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Saturday, 23 December, 2000, 08:13 GMT
Mexico shuts Chiapas army base
Tzeltal Indians get back their land after Mexican Army evacuated
Tzeltal Indians get back their land after the army evacuation
By Peter Greste in Chiapas

Mexico's new government has closed the controversial Amador Hernandez military base in Chiapas, complying with one of the main demands of the Zapatista rebels for a resumption of peace negotiations.

Acteal is a terrible open wound on the nation's body - peace is the least the government can do to heal it

Chiapas Governor Pablo Salazar
The closure comes on the third anniversary of the Acteal massacre, when right-wing paramilitary forces gunned down 45 indians in the town of Acteal during the on-going conflict between the paramilitaries and the Zapatistas.

The army's collection of huts at Amador Hernandez, deep in the Chiapan jungle, lies at the very heart of Zapatista territory.

A group of masked rebels watched from beyond the fringes of a clearing as the last troops boarded a military helicopter for the flight out.

Bitter memories

The Mexican government could not have chosen a more poignant day for the withdrawal.

Indians carry candles in memory of 45 peasants killed in the village of Acteal
The Acteal massacre is remembered with prayers
The Acteal massacre is, perhaps, the bitterest point in relations between the indigenous movement and the authorities - a fact that the Chiapas state governor, Pablo Salazar, acknowledged as he signed the papers handing the military land back to the local indians.

"Acteal is a terrible open wound on the nation's body. Peace is the least the government can do to heal it," he said.

Troop withdrawals are the start of that process.

According to the previous Mexican administration, the soldiers were, in fact, peace-keepers. They were supposed to stop conflict between Zapatistas and right-wing paramilitary groups.

But to the villagers in Amador Hernandez, they were oppressors.

Demilitarising the region

The withdrawal is in line with the new Mexican president Vicente Fox's promise to implement the peace agreement signed with the Zapatistas four years ago, but never honoured.

President Fox
President Fox: Resolving the conflict a priority
A key element of that was the demilitarisation of Chiapas, but there is still a long way to go before peace can be declared here.

There are right-wing communities, who saw the military as guardians against Zapatista attack, and the Zapatistas themselves have presented a list of demands before talks can begin, including the closure of not one, but seven, key bases.

On a state-wide level there is much to do, but here, at least, Friday's pull-out had an immediate and dramatic impact.

One child squealed as she walked into the once-forbidden barracks.

"Look," she said, "it's a real bed."

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See also:

03 Dec 00 | Americas
Mexico rebels to talk peace
03 Dec 00 | Americas
Mexico's peasant revolt
01 Dec 00 | Americas
Profile: Vicente Fox
01 Dec 00 | Americas
Vicente Fox: The road ahead
02 Dec 00 | Broadband
Mexico's Fox ends one-party rule
21 Aug 00 | Americas
Opposition claims victory in Chiapas
14 Feb 00 | Americas
Mexico urged to stop Chiapas patrols
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