Mexico's victory claims over rebels ring hollow

January 10, 1994|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Staff Writer

EL BOSQUE, Mexico -- Mexican government claims that the Zapatista revolt has been quashed ring hollow in this frightened, suspicious community so high in the mountains of Chiapas that it is shrouded in clouds.

Fighters of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation visited El Bosque on their way to other more prominent places last week in the uprising that left at least 100 dead in the region.

And many of the officials and peasants here are waiting in fear of the moment when the rebels may return here, supported by some of their own neighbors, to do more damage.

Their pleas for help from government troops have gone unheeded.

They say the rebels are camped in the coffee fields so high that the cloud cover makes them invisible to government helicopters searching for them.

Evidence of the Zapatistas' last visit is plain enough.

The town hall's windows are shattered. The furniture is overturned. Only an artificial Christmas tree with red tinsel stands erect in the foyer.

Residents said that the two-story government building was ransacked by a group of some 200 men wearing red bandannas and wielding sticks and machetes when the New Year's Eve uprising began in Chiapas.

Red bandanas are the badge of Zapatistas, who take their name from Emiliano Zapata, the hero of Mexican peasants who led his famous uprising against the Mexican dictatorship in 1910.

The modern rebels tore through the town hall here last week until they reached the jail, where they found and set free four prisoners, declaring "Liberty for the Indigenous."

Now the placed is gripped by rumors that the rebels will be back.

But standing in the square of El Bosque, Jose Rodos Vasquez says, "They have come. This is not just a rumor anymore. They have already attacked the town."

He adds, "We have not armed ourselves because that would be an invitation for them to come and kill us."

El Bosque, the center of a municipality of some 28,000 people, is about 75 miles from the capital of the state of Chiapas, Tuxtla-Gutierrez. Its residents are largely uneducated, indigenous peasants. They eke out a living by growing coffee on small plots of land on the steep mountainside.

The history of the region is full of violent clashes between the campesinos and wealthy landowners, known as mestizos because of their mixture of Spanish and Indian blood. Even today, only a handful of trained police officers patrol the area.

Residents of El Bosque say their violent past and the crushing poverty of their lives have caused many of their neighbors to join the Zapatistas.

They estimate that 300 men and women have left their homes and are camping out in the coffee fields, awaiting the arrival of more Zapatistas from the areas of last week's fighting. Those areas -- towns such as San Cristobal de las Casas, Ocosingo and Altamirano -- lie as far away as 250 miles east of El Bosque.

"The guerrillas tell the indigenous people that the mestizo is rich and is stealing their land and jobs," Mr. Rodos said, referring to the ruling class. "They have divided the people."

"They are accustomed to conflicts," says Cmdr. Isidro Gomez Sanchez, head of security in the nearby town of Bochil. "They come from areas where there has been a lot of death."

His eyes shaded from the sun shining through a clearing in the clouds, Commander Gomez wears nothing to indicate that he is a police official. He and his four deputies have spent the last week investigating any rumor they hear about the rebels. Not one of them carries a gun.

"The [mayor] does not want us to go to far from town," he says. "He says that if we do, we may not come back."

The rumors are easily nourished.

Store owners in Bochil, a town just a half-hour drive down the mountain from El Bosque, told Commander Gomez that a few men went into town last week and purchased their entire stock of red bandanas, baseball caps and knapsacks. There have also been reports of trucks leaving town laden with food supplies for the rebels.

While food appears to reach the rebels, supplies have stopped coming to El Bosque. Many businesses have closed and those stores that are open have very few basic goods left on their shelves. Residents say the price of sugar has gone up in one week from about 50 cents per pound to $1.

Dozens of women, most wearing no shoes and only thin shawls to protect them from the chilly air, stood in line yesterday in the plaza where government officials planned to distribute corn meal.

"Our men cannot go out to work because they have been threatened in the coffee fields by men with masks," says Pascual Perez. "They are afraid to go into the fields and they are afraid to leave us at home alone."

The coffee, ready to be harvested, will go bad in the fields. But many women said they preferred that their husbands stay home.

"They are our army," said Manuela Lopez. "They are our only protection."

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