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Sunday, 3 December, 2000, 09:33 GMT
Mexico's peasant revolt
Subcomandante Marcos
Subcomandante Marcos has achieved iconic status
The Zapatista uprising in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas began on New Year's Day 1994, led by a man known only as "Subcomandante Marcos".

The Zapatista National Liberation Army declared war on the central government in an effort to gain improved living conditions and better rights for the country's 10 million indigenous Indians peasants.

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

Tzotzil Indians
The rebels demand more autonomy for Indian communities
In an attempt to neutralise the uprising, the government declared a truce in the middle of January 1994.

However, sporadic outbreaks of violence have continued over the years, often involving local paramilitary groups linked to the then 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 the past few years.

They have driven thousands of pro-Zapatista rebels from their homes in the northern part of Chiapas in what the church and human rights groups describe as a low-intensity war, tacitly backed by local PRI officials and security officials.

Failed peace

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 ceasefire.

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

Mexican soldier
The army never withdrew from Chiapas as promised
The San Andres accord broke down soon after when the rebels accused the government of failing to implement it - the agreement has never been sent to the Mexican Congress for ratification.

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

Open door

The peace process received a further blow in December 1997, when 45 Tzotzil Indian refugees, mostly women and children, were killed by pro-government paramilitaries in what became known as the Acteal Massacre.

After international condemnation of the attack, a number of government ministers left office.

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

The government never withdrew its troops from Chiapas, and last year the United Nations human rights commissioner, Mary Robinson, condemned the "heavy and oppressive" presence of the army in Indian communities.

Under President Zedillo, the authorities also expelled a number of foreigners working in Chiapas, prompting criticism that human rights abuses would go undetected without there presence.

But the picture changed after the election of President Vicente Fox, who said in his inauguration address that he would send the San Andres accord to Congress and withdraw troops from the region.

Significant differences between the government and the rebels remain, but there is optimism for the first time in years that a settlement may end the uprising.

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See also:

03 Dec 00 | Americas
Mexico peace breakthrough
21 Aug 00 | Americas
Opposition claims victory in Chiapas
14 Feb 00 | Americas
Mexico urged to stop Chiapas patrols
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