Truce looms at last in the landof the Zapatistas

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The Independent US

In the steep highlands surrounding the village of Los Chorros, in Mexico's tense Chiapas State, the coffee harvest is at full tilt. Bare-legged men in white tunics heft sacks of ripe red berries and women spread the coffee beans to dry in the sun on any flat surface they can find. While villagers race to get their crop to market, hostility between leftist Zapatista rebels and supporters of the paramilitary units hired by local ranchers seems to be put on hold.

In the steep highlands surrounding the village of Los Chorros, in Mexico's tense Chiapas State, the coffee harvest is at full tilt. Bare-legged men in white tunics heft sacks of ripe red berries and women spread the coffee beans to dry in the sun on any flat surface they can find. While villagers race to get their crop to market, hostility between leftist Zapatista rebels and supporters of the paramilitary units hired by local ranchers seems to be put on hold.

A peace settlement in Chiapas looks likely, with a brand new President, Vicente Fox, and a new Governor, Pablo Salazar, ready to negotiate an end to the six-year conflict with the rebel leader of the ELZN (Zapatista National Liberation Army).

Last year, Red Cross volunteers and human rights workers shadowed these Indian coffee labourers, who were afraid to cross enemy turf to reach their smallholdings. This year, as for the past three seasons, the Mexican army and state police are patrolling the coffee groves.

Tension remains high. A recent raid by the state prosecutor's office - when 200 police burst into local huts before dawn, searching for arms caches and 21 suspected paramilitaries - outraged many residents and they hurled stones at the intruding officials. No guns were found, but a man was hauled away to the state prison, where he was later released.

Zapatistas insist that they seek only self-determination and don't want to secede from Mexico. Subcomandante Marcos, a former professor who has led the peasant rebellion in the jungle since 1994, summoned journalists last Saturday to air his latest demands to newly elected Mexican authorities. Before he and his commandos in balaclavas come to Mexico City to talk peace, he insists on the withdrawal of military forces, estimated at 50,000, in his region. Other preconditions include amnesty for any jailed Zapatista sympathisers and a bill of Indian rights for marginalised Maya groups that make up about 80 per cent of the Chiapas population.

The new President has already withdrawn soldiers from about 50 checkpoints as his first executive order; the next day he sent the San Andres peace accords, which were stalled for four years, to the Congress for ratification. The Bill would give Indian communities local autonomy, provide bilingual schools and allow elections using traditional practices. It also guarantees an "equitable'" share of Mexico's wealth.

However, Mr Fox's scheme to build assembly plants and use the Maya as a workforce is widely seen as naïve and inappropriate. The Zapatistas' past Utopian economics programme stresses collective labour and common land ownership. President Fox and his pro-business National Action Party see greater exports and foreign investment as the way forward. "Economic development has to be a bilateral enterprise," argues Cesar Chavez of the centre-left Democratic Revolutionary Party in Chiapas. "You can't impose it from the top down."

Evacuation of the seven army bases in Chiapas does not seem imminent, and many inhabitants of Los Chorros say they rely on the protection of the soldiers. "I like them here because nothing bad happens," said Pedro Perez, a coffee worker. Human rights activists suggest that some bored soldiers, far from home, lure indigenous girls into prostitution.

The army's social projects sometimes smack of paternalism and theatrical public relations. They range from free meals at the base cafeteria to public hairdressing. One general's wife plaits the hair of Tzotzil girls in full view of the highway. Untangling the many strands of the Chiapas rebellion while the world looks on will require dexterity of another sort.

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