Frontline World

Mexico - The Deadly Standoff, August 2003
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project
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Though Zapatista guerrillas control territory the size of Maryland, the government of Mexico seems to have given up altogether -- neither confronting the guerrillas militarily nor negotiating with them to establish real peace.

The two-lane highway leaving Ocosingo, Chiapas, winds through rows of new corn, abandoned shacks and a herd of bony cattle. Ocosingo, a colonial market city, sits on an arid plateau high up in the Sierra Madre Mountains. Just four miles outside town, the road snakes past a military base, where a dozen Mexican soldiers with close-cropped hair are practicing combat exercises, yelling commands as they run a wooden obstacle course.
"We will confiscate your notebook and your camera. There is nothing happening here." - Mexican soldier, 31st Infantry Battalion

On the other side of the highway, facing the base, four teenaged Zapatista rebels are doing their best to stare the soldiers down. Wearing rubber boots and gripping well-worn machetes, they're standing guard on a ranch, an American-owned resort called Rancho Esmeralda, that they invaded last February. The wind falls still, and the cicadas make a racket in the trees. There is a calm in the air, as if the two sides had not been fighting a prolonged war against one another. But I take out a reporter's notebook, and suddenly there's tension.

"You have no permission to be here," sputters a soldier outside the gates of the 31st Infantry Battalion's training base. Keeping one hand on his gun, he signals me away from the base entrance. "We will confiscate your notebook and your camera. There is nothing happening here."
local artist's rendition of the Chiapas conflict

In a local artist's rendition of the Chiapas conflict, Subcomandante Marcos smokes a pipe while surrounded by tanks and helicopters.

I cross the asphalt and head up the dusty path toward the ranch, which until recently was advertising its peaceful hammocks and plantation setting in tourist guidebooks. The bandanna-wearing Zapatista guards look apprehensive too. A hand-lettered banner flaps in the heat, proclaiming that the ranch is now engaged in the "Construction of Autonomous Indigenous Independence." But these soldiers are just as close-mouthed about what is going on. "Turn around here," they tell me.

Ski-masked Zapatista rebels first burst into headlines around the world in 1994. In that period the rebels weren't so shy with the press. Treating their "word as their weapon," they even used the Internet to amplify a quite powerful media presence. They'd taken up arms, the Zapatistas announced, to expose the grinding poverty and humiliation faced by Mexico's 10 million indigenous people and to place demands for democracy and justice on the national political agenda. (Indigenous people fare far worse than the rest of the population, according to most standard measures, including in the categories of income and health. The rate of infant mortality among the indigenous population in Chiapas, for example, is nearly double that of other Mexicans.) The rebels' media-savvy spokesman, Subcomandante Marcos, helped capture worldwide support for the antiglobalization movement and the Zapatista cause.
Rebel spokesman Subcomandante Marcos in 2001

Rebel spokesman Subcomandante Marcos in 2001 in one of his last group interviews with foreign correspondents. (Bentley Dean)

The Conflict Drops Off the Radar of the Media

In the past few years, Chiapas has fallen out of U.S. newspapers and off the radar of U.S. officials. This is so partly because of the proliferation of other international hot spots, partly because the Zapatistas themselves shied away from coverage and partly because after 10 years the rebellion seemed like old news. The battle devolved into a low-intensity conflict, a far less dramatic struggle. Everywhere along this highway, though, I find troubling signs that Chiapas, which lies just 1,050 miles from Brownsville, Texas, could heat up again soon.

I'd last visited Chiapas in 2000, when I'd gone there on assignment for the Boston Globe during the four-year period I'd spent working as a journalist in Mexico City. At that time, the mood in Chiapas was jubilant. Serious negotiations between the guerrillas and the government had stalled, but with Vicente Fox's victory over the entrenched Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the presidential race -- during which Fox had criticized the ruling party for bungling its handling of the Chiapas crisis -- it seemed conceivable that a lasting peace could be achieved.
Zapatista soldier stands guard outside Rancho Esmeralda

A Zapatista soldier stands guard outside Rancho Esmeralda, the U.S.-owned ranch taken over by the Zapatista rebels in December 2002.

More than three years later, in spring 2003, I return to Chiapas to find out what has happened to the movement whose armed rebellion seemed sure just nine years ago to provoke reform of the entire Mexican political system. But instead of such reform, I find signs that the Mexican government has all but abdicated responsibility for resolving the long-simmering conflict.

Several thousand additional Mexican soldiers were dispatched to Chiapas this spring, bringing the total in the area to between 23,000 and 63,000, depending on who's counting. Battles between right-wing groups and pro-Zapatista communities are more frequent. When they mention it at all, Mexican officials call the region a tinderbox, capable of flaring up at any time.

NEXT: Why Chiapas Is Still a Tinderbox


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Vincente Fox
Paramilitary Groups
Indigenous People