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Mexican Troops Search for Self-Styled New Rebel Group

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mexican army troops, helicopters and armored cars searched the wooded mountains of Mexico’s impoverished Guerrero state Saturday, tracking a well-armed group of masked men and women identifying themselves as a new rebel army seeking to overthrow the government.

Dozens of members of the group surfaced for the first time late Friday in full military uniform--most carrying AK-47 assault rifles and some with walkie-talkies--when they burst into a memorial service for 17 peasants gunned down last year by police in the village of Aguas Blancas.

The group’s sudden appearance comes as the Mexican government continues its prolonged peace talks with the Zapatista National Liberation Army, which rose up in the southernmost state of Chiapas on Jan. 1, 1994.

There have been persistent rumors and isolated press reports of armed rebel groups in Guerrero soon after the Zapatistas’ two-week shooting war left about 145 people dead in Chiapas, but none have previously been confirmed. And in a state with a history of banditry, drug trafficking and rebellion, the size of the new group’s threat--and whether members were actually rebels--remained unclear.

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The group claims it has 500 members, but a brief government communique issued Friday night played down the incident at Aguas Blancas as a publicity stunt by a small band of activists. The statement said those involved would be charged with violating federal firearm laws. President Ernesto Zedillo issued no comment on the matter.

The government did seem to be taking the threat seriously, however, apparently driven by concern that a new guerrilla front could open up in a strategic state that includes the beach resorts of Acapulco.

The government statement said the army was being deployed to hunt the group, and the commander of Mexico’s 27th Military Zone--based in Acapulco--confirmed that a company of 99 soldiers, backed by helicopters and small armored cars, had been mobilized.

Late Saturday, the Interior Ministry said it knew of no further rebel activity and issued a statement declaring, “There is in the country a climate of tranquility.”

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In sharp contrast to Acapulco’s tourist wealth, most of Guerrero lives in deep poverty, and popular outrage has spread through its grass roots since state police in Aguas Blancas gunned down the peasants, who were en route to an opposition demonstration on June 28, 1995.

It was at a service Friday marking one year since the massacre that the armed rebels made their debut.

“We are the Popular Revolutionary Army, and we come to offer wildflowers to the 17 campesinos who fell a year ago to the government’s bullets,” shouted one of the masked guerrillas, who identified himself as Capt. Emiliano.

During their 25-minute interruption at the ceremony, the rebels fired 17 shots into the air--one for each of the dead--and read a five-point manifesto. The document vowed to overthrow the nation’s “unpopular, undemocratic, demagogic and illegitimate” government and punish those guilty for the Aguas Blancas killings.

Known as Mexico’s White Water scandal--the translation of Aguas Blancas--the massacre was videotaped. An edited version released by state officials within hours was doctored to show guns in the dead peasants’ hands. When the unedited version surfaced earlier this year showing that the peasants were, in fact, unarmed, Zedillo personally ordered the Mexican Supreme Court to investigate the case.

The high court recommended in May that half a dozen state officials--including the ruling party governor--be charged with cover-up and obstruction of justice. But Guerrero’s state legislature cleared Gov. Ruben Figueroa of any wrongdoing earlier this month. Figueroa has taken a leave of absence.


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