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Chiapas, a land in transition

WASHINGTON - The Indian uprising in Chiapas has again taken political center stage since Vincente Fox, Mexico's new president, took office last month.

Solving the crisis in the war-torn region has been a stated objective for President Fox from the beginning. In just 30 days, Fox has made major progress in long-fractured negotiations between the Mexican government and an Indian rebel group called the Zapatista National Liberation Army, negotiations which stalled nearly five years ago.

When Fox's term began Dec. 1, he pledged to renew peace talks between the government and the Zapatistas. Since his inauguration Fox has ordered 53 military roadblocks across the state of Chiapas closed, the withdrawal of more than 2,000 troops from two military bases and released 17 Zapatista prisoners. In late December, the president ordered troops to turn their bases over to the governor of Chiapas and to retreat.

The Zapatista National Liberation Army, or EZLN, comprised mostly of Indians, sparked a rebellion in Chiapas in 1994, briefly capturing six towns in that state. Nearly 150 people were killed in 10 days of fighting between the Mexican Army and the rebels before a cease fire. However, violent clashes in the region have continued. The Zapatistas say they are struggling for better living conditions and self-determination for the state's large Indian population.

In a recent statement, Subcomandante Marcos, the Zapatista rebel leader who is a non-Indian said to be recognized by the Indian community, stated he will take 25 of his followers on their first trip to Mexico City since the Zapatista uprising. Marcos announced he would come to the capital after President Fox made his intentions clear with the government's recent actions in Chiapas. Marcos said he would travel to Mexico City to seek an agreement on Indian rights.

"We want to replace our weapons and convert our poverty into an instrument that we can use to fight for liberty and democracy," said Marcos in an interview published in the Mexican newspaper La Jornada.

In 1996, an agreement between the Zapatistas and the Mexican government on Indian self-determination failed when then-President Ernest Zedillo refused to sign, saying the agreement would endanger Mexico's sovereignty over its land and resources. Fox, the first Mexican president in more than 70 years to not be a part of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, has bucked past trends and placed the crisis at the top of his political agenda. He has submitted the original agreement on Indian rights to the Mexican Congress for full consideration.

A statement released by the Zapatistas indicates their delegation plans to leave from San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas Feb. 25 and travel 460 miles through nine states before reaching Mexico City on March 6. It said they expect to be joined by friends along the way and will march in ski masks to protect their identities.