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23 August 1999

Army Tightens Noose Around EZLN

By Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Aug 17 (IPS) - The poorly-armed and outnumbered Zapatista guerrillas will not stand a chance if the army is ordered to attack, say analysts in Mexico. Tens of thousands of soldiers have been staked out in the southern state of Chiapas, despite protests by politicians of all stripes and both local and international rights groups.

In a new massive deployment defended as ''normal and necessary'' by the government but termed an ''invasion'' by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) and its supporters, hundreds of soldiers occupied new positions over the past few days in the impoverished state of Chiapas, including the ''Reserva de Montes Azules''. The nature reserve, where peasant farmers loyal to the rebels had taken refuge, was the only major area that the military had not yet penetrated.

The government refuses to reveal how many troops are presently stationed in Chiapas, a poverty-ridden state with a mainly indigenous population located along the border with Guatemala. But human rights groups and politicians put the number at over 50,000, eight times more than the number of EZLN rebels, many of whom are armed with low-calibre rifles or simply machetes.

The government of Ernesto Zedillo said the latest deployment of troops was in line with its aim to defend the construction of a route towards peace, guarantee security and fight drug trafficking.

The army has moved into 161 areas of Chiapas, while police are stationed in 57, National Migration Institute agents in 24 and Attorney-General's Office personnel in 13, according to the non-governmental Centre for Economic Research and Community Action Policies. All of the sites are strategic from a military point of view, and were chosen as part of the government's bid to encircle the EZLN, the Centre added. But Emilio Rabasa, the government's coordinator of the dialogue in Chiapas, told the radio newscast Red on Monday that the government was not seeking to provoke or attack the Zapatistas. He also reiterated the Zedillo administration's call for a renewal of the peace talks, suspended since 1996.

However, the latest deployment of troops put the soldiers ''at our backs,'' said 'Subcomandante Marcos', the charismatic leader of Mexico's largest guerrilla group. He maintained that the government's aim was to crack down on the EZLN and guarantee future oil exploitation in the region, which has significant reserves.

Deputy Gilberto Rivas, a parliamentary deputy of the centre-left Democratic Revolution Party and a member of the congressional peace commission, also protested the continued militarisation of Chiapas. ''We cannot be accomplices or remain impassive to the new movements of troops, which highlight the real intention of the federal government to tighten the noose around the EZLN,'' said Rivas. ''Congress must act fast, because it is now impossible for the Zapatistas to retreat any further.''

Backed up against the Guatemalan border, the 5,000 members of the EZLN have not fired a single shot since mid-January 1994, when the government agreed to peace talks after 12 days of skirmishes between the rebels and the army. While the talks continued and were later suspended, the army gradually but steadily increased its presence in Chiapas, ''until leaving us with one foot in Guatemala and the other in Mexico,'' Marcos joked a few months ago.

Although there have been no direct clashes between the army and the insurgents, violence in the region, attributed to paramilitary units and religious and political differences, is a permanent fact of life. At least 1,500 indigenous opponents of the government have been killed in Chiapas by paramilitary groups since 1994, states a report drawn up by the PRD and submitted to the Attorney-General's Office last April. The latest ''military aggression against rebel communities was to remind everyone that there is a war going on in Chiapas, with a people in resistance and an occupying army,'' Marcos said over the weekend.

The government line is that the guerrillas do not want peace and are avoiding talks, while the EZLN maintains that it is the government which has been lying and pursuing its adversaries while failing to live up to its commitments. The talks were broken off after the government refused to accept a draft law on indigenous rights drawn up by the congressional peace commission, based on the San Andres Accords signed by the EZLN and the Zedillo administration. The government submitted an alternative draft law, arguing that the original bill - drafted by deputies of the various parties, including the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and accepted by the rebels - granted excessive autonomy to the country's indigenous communities (which account for around 10 of Mexico's nearly 100 million inhabitants) and jeopardised the unity of the country.

While the militarisation of Chiapas continues apace and a renewal of the talks looks impossible before the end of Zedillo's six-year term in late 2000, the EZLN has been fielding political initiatives from its jungle hideout, seeking to unify civil society opposed to the government and propose policy changes, while denouncing injustices in Chiapas.

The government, meanwhile, in the words of the president, has ''infinite patience'' in its search for a peaceful solution to the conflict, and swears that it would never attack the guerrillas.

[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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