by Diego Cevallos
(IPS) MEXICO CITY -- The Zapatista guerrillas control a small corner of the impoverished southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas with a system of de facto autonomous government that they say is based on real justice, a communitarian lifestyle, and respect for the environment.
The rebel group also claims that the "liberated" portion of Chiapas is self-governed in a way that respects Native rights and customs.
But a new report by the government of Vicente Fox accuses the group of using authoritarian methods, harassing opponents, trafficking drugs, arms and undocumented immigrants, and illegally levying taxes.
Although it is difficult to assess the reality among the members and supporters of the indigenous Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), there is undoubtedly truth in both points of view, Jorge Mat’as, at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told IPS.
The origin of the EZLN dates back to the mid-1980s, when members of a leftist political group, comprised mainly or entirely of mestizos -- people of mixed European and Native descent -- arrived in Chiapas and began to work with local Indians to create a guerrilla organization.
The poorly armed group made its first public appearance 10 years ago, on Jan. 1, 1994, when it declared war on the government of President Carlos Salinas (1988-1994) and engaged in two weeks of bloody fighting with the army before agreeing to an armed truce.
The Zapatistas control less than 15 percent of Chiapas, which has an area of 75,634 square kms, amounting to 3.7 percent of Mexico's total surface area.
The state is one of the poorest in the country, and much of the population is made up of ethnic Indians, who number roughly 10 million in this country of 100 million.
It is next to impossible to gain access to areas under Zapatista influence. The group has set up numerous control posts where all outsiders, including reporters, are stopped and denied entry or any chance of talking to EZLN spokespersons.
No one knows exactly how many Indians live in the EZLN stronghold in Chiapas, but unofficial estimates put the number at below 100,000.
Last August, the EZLN leadership announced the creation of five "good government councils" in Chiapas to give new oxygen to the group's system of self-government, which has been used to administer EZLN-controlled areas since the organisation first rose up in arms a decade ago.
When the group declared war on the government, it threatened to march on the capital and seize power. But its discourse was later toned down, focusing instead on demands for true democracy and justice, and respect for indigenous rights and culture.
According to the government report, "Diagnosis of the EZLN," produced by a group set up by the Secretariat of the Interior, in the areas under Zapatista control the government's social services are rejected, and people or communities opposed to the EZLN have been the targets of attacks and harassment.
The Zapatistas have "carried out actions of harassment or violence against those who do not submit to their laws," says the report by the Chiapas Coordination Group, which also complains about "meddling" in the area by foreign activists.
The report also mentions disputes over land ownership and over control of collective transport services in the area, as well as the illegal collection of taxes and the rejection of all official assistance.
The Chiapas Coordination Group is made up of Interior Secretary Santiago Creel, several assistant cabinet secretaries, and representatives of the government's Peace and Reconciliation Commission, the Centre for Research and National Security, the federal police, and the Chiapas state government.
Since Salinas declared a ceasefire in 1994 and engaged in peace talks with the rebels, the group has not fired a single bullet, but has gained and retained control over the areas it continues to govern in a de facto manner.
But in 1995 that control weakened, when the government of president Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) ordered a military offensive in the area with U.S. support.
Instead of responding, the guerrillas and their support bases fled into more remote parts of the mountainous state.
The offensive was brought to a halt by local and international pressure from civil society and political groups, and the Indians who had fled gradually began to return to their land and villages.
When Fox took office in late 2000, he began to withdraw troops from the heavily militarized area and to close down army garrisons, and the EZLN once again began to exercise full control over certain valleys and jungle zones of Chiapas.
Democracy in Mexico was strengthened by the arrival of the Fox administration, the first non-Institutional Revolutionary Party government in seven decades.
But the EZLN has staunchly refused the government's offers to resume the peace talks that broke off in 1996.
The Zapatistas' last high-profile political action was staged in 2001, when the group's leaders travelled to the capital in a caravan granted protection by the government, to ask parliament to pass a law on Native rights and autonomy.
But Congress enacted a modified version of the law, which was rejected by the EZLN. Since then the group has remained largely silent, living in isolation in the areas under its control, where it says it is developing truly autonomous Native forms of government.
Fox remains open to dialogue with the Zapatistas, has promised never to order the army to attack, and claims to have worked harder than anyone in favour of the rights of Mexico's Indians.
However, the large majority of Mexico's Native people continue to live in poverty -- a situation that has remained unchanged despite the EZLN uprising and promises from the governments of Salinas, Zedillo and Fox.
February 2, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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