by Diego Cevallos
(IPS) MEXICO CITY --
Mexico's southernmost state of Chiapas, backing the Zapatista guerrillas can be dangerous.
On the other hand, supporters of the rebel group sometimes enjoy lax treatment at the hands of local authorities when they decide to take over property or threaten foreigners.
Studies by the Centre for Economic Research and Teaching, a Mexico City think-tank, found that between 1995 and 2000, one person a day was killed on average in Chiapas as a result of internal political, religious and land disputes.
Many of the victims have been supporters of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), murdered by landowner-backed opponents of the poorly armed guerrilla group.
But there are other victims as well in Chiapas, as Ellen Jones and Glenn Wersch, a couple from the U.S. who run the Rancho Esmeralda eco-tourism guest ranch in an area under Zapatista influence, can testify.
Jones and Wersch have received death threats from a nearby Indian community that supports the EZLN, a group that rose up in arms demanding respect for Native rights on Jan 1, 1994 and engaged in 12 days of fighting with the army before agreeing to an armed truce.
In December, the rebels informed Jones and Wersch that they had decided to take over the 10.5-hectare Rancho Esmeralda complete with its 10 guest-cabins.
The insurgents have set up control posts at the entrance to the hotel-ranch to pressure the U.S. couple to leave the area, under the argument that the land forms part of the "1 de Enero autonomous municipality."
Control posts have mushroomed in the remote jungle valleys of Chiapas, where the EZLN has founded 31 of its "autonomous municipalities in rebellion" since 1996. Any movement in or out of those areas is monitored and controlled by pro-Zapatista Indians.
Those who govern the autonomous municipalities reject the educational and health programmes of the government of Vicente Fox as well as any kind of official assistance.
The support received by the autonomous municipalities mainly comes from non-governmental organizations like Enlace Civil, a Mexican group, and Global Exchange, an international human rights organization.
After the owners of Rancho Esmeralda refused to leave the property that they purchased nine years ago, a group of pro-Zapatista Indian men beat up one of their employees and threatened to kill Wersch.
The couple denounced the pressure they had received, and after initially refusing to leave their property, have begun looking into the possibility of selling it and recouping at least part of their life savings.
The owners of a number of ranches located in areas under the control of pro-Zapatista Native communities have complained of similar harassment, and many have been forced off their land. Some of the estates have been occupied by the rebels and their followers.
Local authorities in the municipality of Ococingo, where Rancho Esmeralda is located, said there was nothing they could do to prevent the Zapatistas from taking over the property. "They told us that in Chiapas there is no law," said Jones.
Surprised by that response, Jones and Wersch sought help from German de la Rosa, the secretariat of the interior's delegate in Chiapas. But according to Jones, the central government official told them that "the EZLN people are untouchable."
The only official who gave them any hope was the secretary of the interior of the state of Chiapas, Emilio Zebadia, who promised to negotiate a solution to the dispute with the local Native community. However, nothing has changed.
Sergio Sarmiento, a columnist with the daily Reforma, said the case of Jones and Wersch demonstrates that "in Mexico there is no respect for the right to private property, especially when the plunder is carried out by groups that wave a political banner."
There is no precise estimate of the number of EZLN supporters, but observers put the total at 20,000, and the number of armed members at no more than 2,000.
Permission from the community is required for anyone wishing to enter the autonomous municipalities, which are governed by special councils that settle internal disputes or problems and impose punishment on anyone who violates the internal laws.
Prostitution and the use of alcohol and drugs are prohibited in the rebel territories, where women enjoy special rights and are not obligated to enter into arranged marriages at young ages, as is traditional in Native communities in the impoverished southern states of Mexico along the Guatemalan border.
They are also free to make choices regarding family planning.
The local school teachers are all pro-Zapatista Indians, and the curriculum differs from that of the Mexican public school system.
The EZLN commanders exercise direct control over the autonomous municipalities.
In December 2000, the Fox administration closed down all military outposts located near the Zapatista zone of influence, and urged the rebels to return to the peace talks, which were broken off in 1996 under the government of Ernesto Zedillo (1994- 2000).
But the armed group responded that it would only return to the negotiating table if all Zapatista supporters were released from prison and Congress passed a bill on Native rights drafted in 1996 on the basis of the only accord reached in the peace talks.
Zedillo opposed passage of the law on the argument that it granted excessive autonomy to Native communities. Some 10 million of Mexico's 100 million people are Indians.
But the draft law, which the Fox administration decided to back and push through Congress, was modified by the legislature before it was ratified in 2001.
The amendments upset the EZLN, which said it would not return to the peace talks until the bill was passed in its original form.
Nothing has come of the government's calls to dialogue, its withdrawal of troops from Chiapas, or its efforts to secure the release of most of the armed group's sympathizers.
The EZLN leaders maintain that the national and Chiapas state governments, which for the first time since 1929 are in the hands of officials who do not belong to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, are no different than previous administrations.
Some legislators, meanwhile, argue that the original version of the draft law on Native rights, demanded by the EZLN, should be brought up for debate again because in the area under guerrilla control autonomy is already a fact, at the cost of the violation of the rights of third parties, like the owners of Rancho Esmeralda.
March 5, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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