Blood will out in peasant revolt: In the 50 years since Graham Greene wrote of hunger and hopelessness in Mexico, little had changed - until now

'CHIAPAS was forgotten in Mexico City: it was so far away Mexicans didn't know it existed.' The words were written by a sometime foreign correspondent by the name of Graham Greene, in 1938, in his book The Lawless Roads. It was an account of an odyssey to this southern Mexican town that inspired his novel The Power and The Glory.

Were he alive to return today Greene would find little changed, though its roads are more lawless than ever. Describing an Indian couple, 'small and black and bowed', in the Church of Santo Domingo, he wrote: 'They had prayed in Indian, not in Spanish, and I wondered what prayers they had said and what answers they could hope to get in this world of mountains, hunger and irresponsibility.'

Like the mountains, the hardships remain. The Indian couple may have found spiritual relief but their children and grandchildren almost certainly suffered or still suffer the same hunger and the same racism from the government-protected landowners whose 'irresponsibility' infuriated Greene.

That is why Indian peasants, driven to desperation, some armed only with rifles carved out of wood, surrounded the same Santo Domingo church and the entire town of San Cristobal de las Casas and several other parts of the state last week. The uprising was marked by scenes of bloody combat and savage retribution from the army, with guerrillas publicly executed or shot and left sometimes for days to die in the street

Most have slipped back into the mountains now but their presence in the forested hillsides surrounding San Cristobal is almost tangible. Nervous Mexican army troops, most themselves Indians but from other states, surround the church, lurk in the doorway of the mustard-and- terracotta cathedral and have virtually sealed off the town from the rest of Chiapas, Mexico and the world.

SOMETHING, though, has certainly changed since the English novelist wrote his account. Last week's Indian uprising, which may be far from over, has ensured that Mexicans are more than aware that Chiapas exists. And the party that has been in continuous power in Mexico since a decade before Greene's account, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), is seriously worried.

Despite the efforts by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's government to bill the insurgency as isolated and foreign- inspired, there are increasing indications that the so-called Zapatista National Liberation Army is far bigger than at first thought, with cells throughout the nation as well as support, real or potential, from other Indian or leftist groups.

There is little doubt that radical Roman Catholic priests, known for their work on behalf of the Indians, have been involved. San Cristobal bishop Samuel Ruiz has been blamed by the authorities for assisting the guerrillas. He denies it, though in language that requires a lot of reading-between- the-lines.

He is not quite Greene's 'whisky priest' of The Power and The Glory, holding secret home masses to elude the Mexican army during the era when the Catholic Church was banned and priests persecuted or killed. But Bishop Ruiz, whose offices behind the cathedral are now surrounded by troops, admits his life has been threatened. 'Some people interpret the situation as that I am the only one responsible for all this and that they are going to eliminate me. But 'a barking dog is not dead',' he said, citing a local proverb.

To what extent the guerrillas are followers of populist presidential candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas is difficult to gauge. Mr Cardenas, whose father General Lazaro Cardenas was President when Greene made his visit here, has been careful to distance himself from the guerrillas' actions, while expressing understanding for their 'desperation'.

Some of his statements have been remarkably similar to the first 'war communique' of the Zapatistas and it is hard to imagine the build-up of such a large-scale movement without his having some idea of its existence. Himself of Indian blood, Mr Cardenas, like his father before him, has wide respect among Mexico's Indians and other poor. Whether the uprising will increase his chances in August's six-yearly presidential elections or backfire against him remains to be seen.

The guerrillas, it emerged yesterday, had managed to hit three airforce reconnaissance and light attack aircraft as well as two army helicopters, according to the Defence Ministry's own account. As guerrillas, clearly totalling thousands, moved through mountains and valleys last week, police FM transmissions could be heard in which they described them as 'las hormigas' (ants), airforce planes as 'birds' and army helicopters as 'bees'.

Living up to claims made when they calmly infiltrated this tourist town and five others on New Year's Day, the Zapatistas destroyed two high-voltage electricity pylons far from Chiapas, in the states of Puebla and Michoacan. Earlier in the week, a so-called Urban Front of the liberation army claimed to be operating in Mexico City, arguably the world's most-populated were any reliable census available, and implied it would launch sabotage attacks.

A taxi packed with explosives blew up in a car park underneath a Mexico City shopping mall early yesterday, injuring at least one woman. Suspicion for responsibility fell on the Zapatistas.

The charismatic Zapatista leader who spoke to stunned local reporters and New Year's revellers here last week, calling himself Comandante Marcos, said the guerrillas had been arming and preparing for 10 years. The initial spark was the 1968 massacre of hundreds of students by the army in Tlatelolco, a suburb of the capital, shortly before Mexico hosted the Olympic Games.

More recently, it appeared clear the Zapatista 'army' had fine-tuned its organisation and network through a political grouping called the Emiliano Zapata Independent National Peasant Alliance. Since the insurgency, the alliance's members appear to have gone to ground.

The search for Comandante Marcos went from the sublime to the ridiculous last week. Despite the fact that he had been filmed and photographed on the zocalo (main square) here on New Year's Day, the federal government issued the vaguest of identikit drawings of him, saying he was blond, green-eyed, athletic, speaks two languages, 'has much aplomb and wears a balaclava' - all of which was apparent from his filmed interviews.

Then on Thursday, a fair- haired Venezuelan biologist called Peter Bichier turned up at a hotel used by reporters here to say he had been detained for eight hours by police and troops who thought he was Marcos. They copied all the names and numbers from his electronic diary before deciding he must be who he said he was.

But then came the rumour, said to be based on a reporter's observation of his hands, that Mr Bichier had, in fact, been Marcos and had pulled the wool over the eyes of journalists, troops and government officials by strolling in to hold a press conference amid tight army security.

If that was some reporter's idea of a joke, it was perhaps understandable light relief after an unpleasant week. Journalists who reached the town of Ococingo, north-east of here, as the Mexican army tried to flush out last pockets of guerrillas, came across scenes they will not easily forget. The bodies of some 30 dead guerrillas were scattered around the town centre. The 'weapons' carried by some of the younger, teenage fighters were carved out of wood. Some were little more than sticks with knives added to appear like bayonets. Flies covered their faces and vultures hovered above.

An angry German tourist, who had been in Ococingo during last Monday's clashes, said troops mowed the guerrillas down as they tried to surrender or run away. Journalists also found five dead guerrillas in a row, face down in the town's covered marketplace, their hands behind their backs and a single bullet through the backs of their heads. Cord marks visible on their wrists completed the story.

A group of reporters came across one guerrilla, in his early twenties, still alive, eyes closed, his arms and legs twitching as though in an epileptic fit. He had been lying there untended and ignored by nearby Mexican troops for at least 24 hours. The journalists were afraid to intervene because of the troops and the fact that the dying man's hand kept brushing against the pistol by his side. Doctors had been ordered out of the town during the earlier fighting and local nurses were afraid to move in the streets.

A CNN televison crew filmed another dying man, this one shirtless, with several bullet wounds, who said he was 27 and that his leaders had given him clothes but no weapon. 'We were defenceless. They promised me we would make a revolution,' he said on camera. The man lay in the same spot for three more days before another reporter came across him. This time he was dead, a fresh bullet through his head and an empty bottle of penicillin beside him. Someone appeared to have tried to ease his pain with medicine. Someone else had ended his agony more swiftly.

In the town of Oxchuc, vacated by the guerrillas, reporters came across a dozen badly battered men, apparently Zapatistas, moaning in pain and bound to the railings of the bandstand on the main square while anti-guerrilla townsfolk looked on. All but one of the bound men denied any knowledge of the guerrillas. The other, badly bleeding and bruised, managed to lift his head to say 'we will fight until we win'. Their fate was unknown.

ON FRIDAY, we drove then hiked over a mountain top near here, to a height of 8,000ft, to try to find out the fate of a group of 15 women and children we had seen earlier in the week when army attack planes rocketed their hamlet and the road we were on. The hamlet of San Antonio de los Banos was deserted, but the area for hundreds of yards around had been scorched apparently by high-explosive rockets.

A pig grunted in its wooden pen, two kittens and two skinny dogs scattered in our path but there was no sign of life. Nor, we were relieved to see, of death. The women, we could only assume, must have fled higher into the mountains to seek cover from further bombardments.

We hiked for half an hour over a narrow, rocky path to the village of Pinabetal, to find it, too, deserted but for a barking dog. Sacks of rice remained and bags of charcoal. If the army bombardments were aimed at scaring away the Indian populations, they appeared to have been 100 per cent successful. Where the thousands of villagers were passing the freezing nights, we could only guess.

After describing his gruelling mule trek over such trails to reach here 55 years ago, Graham Greene wrote: 'I asked if here in Chiapas, there was any hope of a change . . . and I learned . . . for the first time of the rather wild dream that buoys up many people in Chiapas: the hope of a rising.' It is a pity Greene did not witness the events of this New Year.

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