Chiapas Update

The Zapatistas' have disappeared. One year ago, the ski-masked rebels were the toast of Mexico. They had captivated the nation with their triumphant journey from the jungles of Chiapas to the streets of Mexico City. Their commanders had marched onto the floor of Congress and told the world that their war with Mexico's government was over and that a new era of Indian rights was about to begin.

The government seemed ready to do all it could to make the rebels happy. President Vicente Fox closed seven military bases near Zapatista territory and freed 80 jailed rebels.

Addressing the final Zapatista demand for peace, Congress set out to enact a rebel-endorsed Indian rights bill.

And then ... nothing. The rebels fell silent and dropped out of sight.

Having triumphed beyond expectations with last year's tour, 'they went back to the jungles and stayed there,' said John Womack, a history professor at Harvard University. 'It was almost as if that success left them speechless and wondering what to do next. They may have waited too long to decide.'

Now much of Mexico is wondering, have the Zapatistas given up the struggle? Or could they be planning to shock the country again, just as they did on Jan. 1, 1994, when they launched a bloody 12-day rebellion in the name of socialism and Indian rights?

It's not as though the rebels have accomplished all they sought. A year after their Congressional address, an agreement that would bring peace to Chiapas remains as elusive as ever; eight Zapatistas are still in prison, and the new law has brought little change for Mexico's 10 million Indians.

Most critically, the Indian rights bill is not what was originally planned. Members of Fox's party allied with the former ruling party to water it down, softening language on Indian autonomy and control of natural resources.

Zapatista supporters rejected the weakened version with raucous protests throughout southern Mexico, but the rebels themselves have had nothing to say. The Zapatista leadership did not respond to written requests for an interview.

Meanwhile, Fox has stopped referring to Zapatista military chief Subcomandante Marcos as his 'friend in the jungle.'

Shannan Mattiace, an expert on Indian autonomy in Mexico at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., said the Zapatistas concentrated so heavily on winning support globally that they were ill-prepared to deal with Mexican politics.

'Issues like the passage of Indian rights legislation are very local and I think the movement has had some trouble shifting its focus over the last year,' Mattiace said. 'If they had it to do over again perhaps they would have solidified a local base of support that they could have fallen back on when the tour was over.'

In La Realidad, the Zapatistas' unofficial capital, people say their leaders are silent because there's nothing left to say.

'What else can our companeros do?' asked Max, a village elder. 'They have done so much already and their three simple demands have not been met. There's been no good news, so they are keeping quiet.'

But he said the movement's commanders have held several meetings since arriving home from Mexico City.

'They could be planning something,' said Max, who declined to give his surname. 'There's always another step.'

Womack said that the rebels may have been marginalized by a slumping Mexican economy and by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. 'People stopped having time to worry about what goes on in Chiapas,' he said.

Juan Roque Flores, a former government peace negotiator who helped draft the original Indian rights bill, said the rebels have kept quiet just when the Indian rights movement needs them most.

'The Zapatistas need to organize protests and write communiques in order to remind civil society why their movement is important,' Roque Flores said. 'Total silence is inexplicable.' But Andres Aubry, a French historian who has lived in Chiapas for more than 20 years, said the rebel leadership has long believed silence can be a political weapon.

'The government wants to declare peace and the Zapatistas won't even talk to its negotiators,' Aubry said. 'That's a rebel victory because, as more time passes, the Zapatistas are strengthening their autonomous communities.'

One such community is Primero de Enero, 110 miles north of La Realidad. During the 1994 uprising, Zapatistas stormed the school, general store and a dozen surrounding shacks, claiming that the village and 250 acres of corn fields had belonged to their ancestors. The government eventually let the Zapatistas keep the land and compensated the owners. That right to run their own communities was all the Zapatistas ever wanted, said Moises Sanchez, a former Zapatista colonel-turned-corn farmer who donned a ski mask to talk to a reporter.

'The conflict was not complicated,' Sanchez said. 'The Zapatistas seized the land that was theirs and now they work to feed their families.'

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