil to this day.

Despite the rebels groups' acts of militancy, President Fox has demonstrated a farsighted approach to re-integrate them into Mexico's political mainstream. On the day he assumed office, he ordered the military to back away from certain contested zones in Chiapas. The next day, he announced an amnesty for the EPR for various criminal acts going back to the 1970s. Later, Fox released rebel prisoners, proposed an Indian-rights bill to Congress and evacuated combat units in certain areas.

The EPR responded by refusing to demobilize or turn over its weapons and demanding that the new government offer more realistic and concrete peace proposals on how they will be re-integrated into Mexico's socioeconomic and political structure. Still, the EPR's leaders conceded that Fox's overtures could create positive conditions to get a solution.

On the Chiapas' front, the EZLN's Subcommander Marcos is reported to have said that the time may have come to reorganize his combat movement to be more like a political force.

In mid-January, Roman Catholic Bishop Felipe Arizmendi, who supports the predominantly Indian rebels in Chiapas, said the rebels groups "would get more sympathy and support from Mexicans" if they would disarm. The rebels may find that a peaceful gesture would be the better way to influence their political future.

To foster peace, Fox's government must commit to immediate and meaningful reform and development in the affected regions. He could be helped in this effort if President Bush, who is scheduled to make his first presidential visit to Mexico on Feb. 16, could direct U.S. agencies and encourage nongovernmental groups and Mexican-based U.S. businesses to offer increased economic and educational aid. Such aid could help further reduce turmoil and violence while also demonstrating American sincerity. Parenthetically, now may not be the time to assist them in military and police training, absent a cogent plan to help them increase their professionalism.

Timely assistance by the U.S. could thwart a possible flare-up that certainly would lead to increased numbers of refugees heading north. It could also prevent the rekindling of the cascading regional civil wars of the 1980s. The Mexicans may choose to reject some or all of our assistance, but it would put meat on the bones of U.S. rhetoric about "improving relations with our neighbor."

The new Mexican government is extending an open hand of negotiation and help to the rebel groups. However, faced with intransigence, Fox could turn to the military and the police to regain control. The U.S. must do all it can to help Mexico get through this mutually important transition.

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