It is easy to forget that the crisis humbling Mexico began in the central square of the sun-washed mountain town called San Cristbal de las Casas, in the southern state of Chiapas. It was there on New Year's Day, 1994, that a group of Indian peasants in ski masks launched their insurgency, wrecking the neoclassical town hall before melting away into the countryside.
The Zapatistas hung on to a chunk of territory for almost a year until President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Len sent in the Mexican army to disperse them. But Chiapas still remains a dangerous flashpoint for Zedillo. The Zapatistas' leader, the cool, mysterious Subcommander Marcos, has become a national cult figure whom Zedillo has to handle with care. Since the military advance, Zedillo has offered the rebels amnesty and sought to engage them in negotiations.
The rebellion has left Chiapas itself bitterly polarized. The dividing line runs between the impoverished Mayan Indians, who eke out a precarious living planting corn with pointed sticks in rocky hillsides, and the lighter-skinned people of mixed Spanish and Indian descent, who dominate the towns and grazing lands.
RIOT POLICE. A recent Sunday found the two groups playing out one of their frequent rituals of hatred in San Cristbal. Hundreds of Indians from outlying areas took up positions around the ocher-colored 17th-century cathedral to protect their benefactor, the activist Roman Catholic Bishop Samuel Ruiz, who has been a mediator between the rebels and the government.
Across the square, pot-bellied ranchers in boots and cowboy hats and sympathetic townspeople worked themselves up listening to speakers denounce Ruiz as "the Antichrist" and "an abortion from hell." The ranchers blame Ruiz along with the Zapatistas for radicalizing the Indians and want him to leave town. The presence of scores of uniformed police in riot gear persuaded the ranchers to content themselves with marching by the cathedral and burning coffins with the names of Ruiz and the Zapatistas on them.
But no such restraint exists in the countryside. Emboldened by the Zapatistas' example, land-hungry peasants have moved onto some 2,000 coffee and cattle farms, creating explosive tensions. In one of several recent incidents, on Mar. 27, police, backed by ranchers and private guards, killed two peasants among a group trying to seize land.
RESPONSIVE CHORD. It won't be easy to cool things off. Chiapas is a place where the contradictions between the government's aspirations to join North America Inc. and the squalid lot of many Mexicans are particularly glaring. A handsome people whose weather-beaten faces are set off by black ponchos and embroidered tunics, the Indians are at a huge disadvantage. Most of them can't speak Spanish. Their areas have been badly neglected by the government. Thirty percent of the 3.2 million Chiapans are illiterate, and many lack access to health care, electricity, and sanitation. "The ideas of the French Revolution--citizenship and basic human rights--never got to Chiapas," says Pablo Faras, a local scholar.
The Zapatistas have never been a military threat, but their demands for land, education, housing, and political rights struck a responsive chord throughout Mexico. Marcos has already had a huge impact on Mexican politics. He should get much credit for forcing the government to hold relatively clean presidential elections last year and for the democratic tendencies Zedillo has been exhibiting. Zedillo even told BUSINESS WEEK that he would like to see Marcos become active in a political party.
Marcos' impact on Chiapas may be less positive. The Zapatistas have stirred passions that won't easily subside. The Indians are already suffering the hardships of army occupation, and some may be the targets of vendettas. It is hard to see the government gearing up the big spending program it offered last year in the current situation. So those who started what could turn out to be Mexico's second revolution may gain little from it.