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Attack Turns Eyes to Chiapas

Killing of 45 Indians last week the result of year of growing unrest in southern Mexico.

Four years after an Indian uprising shook Mexico and captivated much of the world, the state of Chiapas is once again the focus of attention here.

The cause this time is last week's massacre of 45 Tzotzil Indians in Acteal, a small Indian village in the violence-plagued Chiapas municipality of Chenalh.

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The deadliest single day of violence in Chiapas since the Jan. 1, 1994, Zapatista uprising underscores the smoldering nature of the conflict. While the government has attempted to marginalize the Chiapas issue, problems of land distribution, religious conflict, political rivalries, and discrimination against Indians - plus such new elements as the appearance of paramilitary organizations - have only worsened.

The government and the Zapatistas reached an accord on indigenous rights in 1996 - the first and, some observers say, easiest chapter in a set of issues. But the government failed to translate the substance of the agreement into constitutional amendments. That failure produced a year-long stalemate during which conditions in Chiapas have deteriorated.

The Acteal killings occurred Dec. 22, when dozens of masked gunmen moved into a small churchyard where Indian families, already displaced by violence earlier in the year, had taken refuge. Most of the victims were women and children. The attorney general's initial investigation found the killers were part of an organization named Red Mask.

The gunmen were also Indians, but with political and economic affiliations that - along with their high-powered weapons and uniform clothing - indicate they were acting on behalf of more powerful forces. Everardo Moreno, assistant attorney general for investigations, said initial questioning among more than 40 suspects revealed that many were affiliated with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) of President Ernesto Zedillo, the ruling party in Chiapas.

On Saturday the mayor of Chenalh, a PRI member, was arrested on charges of providing arms and vehicles used in the massacre. More than 20 other local men were also arrested.

Survivors claim that police not only failed to take action against the gunmen, but in some cases took part in the shootings. A top state official admitted that he had been called on Dec. 22 about reports of violence in Acteal, but said that a police investigation reported "no shooting, no burning houses" had been found.

The massacre places intense pressure on the government, especially since religious, human rights, and opposition figures in Chiapas have produced letters proving they had warned the government since October of building tension and increasing paramilitary activity in northern Chiapas.

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In a press conference Friday, Interior Minister Emilio Chauyffet acknowledged he had received a letter Oct. 18 from Roman Catholic bishops of Chiapas expressing their concern about growing violence against Indian communities. The minister noted that the bishops' letter did not specifically refer to Chenalh. But other sources, including the press, have chronicled the appearance of paramilitary groups and increasing population displacement around Chenalh for the past few months.

Though the problem of paramilitary groups has grown in prominence, the massacre seems certain to force the government to acknowledge their presence in a way it has been reluctant to in the past. Mr. Chauyffet said the government had been acting against the growth of such groups by carrying out gun seizures and prosecuting bearers of illegal weapons.

Up to now, speculation on the composition of paramilitary groups has focused on large landowners, PRI-affiliated small landowners, and conservative religious groups opposed both to the social activism of the Catholic Church and to the growing number of Indian protestants.

But noted Chiapas anthropologist Andrs Aubry says his research shows that most members of paramilitary groups are poor, young Indian men who have not been able either to acquire their own land or find other agricultural work. Writing of his findings in the Mexico City daily La Jornada, Mr. Aubry says what distinguishes these men is that they have no political agenda or social ideology.

But the fact that they have been allowed to grow and act with increasing "impunity," he adds, is a sure sign that their actions fit into some higher power's scheme.

The US and the European Union have pressured Mexico to determine guilt in the massacre and to address the conditions that led to it. The Foreign Relations Ministry rejected such demands as unacceptable interference in Mexico's internal affairs.

But Mexico City Mayor Cuauhtmoc Crdenas argued in a rally condemning the massacre that such events are an international issue. If left untreated they could destabilize Mexico and lead to disruption of foreign investment - much as the Zapatista uprising was one element in international unease about Mexico in 1994.

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