Chiapas and Tabasco Feature

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A Voice of Many Voices

In the early hours of January 1, 1994, while most of Mexico was sleeping off the New Year's festivities, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) surprised the world when it captured San Cristóbal de las Casas and several surrounding towns, demanding land redistribution and equal rights for Chiapas's indigenous peoples.

The Zapatista triumph was short-lived. The mostly Tzotzil and Tzeltal troops soon departed, and on January 12 President Carlos Salinas de Gortari called for a cease-fire. According to government figures, 145 lives were lost during the 12-day struggle. But hundreds have been killed in years of clashes between rebel supporters and paramilitary groups; thousands have been displaced.

Many factors led to the uprising. Centuries of land appropriation repeatedly uprooted Chiapas's Mayan-descended groups. Also, despite its natural resources (Chiapas provides nearly half of Mexico's electricity and has oil and gas reserves), the state's indigenous residents suffer high rates of illiteracy, malnutrition, and infant mortality.

In 1995 President Ernesto Zedillo sent troops into the Lacandón jungle to capture the Zapatista leadership, including charismatic leader Subcomandante Marcos. The ambush failed. The following year negotiations with the rebels resulted in the San Andrés Accords, which called for a constitutional amendment recognizing indigenous cultural rights and limited autonomy. President Zedillo instead pursued a policy of low-intensity warfare—often in the name of "development" or "reforestation." The disastrous results include the massacre of 45 unarmed Zapatista supporters by paramilitary forces in the village of Acteal, Chenalho, in December 1997.

During his presidential campaign, Vicente Fox insisted that he could resolve the Zapatista conflict in 15 minutes; during his inaugural address he announced that he was ordering partial troop withdrawals and would submit legislation based on the San Andrés Accords. In turn, Marcos announced three conditions for the restoration of negotiations—further military withdrawals, the release of Zapatista prisoners, and implementation of the accords. The first two have been achieved. Fox, however, continues to be engaged in a media war with Marcos. In early 2001 a Zapatista caravan traveled to the capital to demand negotiations.

Fox, who welcomed the Zapatistas to the capital, has come under attack from members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) as well as members of his own National Action Party (PAN). Not everyone is convinced of the Zapatistas' noble motives. In February 2003 a group of Zapatistas chased out the American owners of a guest ranch not far from the archaeological ruins of Toniná. Even though the resulting publicity continues to put a dent in tourism, the state government continues to decline to intervene, saying a heavy-handed approach would backfire. Around the same time, a group of Zapatistas reportedly detained, for a few hours, tourists on a kayaking trip along the Río Jatate. Whether these are isolated incidents or a series of ongoing events remains to be seen.

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