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Wednesday, December 24, 1997 Published at 15:59 GMT


Mexico's peasant revolt

The Zapatista uprising began in January 1994, when the rebel Zapatista National Liberation Army, led by a man known only as "Subcommandante Marcos" declared war on the central government in an effort to gain improved living conditions and better rights for indigenous Indian peasants in the southern Chiapas region.

The rebels carried out a number of attacks in Chiapas and elsewhere in Mexico to draw attention to their cause.

In an attempt to neutralise the uprising, the government declared a truce in the middle of January 1994.

[ image: The Zapatista rebels are fighting for improved rights for indigeneous Indians]
The Zapatista rebels are fighting for improved rights for indigeneous Indians
However, sporadic outbreaks of violence continued despite the cease-fire, often involving local paramilitary groups linked to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI, and local supporters of the Zapatistas.

The paramilitaries see the rebels as a threat to the interests of powerful landowners and have become increasingly active.

In January 1995, President Ernesto Zedillo ordered the army to withdraw from two areas in Chiapas, to which the rebels responded by saying they would observe an indefinite cease-fire.

However, it took more than a year before the two sides put their names to a preliminary peace accord.

The accord broke down a few weeks later when the rebels accused the government of failing to implement it.

Peace negotiations were also affected by the government's rejection of a key rebel demand concerning partial autonomy for Indian communities.

In December 1997, 45 Tzotzil Indian refugees, mostly women and children, were massacred in Chiapas by pro-government paramilitaries.

Following the incident, which was internationally condemned, a number of government ministers left office.

Mass protests took place in many of Mexico's cities, and there were calls for President Zedillo's resignation in connection with the killings.

Rebel support remains strong, and thousands of pro-Zapatista peasants in the northern part of Chiapas have been driven from their homes by paramilitary violence.

Church and human rights groups say this is part of a low-intensity war, tacitly backed by local PRI and security officials.

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