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Chiapas Peasants Reclaim Land They Say Was Stolen By Ranchers

Invigorated by the Mayan uprising, peasants are brandishing titles and occupying lands; ranchers worry they'll be sold out in peace talks

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ISIDRO JIMENEZ. 1819.

Campesinos or peasants in this part of Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico, have not forgotten the date or the rancher who, they say, stole their communal farm. On Feb. 6, 175 years later, they settled the score.

About 70 families took over the Santa Clara cattle ranch in southern Chiapas, becoming a small part of a huge peasant land invasion sparked by the New Year's Day Mayan Indian uprising.

``If we tried to do this a year ago, the police would have been sent to dislodge us because the government always protects the ranch owners. The jails are full of Indians,'' says Samuel Diaz Guzman, a member of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and a campesino union leader.

Amid the delicate truce between the Mexican government and the Zapatista National Liberation Army, neither the police, the Army, nor the ranchers are venturing out of Chiapas's main towns. In their absence, Mr. Diaz Guzman estimates, campesinos have occupied more than 30,000 hectares (74,100 acres). Diaz Guzman, a Bachajon city official, says the campesinos have land titles from 1744. The campesinos have been filing legal petitions in regional courts since the mid-1970s to win back their land, but so far no current land-owners have been evicted.

``For a long time, we've known that this is our land. When the Zapatistas forced the governor to step down, that gave us our opportunity,'' says Martin Jimenez Navarro, standing in a new hut on the Santa Clara ranch. Nearby, more tar-paper huts are going up. What if the police come to evict them? ``We are ready to die for our land. If we die, our children will take the land.''

Although preliminary peace agreements - including proposals for resolving land disputes - between rebel and government negotiators are expected to be announced any day, the Chiapas countryside is tense. Ranchers are indignant about the government's passivity as their property is occupied, cattle are stolen, and homes ransacked. They fear they are being sold out in the closed-door negotiations. Two weeks ago, the government negotiator told ranchers they would have to put the nation's interest before their own.

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