Zedillo in gamble to capture rebel chief

Does the fate of Che Guevara await the guerrilla leader Subcomandante Marcos?

With such a question on their lips, Mexicans braced for a guerrilla war in the southern state of Chiapas, or even wider civil conflict across the country, after President Ernesto Zedillo unexpectedly switched to hardline tactics on Thursday in the hope of crushing the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN).

Unshrouding some of the mystery surrounding the charismatic guerrilla leader in the black balaclava, Mr Zedillo named him as Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente, Jesuit-educated son of a successful furniture dealer in the northern city of Tampico, and ordered his arrest. Even as the President spoke, in a surprise nation-wide television address, troops were occupying towns and villages in Chiapas and closing in on rebel-held areas of the Lacandon jungle along the Guatemalan border.

The guerrillas responded that they were going on "red alert" and mining access roads. But there was a widespread feeling that the guerrillas were surrounded and that Mr Zedillo would not have made his move without solid intelligence that he could quickly capture Subcomandante Marcos and his mostly Maya Indian force of several thousand men and women.

Dozens of peasant families, fled rebel-held areas last night, fearing fighting between the guerrillas and the army.

It is a huge gamble for Mr Zedillo, in power for only 10 weeks but already battered by the rebellion, an economic and debt crisis, and growing splits within his long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Analysts said he apparently hopes to kill several birds with one stone by ending the rebellion, shedding his image as a weak leader and thus winning over party hardliners, and sending a message to his US lenders and international investors.

"I think he is taking a really big gamble. This could go horribly wrong," according to one Mexico City diplomat. Many Mexicans agreed. By identifying Subcomandante Marcos, and ordering his arrest, Mr Zedillo clearly hoped to pick him up quickly. If that does not happen, the President's image will suffer with each passing day.

Despite a massive army presence in Chiapas, judicial sources revealed that the guerrilla chief had slipped through army lines and spent last Christmas with his girlfriend in Tampico. This time he might escape to the Guatemalan side of the border where he could find refuge among left- wing guerrillas there.

If Subcomandante Marcos survives for weeks, launches any form of successful counter-attack or simply manages to embarrass Mr Zedillo by issuing press statements, the President's own survival could be at stake. The PRI is already tipped to lose gubernatorial elections in the big state of Jalisco tomorrow to the conservative National Action Party - at least if the elections are clean - further reflecting its steady downfall after 65 years in power at the national level.

In his speech, Mr Zedillo revealed what many Mexicans had suspected: that the EZLN, unheard of before it launched its rebellion on 1 January last year, had cells beyond Chiapas. He said police had uncovered weapons arsenals last Wednesday in Mexico City and in the Gulf state of Veracruz which, he said, suggested the guerrillas had planned "new and greater acts of violence".

In fact, the arms caches hardly seemed capable of much more than the odd terrorist attack. They included one machine-gun, 10 pistols, 10 hand grenades and "22 sausage-shaped explosive devices".

"Unveiling" Subcomandante Marcos as a middle-class left-winger in his thirties, Mr Zedillo was at pains to point out that the EZLN leaders were "neither popular, nor indigenous, nor Chiapan". In Chiapas, however, everybody knew the guerrilla leader was white or of mixed race and well-educated. If anything, it made him more popular since he had risked his life on behalf of the Mayan Indians.

Mr Zedillo's television appearance was a complete turn-around from the conciliatory approach he and his predecessor, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, had taken since the start of the rebellion, which left 145 people dead before the two sides ceased fire on 12 January, 1994. Mr Zedillo even sent his Interior Minister, Esteban Montezuma, to the jungle to talk to Marcos last month. It was seen as an embarrassing climb-down for the government but it now seems likely Mr Montezuma gave the guerrilla chief an ultimatum.