Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
January 16, 1994
Before their eyes, a rebellion unfolded
In a Mexican region of disparity, the seeds were sown. Then one day, "the war" began.

RIZO DE ORO, Mexico - It wasn't obvious at first.

Meetings were called "to fight against the rich and to free the poor."

A building was referred to as a "safe house." A radio was put inside. Weapons were seen.

Each month, some village men would leave for three days of military training. It was supposed to be a secret. But the men would drink. And boast.

One night last month, several villagers saw 14 young men, rifles slung over their shoulders, slip out of town and into the darkness of the rain forest.

Only in the last few weeks did Rizo de Oro realize it was seeing a peasant revolt at its inception.

"I never thought they'd do something like this," Ernest Alvarez, 40, a coffee grower, said.

On New Year's Day, two days after the young men left the village, a rebel force calling itself the Zapatista National Liberation Army launched a series of coordinated attacks in southern Mexico.

More than 100 people died before the guerrillas disappeared into the countryside.

On Jan. 6, after the 14 men, bragging of their military exploits, returned to Rizo de Oro, the leaders of the militant faction assembled the entire village population in the concrete community building.

They issued an ultimatum: If the villagers wanted to stay, they would have to join the movement to overthrow the government.

Otherwise, they would be killed.

"They said, 'The war has started,' and that all of us had to participate for the benefit of all people," said Jose Roberto Alvarez Mendez, 25.

Almost 200 people, more than half the local population, immediately fled, leaving behind their livestock, their coffee crops and most of their household belongings.

"I didn't want to die," said Armando Cruz, 30, who joined the exodus that made its way to a refugee camp at a church about 60 miles away.

In Rizo de Oro, where one-room houses and hibiscus-lined paths surround a stream in which villagers bathe in the afternoon sun, the remaining residents professed little knowledge about the guerrillas.

No weapons were evident. The village seemed unnaturally calm compared with others in the region who were overcome with panic.

"We're just civilians here," said Hector Alvarez, 19, one of several young men who swaggered about in military-style garments and new boots.

But eight village elders - who, in single file, marched solemnly to a grassy spot by the town hall to speak with reporters - did not hide their sympathies for the Zapatistas, who have proclaimed that they are fighting to liberate Mexico and establish a socialist state.

"The peasants have awakened and realized they had to do something in order for them to listen to us," said Carlos Aguilar, 48, one of six brothers who stayed in Rizo de Oro.

Next to him sat Caralampio Aguilar, the oldest brother, a stoic man with a shaggy mustache, chiseled features and a searing gaze. He was identified, by those who fled, as the leader of the militant faction.

"Each person has his own fears," he said. "Those who feared for themselves went away. Those who feared for their people stayed."

Rizo de Oro - still unvisited by government officials - is not unique among the scores of communal villages scattered across the mountainous frontier of Mexico's Chiapas state.

Residents from several villages, most of which were carved from the rain forest in a land rush over the last three decades, described how the guerrillas spent recent years organizing support and indoctrinating the population.


The pattern was essentially the same: Led by a charismatic figure, such as the local lay leader of the Catholic church, small groups formed, then slowly organized the community, one person at a time. Often, they worked under the cover of a recognized campesino, or peasant, organization.

Members of several villages said they, too, complained to the local government, to no avail.

"They didn't give it any importance," said Alfredo Aguilar Mendez, 35, a coffee grower who said an emissary from his village, Cruz de Rosario, complained to the government in Las Margaritas.

Local officials pleaded ignorance.

"We never had any idea of this," said Romeo Suarez Culebro, 39, the mayor of Las Margaritas, whose domain includes Rizo de Oro. "The campesinos never complained."

It turns out, however, that the central government had extensive knowledge of the rebels' network, although officials denied the existence of the guerrillas right up until New Year's Day.

In a report, the Mexican Interior Ministry said it even knew the brand names of radios the rebels used and the frequencies used for broadcasts.

About 2,000 guerrillas are believed to be involved. What remains unclear is who organized the clandestine effort and where the rebels got their supplies.

The government says that much of the support came from foreign agitators experienced in the guerrilla wars that engulfed Central America in the 1980s. But few witnesses reported seeing foreigners among the diminutive peasants who made up the bulk of the troops that took over towns on Jan. 1.

Rather, in Chiapas - the most impoverished state in Mexico - the Zapatista National Liberation Army appears to have found a region ripe for revolt. The root causes of the rebellion run deeply through Chiapas, and are difficult to resolve.


"This is not going to end easily," said Andres Aubry, a researcher at the Anthropological Institute for the Maya Region in San Cristobal de las Casas, one of the cities where the rebels staged their attacks. "They are not going to be able to calm it down."

The southern part of Mexico is a caldron of land disputes, religious quarrels and feuds among indigenous groups that date back to their Mayan ancestors.

Chiapas is a place where modern thinking does not necessarily apply. Many of the indigenous people who live in the remote villages amid the mist-enshrouded mountains speak only their ancient languages. Some practice a hybrid Catholicism that includes praying to angels and offering Pepsi and moonshine as sacraments.

It is a region of profound disparity, where, in cities such as San Cristobal de las Casas, automated teller machines can dispense in two minutes the amount of pesos the Chamula peasant selling woven belts outside the bank can expect to make in two months.

The area became even more tense in the 1980s, when tens of thousands of refugees from the Central American wars sought sanctuary in camps along the Mexican border - providing a labor force willing to work for $1.75 a day.

Thousands of Guatemalan refugees still live in the camps.

"It is surprising that, after all those years, an armed revolt of indigenous people didn't take place before," said Primitivo Rodriguez, an expert on Mexico for the American Friends Service Committee's national office in Philadelphia.

But the greatest source of tension lies in the fact that the people who flooded this area as part of a government-sponsored campaign to settle the frontier are running out of land.

After quickly exhausting the fragile rain-forest soil, settlers have nowhere to turn, because powerful ranchers, loggers and oil drillers have moved into the territories around the villages.

In land disputes, the state security forces frequently side with the big landowners, according to Amnesty International, which has reported that the police, apparently at the behest of the ranch owners, sometimes conduct mass arrests of peasant organizers.

Under the circumstances, some peasants apparently are attracted to a group that takes its name from Emiliano Zapata, a popular martyr of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-17 and a man who defended the peasants' rights to land seized from wealthy landowners.

"Zapata fought for the campesinos," said Casto Calvo Alvarez, 20, one of the young men who remained in Rizo de Oro. "If they hadn't killed him, we would be free. Now, we are more oppressed than ever."

Most of the 33 families who cleared the land for their new village in the early 1960s were leaving jobs as peons for large farmers. Their government grants of 50-acre plots in a communal society represented a major improvement in status.

They named the town Rizo de Oro - curl of gold - for no reason other than that it sounded good. But, from such optimistic beginnings, they began a slow descent into bitterness.

The village was generally peaceful. The first murder happened only three years ago, when a man gunned down another who, he believed, had employed witchcraft to kill his father.

But the land started to fail.

Only about half the land could be cultivated, and that land slowly lost its nutrients. Residents said the increasingly feeble coffee bushes today produce only about one-fifth the crop they used to produce.

About 10 years ago, Rizo de Oro petitioned the government for more land. The campesinos said they received no response.

With no new land to cultivate, they faced a more basic problem: The land is all that each family has to pass on to its sons. A man with five sons and 50 acres could look forward to passing along only 10 played-out acres to each.

The villagers saw, meanwhile, that ranchers and loggers, with their political connections, had no difficulty obtaining big land tracts.

"We see we don't have a future," Caralampio Aguilar said. "They say the land is ours, but you cannot eat from the land. For this, we see we are getting worse."

Frustrated with politicians, the residents of the village stopped voting two years ago.

"We gave support to them, and they didn't help us," said Carlos Aguilar, a wavy-haired man with softer features than his brother but with an equal intensity.

It was about that time when the Aguilars began holding secret meetings to plan a new strategy. They sought advice from outsiders.

About those advisers, Carlos Aguilar would say only that "it was us who went looking for them."

Now it has come to this: Half the town has voted with the rebels. The other half waits forlornly in a refugee camp for intervention from a government that has previously failed to help.

There will be serious scores to settle.

"At least," Carlos Aguilar said, "they heard us." home page   
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