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Peace Talks Cast Spotlight on Marginalized Indians Across Mexico

October 19, 1995

SAN ANDRES LARRAINZAR, Mexico (AP) _ Talks on ending a guerrilla uprising in southern Mexico focused Thursday on calls to grant greater autonomy to the Indians who led the armed revolt and ethnic groups across Mexico.

The negotiations are the largest and most substantive since failed peace talks just after the January 1994 uprising in Chiapas state. Guerrilla leaders, government representatives and Indian activists are participating.

One after another, indigenous leaders from all over Mexico said granting about 96 Indian groups greater autonomy would help solve the problems that had fueled revolt in the south and discontent nationwide.

At least 145 people were killed in the two-week uprising that began on Jan. 1, 1994. There has been no serious fighting since then, but the mostly Maya Zapatista rebel army has refused to lay down its arms until its demands are met.

The rebels want better housing, health care, human rights and job opportunities _ demands backed by other Indian groups that support autonomy.

``We want the right to have our own form of justice, our own laws,″ said Thaayrohyadi Bermudez, an Otomi Indian from Mexico State.

The government must help solve such problems ``to prevent more armed uprisings,″ Bermudez warned. ``And not only with the Indians in Chiapas, but in the entire country.″

More than 250 people opened the talks Wednesday in San Andres Larrainzar and nearby San Cristobal de las Casas, both near the Guatemalan border.

The talks are the first since February 1994 dealing directly with the root causes of the rebellion. Most negotiations since then have dealt only with procedure.

Indigenous people from as far away as Alaska and Argentina have sent delegations as observers.

``Autonomy is the demand of many national indigenous organizations,″ said Domingo Lopuz Dol, a leader of evangelical Chamula Indians in Chiapas.

However, not all indigenous leaders were convinced that autonomy was the best route.

``We do not agree with indigenous autonomy, because it would mean discrimination, separatism and racism,″ said Felipe Hernandez Arias, a Mayan who represents several ethnic groups in Chiapas. ``When the nation is united, there is better progress and development for everyone.″

While divided on autonomy, most Indian groups say they learned a valuable lesson from the uprising.

``We were also learning to organize ourselves,″ said Teofilo Soriano Ribero, a 70-year-old Chocho Indian from Oaxaca state in southern Mexico.

Up to 20 million Indians live in Mexico, a country of about 90 million people. Indians suffer double the average rates of illiteracy and infant mortality.

Many of their activists called for a greater say in formulating laws, administering justice and ensuring their rights to land.

The government appeared intent on hearing their complaints.

``This is not a cosmetic event. We are looking for real solutions, solutions that come not just from the mouth of the Zapatista Army, but from the mouths of many,″ government negotiator Jorge del Valle said.

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