The Zapatistas appeared to have the wind at their backs in March. They had just made history by riding triumphantly into Mexico City, culminating a two-week, 12-state tour in which they spoke to hundreds of thousands of Mexicans from all walks of life.

The insurgents from Chiapas hoped their tour would compel the Mexican Congress to pass an indigenous rights bill based on the San Andres Accords, an agreement the rebels and government negotiators reached in February 1996 (see "Zapapalooza," April 16). The accords laid the groundwork for amending the Mexican Constitution to guarantee local indigenous self-rule in accordance with traditional customs, regional indigenous autonomy on issues such as native languages, and collective control of community land and natural resources in indigenous territories.

The Zapatistas viewed these proposed changes to the constitution as crucial to

Subcommandante Marcos is bathed in
incense during a celebration in Oventic, Chiapas. Thousands attended the April 1
event to welcome home the Zapatistas.


ensuring justice for Mexico's 10 million indigenous people, and they went to the capital with their hopes pinned on a bill that a nonpartisan legislative commission had drafted and President Vicente Fox had submitted to Congress immediately after his inauguration in December 2000.

But after Congress finished with the bill, it scarcely looked like what the rebels had envisioned. The revised bill passed by legislators at the end of April left to state legislatures the responsibility of defining the terms of local self-rule for indigenous communities, omitted provisions for regional autonomy, and added protections for private land holdings in indigenous areas. The legislation also said indigenous communities would have preference, but not exclusive rights, to natural resources in their territories.

While Fox praised the revised bill, calling it a positive first step toward renewing peace talks with the Zapatistas, the rebels denounced it and cancelled plans to restart direct dialogue with the government.

The Zapatistas contend that Congress--perhaps with Fox's tacit approval--has made a mockery of the San Andres Accords. "With these reforms, federal legislators and the Fox government are closing the door on dialogue and peace, since they are preventing a resolution of one of the causes which led to the Zapatista uprising," read a Zapatista public statement. "They give a raison d'être to armed groups in Mexico by invalidating a process of dialogue and negotiation."

Many members of Congress argue that they had to defend property rights and prevent the balkanization of the country, but some politicians joined the Zapatistas in rejecting the legislation. Chiapas Gov. Pablo Salazar called the bill a "triumph for conservatism."

Since the measure involves amending the constitution, 17 of the country's 32 federal entities must ratify it. Although southern states with large indigenous populations, such as Chiapas and Oaxaca, will likely reject the measure, its chances of becoming law look promising.

Seven state legislatures have approved the bill so far, despite demonstrations. In Puebla, 200 protesters from indigenous groups shouted "Traitors!" and "Racists!" at legislators who voted in favor of the bill, according to the Mexico Solidarity Network. In Queretaro, local indigenous people and representatives of more than 30 non-governmental and indigenous organizations threw coins in protest at state deputies after they ratified the measure. If the bill becomes law, members of Mexico's National Indigenous Congress have vowed to set up road blocks and occupy government buildings.

In Chiapas, the low-intensity war--which has caused the deaths of hundreds and displacement of tens of thousands of indigenous people in the past seven years--continues. In Polho, a Zapatista stronghold sheltering 11,000 displaced rebel sympathizers, residents tell Dave McConnell of Pastors for Peace that anti-Zapatista paramilitaries--who operate with impunity in the conflict zone--are still active in the state's central highlands.

McConnell says people have little faith in the government. "There's some sense of a sliver of hope," he says. "But there's also cynicism about the political situation."

Freelance writer Rick Mercier accompanied the Zapatour to Mexico City.


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