SAN PEDRO POLHO, Mexico - The 29-year-old farmer and father of four uses the battle name Santano. He has been a rebel in the Zapatista National Liberation Army since it declared war against the Mexican government nearly seven years ago, here in the south, in Chiapas state. And even though his world has moved a fraction closer to peace in the last couple of weeks, Santano sees no reason to let down his guard.
He heard that the country's new president, Vicente Fox, had proclaimed a new dawn for the conflict-ravaged region. He heard that military checkpoints were dismantled, that many Zapatista political prisoners might soon be released from jail and that pending arrest warrants, like the one against him, might be rescinded.
But in Santano's mind, it all added up to nothing: no easing of tensions, no flickering hopes for peace, no new dawn.
"All our lives the government has deceived and ignored us," he said, covering his face with the rebels' signature red bandana before allowing a visitor to take his photograph. "Presidents in the past have told the world they would seek peace. But for us there has only been more violence and fear. We do not trust anything."
Fox defeated one of the Zapatistas' principal adversaries when he became the first man in 71 years to take control of the presidency from the Institutional Revolutionary Party. But the day after Fox was inaugurated, the Zapatistas' most outspoken leader, Subcommander Marcos, warned the president that the rebels were prepared to keep up their armed struggle if the government did not meet certain demands.
"We want our needs to be heard, like any other human being, no matter whether indigenous or not," Santano said. "We do not want to be separated because of our race."
It has long been clear that the Zapatistas - an estimated 2,500 to 5,000 poorly armed farmers - pose no significant military threat to the government, but their struggle has won the support of people around the world. And so the low-intensity conflict presents one of the most important tests of the Fox administration's commitment to democracy.
"This, for us is a moral issue," said a high-level adviser to Fox. "We cannot have a band of guerrillas challenging the legitimacy of the government after we have gained a democratic victory. We want to prove that no one has to use force to have their voices heard."
The Zapatista National Liberation Army stunned the world when its bands of masked farmers, mostly wielding sticks and machetes, seized control of four important towns in Chiapas on New Year's Day in 1994.
In poetic communiques, the indigenous rebels articulated a cause that was not much different from the one that fueled America's civil rights movement during the 1960s. They demanded equal treatment under the law, better schools, health care and job opportunities for the impoverished Indian population in Mexico, the largest in Latin America with an estimated 10 million people.
The rebels said they took up arms because violence seemed the only way to force the government to change.