Rebel group enters capital of Mexico

Gained unprecedented public support for push to secure Indian rights


MEXICO CITY - The masked leaders of the small Zapatista Army for National Liberation ended a 15-day march for Indian rights yesterday by making a triumphant entry to the packed main plaza of this national capital on a flatbed truck.

The event mimicked the 1914 arrival in the same Plaza of the Constitution by victorious revolutionaries Francisco Villa and Emiliano Zapata, the group's namesake.

But in a nation where many peasant uprisings have been brutally crushed, the 12-state "Zapatour" from San Cristobal de las Casas, about 650 miles southeast of Mexico City in the impoverished state of Chiapas, appears to have won unprecedented public support for the group's push to enshrine Indian rights in the nation's constitution.

But the group is nowhere near the goal of overthrowing the government that it proclaimed in taking up arms when the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect Jan. 1, 1994.

Still, some observers said the unarmed march by the 24 commanders of the EZLN (the group's initials in Spanish) has transformed the debate from whether Mexico's constitution should secure the rights of the country's indigenous people to when that will happen.

"Now you are hearing that there's no conflict between being Mexican and being an Indian," said political analyst Lorenzo Meyer. "Ten years, or even three months ago, this whole matter was seen as unrealistic."

The rally of support for the rebel group in the Zocalo, as the capital's main plaza is also known, had a festive air, with an estimated 75,000 Mexicans of all ages and most social classes in this most leftist of Mexico's big cities. Only 10 percent of Mexicans identify themselves as Indians, but most Mexicans are of mixed Indian and Spanish ancestry.

Even so, the rebels' drive to change the constitution remains uphill. Vicente Fox, who took office Dec. 1 as Mexico's first president in 71 years from outside the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), is pledging to make peace and has asked Congress to approve the constitutional changes. But many in the PRI and in his conservative National Action Party oppose revising the constitution.

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