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Close family encounter with the Chiapas revolt

As kids in the back seat gawked at the Mexican soldiers, Dad submittedto a search for illegal weapons.

It is the fifth anniversary of the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico's southern state of Chiapas, and there are no Zapatistas in sight.

This is not surprising, even though we are in the geographical center of the conflict, because we sit in our rental car at a Mexican Army checkpoint just outside San Andrs Larrinzar.

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While our kids gawk from the back seat at the rifles of the "Mexican GI Joes" surrounding us, I submit to a search for illegal weapons. As an Army video camera tapes the proceedings - including three children accustomed to smiling for a camera - I answer a few questions:

Yes, we're here merely as tourists. Yes I'm a journalist, but I'm not working today, just want my family to see some Indian towns.

We're allowed through.

San Andrs - famous for hosting peace talks in 1995 that resulted in initial accords the government never signed - sits quiet on this Jan. 1, five years after an armed insurgency by descendants of once-powerful Mayan Indians put Chiapas on the global political map. Though the shooting in January 1994 ended almost as soon as it started, the conflict over Indian rights and the marginalized status of the state's majority Indian population remains far from resolved.

But today only a few stalls are open in San Andrs's dusty central market, while a solitary employee in the nearby "municipal presidency" pounds away at a manual typewriter.

The same day - deeper in the Chiapan forest in the Zapatistas' self-declared "autonomous municipality" of La Realidad - masked Zapatistas mark the anniversary by dancing to marimba music and playing a taped message from their leader known as Subcomandante Marcos ("el Sub"). He accuses the government of "genocide" and "waging war" against the indigenous population. He refers to the December 1997 massacre of 45 Indians in a churchyard in nearby Acteal at the hands of paramilitaries with links to state authorities.

In response, the government issues a statement blaming the Zapatistas for "unnecessarily prolonging the conflict in Chiapas" by failing to propose or respond to new initiatives for dialogue since talks broke down in 1996. What's more, the Zapatistas share responsibility for the Acteal massacre because their declaration of an autonomous municipality in the area sharpened tensions over property ownership, the government says. And, according to Emilio Rabasa Gamboa, government coordinator for dialogue and negotiation in Chiapas, the Zapatistas are also responsible for a "profound deterioration" in the living conditions of the Indians who live under their "domination."

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The standoff continues, but Chiapas does not sit still, as we find on our family visit to the Indian-populated highlands. Beneath the surface of colorful costumes, exotic markets, and age-old customs - accented by an occasional Army convoy - are changes that, good or bad, are making a difficult problem all the trickier to resolve.

Chiapas is increasingly an international issue, a symbol of human rights violations and resistance to globalization (the Zapatista rebellion was launched the day NAFTA went into effect) that have made it the focus of a network of American, Canadian, and European pro-Indian organizations. The Mexico City daily Reforma calls the result ""

The state's economy has gained some from the "revolutionary tourism" or "Zapaturismo" in the conflict's wake, but the Mexican government has clearly lost the image battle as it has deported more than 350 foreigners from the conflict zone over the past five years, using increasingly authoritarian measures.

The day my family passed the San Andrs military checkpoint, members of the San Francisco-based organization Global Exchange were not so fortunate. They were detained and ordered to report to immigration authorities.

Evangelical churches continue to pop up, dotting the landscape with colorful faades and challenging the predominant Roman Catholic Church. Religious diversity continues to be a latent source of conflict in a region with little culture of tolerance.

Chiapas remains a bastion of Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, as recent local elections demonstrated, but political diversity is spreading and strengthening - a positive evolution that is nevertheless a source of conflict. In San Andrs, graffiti knocks both the mal gobierno - bad government - and el Sub Marcos.

Chiapas's Indian population is growing - and fast. The government's challenge is to provide health, education, water, and electricity to a widely dispersed population that is poorly educated and speaks a variety of Indian languages. Since 1994 the government has poured more than $7 billion into education, health, housing, and other programs. But more than 50 percent of the population remains in poverty.

CHIAPAS'S economic bright spots include coffee cultivation that respects the state's much-ravaged jungles, and tropical-fruit production. Foreign groups like the Berkeley-based Seva Foundation help promote sustainable development projects. The Indian village of Zinacantn has prospered with development of a flower industry.

But population pressures and deforestation expose the state to possible environmental disasters. In September, floods killed hundreds and left thousands homeless. But, on our drive from Palenque to San Cristbal de las Casas and through the highlands, we saw continuing construction of small wooden huts on steep, deforested hillsides, even in areas where washouts from last year's rains were still evident. Has no one learned the lessons of hurricane Mitch?

Our oldest boy is disappointed when we leave San Andrs without meeting a Zapatista. But in San Cristbal things look up for him. The Indian vendors push piles of hand-sewn Zapatista dolls carrying wooden rifles. "This is Marcos, this is David, this is Tacho, and this is Ramona," I hear an Indian woman explaining to our duly impressed little gringo. By now a real Zapaturista, he picks Marcos.

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