Guerrilla uprising ends 2nd day in Mexican state

January 03, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

CHIHUAHUA, Mexico -- Indian guerrillas battled soldiers yesterday on the second day of an uprising in Chiapas, one of Mexico's poorest states. At least 41 people were reported killed in the weekend clashes, the first sign of organized guerrilla activity in Mexico since the 1970s.

Saying they were challenging 70 years of one-party dictatorship, the heavily armed Indians had overtaken four towns Saturday. Yesterday, they withdrew from the popular tourist town of San Cristobal de las Casas but kept control of the three other villages and seized a fourth after clashing with army troops.

Mexican reporters returning from a military base about six miles east of San Cristobal de las Casas said they counted the bodies of 14 dead men after the gun battle in a heavily wooded military zone. Two soldiers earlier were reported wounded in the fighting, which apparently erupted when an army patrol ran into a minivan carrying some of the rebels.

Another battle erupted last night in the seized village of Ocosingo after army troops were attacked by rebels. There was no immediate casualty count from that fight.

Despite the clashes, a presidential spokesman indicated that force would not be used to quell the insurrection. And a statement from the secretary of defense said soldiers in the area were ordered to stay in their barracks.

The guerrilla group, which calls itself the Zapatista National Liberation Army, is heavily armed and virtually unknown. It claims 1,500 members, but the Chiapas government claimed that no more than 200 had participated in the attacks. Local press reports put the total in all the towns at just under 1,000.

The group is named after Emiliano Zapata, a hero of the 1910-1917 Mexican Revolution who defended poor peasants' rights to free land seized from wealthy landowners.

The rebels had attacked San Cristobal de las Casas, 50 miles east of the state capital of Tuxtla Gutierrez, plus Ocosingo, Las Margaritas and Altamirano Saturday. They moved to Chanal, a nearby village, yesterday. The guerrillas took over radio stations, blocked the roads leading into and out of the towns, and occupied the municipal offices.

A live television report from San Cristobal said the rebels burned office furniture and papers in the town hall before leaving town.

Monsignor Samuel Ruiz, bishop of San Cristobal, told the Associated Press "they took everything" from the town hall and that residents helped themselves to typewriters and other items dumped in the street.

An Ocosingo resident told Associated Press that rebels were looting stores, burning records and demanding the keys to residents' cars.

Federal troops were guarding government installations in the town of Comitan to avoid a takeover there. The Pan American Highway was reopened with military checkpoints.

"This whole thing has been terrifying for us," said Hernan Pedrero, manager of the Santo Tomas Hotel on San Cristobal's main plaza.

He said the 95 tourists staying at his hotel were taken to Tuxtla Gutierrez yesterday under army escort.

The guerrillas said they were Mexicans and had no ties to drugtraffickers or Guatemalan leftist groups. The source of their arms and uniforms -- army fatigues with red bandannas -- was not clear.

"We are the product of 500 years of struggle," they claimed in a lengthy declaration of war posted in the occupied communities and read on television.

They demanded that President Carlos Salinas de Gortari resign, accusing his government of ignoring the plight of Indians in the Lacandon Forest, North America's largest rain forest.

And they demanded land, farm financing, education and the release of "political" prisoners.

The Interior Ministry issued a statement calling for dialogue to resolve the disputes, which it acknowledged are legitimate.

Chiapas, which borders Guatemala, is one of Mexico's poorest states. It has a large Indian population and a history of violent disputes over land and religion.

As a border state, there is added tension from Guatemalan war refugees, Guatemalan army and guerrilla incursions, drug running, bandits and illegal logging. Although this is the first organized attack, there were signs of trouble as early as last March.

There have been local press reports of secret guerrilla trainingcamps in the region, which Interior Minister Patrocinio Gonzalez Blanco Garrido, governor of Chiapas until the end of 1992, flatly denied.

When Roman Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz, who is based in San Cristobal, continued to voice concern about guerrillas, he was branded a troublemaker by the Salinas administration. He was asked to resign last year.

Opposing political parties are already blaming the government for the crisis. Leftist presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas said that, while he does not condone the violence, he believes the government is responsible for it.

"It should not be lost sight of that the social, agricultural and political problems of Chiapas have been ignored by local government," Mr. Cardenas said.

He said the local government has "sought to silence the demands through repression, intolerance, violence and by provoking confrontations between different social groups with the intent of defending the interest of a small oligarchy."

Witnesses said the guerrillas held a meeting in San Cristobal Saturday night, which was attended by about 300 cheering people. They reportedly said they are fighting for the country's poor and indigenous peoples.

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