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Mexico's 'Good' Guerrillas Halt Talks to Rethink Their Strategy

Southern Mexico's Zapatista rebels haven't had an armed confrontation with the Army in 2-1/2 years. But they haven't signed a peace accord or laid down their arms, either - and they want the government to remember that.

Last week the Zapatistas suspended 16-month-old peace negotiations with the Mexican government that were to have begun again Wednesday. The move took the government by surprise and sent a signal that the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) - left on the sidelines as a new guerrilla group surfaced this summer across southern Mexico - is not to be taken for granted.

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The Zapatistas list five demands to be met before they return to talks in the southern state of Chiapas, where the mostly Indian rebel group arose in January 1994. But most observers say the EZLN, led by the charismatic Subcommander Marcos, is calling a "time out" to weigh what leverage it might gain from the violent emergence of the mysterious Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) in Oaxaca and Guerrero, neighboring states to Chiapas.

The Zapatistas "want to see what is going to happen in [Mexico's] national political life with the rise of the EPR," says political analyst Sergio Sarmiento. "Only when the consequences are sifted out will they return to the negotiations ... [in] what they hope will be a stronger position."

Marcos calls government arrogant

In suspending talks, Marcos called the government "arrogant" and said it lacked "seriousness" in following through on its commitments. The negotiations, which focused on reforms to promote democracy and a fairer judicial system, took a bitter turn in August when government and Zapatista negotiators clashed over the scope of reforms. The government wants to limit the accords to Chiapas, while the Zapatistas demand they apply nationwide.

Chief government negotiator Marco Antonio Bernal says the Zapatistas already have made a national impact since their reform proposals are being considered in the national Congress. Suspending the talks makes little sense, he says, since the two sides agree on so many points. But he also says the Zapatistas are now a "political force among many others" to be considered as Mexico continues its political reforms.

Mr. Bernal also denies that the government is failing to implement agreements already reached with the Zapatistas. He points to progress in Chiapas in land distribution, increased availability of social services, and a redrawing of several Chiapas municipalities to make the government more responsive to indigenous people. However, many observers in Chiapas counter that accords reached last February on indigenous rights are still only on paper.

Keeping rebel groups separate

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Some sources say getting the negotiations going again is so important to the government that Bernal could be replaced as negotiator to appease the Zapatistas.

The government is keenly interested in keeping the Zapatistas and the EPR separated, both in fact and in the public's minds. Getting the Zapatistas back to the negotiating table is one way to do that.

Meanwhile, an offer last week from the Roman Catholic bishop in Chiapas, the Rev. Samuel Ruiz, to investigate the possibility of negotiations between the government and the EPR was quickly rejected by the government. The bishop has played an important role in Zapatista-government relations since 1994. It is clear that the government does not want to risk blurring the line between the EPR and the Zapatistas.

Still, the government is unlikely to continue trumpeting the differences between the two guerrilla groups, since even Marcos has rejected in a communiqu what he called "the politician's game of the 'good' guerrillas vs. the 'bad' guerrillas."

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