Rebels enter Mexico City

JOHN RICE, Associated Press

MEXICO CITY – Fulfilling a vow in their declaration of war seven years ago, Mexico’s masked Zapatista rebels led a march into the heart of Mexico City on Sunday to press their demands for Indian rights.

Winding up a two-week tour of southern Mexico, the Zapatista leaders became the first rebel group to openly ride into the city since revolutionary leaders Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata – the rebels’ namesake – did it in 1914.

The 23 rebel commanders and their military leader, Subcomandante Marcos, rode a flatbed truck into the city’s main plaza, to chants of ”You are not alone” from an estimated 75,000 cheering supporters. They had come to press their demand for approval of an Indian rights law currently before congress.

”Once again, the federal government and congress have a chance to choose between peace with dignity and justice, or war against the indigenous peoples,” said rebel leader Comandante David.

Marcos made a poetic appeal for a multiethnic Mexico, and criticized President Vicente Fox, who has gone further than any of his predecessors to meet the Zapatistas’ demands.

”I’m sure the guy who works in the office behind me is applauding wildly,” Marcos said, referring to the National Palace, which dominates one side of the plaza. ”It’s time for Fox to see us, to listen … to one thing: constitutional recognition for Indian rights and culture.”

Marcos said the Zapatistas were a different brand of rebels; like the original army of peasants led by Zapata, ”we do not aspire to hold power,” Marcos said.

Rebel leader Comandante Esther was more direct in attacking Fox’s promises to give Mexicans a better standard of living.

”We don’t want a little business, a compact car and a television,” Esther said, repeating one of Fox’s frequent phrase. ”We want recognition of our rights.”

Both Fox and the Zapatista National Liberation Army have staked prestige on the event. The rebels hope to win support as a political force. Fox hopes that will help him achieve what two previous presidents failed to do: Convince the rebels to abandon their guns.

Their entrance to Mexico City was not quite as the rebels envisioned it when they shocked the world by emerging from obscurity to seize several cities in the southern state of Chiapas on Jan. 1, 1994, the very day Mexican officials were celebrating enactment the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Instead of ”conquering the Mexican federal army,” the goal they set in their declaration of war, the Zapatistas have found themselves touring the country in a bus caravan protected by federal police.

Instead of ”liberated” Mexican civilians, they find themselves accompanied by hundreds of foreign supporters who see the Zapatistas as exemplars of the struggle against the global financial system.

The ”evil government” against which they rebelled was toppled last year: not by armed leftist insurgents but peacefully, at the polls, by Fox, a former Coca Cola executive whose pro-market leanings the leftist rebels deeply distrust.

Fox’s welcome of the Zapatista march has been so effusive that Marcos has accused him of trying to turn it into a Fox march.

”Welcome Subcomandante Marcos, welcome to the Zapatistas, welcome to the political arena, the arena of discussion of ideas,” Fox said in a radio address on Saturday. Fox said the rebel tour was proof of the new democracy ushered in when he broke the former ruling party’s 71-year grip on the presidency.

The Zapatistas used their bus caravan from the Chiapas jungle village of La Realidad to barnstorm for sweeping constitutional reforms that would grant Mexico’s roughly 10 million Indians more local autonomy and guarantee them schools and radio stations in their own languages.

They have also repeatedly expressed wariness of Fox. In an interview published Sunday with the magazine Proceso, Marcos said he and Fox were ”diametrically opposed.”

”We are part of the world moving toward recognizing differences, and he is working toward hegemony and homogenizing, not just the country, but the world,” Marcos said.

But the differences may be negotiable. Speaking of himself, Marcos conceded he was ”more of a rebel seeking social change” than a revolutionary.

Fox’s first act in office was to send the Indian rights bill to Congress, and has freed scores of Zapatista prisoners and closed several army bases. But the rebels insist others be freed and more bases near their strongholds be closed before peace talks can start.

The heavily publicized tour has apparently boosted the Zapatistas’ popularity. On Wednesday, the Mexico City newspaper Reforma said a telephone poll showed that 45 percent of people had a favorable view of Marcos, up from 34 percent in February. The poll had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

That may be linked to the fact that other polls show increasing numbers of Mexicans consider the Zapatistas a political rather than a military organization – even though they are avowedly at war with the government.

”They’ve haven’t appeared as an armed force for quite some time,” said Antonio Leyva, 46, one of the thousands who gathered in the city’s main plaza to see the Zapatistas.

Leyva, a sociologist, welcomed the change, in a country with a long history of uprisings that were brutally repressed. ”What they (the Zapatistas) are doing, and in part what the government is doing, is unprecedented.”

The Zapatistas have roots in Indian peasant organizations, church activists and a Leninist guerrilla group from northern Mexico.

Their only significant military success was the seizure of the Chiapas towns. Fighting with the government lasted only 12 days before a cease-fire took hold.

Peace talks with the government started in February, but have been stalled since 1996 in a dispute over how to guarantee Indian rights – the first of six subjects to be discussed with the government en route to a peace agreement.

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