Zapatistas leave jungle for tour of Mexico designed to reshape summer presidential election
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico – Zapatista rebels aboard rickety trucks and buses Sunday left their jungle strongholds for the first time in four years to launch a six-month tour of Mexico aimed at reshaping the nation’s politics.Thousands of supporters cheered as the Indian rights movement’s ski-masked spokesman, Subcomandante Marcos, roared through the village of La Garrucha on a black motorcycle with a Mexican flag tied to the back and the initials of the Zapatista military army, EZLN, painted in red on the front.Led by Marcos, the caravan departed from the village of ramshackle huts on a trip that will take it to all 31 states and Mexico City in a bid to impact the July presidential election. The first stop was the mountain city of San Cristobal de las Casas, where rebel buses were met by other supporters who poured in from Zapatista villages across the region.About 10,000 rebels and sympathizers were planning to march on the city center late Sunday evening.Identified by Mexico’s government as a former university lecturer, Marcos has said the tour will allow Zapatista leaders to reach out to leftist groups across the country, creating a national movement that will “turn Mexico on its head.”The rebels have pledged to move away from armed struggle and toward politics, but the group has not clearly defined what form of political participation it will adopt.Marcos, known for the pipe and guns he often carries in public, has abandoned his military title in favor of the civilian moniker “Delegate Zero.”It is the first time the group has left its strongholds in the jungles of southernmost Chiapas state since a triumphant tour to Mexico City in the name of Indian rights that made international headlines in 2001. The Zapatistas largely disappeared from public view following that trip.President Vicente Fox ended 71 straight years of single-party rule when he took office in 2000, but is barred from running again. A favorite to replace him during elections in July is former Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party.In the run-up to the tour, which the Zapatistas call “the other campaign,” Marcos has sharply criticized Lopez Obrador. He also has said the Zapatistas won’t run for elected office or join Mexico’s mainstream political process.In speeches made on a wooden stage in La Garrucha’s main square before the tour began, regional rebel leaders offered kind words to non-Zapatista leftist groups, some who they have fought with in the past.”To the brothers who aren’t Zapatistas, we respect all of you, whatever your organization, party or religion,” said a masked man, introduced as the leader of La Garrucha, a rebel village. “We aren’t looking for a fight with anybody.”It has been 12 years since Zapatistas seized several Chiapas towns in the name of Indians rights and socialism. A cease-fire with government forces quickly took hold, but there has since been sporadic violence between rebel supporters and other Indian groups in southern Mexico.The first leg of the tour, which will take the delegation of Zapatista leaders from Chiapas to the U.S. border, is San Cristobal de las Casas.The mountainous city is where the Zapatistas started their rebellion on New Year’s Day 1994, when thousands of gun-toting Indians took over the mayor’s office and declared war on the Mexican government.Rebel supporter Alejandro Cruz, a 33-year-old high school teacher from Mexico City, said the Zapatistas could be looking to become an organization like the Brazilian landless peasant movement Sin Tierra, which doesn’t have its own candidates but has a strong influence on elections.”The tour is clearly part of a Zapatista strategy to get legal recognition,” Cruz said. “Without that they have a very uncertain future.”Zapatista peasant farmer Ricardo Mendez, 28, a native speaker of the Mayan tongue Tzeltal, said that the rebels want to expand their influence.”We will never die. Look how many of us there are,” Mendez said, pointing to thousands of masked men and women and children in the village square.Among the rebel’s sympathizers gathered in La Garrucha was a group organized by Higher Grounds, a company from Lake Leelanau, Michigan which buys coffee from Zapatista communities at prices about 50 percent above the market rate.Higher Grounds owner Chris Treter, 31, said the Zapatista ideas could resonate north of the Rio Grande.”There are a lot of people in Mexico and in the United States who are disenfranchised and are looking for a voice they can’t find in the political parties,” Treter said.