Zapatistas threaten military grip on Mexico's main towns

"Identification, please. Passports, press cards? which media do you work for?" Not the sort of greeting you'd normally expect from an Indian peasant teenager who had appeared to be resting in the shade of a roadside wooden hut.

He was spotted in the same place the day before, wearing a red bandana of the type favoured by so-called Zapatista guerrillas, near this village in the hills above San Cristobal de las Casas. Noticing a long CB radio antenna protruding from the closed-up hut, I returned the following day for a chat.

I asked what his name was as he checked my documents with the help of several other men who emerged from the hut. "I'm sorry, I can't say." The teenager and the older men around him appeared to be unarmed except for the traditional machetes that no peasant goes without. They were friendly but pressed me to move on swiftly. "The army may move in here at any moment. You'd better go right now."

The encounter confirmed a growing suspicion that the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) is not isolated in the Lacandon jungle but still has units close to or in large towns such as San Cristobal.

There was little doubt that the youth was on guard duty for the Zapatistas on a rocky road about two hours' drive from San Cristobal and only a few miles from the nearest Mexican army position.

The previous night, a small group of reporters had interviewed an EZLN major, known only as Ana Maria, in the same area. Wearing the type of black woollen balaclava favoured by the rebel leader, Subcomandante Marcos, her eyes suggested that she was a full-bloodied Maya Indian.

She said that she was in regular contact with Marcos although she did not reveal how.

The presence of Zapatistas in these hills, a few hundred miles from where Marcos and the main body of his fighters are presumed to be ensconced in the jungle, demonstrates a crucial factor which President Ernesto Zedillo has ignored. On Tuesday, he ordered a halt to the army's offensive, apparently because he felt he had isolated Marcos. The fact is that the Zapatistas are all over Chiapas.

If Marcos has several thousand full-time men at arms, there may well be tens of thousands of peasants he could call on as reserve forces.

When Zapatistas took over 38 towns last December, helping to trigger Mexico's financial crisis, they were almost certainly local peasants who donned masks and bandanas and dug up stashed weapons before re-burying their arms and blending back into the countryside when the army moved in.

Few of the poor peasants who pick coffee beans and try to work the rocky land in the Chiapas highlands trust Mr Zedillo's announcement on Tuesday of a halt in the military offensive.

"The media are in the pay of the government. We are tired of the lies," said Jose Lopez. "There's your story right there," he said, pointing to a crippled Indian in rags, attempting to sift dark coffee beans to dry on a flat house roof. "Or that woman there, who eats tortillas, beans and chiles every day of her life and lives on a peso or two (12 or 25p) a day, selling combs."

For many Indians, there was something nauseating about Mr Zedillo using Indian peasants for his audience onTuesday, when he called off the military offensive and pledged aid to Chiapas.The peasants had clearly been encouraged to wear their sombreros, to look "ethnic" for the television cameras.

Many Mexican presidents have promised aid to Chiapas. But it has not filtered down and today the Indians live almost exactly as they did before the arrival of the Spaniards.

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