Jungle growth for Mexican opposition: A forest clearing is the only place the outlawed Zapatista leader Marcos can address a party convention, writes Phil Davison in Mexico City

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The Independent Online
IT WILL be a surrealistic gathering but one that could go down in Mexico's history books. In an amphitheatre built from tree trunks in a clearing in the Lacandona jungle, more than 6,000 politicians, trade unionists, student leaders, writers, intellectuals and the odd eccentric will this weekend attend what is billed as the National Democratic Convention.

The reason for the remote venue? It is the only area where the host and organiser, known as subcomandante Marcos, of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), can take part. A kind of Robin Hood to some, the country's most wanted man to others, the Lacandona jungle is the equivalent of Sherwood Forest to the pipe-smoking guerrilla in the black balaclava.

The convention may sound somewhat marginalised. To reach the site, delegates will be transported first on lorries, then have to tramp for hours through mud. They will sleep rough and use hole-in-the-ground latrines. But it comes two weeks before the presidential elections. And with the creation of a transition government a key topic on its agenda, it is being viewed as an alternative election for those who do not trust the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to allow a clean vote on 21 August. Its outcome could decide whether the EZLN returns to arms. And, if they do, they could be joined by Indian groups in other Mexican states.

Even though the convention's possibilities are limited, Marcos predicts civil war in Mexico 'if the meeting is not successful'. Although his warning is vague and ambiguous, it is being taken seriously. Calling the convention was seen as a shrewd move to broaden his political support, and keep pressure on the election winners while maintaining the armed threat.

Attendance is by invitation from the guerrilla chief who emerged from the jungle to lead a peasant uprising in the state of Chiapas on New Year's day. The fact that the host is masked and armed, and that he is effectively questioning the election result in advance, means opposition groups will be in the majority.

But a surprising number of people, including leading writers and intellectuals, accepted invitations. Even a dissident faction of the ruling PRI, which believes the party should share power if its candidate, Ernesto Zedillo, wins the election, is expected to send a delegation.

In an attempt to break the momentum of the convention and Marcos' popularity, Mr Zedillo pledged on Thursday to put 'a healthy distance' between the party and government, which have largely been synonymous for the past 65 years.

Of the two main opposition parties, the left-wing Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD) will attend while the National Action Party (PAN) has declined. The writer, Carlos Fuentes, while admitting the EZLN has played a key role in Mexican history, declined,saying he opposed armed struggle.

Adhering to a ceasefire agreed with the army on 12 January, Marcos appears to have spent his time in the jungle writing invitations. The left-wing daily, La Jornada, has printed many, as well as replies - publication in the newspaper is the only way of contacting the guerrilla chief.

The delegates will first meet today in the town of San Cristobal de las Casas, briefly taken by the EZLN on 1 January. Since the town is under Mexican army control, Marcos and his men will not be present. But tomorrow the delegates will move on to guerrilla-held territory and the jungle clearing known as Aguascalientes, thought to be near the remote town of Guadalupe Tepeyac.

The fact that a large open area has been cleared in the jungle means the Mexican military, via spotter planes or satellite pictures, will be well aware of Marcos' whereabouts. The delegates will have to pass through several army checkpoints.

Marcos published a 'manual of conduct' for the delegates, warning them they will need boots, anoraks, sleeping bags, mosquito-repellent, water-purifying pills, matches, a cup, a plate and a spoon. 'If you're real snobs, bring a fork,' he wrote.

Noting that his guerrilla army was environment-conscious, he banned shampoo, aerosols and detergents. His men do not seem to have been quite so green in chopping down the trees that will serve as auditorium benches.

(Photograph omitted)