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March 12, 2001

2-Week Trek Culminates in Rally for Indian Rights in Mexico City


Mexico City, March 11 - The Zapatista rebels took their cry for Indian rights to the heart of Mexico's capital today, as roughly 100,000 supporters filled the city square for an act of political theater that has transfixed the nation.

After a two-week procession from a jungle hideout, the rebels' leader, who calls himself Subcommander Marcos, stood in the huge square, his back to the colonial facade of the national palace, raised his fist in the air and proclaimed, "We are here to shout for and to demand democracy, liberty and justice.

"The government thinks that today marks the end of an earthquake," the rebel leader said. "They think that we are just a photograph, an anecdote, a spectacle.

"Those in high places know it but do not want to say it," he said.

"After today, the people who are the color of the earth will never again be forgotten."

The Zapatista movement demands that the government stop mistreating its minority Indian population. Some 10 million people of indigenous descent live among Mexico's roughly 100 million people. They are disproportionately poor, illiterate, malnourished and disenfranchised, and traditionally have been treated as second-class citizens.

"It is time that this country stop being an embarrassment, dressed in the color of money," Subcommander Marcos said.

He and his fellow rebel leaders arrived in the square on the back of a tractor-trailer truck, waving at a throng that included poor Indians in colorful clothes, government bureaucrats and university professors, pierced and painted punks, committed Catholics, gays and lesbians, farmers from faraway villages, their shoes so caked with dirt they looked as if they had walked all the way.

Subcommander Marcos, who the government contends is a radical professor turned rural rebel, has become this country's most popular leftist. His weapons have been poetic, if occasionally impenetrable, communiqués of resistance, cunning political maneuvers, and insults - some cutting, some comic, some simply crude.

President Vicente Fox, the target of many of those barbs, has turned the other cheek, embraced the rebel leader's goal of enacting an Indian rights bill, and told him, in a Saturday radio address, "Welcome to the political arena."

The masked band of rebels, marching to the capital under the protection of government forces, appear to have impressed millions of Mexicans, if opinion polls are true.

While opponents see the Zapatistas as a guerrilla theater troupe with a political base no deeper than a T- shirt, many supporters in Mexico see their cause as just and their demonstrations as a symbol of the nation's new democracy.

The Zapatistas started out two weeks ago from their strongholds in the southern state of Chiapas. The poorly armed group began a short but bloody uprising in Chiapas on Jan. 1, 1994, the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in Mexico, the United States and Canada. They have been fighting with words ever since.

"We are not the spokesmen for Indian people," Subcommander Marcos said. "We are a voice of many voices. We are their reflection and their cry."

He and 23 fellow leaders traveled more than 2,000 miles through 12 states in a roundabout route to the capital, stopping at rural backwaters, tourist towns and industrial centers, drumming up support for the Indian rights bill, called the San Andrés Accords, which President Fox has submitted to Congress.

The accords would grant limited forms of autonomy to indigenous people, such as the right to elect tribal councils for local rule. Opponents say the accords could balkanize the country into regions run by constitutional codes and others ruled by Indian customs. The critics say those customs would deny women's rights and forbid secret ballots.

The accords are a constitutional amendment that would require a two-thirds majority vote to win passage. The rebels say they will not leave the capital until the accords become law.

Millions of Mexicans - at least those who read the newspapers and watch television news - have watched with wonder at the unfolding political play.

Subcommander Marcos, habitually puffing his pipe and wearing a ski mask, has challenged President Fox, who has responded by supporting the principles of the Zapatistas' cause and inviting the rebel leader to the presidential palace. Subcommander Marcos, in turn, has kept his mask on and spurned face-to-face negotiations with the president.

Mr. Fox wants the rebels to restart peace negotiations with the government. He says he will stake his considerable political capital on pressing Congress to pass the indigenous rights bill. On Saturday, he pointed out that the rebel caravan could never have happened under previous administrations.

"This march demonstrates that we already live in a mature democracy where anyone can express himself; where anyone can complain," he said, "and where anyone can shout or criticize the president."

The 24 rebel leaders vow to address members of a congressionally appointed peace commission on Monday with their masks on.

Conservatives in Congress have objected to the idea of negotiating with cloaked revolutionaries, but for the moment Subcommander Marcos and his comrades have the political wind at their backs. Subcommander Marcos is the first rebel leader to take his movement to the capital since Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata stormed the city in 1914.

And the Zapatistas have paid careful tribute to their namesake, visiting his children and laying a wreath on the grave where he was buried after he was assassinated in 1919.

"The history of Mexico has been a history of revolution," said Manuel Camacho Solís, who served in 1994 as the government's first commissioner for peace in Chiapas. Referring to Subcommander Marcos, he said: "The heroes of Mexico are men like him, men who first rose up in arms. Revolution is not condemned in this country."

The rebels never presented a real military threat, he said, and as for their masks, "This has been a very authoritarian country, in which those who have dared to fight against the powerful are applauded, and in which people understand that a rebel would have to hide his identity or else be destroyed."

Many of those who gathered to see the Zapatistas also wore masks, in solidarity with the rebels. Nyla Escobedo, a 28-year-old housewife from the middle class suburb of Santa Fe, had a dove of peace painted on one cheek. "By making himself faceless," she said of Subcommander Marcos and his mask, "he wears all our faces."

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