LACANDON RAIN FOREST, Mexico -- Standing in a tiny clearing of this dense jungle in southern Mexico, about a dozen fighters of the Zapatista National Liberation Army talk as if they are unfazed by the hardships of their battles against the Mexican army: watching childhood friends die in combat; begging for small portions of food from villagers; and sleeping on mud and leaves beneath driving rain.
The rebels, native peasants ages 19 to 25, say they have endured death, hunger and cold all their lives. But victory is a sweet, new experience. And they gloat over the advances they have made since they attacked several towns in the state of Chiapas on New Year's Day.
After first sending the army to snuff out the rebels, estimated at 2,000 fighters armed mostly with rifles and machetes, President Carlos Salinas de Gortari ordered his troops to cease fire. He has admitted that the government has not done enough to lift native peasants out of poverty and has promised to double government efforts to provide basic services to their communities.
Last week, the Mexican Congress unanimously passed an amnesty law forgiving all political crimes committed during the two-week uprising.
"We are winning," boasts Sublieutenant Amalia, 20, standing a little over 5 feet tall with a red bandanna covering the bottom half of her face. "We have not lost anything. . . . The people of the villages have confidence in us. They support us. They invite us to eat with them."
In a communique, the Zapatistas mocked the government's offer of amnesty.
"For what do we have to ask pardon?" asks the communique, signed by Subcommander Marcos, a spokesman. "For what are they going to pardon us? For not dying of hunger? For not being silent in our misery? For raising arms when all other paths were closed?"
Rebels hiding in the jungle express deep distrust that the government will deliver on its promises. And although the Zapatistas have also stopped their aggressions, the rebels say they will restart their battles if the government reneges on its promises, especially those to provide jobs, food, medical services and schools.
Other rebels don't think they ever will be able to put down their weapons. After years of repression by wealthy landowners, fighting has brought them respect. More than 200 people were killed in the uprising. Mexico has not suffered such violence since its revolution in 1910.
If they surrender their battle, many Zapatistas say they would surrender the only power they've ever known. Once again, they would be ignored.
"The government will screw us," said a rebel lookout who calls himself Brawel. "They will do to us what they always do. The government does not respect us."
Brawel and dozens of other frail, haggard looking men stop all cars that pass on a dirt road that divides their village and leads into the rain forest. They radio rebels in the jungle to ask permission for reporters to enter.
Their village is a small cluster of huts made from dried mud. On the front of each house hangs a poster of a brown fist, thrust into the air. It reads, "1973-1993; 20 years of the fight!"
Rebel leaders say their movement began 20 years ago. But for Brawel and his neighbors, the fight began much more recently.
A couple of years ago, they had settled on a piece of land not far away and were preparing to grow corn, beans and coffee for sale in local markets.
But, Brawel says, a wealthy landowner claimed that the land belonged to him. He went to the government to demand that the peasants be evicted. Without any investigation, Brawel says, the government sent soldiers.
"The government sent its soldiers to attack us," Brawel says. "They killed some and took many others prisoner.
"We decided then that we had to fight back. Misery taught us to fight."
The villagers joined the Zapatista army, a force that takes its name from revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata. The rebels are led by a "clandestine committee" that votes to decide on troop movements and how to respond to government overtures.
All their fighters are Mexican, the rebels say, disputing claims by government officials that the Zapatistas are led by foreigners.
"That is a lie of the government," says Capt. Javier, with eyes the color of amber showing through the hole in his ski mask. "We are Mexicans here."
Another government lie, he says, is the characterization of the rebels as a rag-tag bunch of insurgents. Brawel says the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) is a well-trained, well-equipped army.
"We are not a guerrilla force. Guerrillas are few, we are many. We are like other soldiers because we are armed and trained to confront the enemy."
Behind him stood several women, dressed in brightly colored, embroidered skirts and blouses. These are the cooks, one rebel explains.
Many other women fight side-by-side with the men. Dressed in the uniform of the Zapatista army, Sublieutenant Amalia says, "Men and women are equals here. We have the same jobs as men. We have been trained, just like the men, to fight."