The Philadelphia Inquirer
January 16, 1994
eyes, a rebellion unfolded
In a Mexican
region of disparity, the seeds were sown. Then one day, "the
RIZO DE ORO, Mexico - It wasn't
obvious at first.
Meetings were called "to fight against the rich and to free the
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
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
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
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
Almost 200 people, more than half the local population, immediately
fled, leaving behind their livestock, their coffee crops and most of their
"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
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
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
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
A FAMILIAR PATTERN
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
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.
A CALDRON OF DISPUTES
"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
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
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."