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Mexican Army Presents its Case On Chiapas

General's unusually bold public comments reveal disagreements with government policy

HAMMERED by charges of human rights abuses during its handling of the Chiapas uprising, the Mexican Army has launched an unusual public relations offensive.

But the openness is exposing apparent divisions between the military and civil authorities about the peacemaking effort.

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In rare interviews with the Mexican and foreign news media over the last few days, Gen. Miguel Angel Godinez Bravo has made comments that indicate some disagreement with the government's soft line with the guerrillas.

But General Godinez's first objective in speaking out is to defend the human rights record of his troops.

When asked about accusations that the Army has tortured, beaten, and summarily executed suspected guerrillas, the three-star general replies, ``Absolutely none of that is true.

``We stopped torturing people years ago,'' says Godinez, who is in charge of quelling the Indian insurrection that began Jan. 1. The press conference was held in a room dominated by a map of Chiapas. Red dots mark towns once occupied by ``transgressors.''

``The Army is a professional institution dedicated to winning the support of the people.'' But, he allows, ``some people were possibly beaten by townspeople before they were delivered to us.''

Then Godinez makes an unprecedented offer, for an institution known to reject outside interference, even from the executive branch, in its internal affairs. ``We are open to any investigation that the government or nongovernmental organizations want to make....We have nothing to hide.''

He also claims that allegations and reporting have been one-sided.

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``I've heard nothing from the nongovernmental organizations about the assassinations, the robberies, the ranches burned, or the military personnel killed by the `transgressors.' We have 14 widows whose husbands died defending the Mexican people from transgressors.''

Godinez says that he is ``100 percent'' behind a political solution to the conflict. And he promises to keep aircraft and soldiers away from the as-yet-to-be-chosen site for peace talks.

But there are indications that the Mexican military is not completely in accord with the path that is being taken by civilian officials.

Godinez, for example, uses the term ``transgressor'' to refer to the rebels.

But the government's chief peace negotiator, Manuel Camacho Solis, has conceded to the rebel demand that they be recognized as a political and military force. He uses the rebels' own term: ``Zapatista National Liberation Front.''

``You can't call them an army because there's only one army in this country,'' Godinez says. ``I've never heard that Zapata or Pancho Villa or any others [in the Mexican Revolution] went around with their faces hidden. If you hide your face, you're not in an army, you're a delinquent.''

Roderic Camp, a Mexico expert who has written about the military, is surprised by Godinez. ``That blatant a contradiction is typically viewed as subordination. In past cases, such outspokenness has resulted in removal from office,'' says the Tulane University political scientist.

In the spirit of the truce, the Army has officially withdrawn its troops to the periphery of the Chiapas towns it is guarding. Godinez confirms this. In Altamirano, the heavy vehicles are parked on the edge of town.

But soldiers were seen last week inside the rancher's association headquarters downtown, inside the Roman Catholic church in the main plaza, inside the town library, in a hardware store, driving through the streets in jeeps, and standing just inside the doorways on the side streets.

The comments by Godinez, the fudging on troop positions, and several warnings by the Army of pending attacks during the cease-fire (apparently to scare villagers out of Zapatista-held territory) are ``indicative of differences in policy views,'' Camp says.

He speculates that the Army is frustrated and angry that they are being blamed for not knowing about or stopping the uprising ahead of time.

But given the media reports last year of guerrillas in Chiapas, and a report on the Zapatistas sent to the Mexican Army last year by the Guatemalan Army (according to Mexican press reports), Camp does not think the military should be blamed for the rebellion.

Camp and other specialists say the Army must have known about the rebels, but, for political reasons, were told not to do anything.

``I can't believe the military didn't know what was going on in Chiapas,'' he says. ``Obviously civilian decisionmakers decided not to take visible actions - perhaps because of the impact it could have made on NAFTA's passage [North American Free Trade Agreement] - leaving the military holding the bag and forced to take the blame now.''

Since 1968, when students were killed by Army troops sent in to break up an antigovernment demonstration, the military has sought to be included in the civilian decisionmaking process to avoid similar debacles, Camp says. But, he suspects, the military was left out of the loop or ignored in Chiapas.

Among the possible consequences of the Chiapas uprising, Camp says, is that the military will get more money for salaries, more promotions for officers, and a greater voice in the political decisionmaking process.

Traditionally, the Mexican military and ruling politicians have had an informal agreement, but that pact may undergo some change.

``The civil authorities owe the Army some political capital because of the heat it's taking in Chiapas for their mistakes,'' he says. ``The military is likely to argue that if it is going to take the losses - in prestige and men - then it wants more say in how the country is run.''

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