[News] Mexico village deserted as Zapatistas consider future

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Thu Jun 23 12:03:11 EDT 2005

Mexico village deserted as Zapatistas consider future
22 Jun 2005 20:49:51 GMT
Source: Reuters

By Tim Gaynor

OVENTIC, Mexico, June 22 (Reuters) - A stronghold village of Mexico's 
Zapatista rebels stood deserted on Wednesday after the guerrillas and 
supporters melted into the hills to decide on the future of their 11-year 
struggle for Indian rights.

Only a few stragglers remained in Oventic, in the southern state of 
Chiapas, after Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos announced rebels and 
their supporters would abandon villages they control this week to discuss 
"a new step in the struggle."

It was unclear what prompted the move by Marcos, who became an 
anti-globalization icon in the mid-1990s hidden behind a ski mask but in 
recent years has remained out of the spotlight.

Some speculated that the guerrillas, who surprised the world when they 
exploded out of the Chiapas jungle and hills on New Year's Day in 1994, may 
now want to define their political role before presidential elections next 

Academics close to the Zapatistas guessed they were regrouping to decide 
how to face growing threats from paramilitary groups who oppose them.

In 2001, the Zapatistas emerged from Chiapas for a march across the country 
to Mexico City to seek passage of an Indian rights bill. Congress passed a 
diluted version and the rebels remain dissatisfied.

But rights workers said the Zapatistas would not form a political party or 
give up arms. Although there have been few clashes since the 1990s, the 
guerrillas say paramilitary groups who oppose them have become more active 

In Oventic, home to several hundred people, there were no clues to the 
Zapatistas' intent.

A few Tzotzil Indian women in traditional garb tended fat-tailed sheep at 
the roadside and a handful of men in straw hats and thick sweaters worked 
tall corn fields.

Brightly painted primary schools, health clinics and craft cooperatives run 
by the Zapatistas in the village were shuttered, with the sign "Closed Due 
To Red Alert".


Marcos declared an alert on Monday, grouping fighters in bases, suspending 
the Zapatista radio station and pulling out of villages like Oventic.

Villagers, steeped in an indigenous tradition of passive resistance to 
outsiders, are believed to have gone to secret locations in the surrounding 
green mountains to decide the Zapatistas' future.

When asked where the others had gone, one man hunched over a radio said 
only, "I don't know. We don't know." He said he spoke hardly any Spanish, 
only Tzotzil.

The Zapatistas control dozens of villages in Chiapas and have sympathizers 
throughout the state. In Oventic in 2003, they launched a program to set up 
"good-government councils" seen as a step away from the use of arms.

For now, the latest sudden move by Marcos, who has even begun a new career 
as a crime writer, remains a mystery.

Michael Chamberlin, a rights worker in the nearby town of San Cristobal de 
las Casas, said between 200,000 and 300,000 Zapatistas and supporters were 
likely to hold a series of meetings in the coming weeks.

Harry Cleaver, a Zapatista expert at the University of Texas, said he 
doubted the rebels were considering launching attacks.

"I really don't imagine that what's being anticipated is some kind of 
breakout or renewed expansion through military action by the Zapatistas" he 

Marcos, who is believed to be former university professor Rafael Sebastian 
Guillen, last weekend criticized the country's most popular politician, 
Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, for betraying the left.

Some saw that as a sign the Zapatistas, named after Mexican revolutionary 
hero Emiliano Zapata, might be becoming more interested in mainstream 

Chamberlin disagreed.

"They are not going to form a political party because they are critical of 
the electoral system and they are not going to get into that game," he said.

(Additional reporting by Lorraine Orlandi)

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