NEWS ANALYSIS : Zedillo Bowed to Conservative Forces With Chiapas Crackdown

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The government awoke yesterday, as the ranchers say, pecked by the roosters and hated by the hens," Miguel Angel Granados Chapa, a political columnist, observed this week. "In other words, its policy in the Chiapas conflict has left everyone dissatisfied."

It also has left Mexican analysts stumped about what, if any, strategy President Ernesto Zedillo and his Cabinet have been pursuing in their two-month campaign to end the Zapatista National Liberation Army rebellion in Mexico's embattled and impoverished southernmost state.

At the end of seven seemingly contradictory days, which began with Zedillo's crackdown on the rebels last Thursday and ended with his call for dialogue and amnesty, analysts agreed only that the motives behind the 43-year-old Yale-educated economist's latest moves in Chiapas were profound and urgent.

In defending the flip-flop in his official summation of the operation Thursday, Esteban Moctezuma Barragan--the interior secretary and Zedillo's most trusted Cabinet member--asserted that the president acted because he had no choice.

Zedillo's policy to talk rather than fight, he said, had been compromised by intelligence that the Zapatistas were stockpiling weapons and planning to strike--not just in Chiapas but nationwide.

And he justified the outcome Friday by declaring all territory the rebels formerly held fully liberated by the army.

"The will of the government to dialogue had to be accompanied by the strict application of the law, after security forces uncovered evidence that members of the Zapatistas were plotting subversive acts in several parts of the country," he said. "Legality is not discretionary."

But timing is.

And, in piecing together the policy shreds after one of the more dramatic weeks in recent Mexican history, most analysts concluded that Zedillo embarked on his hard-line course, in part, to appease conservative forces in his ruling party, the military and the international investment community--all staunch advocates of a show of government force in the embattled state.

Launching his get-tough policy three days before critical gubernatorial elections in the strategic state of Jalisco--which Zedillo was aware his ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party would likely lose--the reformist president could offer party hard-liners a Chiapas offensive in exchange for their graceful acceptance of the historic election defeat in Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city and Jalisco's capital, analysts said.

"In some circles, the rumor has run that the army presented Zedillo with an ultimatum to change his strategy in Chiapas," said Sergio Sarmiento, a political analyst who speculated as early as mid-January that Zedillo might resort to military force in Chiapas to help defuse the nation's economic crisis and improve his presidential image. "There is no way to prove this is true. But there's no doubt that the pressures working against the president and in favor of the military option were very substantial."

When it became clear this week, though, that the hunt for the guerrilla leaders--especially charismatic spokesman Subcommander Marcos--would be prolonged and bloody, the administration realized its course was too dangerous and too alienating to pursue, Zedillo's advisers confirmed.

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Once Marcos "went into the jungle," Mexican Atty. Gen. Antonio Lozano conceded in a radio interview announcing that the search for the Zapatista leaders had ended on Wednesday, "there was a risk of confrontation."

But others analysts saw the brief crackdown as being more calculated--the latest move in a long-term, carrot-and-stick strategy that Zedillo began last December, when he made key concessions to the Zapatistas amid a similar army deployment.

That two-pronged approach brought rebel leaders briefly to the bargaining table, culminating in a rare, personal meeting between Moctezuma and Marcos.

With the army occupying all former rebel towns in the region the government calls "the zone of conflict," Zedillo has the Zapatistas on the defensive, for now. This indicates that the end game of the government strategy was just that--to sever the rebel leadership from its sources of funding, recruits and rearmament and leave the Mexican army in place to freeze the rebels in their Lacandon rain forest refuge.

Yet amid criticism from the political left that Zedillo went too far, and from the right that he stopped far short, other commentators concluded Thursday that the week's events were just another flip-flop by a president oft-criticized for indecisiveness in his first 11 weeks in office.

This was an assessment that met with as much praise as criticism among Mexican intellectuals. "We should celebrate presidential flexibility when the change is based on listening to a reason not previously considered," Chapa concluded.

But at day's end, as the Chiapas conflict started to move from the battlefield back toward a peace table that many analysts doubt will materialize, a more immediate question was whether Zedillo's actions had strengthened him and his government in the critical task of eliminating the Zapatista threat--a source of national insecurity that has triggered and fueled Mexico's economic crisis.

Clearly, Zedillo had achieved in just a few days one important short-term goal: The huge military deployment, ostensibly ordered to back federal agents in their manhunt for guerrilla leaders, had fully restored a federal presence in a vast, increasingly anarchic, rebel-held region of the state.

Based on that, Moctezuma declared victory for the government on Thursday.

Yet the Zapatista response to the government's latest call for dialogue provided the ultimate paradox in this week's drama: To entice the rebels back to the peace table, the government apparently must meet a principal Zapatista demand that the army return to its barracks--a withdrawal that Zedillo's government announced Friday that it will not even consider.

Most intellectuals here agreed, in the final analysis, with Zedillo's assessment of the only long-term solution to the conflict: a massive infusion of federal resources for social development in Mexico's poorest state. Moctezuma said this is now possible in Chiapas.

"There are many opinions regarding the conflict in Chiapas," he said. "It is an issue that generates in every citizen a point of view, a suggestion, a criticism. But despite divided opinions, the federal government recognizes that there is a unity among all Mexicans on two central points: First, to resolve the conflict, and secondly that the nation does not want violence. . . . Today, for the first time in more than a year, there are the conditions to promote the social development programs that were suspended in the zone of conflict."

Sarmiento added in conclusion: "If the government truly wants to prevent the Chiapas rebellion from becoming a recurring long-term problem, it will have to take concrete measures to resolve the social problems in the state. Without that, no strategy will succeed."

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