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24 July1999

Propaganda War Fuels Tension in Chiapas

Both Zapatista rebels, Mexican government claim wide support

By Linda Diebel
Toronto Star Latin American Bureau
21 April 1999

MEXICO CITY - In recent days, Mexico's war with Zapatista rebels seems to be all about who has the best public relations. The government parades so-called Zapatista deserters on television; masked Zapatistas lunch at the same Mexico City restaurant where supporters of original revolutionary Emiliano Zapato ate 85 years ago; politicians publicly berate each other for ``political blunders'' in handling the Zapatista crisis.

It's grand-standing. And, said political analyst Serge Sarmiento, it means the ``government has basically given up on Chiapas'' until after next year's presidential elections.

"Showing four or five Zapatistas on television is just a propaganda tool by the government,'' said Sarmiento. "It's clear that there's been no progress whatsoever in the peace talks, and that's not going to change in this (presidential administration).''

After one government video showing a handful of Zapatista "soldiers'' removing their masks and denouncing the cause, rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos made fun of it.
  "And so (we have) another group of Zapatista `deserters'? Yay!,'' said Marcos, in a communique to the media.

Meanwhile, in the Indian villages of Mexico's southern Chiapas state, where the Zapatista uprising began five years ago, observers say tension is building. Federal negotiator Gilberto Lopez y Rivas, head of the congressional mediating team called Cocopa, says that right-wing death squads are recruiting members throughout the region. Death squads, who target villages sympathetic to the Zapatistas, have been the source of most of the trouble in Chiapas in recent years. A paramilitary squad massacred 45 people, mostly women and children, in Acteal in December, 1997.

"There is a recruitment campaign that is very dangerous,'' Lopez y Rivas told Reuters on the weekend. "In some areas of Chiapas they are forming numerous training camps for paramilitary forces.''

Massacres are not new in Chiapas. But the Acteal massacre, carried out by local members of the ruling PRI party and their supporters, focused world attention. In his recent visit to Mexico, Prime Minister Jean Chrtien raised the issue of Chiapas with Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo. Chrtien told Zedillo Canadians are "concerned'' about human rights, particularly in Chiapas.

There has been an uneasy peace in Chiapas since early 1994. The Zapatistas, who rebelled over land and social rights for the majority Indian population, signed the San Andres Larrainzar peace accords in 1995. But the accords are shattered.

The Zapatistas say the government broke the peace deal by keeping thousands of troops in the region. The government accuses the Zapatistas of refusing to negotiate. Both the Zapatistas and the government claim public support.

Last month, the Zapatistas held a national referendum on indigenous rights. One question was: "Do you agree that we should reach a true peace through dialogue, demilitarizing the country by sending the soldiers back to their barracks as the constitution and the laws require?'' The balloting was conducted by masked Zapatista supporters.

A few days before the vote, Marcos sent several unarmed lieutenants to Mexico City. The government allowed them to travel. While in the capital, they had lunch at the same Sanborns restaurant where Zapata's soldiers ate in 1914. It's a landmark of revolutionary Mexico. In another publicity stunt, they dined with business executives at the Industrialists' Club.