Mexico's rebels look to the future: Guerrilla leader 'Subcomandante Marcos' seems confident of victory, and his support is growing, writes Phil Davison

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HIS EYES have become the best-known in Mexico, smiling from a black woollen balaclava. No one knows the true identity of 'Subcomandante Marcos' of the Emiliano Zapata Liberation Army (EZLN), but he has taken on a charismatic image more akin to that of Che Guevara than of the Mexican revolutionary from which his group took its name.

Contrary to government claims, he is either very Mexican or better at faking accents than Meryl Streep. And his eyes are not green, as in a government picture, but a honey or light chestnut colour. Both facts were clear in an interview with a Mexican journalist on Spanish television last night, in which 'Marcos', in contrast to Che's favoured Havana cigars, puffed on a pipe through a slit in the balaclava. In undogmatic language and an accent that suggested he may be a chilango, from Mexico City, he said his men had learnt guerrilla warfare with the help of 'a little Pentagon manual'.

The Zapatistas have been quiet for several weeks, hunkered down in the Lacandon jungle of the southern state of Chiapas awaiting peace talks with a government envoy, but their influence has been spreading. Angry peasants, armed with sticks and machetes, took over at least four small Chiapas towns this week, demanding the ouster of their mayors, all representatives of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

Such uprisings would previously have been crushed by armed police, troops or pistoleros linked with the PRI. With their hands tied by the prospect of peace talks with the rebels this weekend, however, the security forces laid low. The peasants who took over Teopisca, 20 miles from San Cristobal de las Casas, denied they were part of the EZLN, but said they felt 'awakened and given courage' by the Zapatistas. As the peasants, some with their wives and children, wandered peacefully around the town hall, the mayor, Hector Alvarez, considered it wiser to stay at home.

Subcomandante Marcos said his 'army' had started as a self-defence group against the landowners' 'white gunmen', and created alliances with other peasant groups. There are thousands of indigenous peasant groups around Mexico, many named after Emiliano Zapata. They may not be armed but then neither, a few years ago, was the EZLN.

The PRI has always swept municipal elections in Chiapas. Peasants' votes were won by promises of land, gifts of food, threats of reprisals or a combination of all three. In the event of any hiccup in the system, ballot-stuffing ensured the right result.

In addition to this week's peaceful peasant actions, there were reports of guerrilla movements in the state of Oaxaca and of unrest in the state of Guerrero, where armed bands control large areas.

Up in Mexico City, in the rambling villas of the colonial suburb of Coyoacan, the Zapatista movement has the intellectuals in a tizzy. The Nobel literature prizewinner Octavio Paz disgusted many of his compatriots this week when he blamed 'waves of Guatemalan refugees' for the uprising, as well as 'the perpetual state of war in the pre-Columbian societies'.

In the capital, many students have shown their sympathy for 'Marcos' by using a new form of greeting: one hand held over the nose in imitation of a balaclava.