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Questions Grow About Guerrilla Crackdown

February 11, 1995

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico (AP) _ Rebel fighters withdrew into the jungle ahead of an army advance as more questions arose Saturday about the government’s crackdown on guerrillas in southern Mexico.

Several of the 30 suspected members of the Zapatista National Liberation Army arrested in the crackdown have denied links to the rebel organization. One said her statements to police had been falsified.

The military continued to block journalists’ access into former rebel strongholds and information was sketchy about what has happened since Thursday, when President Ernesto Zedillo ordered the arrests of Subcomandante Marcos and other rebel leaders, breaking a yearlong truce.

And there was no word on the whereabouts of Marcos. ``That’s what we want to know, too,″ said Antonio Ocranza Fernandez, an Interior Ministry spokesman.

In a Feb. 2 letter to Interior Minister Esteban Moctezuma, published Saturday by the Mexico City daily La Jornada, Marcos said there were rumors that Mexico had promised to crack down on the Zapatistas in return for the recent multi-billion dollar bailout package announced by the Clinton administration.

``If that’s so, well, you can proceed as you want, we will fight to the last man,″ Marcos’ letter said.

Troops entered rebel territory in the southern state of Chiapas on Friday, and most of the rebels apparently slipped further back into the Lacondon Jungle without risking a fight.

Peace talks with the rebels had produced no agreement, and Zedillo is under pressure to take decisive action and rally Mexico’s battered peso and stock market after heavy losses blamed in part on recent rebel activity.

A high-ranking government official in Mexico City allowed last week that Marcos’ arrest would be important to the crackdown.

But the official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said the government believes it accomplished almost as much when it stripped the romantic mystery from the ski-masked leader, identifying him as Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente, the 37-year-old son of a middle-class businessman from the northern city of Tampico.

The Zapatistas rose up on Jan. 1, 1994, and more than 145 people were killed in fighting before a cease-fire took hold 12 days later.

The crackdown comes on the eve of Sunday’s gubernatorial election in the west-central state of Jalisco, where polls indicate that Zedillo’s governing party could suffer the worst loss in its 66-year history.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party admits to losing only two state elections anywhere in Mexico until now, and neither state is as large as Jalisco, whose capital is Guadalajara, the country’s second-largest city. Polls have repeatedly shown the governing party 10 to 20 percentage points behind the conservative National Action Party.

The government’s Notimex news agency reported Saturday that two soldiers were wounded when the army began its advance into rebel territory and they died later at a hospital in Comitan.

The Attorney General Office’s confirmed late Friday that an unknown gunman had shot and killed Lt. Col. Hugo Alfredo Manterola Cedillo, 48, as he rode in a small convoy near the village of Nuevo Momon, near Guadalupe Tepeyac. It said a second soldier was wounded.

Meanwhile, three alleged rebel leaders arrested so far have denied links to the Zapatistas.

Jorge Santiago Santiago, accused of being one of five top rebel commanders, told reporters on Friday that he did not know Marcos. Santiago, 50, works for a community development organization and is well-known in Chiapas.

In the state capital of Tuxtla Gutierrez on Friday, a man the government identified as guerrilla Subcomandante Vicente also denied a rebel connection. Jorge Javier Elorreaga said in court that his only contact with Marcos came during his work as a television news producer.

Also arrested was Elorreaga’s wife, Maria Gloria Benavides. She said in a Mexico City court that a widely publicized statement she allegedly made to police, which had identified Marcos, was falsified. ``The whole story was made up,″ newspapers quoted her as saying.

She said her statement was given while she was blindfolded and that she was forced to sign it without reading it.

She was arrested at her Mexico City home, where authorities said they seized rebel documents and two 9 mm pistols.

Authorities said 27 other rebel suspects have been arrested in Chiapas, Mexico and Veracruz states. Some have admitted to connections with the rebels, including a man who said he operated a weapons repair shop for them.

In Mexico state, two police officers were killed and three were wounded Thursday night during a raid on a rebel safe house on the outskirts of Toluca, west of Mexico City.

Police arrested 14 people and seized a dozen automatic firearms, a shotgun and ammunition. Authorities said the house was used to make rebel uniforms and that a small underground tunnel was used for target practice.

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