By ANITA SNOW – Associated Press – January 03 1994
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico (AP) – Armed Indian peasants battled army soldiers Sunday on the second day of an uprising in one of Mexico’s poorest states. The Indians took over three towns near the Guatemalan border, and dozens were reported dead.
The worst fighting occurred in Ocosingo, after government troops were attacked by rebels. The Chiapasstate governor’s office in a statement late Sunday said 57 people – 30 soldiers and police, 24 rebels and three civilians – had been killed in Sunday’s fighting. At least eight died in fighting Saturday.
The rebels claimed they were from the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a previously unknown group named for the Mexican hero Emiliano Zapata. They said they were protesting abuses by the authorities against Lacandon Indians in the region and unspecified foreign economic domination.
In a related development Sunday, about 40 rebels kidnapped former Chiapasstate Gov. Absalon Castellanos Dominguez and two family members from Castellanos’ ranch near Comitan, the government news agency Notimex reported.
Rebels shortly before noon stole a truck, two cows and headed for the jungle with their captives, Notimex said.
Castellanos, a retired Mexican army major general, was governor from 1982 to 1988. Also kidnapped was his brother and his brother’s wife, the news agency said.
Witnesses spoke of peasants in red bandanas looting stores, wrecking government offices and burning official papers in rampages Sunday through at least four towns in southern Mexico.
Earlier, a presidential spokesman indicated that force would not be used to quell the insurrection, the first sign of organized guerrilla activity in Mexico since the 1970s.
A statement from the Secretary of Defense said soldiers in the area were ordered to stay in their barracks.
The Roman Catholic bishops of Tuxtla Gutierrez, the state capital, and Tapachula asked for a truce.
In Ocosingo, the army repelled an attack by an estimated 800 armed rebels, said Juan Carlos Sanchez, a reporter for the newspaper El Tiempo in a telephone interview. He said reporters counted 25 bodies.
The fighting mostly died down after sunset, and the army was in control, he said, adding that the town hall had been gutted. Residents said at least six people, including four police, died early Sunday.
The army also clashed with the Indians outside this popular tourist town as the Indians withdrew, leaving charred debris and ruined office equipment strewn about town.
Reporters counted 14 bodies after the battle, which erupted when an army patrol ran into a minivan carrying rebels near Rancho Nuevo, three miles south of San Cristobal. All the dead were rebels or suspected rebels.
A Defense Ministry statement confirmed the 14 dead, and said another 10 rebels and five soldiers were killed in the Rancho Nuevo area Sunday. Scattered fighting was reported in the area in the late afternoon.
In other deaths, Servin Martinez of the San Cristobal Red Cross said one person was killed there. Notimex said five police were killed in Las Margaritas.
“This whole thing has been terrifying for us,” said Hernan Pedrero, manager of the Santo Tomas Hotel on San Cristobal’s main plaza.
Pedrero said the 95 tourists staying at his hotel were taken to Tuxtla Gutierrez on Sunday under army escort.
The unrest began Saturday when the rebels attacked the towns of San Cristobal de las Casas, 50 miles east of Tuxtla Gutierrez; Ocosingo; Las Margaritas; and Altamirano. They moved into Chanal, a nearby village, on Sunday.
The group is named after Zapata, a popular hero of the 1910-17 Mexican Revolution who defended poor peasants’ rights to free land seized from wealthy landowners.
Lacandon and other Indian peoples in Chiapasstate have long been feuding with state and federal authorities, often over land. Only a few hundred Lacandon Indians remain in the area, living in a remote rain forest.
The unrest was the latest of many peasant uprisings over the years in Chiapas, one of Mexico’s most impoverished and isolated states. It is also the country’s most southern state.
“This region suffers from historic problems which could not be eliminated totally despite efforts by five years of this administration,” Deputy Interior Secretary Ricardo Garcia Villalobos said in a statement.
The federal government was watching the situation “but we have avoided the trap that they set for us, getting us to react violently,” a spokesman for President Carlos Salinas de Gortari said Sunday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Jose Luis Ruiz, an Ocosingo resident, by telephone that “several hundred” rebels had been in the town since Saturday.
“There’s shooting, bombs (grenades), machinegun fire,” he said. “A while ago it was horrible. We are under the bed, at home.”
Earlier, a man who refused to be named spoke of Mexican and Central American rebels in the town.
But the official news agency Notimex quoted a rebel spokesman, identified as “Lt. Manolo,” as saying that the rebels are Mexican and have been training for some time. He denied any ties with armed movements of other countries.
Another resident said the rebels, dressed as soldiers but with red bandanas, were looting stores, burning official records and demanding the keys to residents’ cars.
Monsignor Samuel Ruiz, bishop of San Cristobal, told The Associated Press the rebels “took everything” from the town hall and that residents helped themselves to typewriters and other items dumped in the street.
Lacandon and other Indian peoples in Chiapascomplain their land is being swindled away from them and their traditional way of life is slowly being destroyed by Western ways.