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Wednesday, 15 August, 2001, 11:16 GMT 12:16 UK
Indigenous Mexicans reject new laws
Indigenous woman with soldier
The army is ever-present in southern Mexico
Constitutional reforms in Mexico aimed at strengthening the rights of indigenous groups come into effect on Wednesday, but have already been dismissed as inadequate by native communities.

The five constitutional changes were brought in by President Vicente Fox in an effort to resolve the conflict with the Zapatista rebels in the southern state of Chiapas.

The Zapatistas and other indigenous groups among Mexico's 10 million native population say the reforms do not go far enough in recognising the indigenous peoples' rights to autonomy and over land and natural resources.

When the proposals were put forward for ratification by Mexico's 31 states, 14 of those with the highest proportion of indigenous people rejected them.

Jose Murat, the governor of the state of Oaxaca - which has a large indigenous population - said the law institutionalises racism and discrimination.

Changes adopted

But 17 states voted in favour, which meant they are to be adopted throughout the nation.

President Vicente Fox of Mexico
President Fox has promised peace
When he came to power in December 2000, ending seven decades of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, President Fox said he could solve the Chiapas problem in 15 minutes.

He sent the proposals for constitutional reform that had been agreed with the Zapatistas and other indigenous groups to Congress for consideration.

The reforms were watered down considerably in committee, and articles guaranteeing the autonomy of indigenous communities were dropped.

Two nations

Lawmakers argued that they would have split Mexico, creating one system for non-indigenous people, and another for the native inhabitants.

But indigenous groups saw their demands for autonomy as one of the key advances in achieving internal peace in Mexico.

In an attempt to resolve the situation in Chiapas, the Fox administration has fulfilled two other pledges: it has freed most Zapatista prisoners, and has withdrawn troops from seven disputed bases in the region.

Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas
The Zapatistas want more indigenous rights

The Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) began its uprising on 1 January 1994, claiming it was fighting for greater respect for indigenous rights throughout Mexico.

As many as 150 people were killed before a truce was called.

Violence

The Zapatistas and other groups entered into peace negotiations with the Mexican Government, but these were broken off in 1996, when the Zapatistas said the government's proposals did not go far enough.

Some local observers fear that if the new constitutional changes are not accepted by the Zapatistas, the rebels could return to violence to press their claims.

See also:

01 May 01 | Americas
Zapatistas renew struggle
15 Mar 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
In the footsteps of Zapata
03 Jul 00 | Americas
Profile: Vicente Fox
29 Mar 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Mexico
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