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Voters Vent Steam in Referendum on Peasant Uprising, Economy

February 26, 1995

MEXICO CITY (AP) _ With a rebellion simmering and their economy faltering, thousands of Mexicans vented frustration at their nation’s leadership Sunday in a civic organization’s nationwide public opinion survey.

The unofficial referendum was sponsored by Civic Alliance, a broad-based organization that monitors voting and represents more than 100 civic and human rights groups, many of them government opponents.

About 5,000 voting stations were set up nationwide, a spokesman said. Results were expected Monday.

The phrasing of the three yes-or-no questions apparently was designed to dramatize popular frustration with the way the government has been run in recent years:

_Should former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, whose six-year term expired in December, be prosecuted for mishandling the economy?

_Should Congress reject last week’s U.S. bailout package that will funnel $20 billion to Mexico?

_Should new President Ernesto Zedillo seek only a peaceful settlement of the peasant uprising in the southern state of Chiapas?

One voter, mailman Roberto Camacho, 30, said the government, which sent thousands of troops to pursue the rebels earlier this month, ``is trying to suffocate a legitimate demand″ by peasants for land, jobs and access to public services.

Architect Alfredo Inigo, 39, said the government should pursue officials who ``robbed″ Mexico during Salinas’ presidency.

Last week, the government accepted a $20 billion loan package from the United States. Its main goals: to stabilize Mexico’s peso, which has lost about 40 percent of its value since mid-December, and to control inflation through an austerity program that includes high interest rates.

The arrest last week of two men charged with complicity in last year’s assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was not on the ballot. It was, however, on people’s minds.

``I don’t think it (the official investigation) should be declared over,″ said Feliciano Espinosa, 29, a bartender. ``Those arrested only shot the guns, supposedly. They aren’t the ones really responsible.″

``There are people very important behind the scenes,″ Inigo said. ``The government is protecting them.″

Colosio was the candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. Referendum voters seemed not only angry, but disappointed and despondent. Because of soaring interest rates, their mortgages are rising faster than their paychecks; they fear any new fighting in Chiapas might end in a massacre.

The Zedillo government sent soldiers into Chiapas beginning Feb. 10. Troops secured roads and towns but have made little effort to pursue rebels into the mountains and jungle.

On Sunday, several hundred ranchers gathered outside the 16th-century Roman Catholic cathedral in San Cristobal de las Casas and threatened to force the predominantly Indian peasants off their land if state and national authorities don’t. The ranchers say peasants have stolen their cattle and land since the rebels began their uprising on Jan. 1, 1994.

One Mexico City voter identified with the rebels, known as the Zapatistas.

``I’m with the peasants,″ said Juan Angel Tavison Rios, 61. ``I’m the same as them. They’re the same as me.″