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Marcos, bard of Mexico, scotches death rumours

Rebel leader sends long-awaited and poetic message from a hammock in the jungle
Quoting a Shakespeare sonnet and relating how he fell into cow-dung while retreating before the Mexican army, the masked guerrilla leader, Marcos, has broken several weeks of silence and dispelled rumours that he may have been killed.

In a letter to the media, the subcomandante - or el sub, as he calls himself - said the Mexican army and federal agents were still advancing against the guerrillas' jungle hide-outs last week, despite a newly passed law granting temporary amnesty pending peace talks.

The letter predated an announcement by President Ernesto Zedillo that the army would move out of towns and villages it was occupying in the southern state of Chiapas to allow renewed dialogue. But reports from the region suggested the troops had simply regrouped to encircle towns and hamlets and were still blocking roads to cut off the guerrillas' supply routes.

The reports also said troops had built bridges across rivers to get to the Lacandon jungle and were cutting paths, apparently to allow army patrols to go in.

The long-awaited missive from the man in the black balaclava and crossed bandoliers painted a picture of the guerrilla chief smoking his pipe in a hammock in the Lacandon jungle, reading Shakespeare, talking to his alter ego and a beetle called "little hard man" and tapping out short stories on a laptop computer.

"When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes,/ I all alone beweep my outcast state,/ And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,/ And look upon myself and curse my fate," went the cited sonnet. It did, of course, have a more upbeat ending when Shakespeare, and presumably Marcos, scorns "to change my state with kings''.

"Somebody should tell the feds about the new [amnesty and dialogue] law," the leader of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) wrote. "They keep on advancing. If we keep pulling back, we're going to bump into a sign that says `Welcome to the Ecuador-Peru border'. I wouldn't mind a trip to South America but being in a three-way crossfire must be a trifle disagreeable.''

He described how he ran from a bull while fleeing the army on the edge of the jungle one night last month, fell in what he thought was mud but discovered it was cow-dung. And after enclosing a skilfully written short story, in which he converses with "the other me'' and the pipe-smoking beetle "Durito" (the little hard man), the rebel chief said his radio was playing "I'll get by with a little help from my friends''.

He and his mainly Mayan peasant guerrillas continued to get support in Mexico City and elsewhere. Yesterday thousands of peasants from Chiapas remained camped in the capital's main square, backing the EZLN and demanding better conditions for Mexico's Indians.

An EZLN statement at the weekend, accepting the government's dialogue offer but only if troops pull back to their barracks, brought some hope that the Chiapas conflict, which began with the insurrection of 1 January 1994, could soon end. But there were reports from Chiapas of human rights violations by the army and an apparent policy of trying to starve out the guerrillas - estimated at up to 2,000 men - and up to 11,000 peasants who fled with them for fear of the army.

Human rights groups accused the army of occupying deserted homes, stealing or destroying money, food and belongings and burning crops. More famine, disease and death were likely, because the army had prevented the sowing of crops.

Ofelia Medina, an actress from Chiapas who supports Indian rights, said 11,000 Indian men, women and children were believed to be hiding in the jungle, living on three tortillas a day and very little water. Peasants who returned spoke of an outbreak of bronchitis and diarrhoea among children.

Human rights workers who reached the village of Pamala said nine children had died while fleeing the army's advance; peasants still in the village lived in terror after troops burgled their homes. The apparent aim was to discourage support for the Zapatistas.

Soldiers were bribing children with sweets, chewing-gum or money to tell them which families had supported the Zapatistas, the rights workers said. And ranchers had entered churches in areas where the Zapatistas have sympathisers and threatened Catholic priests.