President Ernesto Zedillo's government made it clear Friday that it has no intention of withdrawing its troops from the embattled southern state of Chiapas, rejecting a key rebel demand to restart peace talks and signaling a potentially prolonged military standoff with the Zapatista National Liberation Army.
Despite the president's calls for dialogue and intensive--though frustrated--attempts by a congressional commission dispatched to the state to entice Zapatista leaders back to the bargaining table, Zedillo's chief of national security announced that the Mexican army will remain in formerly rebel-held territory "under any circumstances."
"The federal government cannot abdicate its constitutional responsibility to preserve sovereignty and guarantee the rule of law in all national territory," Interior Secretary Esteban Moctezuma Barragan said.
He was responding to the rebels' insistence that the Mexican army withdraw about 2,500 troops, light tanks and heavy weapons from almost a dozen key villages surrounding the Zapatistas' jungle stronghold before new peace talks can begin.
As federal troops dug in deeper in Chiapas and residents continued to flee remote villages that the army has yet to enter in the rebel zone, in Mexico City, key federal legislators of the ruling party and conservative opposition also stressed that an amnesty bill they will debate on Monday for the rebel leadership will require the Zapatistas to lay down their arms first.
In the week since Zedillo ordered the arrest of five Zapatista leaders and deployed the military to hunt them, several of the leaders have answered the president's call for a return to the negotiating table by saying they will only talk peace if the Mexican army returns to its barracks. All have flatly refused to surrender their weapons--a position that the left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, has said it will support during next week's amnesty debate in Congress.
On Friday, before a large gathering of labor leaders and federal legislators in Mexico City, Zedillo restated his commitment to a negotiation that "excludes no one and could include everyone."
He also stated: "Today I reiterate my firm conviction that, in Chiapas, the solution is through the path of peace, but also through the observance of the law. . . . Today, with total clarity, I declare that the government will never again abdicate its constitutional responsibility to protect the sovereignty of our territory."
Political analysts and government officials indicated privately that Zedillo's hard-line policy on troop withdrawal leaves little room for negotiation. But they said it was consistent with his commitment to "the rule of law."
And the policy comes at a time when the rebel leaders are at their weakest. They are frozen in place, deep in the Lacandon rain forest, and they pose a vastly diminished threat, analysts said.
That assessment came after Zedillo broke off his hunt for Subcommander Marcos and other key Zapatista leaders, calling earlier this week for renewed negotiations with the rebels.
The armed Zapatistas have remained an almost constant threat to the government and the nation's economy for 13 1/2 months, after a brief, 1994 New Year's Day uprising that left at least 145 people dead and gave way to months of fruitless negotiations.
Reflecting the frustration in restarting talks during a two-day visit to Chiapas that ends today, members of a special legislative commission that Zedillo created last December to negotiate with the Zapatistas confirmed that their task is all but impossible after Zedillo's latest offensive.
"We could say that it would be a physical, legal and even political impossibility to bring one of the parties to the table," said commission spokesman Pablo Salazar Mendiguchia after meetings in Chiapas that lasted well into Thursday night.
Heberto Castillo, another key commission member whose PRD sympathizes with many of the rebel demands, added that just making contact with the Zapatista leaders under current circumstances will be difficult at best.
"We have asked the Zapatistas to communicate with us, if there is any opportunity to do so," he noted. "But we know that this is practically impossible."
The commission's chairman, Bishop Samuel Ruiz of San Cristobal de las Casas, issued a six-page statement underscoring the importance of a Mexican army withdrawal to the peace process.
Among his recommendations to the government and to the Zapatistas, Ruiz listed "the need to separate the two armies, which could begin by the relocation of the Mexican army to positions outside of the towns, assuring that human rights would be respected as well as the free movement of civil observer groups."
But in Chiapas on Friday, there were signs that the Mexican army is planning a long stay in villages and towns that ring the uncharted jungle where the rebels have taken refuge.
In villages even deeper in the highlands, where troops have yet to enter, it was clear that the rebels and their supporters were still on the run and that fear reigns.
The effect of the deepening military presence Friday on those hamlets, where the Zapatistas have won wide, abiding popular support--if not actual recruits--was immediate and palpable.
In what has become an almost daily drill in Zapatista territory, women in one well-known hamlet far outside San Cristobal de las Casas strapped packs of provisions to their backs and grabbed children by the hand. One man took the radio; another carried the antennae; two others loaded wooden boxes with car batteries--needed to run the radio that is the village's only contact with the outside world.
The entire hamlet then headed for the cave-studded hills nearby.
None would say why they were running for the hills. But one man told reporters: "It has become too dangerous. There are soldiers all over."
While the Mexican army had yet to enter the village, he said, tanks on a promontory a few miles away command a view of traffic going into the valley.
In the highland town of Larrainzer, one of many less-remote municipalities where Zapatistas operated with impunity until the army arrived, soldiers toiled in T-shirts Friday, preparing camouflaged trenches.
Local residents said 10 Zapatista fighters had lived there, but they fled into the jungle when Zedillo launched the military operation last week.
The army also moved into more than a dozen other towns and villages that are now basically ghost towns. Residents there fled in advance of the deploying army, leaving behind little more than howling dogs, pecking roosters and houses emptied of valuables.
Photographs appearing in Mexico City's daily newspaper Reforma on Friday offered a dramatic illustration of sudden flight: The paper said the photographs showed the inside of a home in a hamlet near Ocosingo, where the Zapatistas' ski-masked leader, Subcommander Marcos, had lived.
"A mask, books and other objects left behind are testimony to an urgent retreat," said the text beside pictures of a house in disarray.
In announcing that the army will remain throughout the "zone of conflict" in Chiapas, Moctezuma said "their objective is to guarantee the security of the villagers and prevent acts of violence."
On Thursday, he appealed to the thousands of residents who fled their homes before and during the army deployment to return, stressing that the army was there to protect them.
But in the most remote hamlet visited on Friday, villagers were not reassured by the government's promises.
"We will believe in the cease-fire when the troops go back to the barracks," one resident said.
Fineman reported from Mexico City, Darling from Chiapas.