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New 'Bad' Guerrillas Threaten A Shaky Mexican Recovery

Following several days of bloody hit-and-run attacks on police and Army units by Mexico's newest guerrilla organization, the Revolutionary Popular Army, the Mexican government is no longer selling it short.

At least 15 people have died in attacks in six Mexican states since Wednesday. The Army is stretching to patrol the areas of the attacks while stepping up protection of government installations and major public and tourist sites. The government now realizes that the Revolutionary Popular Army (or EPR, its Spanish acronym) is not the "pantomime" it thought the group was when it surfaced in state of Guerrero in June.

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The government also realizes that if the attacks continue, they could upset Mexico's fledgling economic recovery after the worst downturn in 60 years. Beyond that, if the EPR continues its widespread strike-and-disappear attacks, its potential for affecting Mexico's relations with the United States will be greater than that of the better-known Zapatistas, who remain ensconced in the southern state of Chiapas.

Officials and many other observers assume the EPR timed its attacks to force the government to acknowledge it in Sunday's state of the nation address by President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Len. Mr. Zedillo made guerrilla violence one of the themes of his speech, saying he would not permit the group to destabilize the country.

Still, observers say EPR attacks could continue in September, considered a "patriotic" and highly symbolic month for Mexico. Independence day is celebrated Sept. 16.

Government officials are quick to contrast the EPR with the Zapatistas, who exploded onto the Mexican political stage in January 1994. The Zapatistas had a credible social base in the poor indigenous population of Chiapas, officials say. Largely because of that, the Zapatistas were ready to quiet their arms and begin negotiating their demands within 10 days of their first attacks.

President Zedillo and other officials lambaste the EPR as a gang of "terrorists" and "delinquents" who make a living demanding ransoms for kidnapping. The government says the EPR has no following and does not merit negotiations. The EPR, in several press communiques and a few clandestine meetings with the Mexican press, has called for replacing the government with a Marxist proletarian dictatorship.

Mexican officials are using the same kind of language about the EPR that they originally used for the Zapatistas, analysts here say. Having heeded public sympathy toward the Zapatista cause and negotiated with them for two years, the government now draws a distinction between "good" and "bad" guerrillas.

"The fact is that we don't yet know if [the EPR] has a social base, nor does the government have the information to say it doesn't," says Jse Antonio Crespo, a Mexico City political analyst. "But the government said the same things about the Zapatistas it is now saying about this group. It's what best serves [the government's] purpose."

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It may still turn out that the EPR is a different kind of guerrilla group from the Zapatistas, more like Peru's Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), for example - more interested in fomenting instability than negotiating.

If that is true, it potentially makes the EPR much more troublesome, analysts say, because the group could keep the Army and police on costly and attention-diverting alert across Mexico, while also reviving doubts about the country's stability.

Government officials estimate the EPR's numbers at 150 to 200, but most independence analysts put the estimate closer to 400, given the group's geographical spread and reports of up to 50 heavily armed guerrillas participating in a single attack.

"Their impact in the medium term will be determined by how successful they are at evading the Army and keeping up these attacks," says Roderic Camp, a Mexico specialist at Tulane University in New Orleans. "At first glance, they don't seem all that significant, but they do have an impact in several ways."

Over the past year the Army has played an increasingly important role in the antidrug fight, Mr. Camp notes. That role is has been felt in terms of drug seizures and drug-crop eradication. "But there is no way the Mexican Army, already small and heavily focused on Chiapas, can continue that and carry out activity against these guerrillas," he says.

If the drug battle suffers, he says, there is potential for turbulence in Mexico's relations with the US.

Stepped-up patrols around the country - primarily in the states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, Puebla, Mexico, Chiapas, and Michoacan, where elements claiming to be part of the EPR have been active - could increase tensions between the Army and the rural population, Camp adds.

Signs of this are already surfacing. More than 200 people marched through a small Oaxacan town Saturday demanding a "demilitarization" of their region, where Army patrols have increased since Wednesday's attacks. "Zedillo promised us well-being for our families, but all he's sent us is the military!" the demonstrators shouted.

Despite such tensions, Mr. Crespo says the "reserve" of sympathy for such groups is "used up." The risk in such a situation, he adds, is that public apathy could encourage the kind of "dirty war" carried out against Mexican guerrillas in the 1970s.

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