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Mexican Indians revive a dream of revolution: Phil Davison, in his second report from San Cristobal de las Casas, hears of an armed struggle

'THE WORD in the villages is that they train and test their weapons by night. They are said to be scattered around thick jungle areas, using a cell system similar to that of Peru's Shining Path. The authorities claim they are Guatemalans but that is not true. They are almost certainly Mexican Indians, and appear to be growing in numbers. Their aim, it seems, is revolution.'

Juan (not his real name) whispered as he spoke of the Mexican Indian guerrillas said to have sprung from, and to be gradually enlisting, Indian peasants in the undulating forests of the Mexican state of Chiapas, near the Guatemalan border. Some say the rebels are followers of the land reform ideals of Emiliano Zapata, the peasant hero of Mexico's 1910-1917 revolution, angered by the fact that Mexico's rich have got richer and the peasants poorer since the revolution.

Leaders of an anti-government, pro-peasant group, the Emiliano Zapata Peasant Organisation, say several members have been imprisoned and beaten since the existence of the guerrillas became known.

Their existence, mentioned only among friends and in hushed tones, has been an open secret since May. That was when 40 armed men and women ambushed a Mexican army patrol near the border, killing two soldiers and wounding two. The incident was some 100 miles from Belize, the former British colony where Harrier jump-jets and British troops are still based but are getting ready to pack up and leave because of Belize's detente with Guatemala.

According to villagers in the Ocosingo area of Chiapas, the army sent aircraft and helicopters to bomb and strafe the area, including populated zones. The government denied both the ambush and the reported retaliation and stuck to the line that 'there are no guerrillas in Chiapas'.

In the past few days, however, government and opposition officials, as well as church leaders, have admitted the existence of a shadowy guerrilla group along the lines of the Shining Path in Peru. The news has worried the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which also controls Chiapas at local level.

Some officials blame Guatemalan guerrillas, who have been waging war against their own government for more than 30 years, but it is generally believed that the Chiapas group is Mexican. Many believe that Guatemalan rebels may have helped arm and train the Mexicans. Guatemalan rebels have often crossed the border with their national army in 'hot pursuit'. 'Getting arms into Chiapas is the easiest thing in the world,' said Juan. 'It's solid hills, mountains, forest and jungle. Even the Guatemalan government's 'scorched earth' policy was unable to crush their guerrillas.'

This week, a concerned President Carlos Salinas de Gortari sent the social development minister, Luis Donaldo Colosio, to the area where the guerrillas are thought to be based - around Ocosingo, Altamirano and Las Margaritas. Mr Colosio, a possible candidate to replace Mr Salinas next year, said the President would pour some pounds 8m into the area for development programmes. It was clearly an attempt by Mr Salinas and the PRI to outbid the guerrillas in the auction for local hearts and minds.

The guerrillas, thought to number at least several hundred, working in small cells of half a dozen, are said to have won over many disgruntled peasants from among the region's Indian groups. The Indians, descendants of the Mayans whose ruined pyramids reveal their former greatness, have become increasingly angered by abuses suffered at the hands of local government officials, big landowners and business mafias.

'The most vulnerable groups have been building up their own organisations and methods of struggle, to reclaim their rights, their lands and a better way of life,' according to Samuel Ruiz, Bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas, often accused by the authorities of inciting Indians to rebel. Graffiti has appeared throughout Chiapas accusing the bishop of involvement with the guerrillas. 'People who have been expelled from their homes have organised themselves into movements to defend their rights, and with notable successes,' he said. Referring to the long hegemony of the PRI, the bishop added: 'There are serious fears that the permanency of this bloc could lead to clashes and tensions.'

The daily La Jornada referred in a recent editorial to reported violence in the border region and 'the activity of armed elements. Such things are a consequence - not justifiable but almost natural - of poverty and abandonment. The army is known to be operating in this complex scenario.'

An opposition left-wing deputy for Chiapas, Jorge Moscozo, said last week: 'There are, in the forest regions of the state, groups organising themselves and opting for the route of armed struggle. They are Mexican Indians who, as far as is known, are absolutely desperate. For lack of response to their demands, they have decided that the only route is that of violence.'

The Chiapas state government said that after the May clashes, army units found 'a training camp for subversives' that appeared to have been hastily abandoned by its occupants near Ocosingo. Behind trenches, the army found uniforms, a rocket-launcher, a machine-gun, high-powered rifles, medicine and food. Fresh coffee and open tins suggested they had just got away.