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MEXICO: Peace in Chiapas?

President Fox exudes optimism. He declared that, although they had not met, he knew he had a friend in Marcos. A poll showed that only a small plurality of Mexicans shared this optimism. The doubters can make a good case. Fox withdrew troops from the two remaining bases in Chiapas, but that was only one of the three conditions laid down by Marcos. The government must still free Zapatista prisoners, and the law on natives' rights must be approved.

One problem is that there is more to Chiapas than the area where Marcos operates. The most prosperous area is the Pacific Coast strip of Soconusco, once famous for its cacao production. In 1944 I traveled by land from San Francisco to Buenos Aires, making only two short hops by DC 3s over areas where there was no train, road or river. The plane flew at a height of just a few hundred feet, giving us marvelous views of the ground.

I travelled from Mexico City to Guatemala by train. The journey through Soconusco was in a dilapidated pullman in which mice scurried freely. I engaged in conversation with another passenger, who turned out to be a local cacique (boss). He spoke at length, boasting about all the land he owned. I asked if this was not against the agrarian law. He admitted it was. So what did the government do? "Nothing. They wouldn't dare to. I have my army". He gloated at being invulnerable. When we arrived at the Rio Suchiate, marking the boundary with Guatemala, the railroad bridge had just been completed. However, trains were not allowed to cross it because of the opposition of ferry owners, so we crossed the river in a barge and got on a Guatemalan train on the other side. Every time it got to a bridge on the way to the Guatemalan capital, a detachment of colorfully dressed Indian soldiers sprang to attention. I later realized that they had been placed at the bridges to prevent sabotage by revolutionaries.

All this came back when I heard the news from Chiapas. Near Venustiano Carranza, far from the zone where Marcos operates, a group of peasants had just been shot by a hooded group as the result of a land dispute. Presumably they were squatters occupying land illegally. Similar groups have been involved in most areas of Latin America in bloody clashes with the landowners, among them President Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil.

The fearful peasants said the withdrawal of the army from Chiapas was a mistake, since it was the only protection they had against abuses. The peasants must have been killed by a landowner like my pullman companion, perhaps even his son. Is the optimism of Fox justified?

Ronald Hilton - 4/21/01