Misery of Indians sparked Mexican revolt

January 09, 1994|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Mexico City Bureau

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico -- In villages on the outskirts of this scenic town high in the mountains of southern Mexico, there are few signs of the peasant rebels masked by red bandannas who stormed in without warning a week ago to do battle with the Mexican army.

Army gunships have sent the guerrillas, with their shotguns, wooden rifles and machetes, into hiding. Although anxieties have arisen about assaults elsewhere in the country, including the capital, Mexico City, where a bomb exploded yesterday, government officials have speculated that the guerrillas are gone for good.

But the conditions that generated Mexico's most furious violence since the 1910 revolution did not disappear with the men who called themselves Zapatistas.

In this region, a few benefit from the wealth of the land, and not many are expecting to reap the rewards of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which the rebels denounced during their rampage.

In the wooden shacks and plastic tents inhabited by the peasantry, resentment has been brewing for years. Each day, millions of Indianpeasants who live in the state of Chiapas fight to survive against crushing poverty and repression by the small wealthy class and the authorities, who have been accused of human rights abuses.

Rebels said they used gunfire because the government had ignored their pleas for help. And although many of the peasants here said they disagree with the rebels' violent tactics, they share their feelings of frustration and humiliation.

Asked about the rampage, many peasants express sympathy for the rebels, understanding of what incited them and a feeling that the bloodshed could flare again.

In a village of low concrete huts called Tenejapa, Diego Gomez Lopez, 20, said that if the needs and rights of the peasants continue to be unattended, the violence could continue.

'They are at war'

"I think what [the rebels] are doing is just," he fumed. "There

have been many marches and protests by indigenous people, but the government has not responded. Now, the government wants to talk, but the rebels feel they have been betrayed so many times they do not want to talk."

"They are at war," he added. "They know that if they put down their weapons they will have no power."

Marta Figueroa, an advocate for women's rights here, said: "When there are conflicts, instead of looking for solutions, the government responds with repression against people. Those people have brothers and sons, and the repression creates tension."

The violence erupted New Year's Day, when the Zapatista Army of National Liberation seized four towns and declared war against the Mexican government. The rebel force, estimated to exceed 1,000 fighters, named itself after Emiliano Zapata, a revolutionary leader killed while fighting for land for peasants.

In five days of violence, more than 100 people were killed -- including some 20 civilians. The corpses of rebels, some shot execution-style, rotted on the streets in the town of Ocosingo.

On Thursday night, at guerrilla camps on the mountains overlooking Tenejapa, bombs were still falling just an hour after President Carlos Salinas de Gortari offered amnesty to rebels who turn themselves in and repent for their violence. The next day, power lines in the central Mexican states of Puebla and Michoacan were sabotaged.

"They can continue provoking isolated actions of violence," the president said in a nationally televised speech. "But they will fall apart. The resolution of Mexicans united against violence will break them."

What needs breaking, human rights advocates say, is the system of repression against the peasantry. Even after the revolution, indigenous peoples across Mexico largely served as slaves to wealthy landowners, called "caciques."

Hatred toward Indians

In the view of some, the disgust directed openly toward Indians ** here may have helped ignite the violence.

"A colleague told me today that he was on a bus, and a woman stood up and said, 'Now, more than ever, I hate Indians,' " said Bishop Samuel Ruiz, of the Roman Catholic diocese in San Cristobal de las Casas. "This is the context in which we are living."

The deprivation felt by Indians here has been driven in part by an evolutionary decline in living standards. In Chiapas, the people are descendants of the Maya, once the most sophisticated society of the Western Hemisphere. Today, they are largely uneducated. Many do not read, write or speak Spanish, and they are unskilled. Many live in isolation, far from paved roads, with no telephones, radios or electricity.

They rent plots of land from wealthy landowners and eke out a living growing corn, beans and coffee. For some, work means menial jobs in tourist hotels and restaurants or in the homes of the wealthy whose ancestors include the Spanish aristocracy that ruled Mexico for centuries.

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