Ranchers' hired guns raise Chiapas tension

Mexico City - "Wanted for treason: Commander Samuel Ruiz," says the poster in the offices of the cattle ranchers' organisation in the south-eastern state of Chiapas. The picture shows Bishop Samuel Ruiz, long-time defender of Mexico's native MayanIndian population, writes Phil Davison. "Promoter of violence using Indians as cannon-fodder," the poster goes on. "Often disguises hismelf as a priest, even a bishop. Do not attempt to detain him unless you are armed with a crucifix and holy water."

The poster demonstrates how Chiapas, rocked a year ago by a Zapatista guerrilla rebellion, remains on the edge of civil unrest between landowners and the ruling elite backing the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) on one side, and poverty-stricken Indians supported by Catholic liberation theologists on the other.

With weapons said to be pouring into the state from the US and through the jungle from Guatemala, ranchers, peasants and churchmen alike refer more often to the probability rather than the possibility of civil war in Chiapas. Troops have moved into villages along the Guatemalan border, to box in the guerrillas and to cut off arms smugglers.

Both ranchers and peasants talk of "ingovernability" in the state. The ranchers say Governor Eduardo Robledo, elected in December, is not doing enough to protect their land or get back more than 2,000 ranches taken over during the past year by peasants either supporting or emboldened by the Zapatista guerrillas. Many of the peasants back the "rebel transition government" of Amado Avendano, who ran for governor and says Mr Robledo won only through fraud.

Leaders of the state's 72,000 ranchers met last week in the town of Chicomuselo, where six people died in clashes on 10 January and warned that they were well-armed and ready to take their land back by force.

Peasant groups and leaders of Mr Avendano's left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) responded by calling on the state and federal government to disarm what they call guardias blancas (white guards) or "mercenary pistoleros" hired by the cattlemen and who intimidate peasants by patrolling in powerful pick-up trucks with tinted windows.

While December's devaluation of the peso and the ensuing row over loan guarantees are the immediate reason for the collapse of the peso and stock-market slide, uncertainty in Chiapas continues to influence domestic and foreign investors.

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