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Sunday, 11 March, 2001, 16:50 GMT
Profile: The Zapatistas' mysterious leader
Subcomandante Marcos: The new Che Guevara?
By BBC News Online's Nathalie Malinarich

With his trademark black ski mask and pipe, the leader of Mexico's Zapatista rebels, known only as Subcomandante Marcos, established his revolutionary credentials after the 1994 Indian uprising in the state of Chiapas.

Those who follow the charismatic guerrilla, or some may say idolise him, describe him as a true national leader, a historic figure who speaks for the poor and dispossessed.

Others, mainly the right and business people, accuse Marcos of being a demagogue, an irresponsible dreamer and a blackmailer.

However, most would agree that Marcos is the man responsible for putting the impoverished state of Mexico's indigenous population in the spotlight, both locally and internationally.

Once the mask is gone, so is Marcos

He did it first on the 1 January 1994, when the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) rose up in arms. And seven years later he is doing it again, by heading a 15-day march from the Lacandon jungle to the heart of Mexico City.

President Vicente Fox says he is willing to dialogue and has withdrawn some troops from the region. But the Zapatistas have condemned the moves as nothing more than publicity stunts.

What Marcos and the Zapatistas want, he declares in his messianic speeches, is for the constitution to be changed to recognise the rights of the country's indigenous Mexicans, estimated to be about 10% of the population.

And for many, the man who is being dubbed as the new Ernesto "Che" Guevara is the main weapon in that struggle.

Pop star status

During his 3,000 kilometre trek to the capital, Subcomandante Marcos and the rebels has been welcomed by huge adoring crowds, chanting and whistling and treating their heroes more like pop stars than guerrillas.

President Vicente Fox
President Fox promises dialogue
There are Marcos handcrafted dolls, and his ski mask-clad face adorns T-shirts, posters and badges. And, he has even let himself be interviewed in his hideout by one of the country's most famous comedians.

But very little is known about the man behind the mask who former President Ernesto Zedillo once accused of being "a foreigner and a professional guerrilla".

Marcos says he will take the mask off once the conflict is over, because it is crucial to his role in the struggle.

"Once the mask is gone, so is Marcos," he said in a recent interview.

Middle-class and married

The authorities believe the guerrilla leader's real name is Rafael Sebastian Guillen, a 43-year-old who was born in the northern state of Tamaulipas.

They say he used teach philosophy at Mexico City's National Autonomous University, and that in 1983 he moved to the southern state of Chiapas to work with Indian communities in the region.

Zapatista supporters
Marcos gets the pop star treatment
So far, Marcos has revealed he comes from middle-class parents, and that he once lived in Mexico City state.

He says he does not know if his mother recognises him behind the mask. But showing the sense of humour for which he is renowned, he adds "though they say a mother cannot be fooled".

Shortly before setting out for his tour - the first time he left the jungle in years - Marcos revealed that he has been married for five years and would like to have a child soon.

Correspondents say the existence of "La Mar" - an abbreviation of Mariana - came as a surprise to his supporters, most of whom are believed to be women.

The figure of Marcos is surrounded by myths and rumours. But one thing is more than likely, the fight will continue until the issue of indigenous rights is resolved.

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See also:

11 Mar 01 | Americas
Mexico rebels to make grand entry
10 Mar 01 | Media reports
Press alarm at Zapatista arrival
01 Feb 01 | Americas
Zapatista leader stars as comedian
03 Dec 00 | Americas
Mexico's peasant revolt
03 Dec 00 | Americas
Mexico rebels to talk peace
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