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25 June 1998 Edition

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Zapatistas standing firm

Simon Jones reports for An Phoblacht from Chiapas, Mexico

Three hours of highway and twisty mountain roads from the town of San Cristobal, the village of Diez de Abril sprawls a little across the floor of a valley. Four years ago this was a massive ranch, owned by one man, until the EZLN - Zapatista Army of National Liberation - uprising in 1994 sent many such landlords scurrying to the cities, and the farm labourers took over. Now Diez de Abril is home to 700 Zapatistas (most of them children) - and a varying number of international observers staying at the Irish-run peace camp.

With the village still recovering from a military raid two months ago and tension high in nearby Morelia (regional HQ of the Zapatistas) due to some thirty families defecting to the government side, the international presence is seen as very important. ``We never know when the bloody army will come in again,'' Alfredo, one of the elected communty representatives, told me. ``If they come into the community then the observers will be witnesses while the women confront the soldiers. The men wait in the hills as a second line of defence. It is important that people from outside see what happens and report it.''

The government does what it can to make life difficult for the observers, as Sheila, one of the peace campers, explained: ``It's almost impossible to get an observer's visa, so most people come here on tourist visas and have to dodge the migration roadblocks. You hear some hairy stories, but usually we get away with it. If they catch you in one of the Zapatista communities though, they are likely to deport you straight away.''

The peace camp is based in the `casa grande' or Big House - formerly the farm manager's house - but the luxury is relative. Unlike most homes in the village, they have cement floors, not clay, in the kitchen and bedroom that make up the `camp'. But like everyone else, the peace campers have to fetch all their water from the river, cook over the fire when the village's DIY electricity (tapped from the high tension cables) fails, and trek to the latrine down the field. ``You get used to it really quickly,'' says Sheila, ``because the people here are really open and friendly. I've been working in the cornfield with them, painting a mural (like in the 6 Counties, political murals are a big thing here), eating in their houses, playing with their kids. Apart from the helicopters and the threat from the army, it's a dead relaxing place to live. When we finish work we go swimming in the river or hang out and eat mangoes.''

Alfredo tells me that the people of the community are a lot better off: ``Before we came here I had no land, nothing. Now I have somewhere to grow maize and beans. It's worth struggling for.''

Opinions vary as to the likelihood of another fullscale military offensive against the Zapatistas. Sunday's announcement by radical bishop of San Cristobal, Samuel Ruiz, that the independent mediation body CONAI, which he chaired since it was set up to broker negotiations in October 1994, was dissolving itself in protest at the administration's stonewalling tactics and the ongoing violence against indigenous communities is a bad omen.

However, many here reckon that the government would be happier to have the communities split and fight among themselves - as in Morelia - giving the police and army an excuse to move in and arrest Zapatistas.

Last week 140 people were detained in Nicolas Ruiz when the Zapatista majority tried to expel the pro-government minority. And in several areas, particularly in the north of Chiapas, death squads set up by the government and/or landlords terrorise pro-Zapatista communities.

The number of refugees from the violence is now near 19,000, according to local newspaper El Tiempo. In some areas this strategy of sabotaging the base communities seems to be working. In others, the Zapatistas are holding firm or gaining ground. If the war stays at the current `low intensity' level over the summer, then the local elections in October could be a serious test for the government, as the Zapatistas are planning to drop their policy of abstention and vote for the left-wing PRD. If the elections are not rigged, the Zapatistas' autonomous municipalities (rebel county councils) could find themselves `co-habiting' with PRD official municipalities, which might turn out to be a productive partnership - and a difficult one for Zedillo's administration to deal with.

Pressure is also likely to increase in the neighbouring states of Oaxaca and Guerrero, following the massacre by police of twelve members of the Marxist Popular Revolutionary Army in Guerrero on the Sunday before last.

Although there is no alliance between the EPR and the EZLN, retaliations by the EPR could draw military resources away from Chiapas.

Next week: Simon Jones reports on government attacks on villages in Chiapas

Further information on the peace camp in Diez de Abril can be got from the Irish Mexico Group, c/o LASC, 5 Merrion Row, Dublin 2. tel. 6760435 or email [email protected]

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1