Soldiers suddenly popular in Mexico town

January 12, 1994|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Mexico City Bureau

OCOSINGO, Mexico -- With automatic rifles strapped on their shoulders, soldiers are handing out dozens of bags of food to the needy residents of this town.

Military doctors are tending to sick children and distributing free medicine at a clinic, and soldiers on foot and riding armored vehicles patrol the streets, asking residents if they can help them in any way.

In front of one house, a soldier approaches an elderly man, whose wrinkled face stiffens in fear. They are not used to kindness from the Mexican army in these parts.

"I just want to know if you need anything," the young soldier asks. "Is everything OK?"

"All is fine," the man mumbles, backing toward his doorway. "Thank you."

The man, wearing torn blue jeans, slips into his home. The soldier walks on and smiles. "We know they are afraid of us, but we are not the enemy."

That is the message the government of Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has been trying to send since last week, when rebels calling themselves Zapatistas ran sacked six towns in southern Mexico and declared war on the government on behalf of the peasants.

Throughout Chiapas, a Mexican state known for picturesque mountain towns and Mayan ruins, the government is sending soldiers to root out the rebels and to help build relationships with indigenous citizens whose needs have been ignored for decades. On the surface, it appears the government is making progress in Ocosingo. Many say they are glad the soldiers are here.

"The army is protecting people," says Oscar Suarez. He apologizes for his muddy clothes, explaining that there was not enough water in town for normal washing. "When they arrest people, they will not hurt them if they have their arms up. But if they do not, the soldiers must respond."

But the fear is still there. Some inhabitants whisper of indiscriminate house searches, brutality and late-night shootings in communities in the hills around Ocosingo. While government bulletins tell the public that all is returning to normal in the areas of last week's fighting, access to those areas has been forbidden for a week to independent human rights observers, diplomats and reporters.

After protests, some reporters have been allowed to enter the affected areas. But they are escorted by the military -- for their own protection, government officials say.

"I think that's the least of their worries," says Tom Crane of Physicians for Human Rights. "I think they want to keep everything tight."

He added, "Because of NAFTA, Salinas has to be real careful because the United States could start looking for an escape clause. It's going to be important for them to demonstrate openness on this. The vote was so close on NAFTA and, other than loss of jobs to Mexico, the main concern of the U.S. was human rights abuses and the lack of democracy in Mexico."

Injustice and repression of the poor indigenous people of Chiapas was the rallying cry of the Zapatistas who declared war against the government on New Year's Eve.

Some of the heaviest fighting between the Zapatistas and the army occurred in Ocosingo. Dozens of people lay dead in the main plaza and open-air market for days, their bodies rotting in the sun.

'We just want peace'

"We just want peace," says Maria Teresa de la Cruz, a short woman with round cheeks keeping an eye on the soldiers sitting in a tank across the street. "There are some people who agree with the Zapatistas, but not us."

She stands with dozens of other women in a line that stretched for blocks, waiting for food distributed by soldiers. Many of those with her say that until the arrival of the Zapatistas, they never wanted soldiers in their town.

"We did not need soldiers or police because we resolved our problems among ourselves," says Carlos Ruben Pinto Reyes, Mrs. De La Cruz's husband. His eyes were bloodshot because he had not slept in days because he was worried that the Zapatistas would return and that the fighting would resume between the rebels and the army.

"We have eight police in town, but they are ignorant and put us in jail for anything we do," he said. "They take our money and sometimes they beat us. So no one wanted more police."

But since the Zapatista rebellion, he says, his opinion about law enforcement officials has changed.

"The Zapatistas came here. They said they would not hurt us but that they were fighting against the government, the army and the rich," says Mr. Pinto, who works for a wealthy cattle farmer outside Ocosingo. "But hurting the rich is like hurting us. The rich give us jobs, and if they have nothing, then we have nothing."

Mr. Pinto says both he and his wife work for the cattle farmer. Together they make $3 per day.

"We didn't have much to eat, but we had beans and tortillas at least once a day," says Mrs. De la Cruz. "Now we have nothing except what the army gives us. We appreciate their support."

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