Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Mexican Indians Seize Towns and Demand Land in Challenge to Salinas

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Mexican Indians Seize Towns and Demand Land in Challenge to Salinas

Article excerpt

IN the first guerrilla uprising in Mexico since the 1970s, armed peasant rebels took control of five southern Mexico towns by force on Saturday, New Year's Day, in a challenge to the government of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

The Zapatista National Liberation Army, a heavily armed and virtually unknown group, took over the radio stations, blocked the roads leading in and out of towns, and occupied the mayors' offices in San Cristobal de las Casas, the second largest city in the state of Chiapas. They also took control of four smaller towns. Police said six people were killed and 18 wounded in gun fights with the guerrilla group.

Then, on Sunday, they fled San Cristobal leaving behind messages that their "revolution" would continue. According to Dr. Pablo Farias, a psychiatrist and resident of San Cristobal reached by telephone, the guerrillas were in absolute control of the town and did not threaten townspeople. "They're not threatening the townspeople. Clearly, this was not a spur of the moment act. They are very well organized and equipped. It's an army," he said.

The rebel group claims 1,500 members - all Mexican. The Chiapas government says there are no more than 200. Local press reports put the total in all five towns at 800 to 900. Seeking land, education

The guerrillas, mostly indigenous people with their own language, demanded that President Salinas resign. They say his government has ignored the plight of the Indians in the Lancandon Forest. They seek land, farm financing, education, and the release of "political" prisoners. "We are the product of 500 years of victimization that began with the Spanish," said one guerrilla leader dressed in new army fatigues, a red bandana around his neck, and an automatic rifle slung over his shoulder.

"We are dying of hunger and disease," he said reading a statement on television. "We have nothing, absolutely nothing: not a decent roof, nor land, nor work, nor education.... Today, we say: Enough!" History of land disputes

A statement issued by the Interior Ministry on Saturday evening said that the Mexican Army would seek to avoid confrontation. It called the group's social demands "valid" but added "what is not justifiable ... is the violation of the human rights of those {citizens} who are not the cause of the problems."

Chiapas, which borders Guatemala, is one of Mexico's poorest states with a high percentage of indigenous people. It has a history of land and religious disputes. The federal government estimates that about 30 percent of all Mexican land conflicts take place in Chiapas, which has only 4 percent of the nation's population. …

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