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Peasant Violence in Chiapas Belies Talk of Peace

July 22, 1996

VENUSTIANO CARRANZA, Mexico (AP) _ A string of ruined homes, smashed and burned, dot the hills overlooking lush fields of sugar cane. Bewildered residents of this Chiapas hamlet stagger around shacks razed in a week of fighting that killed one peasant and injured dozens more.

Several women wail as they walk through the smoldering ruins of clay cooking pots and precious sewing machines. Their embroidered blouses are soaked with sweat. They are hungry and thirsty, they say.

While the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas have not fought government troops for more than two years, at least 17 Indian peasants have died since May in battles over land in this southwestern state.

The fighting last week in Venustiano Carranza, about 50 miles southeast of the state capital Tuxtla Gutierrez, shows how centuries-old land disputes are blocking efforts to bring peace to Chiapas.

It also reveals the bitter feud between peasants allied with Mexico’s long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, and those aligned with opposition parties.

The groups have different plans for 123,000 acres of land granted by the Spanish Crown in 1776 to the townspeople’s Tzotzil Indian ancestors. The PRI-allied group wants to divide the land, while the opposition would keep it united as communal land.

The Indians, united in poverty, are settling their differences with violence.

On Wednesday, a local PRI leader, Manuel Martinez de la Torre, was killed. Police say Martinez died when he violently resisted arrest. Opposition leaders say he died when police and PRI sympathizers stormed his group’s headquarters, backed by a police helicopter firing from the air.

After the slaying, opposition partisans reportedly set fire to homes of their PRI enemies. The fighting continued Sunday.

Marta Morales, 16, wept as she told how 30 men in ski masks attacked her home with sledgehammers and guns one day last week, knocking down walls and stealing the battered family truck.

She was surrounded by other women taking refuge on the patio of the San Bartolome de los Llanos Alliance, a PRI-linked organization. Shushing their whimpering children, the women blamed opposition peasants for the wave of destruction.

``They attack us because we respect authority, simply because we belong to the Institutional Revolutionary Party″ said Manuel Martinez Velazquez, 54, a leader of the organization.

The same bitterness boiled across town at the House of the People, a center for four peasant groups that oppose the PRI.

There, Raul Pimienta Fonseca, 36, charged that members of the Alliance kidnapped him, tried to shoot chili-peppered mineral water up his nose _ a common torture method here _ threw gasoline on the ground around him and threatened to burn him.

``I don’t see any possibility for peace,″ Fonseca said.

The question of land has not yet been taken up in negotiations between the government and rebels to end the 2 1/2-year uprising by the Zapatista National Liberation Army.

At least 145 people were killed in 12 days of fighting after the Jan. 1, 1994 rebellion.

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