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Mexico's Rebels Lose Their Luster as They Wrangle With Zedillo

THE dove of peace may be circling over Mexico's strife-torn southern state of Chiapas, but the elusive bird has yet to decide when -- or even where -- it might land.

A 30-day amnesty voted March 10 by the Mexican congress to draw Chiapas's Zapatista rebels to the negotiating table is running out. And the rebel Army and Mexican government appear locked in a psychological battle to outmaneuver each other in the run-up to the peace talks.

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What distinguishes the situation from almost any moment since the Zapatista rebels began their fight 15 months ago is that the government appears to have the upper hand. Rebel leader Subcommander Marcos, after a year of literary communiques interspersed with suspenseful silences and carefully limited photo sessions, appears to have lost his battle to keep Chiapas a dominant national issue.

On March 29, the Zapatistas proposed the negotiations take place in Mexico City -- where the political and social issues they want to take up would implicitly become national in breadth. But the government, wary of providing a national stage for the ''war'' and its ski-masked instigators, says the talks should take place only in Chiapas.

''Marcos started this thing saying he was going to march into the Federal District [Mexico City], so imagine how he would have used the triumph of initiating talks there,'' says one well-placed government official. Even if the Zapatistas have not accepted by the April 10 deadline a place and date to begin negotiations, few observers expect President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon to reissue the arrest warrants for Zapatista leaders that he first announced Feb. 9. The warrants were formally suspended with passage March 10 of the Law for Dialogue, Conciliation, and Dignified Peace in Chiapas, which includes the 30-day amnesty.

But no one expects Mr. Zedillo to wait forever to begin a peace process. From its inception on New Year's Day 1994, the Chiapas conflict shook Mexico's image as a stable and advancing country and contributed to growing international uncertainty that helped cause Mexico's economic crisis this year. Zedillo wants to demonstrate to international investors that the problem of Chiapas is being addressed.

That is why most analysts argue that time is a luxury the Zapatistas can better afford than the Mexican government. ''The Zapatistas can wait and harvest the benefits of the public's growing discontent with the country's situation and the government's handling of it,'' says a social anthropologist in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, who requested anonymity.

Yet while that may be true, there are also signs that time is not as solidly on the side of the Zapatistas as it once was. A recent Yankelovich Partners poll taken for Time magazine shows that only 13 percent of Mexicans are ''very sympathetic'' toward the Chiapas cause, while 34 percent said they are ''very unsympathetic.''

And the Army's retaking of formerly rebel-held territory last month revealed a rebel force little served by the passage of time. At first, Zedillo's February flip-flop on Chiapas -- he ordered the Army to arrest Marcos and other Zapatista leaders, but backed down a few days later -- was condemned as poorly planned and reinforced the president's reputation as a weak and indecisive leader. But that action also served the government well: It shattered much of the illusion of strength and numbers the Zapatistas still enjoyed.

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As late as last December, Mexico had lived in uneasy suspense as Marcos threatened ''civil war'' if the ruling institutional Revolutionary Party's governor-elect took office Dec. 8 in Chiapas. Such bravura now seems unimaginable, since the Army's taking of former rebel strongholds.

In addition, the new legislation for dialogue on the Chiapas conflict called for creation of a multiparty commission, including the generally pro-Zapatista Revolutionary Democratic Party, to act as a go-between for the government and Zapatistas. That has made it more difficult for the rebels to benefit from their traditional long silences on government overtures.

The psychological war between the government and the rebels will only make Chiapas's plight worse. While the state is considerably less tense than just a few months ago, observers say, some villages and communities are worse off as former rebel sympathizers return to villages and landowners move to reclaim property.

Already poor villages now face the additional burden of divisions over who is or is not a Zapatista sympathizer. Tension and mistrust runs high between landowners and campesinos, with several deaths occurring in confrontations every week.

What worries some government officials is that the salutary aspects of the rebellion -- which put Chiapas on the world map and brought attention to the indigenous population's poverty and marginalization -- risk being lost in these unvanquished and rekindling conflicts.

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