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Mexico Rebels Wield Vote As Weapon

June 26, 2000

ACTEAL, Mexico (AP) _ The last time Mexico elected a president, Zapatista rebels had seized a major city, destabilized the economy and changed the way the world thought about Mexico. This time, they have pledged not to stand in the way of the July 2 elections.

``We’re just asking for change, that the presidents don’t keep doing what they’re doing _ sending people to kill us,″ said Manuel Perez, who lives in this village where 45 Indians were gunned down 2 1/2 years ago for supporting the rebels.

``The government supporters all have to vote, so if we don’t they’ll win all the posts.″

Subcomandante Marcos, the rebel leader who sent Mexico into crisis on Jan. 1, 1994, with an armed rebellion in support of Indian rights, said that unlike in recent elections, his supporters are free to vote.

``We won’t block the federal elections. ... We believe the elections represent, for millions of people, a dignified and respectable battlefield,″ he said in a statement faxed to The Associated Press.

But the Zapatista supporters are unlikely to make much of a difference. Indians in this area of lush mountains and scraggly corn fields vote overwhelmingly for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

In nearby Chenalho, the municipal seat which includes Acteal, a top local official said he didn’t know much about the elections because the logistics were all being handled by the local PRI coordinator. ``He’s the only one who knows about that kind of thing,″ said Municipal Secretary Manuel Arias Vazquez.

The local PRI electoral coordinator, Carlos Ortiz Perez, said he didn’t expect any trouble. Three of the 43 polling places in Chenalho are in villages that support the rebels. ``We’re working very peacefully. We don’t want problems. We want peace and unity,″ he said.

The number of rebel supporters has been dwindling as the government invests heavily in the state and the Zapatistas have few resources to solve problems on their own.

While the government has paved roads, installed water pipes and showered agricultural subsidies on villages that support the ruling party, Zapatista supporters _ who refuse all government aid _ have remained in the poverty that sparked the rebellion in the first place.

Many are even worse off, because political tensions have forced them to abandon their homes for temporary housing in other villages, like Acteal, where there is little land to farm.

``A lot of the Zapatistas’ people are disillusioned,″ said Nicandro Maza of the Kolping Cultural Center, an international lay group associated with the Roman Catholic Church. ``For them it’s better to abandon their fight and go live somewhere where they can be more comfortable.″

Added Araceli Burguete, a political sociologist who studies the area: The Zapatistas ``have ceased to be seen as a solution.″

``In 1994, they were seen as a way to solve problems, and they haven’t. The PRI and the government have.″

Vicente Luna Ruiz, 29, lives in a wooden-plank house in Acteal, sharing a single dirt-floor room with 21 members of his extended family. He said soldiers burned his relatives’ house and threatened to kill him if he returned to his own.

``There are really too many of us, 22 people, in just one house, and it’s very uncomfortable,″ he said. ``We can’t even go out to work because the paramilitaries are there.″

One of the residents of the house, his 6-year-old niece Zenaida, was blinded by a bullet that pierced her brain during the Dec. 22, 1997, attack that killed her parents.

``We all want change now,″ said Luna, who like most Zapatista supporters, plans to vote for the left-wing Democratic Revolution Party. ``Because if the PRI wins again, if the government stays on, they’ll keep killing us.″

When the Zapatistas rose up and briefly seized the main city of Chiapas’ highlands, San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico’s economy tumbled. The government sent in tens of thousands of soldiers, who have been accused of human rights violations. Several soldiers were charged in connection with the Acteal massacre.

The Zapatista uprising _ as well as the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio _ were seen as major factors pushing PRI candidate Ernesto Zedillo to a landslide victory in 1994, because people were afraid and voted for stability.

The Zapatistas told their supporters to vote in 1994, but ordered them not to in all elections since then. Other rebel groups, notably the Popular Revolutionary Army based in Guerrero state, are telling their supporters not to vote July 2.

Human rights groups say the heavy military presence in the area would keep many rebel supporters from voting.

``The increase in roadblocks and the police and military presence ... create terror and intimidation among the population that wants to participate in these elections,″ said Porfirio Encino, spokesman for a coalition of some 200 social organizations in Chiapas.

But, the commanding officer of the army base near Acteal, a lieutenant colonel who would not give his name due to military regulations, said his forces would remain in barracks on election day unless there is a problem.