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EDITIONS
 Saturday, 16 November, 2002, 12:44 GMT
Silence in the Mexican south
File picture of Zapatista sub-comandante Marcos addresses a national Zapatista meeting in the Chiapas
The Zapatistas have now retreated into silence

A tiny old man wearing a green oilskin hat and a red poncho comes shuffling up to me in the street. He's got a huge plastic bag hanging down his back, held on by a strap across his forehead, and he wants to sell me whatever is in it.

He is one of the majority of indigenous people who live in this region in Mexico's deep south.

They want to control us as if we were children, to look after our affairs until they consider us adult enough to take responsibility for ourselves

Indigenous commentator
We're in the town of San Cristobal de las Casas, the gateway to the highlands of Chiapas.

It's an imposing colonial town, the capital of the state under Spanish rule. It's situated about 11,000 feet up in the mountains, and is surrounded by misty pine woods, which become denser and wetter in the forests even further up in the mountains.

San Cristobal was the most important of the towns seized by the Zapatista army in their revolt back in 1994, when their uprising alerted the whole world to the misery and discontent of the local indigenous population.

Peace commission

Some 200 people were killed during the revolt, and there have been almost as many deaths in the region since.

Eventually, the Zapatistas agreed to sit down with a government peace commission. After several years of off-on talks, the two sides agreed on a peace settlement - the San Andres accord.

This peace deal allowed the indigenous people of Chiapas and other states of the Mexican federation - some 10 million people altogether - a large measure of autonomy.

Vincente Fox
President Fox's promises of change appear to have faltered
It agreed to let the indigenous communities to own their lands collectively rather than individually. It allowed their traditional authorities to be the ones who administered justice in indigenous areas and established other mechanisms for the indigenous voices to be heard and respected as equals.

The government in power until 2000 did nothing to implement these peace accords. But Vicente Fox, who swept to power in that year's elections on a promise to bring change to all levels of Mexican society, boasted that he could solve the indigenous problem in Chiapas "in 15 minutes."

Autonomy

He started well. He sent the San Andres peace agreement to the Mexican Congress for it to be debated and signed into law. This guaranteed a new and more just status for all Mexico's indigenous peoples.

But many members of Congress, particularly in the PRI party, did not like the deal. They thought it was giving away too much, and transforming the indigenous people from citizens without rights to citizens who had more guarantees than anyone else in Mexico.

Indigenous women of the Tzotzil Indian tribe
The "Indian law" has been rejected by the indigenous people
They were worried that the autonomy being offered to Zapatistas and other groups might create states within Mexico, and make the country ungovernable.

So the federal Congress in Mexico City modified almost all of the clauses of the peace agreement, and then passed this modified legislation into law. Since then, the states in the Mexican federation with a large indigenous population have rejected the new "Indian law".

"We're back to the Spanish colonial system," one indigenous commentator argued. "They want to control us as if we were children, to look after our affairs until they consider us adult enough to take responsibility for ourselves."

Jungle retreat

The Zapatista response was even more emphatic. They rejected the new legislation, and since then have refused to talk to anyone. They have withdrawn to their strongholds in the Chiapas mountains and retreated into complete silence.

Whereas before they made pronouncements, used e-mail and other electronic means to give their views on the situation in Mexico and the rest of the world, they are now saying nothing at all.

This silence is deeply worrying the Mexican authorities. They have no idea what it might mean - could it be leading up to another armed revolt, as the Zapatistas have never handed in their weapons. Or could it mean that the most famous Zapatista leader, sub-comandante Marcos, is either very ill or dead?

There are still some 20,000 federal troops in Chiapas, and though at the moment there is no armed conflict, the danger of violence is still very real.

"We're in no hurry," one of the spokesmen for the indigenous groups told me. "For 500 years now, the authorities have refused to listen to us. Now all of a sudden, they're anxious to know what we think, what we're going to do. That's their problem - we have time on our side."

I finally understood what the little old man was trying to sell me - "tierra", or earth, soil for my pot plants. The sack on his back was full of the rich earth from Chiapas.

When I tried to explain I had no use for it, he looked up at me in complete disbelief. Then without saying a word, he shuffled off down the hill and out of town, back into the mountains.

See also:

06 Sep 02 | Americas
01 May 01 | Americas
29 Apr 01 | Americas
28 Apr 01 | Americas
20 Mar 01 | Americas
03 Jul 00 | Americas
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