UNLEASHING THE DOLLS OF WAR

THE BROADER PICTURE

It is more than two years since subcomandante Marcos and his Zapatista guerrillas stunned the world by taking over San Cristobal de las Casas and four other towns in the poverty-stricken south-eastern Mexican state of Chiapas. After the takeover, in the small hours of New Year's Day 1994, the charismatic Marcos, in black balaclava and bandoliers, chatted to bemused tourist revellers in several languages outside the captured Town Hall.

Within days, the masked man and his ragtag army of indigenous Mayan Indian peasants had vanished again, fleeing before the greater might of the Mexican army. But the political impact of their brief uprising has grown and grown. In San Cristobal today, the army controls the streets, but a miniature army of Marcoses continues to control the pavements.

They are woolly Marcos dolls, from 1in to 2ft tall, made by local Indian women and snapped up by tourists for 50p to pounds 5 apiece. The dolls' eyes are usually green, echoing the initial erroneous wanted poster. (In fact, Marcos's eyes - the most famous in Mexico - are a light honey colour.) Their rifles are of wood - matchsticks or splintered orange boxes. As it happens, many of Marcos's men carried only wooden rifles during their uprising, neatly carved and blackened with shoe polish to look like M- 16s.

After the initial skirmishes, in which 145 people died, Marcos's Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) agreed a truce on 12 January 1994. There has been no formal fighting since, but things have been far from peaceful. The guerrillas retain a power base in the Lacandon jungle, and remain a threat and affront to the Government. President Ernesto Zedillo ordered his troops against them in February last year, issuing an arrest warrant for Marcos, but backed down in the face of domestic and international criticism and merely sealed off the EZLN's jungle strongholds.

Zedillo also "unmasked" the mysterious Marcos as a former Marxist university lecturer, Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente, a light-skinned mestizo from northern Mexico. By then, however, the cult of Marcos and his symbolic appeal as a champion of the country's Indian peasants were firmly established. He remains the most charismatic force in Mexican politics today.

There have been "peace" talks in the past year, but Marcos has not attended personally. Perhaps he has been too busy giving surreal jungle audiences to liberal personalities from around the world. French president's widow Danielle Mitterrand, French philosopher Regis Debray, Hollywood director Oliver Stone, Benetton people trying to talk him into starring in an ad campaign - all trekked to his hideout, on foot and horseback, to meet the living martyr, a latter-day Che Guevara with a pipe instead of a cigar.

But little has changed for the Indian peasants in whose name the guerrillas rose. If anything, their lives have grown harsher. It seems unlikely that Marcos has the weapons, the manpower or even the will to renew the guerrilla war. His image may, however, ensure enough PR success to keep his cause alive for some time yet. Meanwhile, it is at least feeding many Indian peasant families - courtesy of those simple dolls. !

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