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Beyond Chiapas: Mexico's other Indian war

The Mayan rebels of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in Mexico's southern state of Chiapas won international attention with their dramatic uprising New Year's morning of 1994, the precise moment that NAFTA took effect.

Ski-masked Indian men and women with antiquated rifles briefly took over four towns in the Chiapas highlands, declared war on the Mexican government and denounced the free trade agreement as a "death sentence" for Mexico's Indian peoples.

Since then, the EZLN and the government have engaged in a slow and unsteady peace dialogue. In 1996, EZLN comandantes and representatives from Mexico's federal congress negotiated a pact calling for Indigenous autonomy, allowing Indian self-government within their own communities. The EZLN called acceptance of the agreement their one minimum demand before they would lay down their arms.

When the San Andr?s Accords, named for the Tzotzil Maya village in which they were negotiated, went to the desk of President Ernesto Zedillo, he dismissed them as a call for "separatism" and refused to sign.

With the dialogue stalled, the international media spotlight largely moved on, even as new Indigenous movements gained ground throughout the country and other, more radical, armed rebel groups have emerged.

Within Chiapas, civil Indian and peasant groups like the Emiliano Zapata Campesino Organization, the Francisco Villa Patriotic Campesino Union and Xi'Nich (the "ant-people" in Chol Maya) took over land, instituting their own "agrarian reform" from below.

Municipal uprisings ousted corrupt local machines, with peasant councils taking reins of local government. Indian groups across Chiapas declared "pluriethnic autonomous zones" and demanded recognition by the government.

In some instances, Mexico's long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was forced to accept land seizures and rebel municipal governments led by Indian councils and peasant organizations.

One group, Las Abejas (the bees), a Tzotzil Maya organization explicitly committed to nonviolence, was the target of the Christmastime 1997 massacre at the hamlet of Acteal, in which 45 Indians, mostly women and children, were killed. The massacre was perpetrated by Red Mask, one of several paramilitary groups which have emerged in Chiapas, linked to the ruling party.

While such bloody incidents have occasionally brought media attention back to Chiapas, Indian movements are fast gaining ground elsewhere in Mexico, largely ignored by the international press.

The lush fields and wetlands of Tabasco, to the north of Chiapas on Mexico's Gulf Coast, are the heartland of both the Chontal Maya and the Mexican oil industry. In this most water-rich region in an arid country, traditional farmlands and waterways were poisoned with the oil boom in the 1970s.

Now, as the state monopoly Pemex speeds up operations to meet foreign debt payments, including Washington's recent $20 billion bailout of the crippled peso, accidents and corner-cutting have sparked a Chontal movement for Pemex accountability.

In 1996, thousands of Indians, campesinos and fishermen blockaded Pemex wells. The government responded by militarizing the state of Tabasco, calling in the federal army. Since then, the government agreed to negotiations, but sporadic blockades continued as Indian lands and waters were contaminated by accidents at oil rigs.

The left-opposition Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which opposes pending privatization of Pemex, and dissident Pemex workers who broke with the PRI-controlled union, support the struggle. As the workers' movement weakens following a purge of militant elements in the union, the Indian, campesino and fishing communities are on the frontline of the struggle.

The south-central state of Morelos was the stronghold of the original Zapatistas of the Mexican Revolution, followers of the legendary Emiliano Zapata. Because of its proximity to Mexico City's new "yuppie" economy, it is undergoing a development boom.

In the 1980s, the village of Tepoztlan became a fashionable place for the Mexico City elite to build second homes. But in September 1995, when a Cuernavaca development group unveiled plans for a giant GTE computer complex and golf course on Tepoztlan's communal lands, the Tepozteco staged an uprising, erecting roadblocks, kicking out all the PRI politicians and bureaucrats, and declaring the town "in rebellion" against the Morelos state government.

Central to the issue was the town's limited supply of water, needed to maintain the world-class golf green. After a year stand-off, which climaxed in the death of an elderly Indian militant at the hands of state police, the developer pulled out of Tepoztlan.

Guerrero and Oaxaca, the two states of the Sierra Madre del Sur between Chiapas and Morelos, saw a wave of Indigenous land seizures and municipal uprisings.

In November 1995, Mixtec and Amuzgo militants of the Guerrero Council of 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance occupied the municipal palace of Tlacoachistlahuaca, a small town in an isolated valley near the Oaxaca border. Indians vowed to block elections because PRIistas bought votes with "gifts" of alcohol, tortilla meal and fertilizers.

The local PRD agreed no clean elections were possible, and joined with the Indigenous Resistance Council to demand a municipal government based on Indian traditions with no parties ? usos y costumbres, as the system is called. Until demands were met, they declared the Zapatista-style Autonomous Municipality of Rancho Nuevo de la Democracia.

In January 1996, federal troops moved on the occupied cabacera. Indians responded by setting the town hall ablaze and retreating to their communities, where they declared a Popular Municipal Council in Rebellion which would rule from below. In the following months, numerous lives were claimed in a dirty war by the PRIista caciques against the rebel council and its followers.

Guerrero Gov. Ruben Figueroa was forced to resign, implicated in a massacre of campesino protesters. On June 28, 1995, a truckload of Nahuatl militants from the Campesino Organization of the Sierra del Sur (OCSS) on their way to a rally were stopped by state police units, some 300 thick, on a mountain road at Aguas Blancas. The state police opened fire, leaving 17 dead in mud.

In August 1995, the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) accused Guerrero state officials of hiding, altering and manufacturing evidence in the massacre. The report concluded a videotape of the scene was "surely manipulated and very probably edited." Guns shown in the hands of some of the dead "almost certainly" were planted after the shooting. There was no evidence campesinos fired weapons. At least one and probably three of the victims were killed execution style.

A special prosecutor imprisoned 28 police officers and seven high-level state government officials. Figueroa stepped down in March 1996, but was exonerated of all federal and state crimes despite being found responsible for "grave human rights violations" by the Supreme Court of Justice.

At a protest marking the one-year anniversary June 28, 1996, a mysterious guerilla group called the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) appeared from the mountains surrounding Aguas Blancas, took over the stage, read a manifesto, fired 17 shots in honor of the fallen OCSS militants, and retreated into the brush. The appearance sent thousands more federal troops into the Sierra Madre. Since then, numerous other small armed Indigenous groups have proclaimed their existence in the Sierra Madre del Sur.

Indigenous groups throughout Mexico demand that the Mexican government approve the San Andr?s Accords, opening a new chapter in the history of the country's 10 million Indian people. Until the federal authorities move on this demand, Indian country in Mexico is likely to remain militarized and violently divided.