Mexican president declares a cease-fire as his envoy seeks talks with rebels

January 13, 1994|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Staff Writer

OXCHUC, Mexico -- Declaring that the Mexican army had secured villages ravaged by last week's bloody Indian uprising, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari ordered a cease-fire yesterday and sent a negotiator to Chiapas to begin talks with the rebels who call themselves Zapatistas.

"In this way, the president of the republic, supreme commander of the armed forces, does all that is in his hands to seriously search for peace," Mr. Salinas said in a nationally televised speech. "The most urgent task is to construct a new space of conciliation."

Soldiers who had previously blocked ransacked villages such as this one yesterday smiled and waved drivers through. But evidence of last week's violence was everywhere.

Abandoned buses and trucks torn by bullet holes littered the roads. And white flags fluttered in the wind from most every house and from the antennas of most vehicles.

In front of her house, Lucia Gomez Sanchez stood, wrapped in a bright blue shawl, crying over a heap of ashes that once was her furniture and clothing. She said the Zapatistas had burned all the contents of her house because her husband is a government official in town.

For people like her, making peace with the Zapatistas is not going to be easy.

"Those responsible should be punished," said Gregorio Lopez Sanchez, a doctor in the town of small, flat houses. "They went to people's houses and said, 'Join us.' If the people said no, they beat them or burned their houses."

For more than a week, the Zapatista rebels stormed towns in the southern state of Chiapas, demanding social and political justice for Mexico's poor, indigenous people. The rebels, mostly Mayan descendants, named their group after Emiliano Zapata, a hero of Mexico's 1910 revolution.

Masked with red bandannas and armed mostly with wooden rifles and machetes, the Zapatistas promised to fight as long as necessary to force the government to provide "campesinos" with land, education and housing and other basic services widely lacking in this impoverished region.

It appears the government is prepared to correct some of the purported causes of the uprising.

The uprising has practically undone the image President Salinas had hoped to create for Mexico in his last year in office, a year that was crowned with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement and great expectations that Mexico was on the way out of the political corruption, poverty and bloodshed that has marked its existence in this century.

In the last few days there have been indications that the government had ample knowledge of a potential uprising in Chiapas for more than a year but did not want to confront it for fear of jeopardizing NAFTA's chances of passing a skeptical U.S. Congress.

The uprising in Chiapas was deliberately timed to coincide with the implementation Jan. 1 of the trade agreement with the United States and Canada.

Rebels denounced the treaty as an instrument that would

continue Mexican poverty.

Officials say 107 people have died in the rebellion, although church groups put the number higher.

Most of the fighting died out after several days, although some violence has continued.

About 14,000 government soldiers are stationed in the state, compared to rebels' 1,000-2,000 fighters.

The cease-fire declaration followed a shuffle of Mr. Salinas' Cabinet, including the dismissal of Interior Minister Patrocinio Gonzalez Garrido.

Mr. Gonzalez had served as governor of Chiapas before joining the Cabinet and is known throughout the state for bloody repression of peasants.

In Mr. Gonzalez's place, President Salinas named Jorge Carpizo McGregor, the attorney general and former head of the national commission on human rights.

"We will redouble the attention to the social demands of the indigenous communities in the hills and the jungle of Chiapas," President Salinas promised. "We will act to ensure better justice."

Shortly after the president's speech, his peace commissioner, Manuel Camacho Solis, arrived in Chiapas and offered to begin talks with the Zapatistas as soon as they are prepared.

Mr. Camacho, a former mayor of Mexico City, stepped down from his Cabinet post as foreign minister two days ago to seek a peaceful end to the country's most intense fighting since the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

Mr. Camacho and Bishop Samuel Ruiz, of San Cristobal de las Casas, led a "Caravan of Peace" to the city of Ocosingo.

The city has become a symbol of the clash between the government and the mostly Indian army because of all the blood that was shed there.

"My work is to get to the true problems of Chiapas," Mr. Camacho said in an interview with The Sun on a park bench in the main plaza of San Cristobal de las Casas. "My work is to talk to the people and find a space from which we can all move forward."

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