Chiapas Ranchers Vow to Take Law into Their Own Hands amid Rising Tensions, Mexico's Peace Negotiator Calls the Zapatistas Back to the Bargaining Table

Article excerpt

THE Chiapas caldron, on a low simmer since a preliminary peace accord was signed in early March, is now starting to boil again.

"The situation is deteriorating. We have no support from the authorities. We're desperate," says Jose Luis Aguilar, president of the Altamirano Cattleman's Association.

Ranchers in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state and the site of a New Year's Day indigenous uprising, say their cattle have been stolen and about 80,000 hectares (197,600 acres) of land are now in the hands of peasants directly or indirectly supported by the Mayan Indian rebels known as the Zapatista National Revolutionary Army.

Angered by the government's kid- gloves approach, cattle ranchers are starting to take matters into their own hands. On Monday, some 400 ranchers blocked the main road out of Pichucalco and began a sit-in in front of the town hall. The ranchers in the northern Chiapas town say they will prevent anyone from entering the government offices until the governor "guarantees the safety of small property holders."

On Sunday, the president of a local human rights organization, Enrique Perez Lopez, supposedly mediating between ranchers and peasant land invaders, was kidnapped by 80 armed landowners near Comitan, in southern Chiapas. According to statements made by peasant farmers who were with Mr. Perez, the ranchers beat Perez and fired bullets at the ground, before taking him to a nearby ranch.

Last week, the ranchers say, two of their own were kidnapped near Altamirano by the Zapatistas. Mr. Aguilar says that landowner Arturo Espinoza Macedo fired his pistol at several Zapatistas who allegedly came to take his land and rape his wife. One Zapatista was killed. The Zapatistas left but took Mr. Espinoza's brother and sister-in-law hostage. The leader of a Chiapas cattleman's group and president of the ruling political committee in Altamirano asked the Roman Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia on Monday to mediate the release of all three hostages. Ranchers seek `other methods'

A statewide meeting of ranchers is planned for April 15.

"We're giving the government until April 20. If there's no positive solution, we'll adopt other methods," says Aguilar in a phone interview, declining to define "other methods."

Amid the rising tensions, the government's peace negotiator, Manuel Camacho Solis, has sent a letter to the Zapatista hideout in the mountains asking their leaders to return to the negotiating table. Mr. Camacho says he hopes to receive a reply by next week. Adding to the uncertainty of the situation were rumors that Camacho would be leaving to accept an ambassadorship abroad. On April 8 at a press conference, Camacho quashed the rumors and committed himself to the peace process.

The preliminary accords, signed on March 2 between the Mexican government and the Zapatistas, called for a range of measures for Indians in Chiapas, including electoral reforms, better health care, basic infrastructure services, new schools, and a development program. …


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