Arms find triggers new fears of rebel uprising in Mexico

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The Independent Online
REPORTS that a seven-ton arms haul uncovered in Guatemala this week was bound for Mexico's Zapatista guerrillas have heightened fears of a new armed uprising a week before Mexico's closest presidential election.

Guatemala's Interior Minister, Danilo Parinelo, said yesterday that 'most, if not all' of the weapons were to have been smuggled through the Lacandon jungle to the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in Mexico's south- eastern state of Chiapas. They had come from Cuba via Nicaragua.

The arms included 700 AK-47 assault rifles, RPG-7 anti-tank grenade-launchers, 800 hand-grenades and 200lb of explosives. They were found in the garage of a businessman, Jorge Palancares, thought to be Mexican, near Guatemala City and would have been transported by Guatemala's own guerrilla group, Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), he said.

Earlier this week, the EZLN leader, Subcomandante Marcos, said his men would put themselves under the orders of a new civilian grouping, the National Democratic Convention, which met for the first time in the jungle in Chiapas this week. The masked guerrilla chief warned, however, that the EZLN was ready to fight again if next Sunday's elections were fraudulent.

What is worrying the government of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is not so much Chiapas, where the Mexican army has the EZLN virtually surrounded with their backs to the Guatemalan border, but the potential spread of armed conflict across the nation.

Marcos told reporters this week he was in contact with armed groups elsewhere in Mexico. Although he claims to have spent almost 10 years in the jungle, Marcos, in civilian clothes and his now-famous eyes still anonymous, would have been able to travel freely around Mexico before his group emerged on 1 January to hold, briefly, five Chiapas towns.

While the jungle convention's call for peaceful civil resistance appeared to head off pre-election violence, Marcos has warned of civil war if the PRI is seen to 'steal' the election and attempt to complete seven decades in uninterrupted power.

'They (the government) thought I was bluffing. Now it's clear that there are indeed other armed groups elsewhere in the nation,' he told the weekly Proceso. 'There are other groups in the situation we were in in December 1993 (before the EZLN's 1 January uprising in Chiapas). We are in contact with them. Only a change in the system of government could postpone the outbreak of armed rebellions.

'This is the PRI's last chance. If it doesn't opt for honourable suicide (in the elections), it will face the firing squad,' the EZLN chief said. One presidential candidate, Jorge Gonzalez Torres, of the small Mexican Ecologist Green Party (PVEM), said he knew of armed groups in the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca, as well as Chiapas. 'Whoever risks a provocation risks civil war and a disaster in Mexico,' he said.

Few Mexicans think Marcos is bluffing. A series of army and police raids this week uncovered large caches of weapons and ammunition in several states but the authorities have been at pains to suggest the hauls belonged to narcos or bandits.

Troops and tough judicial police have been searching churches in some states, where priests have been blamed for political activity, even of helping to arm peasants. Priests in and around the Pacific resort of Acapulco, in the state of Guerrero, this week protested to the Interior Minister, Jorge Carpizo, that they had been harassed and their churches searched.

Subcomandante Marcos is thought to have trained as a priest and Catholic priests and lay preachers in Chiapas are widely believed to have assisted the Zapatistas, at least through the use of shortwave radios in remote, roadless territory.

Guerrero, Oaxaca and the states along the US border are the focus of government concern. In Guerrero, in the hills inland from Acapulco, the authorities said seven armed men arrested this week belonged to the EZLN. Local residents, however, said bandits were often pretending to be from the EZLN, wearing red bandanas. A soldier and a government employee were killed this week in the Guerrero town of Atoyac de Alvarez, where troops had earlier searched the local church, unsuccessfully, for arms.

'It's assumed the Zapatista guerrillas have managed to join up around 20 armed movements of different sizes nationwide,' said a political analyst, Raymundo Riva Palacio.

(Map omitted)