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Seven years after stunning the world, the leaders of the Zapatista rebels have come out of hiding in the Lacandon jungle and traveled to the concrete jungle of Mexico City to promote indigenous rights and work toward a just and peaceful resolution to the simmering conflict in Chiapas state.

Twenty-four Zapatista leaders, including the rebels’ spokesperson and strategist, Subcomandante Marcos, set out on a 12-state, 15-day roadtrip — dubbed Zapatour by the Mexican media — to boost popular support for their movement as they prepare to lobby the Mexican Congress to pass a bill on indigenous rights.

Passage of the bill, which would grant indigenous communities across Mexico greater autonomy, would fulfill one of the conditions the Zapatistas have set for resuming peace talks with the government. Marcos will try to use nonviolent means to persuade the government to resume peace negotiations with the rebels, which broke down in 1996 after former President Ernesto Zedillo refused to submit the indigenous-rights bill to Congress for a vote.

Zedillo’s recalcitrance outraged the Zapatistas because the bill had been crafted by a nonpartisan legislative committee to enshrine an agreement on indigenous rights — known as the San Andres Accords — that the rebels and government negotiators had signed earlier in the year.

With the election of Vicente Fox as president, many believe the time is ripe to break the deadlock between the Zapatistas and the government. Fox submitted the bill to the legislature immediately after his inauguration.

During Zedillo’s term as president, as many as 70,000 troops — about one-third of the Mexican Army — poured into Chiapas, contributing to widespread human-rights abuses and placing tremendous stress on the social fabric of fragile indigenous communities. “The military presence is very heavy and oppressive in some instances, especially in indigenous communities,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson said after visiting Chiapas in November 1999.

Tensions have eased a bit in Chiapas since Fox’s election, with the president ordering the dismantling of four key military installations in the state (out of a total of 259) and helping to obtain the release of dozens of Zapatista political prisoners. Still, tens of thousands of soldiers, as well as heavily armed paramilitaries, remain in or near indigenous communities throughout the conflict zone.

It will not be easy to find solutions to the conflict in Chiapas or the plight of Mexico’s 10 million indigenous people.

Even if the indigenous-rights bill passes and Fox and the Zapatistas strike a peace deal, local PRI strongmen, as well as large landowners, paramilitary groups and elements within the military, could all fight to prevent demilitarization and autonomy for indigenous communities in Chiapas.

And, as official figures suggest, ending the general poverty and isolation of the country’s indigenous people could prove to be even more difficult in the long run. According to recently released government data, more than half of the country’s indigenous children are malnourished. More than six in 10 indigenous adults are illiterate, compared with one in 10 adults nationally. And a mere 42 percent of indigenous homes have running water, compared with 84 percent of all homes in Mexico. In the predominantly indigenous areas of Chiapas from which the Zapatista rebellion emerged, there is one doctor for every 25,000 residents, a situation comparable to Ghana or Cambodia.

But in spite of the enthusiasm the rebels generated during Zapatour, proponents of the indigenous-rights bill face an uphill battle in the Mexican Congress. Since the bill would amend the Mexican Constitution, it must be approved by a two-thirds vote, and most of Mexico’s political establishment has balked at the idea of granting self-determination to indigenous communities.

The most frequently cited reason for opposition to indigenous self-government is that having autonomous communities spread out across the nation could lead to the Balkanization of Mexico. But the Zapatistas have insisted that they do not seek to break away from the rest of nation. “It’s not true that we want to separate from Mexico. What we want is for them to recognize us as Mexicans, as the indigenes we are, but also as Mexicans, since we were born here, we live here,” the rebels’ Comandanta Susana said in a speech last week at a tour stop on the outskirts of Mexico City.

An unstated reason for some of the opposition to the rights bill may be that autonomous indigenous communities would have more power to oversee, or block, efforts to exploit valuable natural resources in their territory. This could especially be the case in Chiapas, where, according to geological surveys, large oil and natural-gas reserves lie underneath land inhabited by communities that have sided with the Zapatistas.

Even with all the obstacles on the road to a just peace in Chiapas, some people remain optimistic. The coming weeks “will not be the last opportunity” for peace, Alvarez said. If the Zapatistas and government do not find mutually acceptable conditions for an agreement this time, he said, “they will keep looking for conditions and will try again.”

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