Legislators striving to come up with a peace plan for Chiapas before the rising anger in Mexico's southernmost state breaks out into a violent backlash opened a special session Monday with a counteroffer from the rebels already on the table.
Recognizing Congress' "sincere effort and authentic concern," a rebel communique released late Sunday called for changes in the wording of a comprehensive bill, scheduled for debate this week, and in the makeup of the committee to implement the peace plan. It also renewed the demand that the Mexican army withdraw from zones once held by the rebels.
"The Zapatista National Liberation Army rejects the contents of the bill, but salutes the spirit of dialogue behind it," the communique said. "We exhort those responsible to continue seeking mechanisms to renew dialogue and permit a definitive solution to the conflict."
The communique was clearly timed to permit legislators to incorporate rebel demands into the proposed law.
"It's good that we received their opinion about the bill at this moment, while it is still a bill and not yet law," said Sen. Luis Felipe Bravo, a member of the legislative committee that is to negotiate peace in Chiapas.
The communique was dated March 2 and signed by Maj. Ana Maria and Commanders David, Javier and Felipe. They have conducted most Zapatista communications since Feb. 10, when Mexico's army entered the zone formerly held by the rebels in an attempt to arrest their alleged leaders.
In the weeks since the military action, anti-rebel forces in Chiapas have become increasingly emboldened. Large, angry crowds gather each Sunday at protest marches. They vent their displeasure with Bishop Samuel Ruiz, the San Cristobal de las Casas cleric who heads the peace mediating committee recognized by both the government and the rebels, and Amado Avendano, who set up a government in rebellion after losing the governorship in an election he said was rife with fraud.
Two weeks ago, demonstrators threw eggs, flour and wooden chairs at parishioners who guarded the doors of the San Cristobal cathedral and rectory until riot police arrived.
Against that backdrop of violence, both houses of Congress begin debate on the legislation.
"The purpose of the bill is to create a judicial framework to permit dialogue and reconciliation, reaching a just and enduring solution to this conflict," President Ernesto Zedillo told Mexican human rights groups during a meeting Monday. "This bill recognizes the fundamental role of the legislative branch as a popular . . . and democratic representative to contribute to the peace with justice that we all want in Chiapas."
The importance of Congress in developing the peace plan highlights a new role for what has been a rubber-stamp legislature. Members of Congress conducted an inspection tour of the area occupied by the army and they were actively involved in drafting the legislation.
The bill's most controversial elements include the shape of the government's negotiating committee and the extent of an amnesty--both for the rebels and for the Mexican army--in a long-simmering rebellion that left more than 145 people dead when it erupted more than 14 months ago.
No soldiers have been charged for any abuses that human rights groups and a forensic anthropologist have documented.
The Zapatista communique applauded the decision to make amnesty part of the negotiations. Some legislators favor making acceptance of amnesty a precondition of talks.
Rebels objected to proposals that legislators mediate the conflict, saying Congress is part of the government, rather than a neutral party. They also objected to parts of the bill that refer to them as dissidents and "so-called Zapatistas."
"If the government wants to speak with the Zapatista National Liberation Army," the communique said, "it should recognize it as what it is, an organization of Mexican citizens--mainly Indians--who are up in arms demanding democracy, liberty and justice for all Mexicans."