Peasant protests join Chiapas battle-cry: For the first time in its six decades of unbroken power, Mexico's ruling party may be threatened by the growing demands of the country's dispossessed, writes Phil Davison in Mexico City

RICARDO MARTINEZ, a 22-year- old Nahuatl Indian from the eastern state of Veracruz, huddled beneath a black plastic roof in a makeshift encampment in Mexico City's Plaza de la Solidaridad. Behind him was a portrait of the dour revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, and nearby a placard denouncing the 'anti-agrarian policies of Salinas' (President Carlos Salinas de Gortari).

Mr Martinez and fellow Indians, in two-weekly shifts, have been camped on the square in the heart of the capital for more than four years, protesting against the takeover of their land by wealthy white or mestizo (mixed-race) caciques (landowners).

'Our problem is the same as in (the state of) Chiapas. The caciques have taken over our plots. They have pistoleros (gunmen), paramilitary forces, even the army to support them. Last week, after the Chiapas troubles, the army sent tanks to our lands. But our only arms are our work tools - machetes and scythes,' he said.

Mr Martinez belongs to the Emiliano Zapata Eastern Mexican Democratic Front, an open Indian campesino grouping of Nahuatl Indians from the region they knew as Las Huastecas long before it was broken up into the present-day states of Veracruz, Hidalgo and San Luis Potosi. It is one of hundreds of such groups throughout Mexico, many of them bearing Zapata's name. Their claims for land, true democracy and equal rights have gone largely ignored by Mr Salinas's government. Some have been bought off to ensure they vote for the right candidates.

The New Year uprising in Chiapas, by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), may force their voices to be heard. For the first time in years of public protest, Mr Martinez's group was called in by the Interior Ministry last week to voice its complaints.

The key question here is whether other groups might follow the example of the EZLN, thought to be based on a previously open group called the Emiliano Zapata Independent National Campesino Alliance (Anciez), in taking up arms. There are clear signs that diverse Indian groups are seeking to unite and win the support of left-wing workers, students and intellectuals in the light of the Chiapas peasant guerrillas' humbling of Mr Salinas's government. Around 140 Indian peasant groups in Chiapas alone announced at the weekend they would form an 'autonomous, state-wide organisation'.

The EZLN has demanded Mr Salinas's resignation and a transition government that would end 65 years of one-party rule by his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). It has also pledged to march on Mexico City, a threat that may at first have sounded rhetorical from a few thousand southern peasants. But then few Mexicans would have believed in 1910 that Zapata and a bunch of ragged peasants would eventually ride or walk into the mighty capital in 1914 as wealthy citizens hid from sight, decades of dictatorship finally smashed. The EZLN threat would be conceivable only if Indian peasant groups from around the country, with student and worker support, joined in the Chiapas battle cry.

For the first time in its long history, there is a growing sense here that the PRI may soon go the way of other institutions previously thought indestructible, such as the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union.

The Mexican army is taking no chances. There was a car bomb in Mexico City earlier this month. Tourists who wanted to visit the National Palace on the Zocalo (main square) at the weekend, where thousands usually flock daily to see Diego Rivera's magnificent murals, found the gateway blocked by a force of combat-ready troops. Military helicopters circled the city.

Mr Martinez's group first set up camp in the Zocalo in the summer of 1989. They were forcibly removed later that year by no-nonsense granaderos (riot police). Their place in the square has been successively taken by many other groups seeking basic rights. Yesterday, it was Indian sugar estate workers from Tabasco who had set up camp facing the National Palace, which is the President's official residence even though he lives and works elsewhere. Sooner or later they, too, will be moved on by the granaderos.

Despite the renascent ghost of Zapata, the new imagery being evoked here is as much that of Mexico's independence from Spain in the early 19th century. One night in September, 1810, a Catholic priest called Miguel Hidalgo rang the church bells in the mainly-Indian town of Dolores 120 miles north- west of here, and made the grito (cry) of insurrection, seen as the spark that finally led to independence in 1821.

In Chiapas last week, Bishop Samuel Ruiz of San Cristobal de las Casas, a longtime fighter for the rights of Chiapas's majority Indian population, said at a Mass almost within earshot of army troops: 'A cry has risen up, a cry that lamentably has caused loss of life among the army, the civilian population and the brother insurgents.'

The word 'brother' was the key to Bishop Ruiz's sentiments. Those who know him say he sees the Chiapas uprising not only as an inevitable result of the Indians' hunger and desperation but as the spark that could be the beginning of the end of the PRI's long monopoly.

Mexico's main opposition, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), whose candidate in next August's presidential elections, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, believes he was robbed of victory in the 1988 elections through fraud, also sees the Chiapas uprising as the spark that could lead to the fall of the mighty PRI. In the words of the PRD leader, Porfirio Munoz Ledo, 'after the Chiapas conflict, the final consequence can be nothing other than the democratisation of the country'.

The writer Carlos Fuentes, in an article in the daily El Norte, took a similar tack. 'The insurrection in Chiapas has confirmed a national suspicion: without political reform, economic reform is fragile, in fact deceptive. The Mexican political and economic system, anti-democratic and unjust, is partly responsible for the Chiapas uprising.'

(Photograph omitted)

(Map omitted)

Voices
A Russian hunter at the Medved bear-hunting lodge in Siberia
Save the tigerWildlife charities turn to those who kill animals to help save them
News
Davis says: 'My career has been about filling a niche - there were fewer short actors and fewer roles – but now I'm being offered all kinds of things'
PeopleWarwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
News
i100
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
Life and Style
A small bag of the drug Ecstasy
Health
Life and Style
Floral-print swim shorts, £26, by Topman, topman.com; sunglasses, £215, by Paul Smith, mpaulsmith.co.uk
FashionBag yourself the perfect pair
News
news
News
Netherlands' goalkeeper Tim Krul fails to make a save from Costa Rica's midfielder Celso Borges during a penalty shoot-out in the quarter-final between Netherlands and Costa Rica during the 2014 FIFA World Cup
newsGoalkeepers suffer from 'gambler’s fallacy' during shoot-outs
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Extras
indybest
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

(Senior) IT Support Engineer - 1st-3rd Line Support

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful IT service provider that has bee...

Wind Farm Civil Design Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principal Marine Mechanical Engineer

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Principle Geotechnical Engineer

£55000 - £65000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Day In a Page

Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

How has your club fared in summer sales?

Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

The best swim shorts for men

Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable