World

Tourist alert

A new rebel group threatens key visitor areas

PAV JORDON September 23 1996
World

Tourist alert

A new rebel group threatens key visitor areas

PAV JORDON September 23 1996

Tourist alert

MEXICO

A new rebel group threatens key visitor areas

At the edge of town, a roadside billboard proclaiming “We live in peace” shakes as a convoy of Mexican army vehicles rumbles by. Just outside Coyuca de Benitez—only 30 km from the resort city of Acapulco—soldiers at a military base stand ready to do battle with a new, little-known rebel group that is threatening the country’s stability amid a fragile economic recovery. Tanks and other armored vehicles patrol coastal roads normally used by peasants driving rusty old cars to local fish and fruit markets. Suddenly, the green hills and sandy beaches of Mexico’s sunny southern region have been turned into an armed camp—and the focus of a stern warning from Ottawa to the thousands of Canadian tourists who visit every year.

The trouble began late last month, when the mysterious Popular Revolutionary Army shocked Mexicans with widespread, simultaneous attacks against military and judicial police in Guerrero, where Acapulco is located, and four other southern states. By official accounts (considered low), 16 people died in the Aug. 28 clashes—including nine at a navy base in the state of Oaxaca—and at least three have been killed since. The rebel offensive reached into areas within an hour’s drive of the capital, Mexico City. It was clearly designed to send a powerful message to the government, coming four days before President Ernesto Zedillo’s second state of the nation address on Sept. 1 in

which he delivered an upbeat assessment of Mexico’s recovery since its financial crisis of December, 1994. The rebel group, known as the EPR, vowed to overthrow Zedillo’s “oppressive regime” and “return justice to the Mexican people.”

The EPR first surfaced on June 28 at a memorial ceremony near Coyuca for 17 peasants gunned down a year earlier by state police while on their way to a leftist rally. Masked and clad in clean-pressed uniforms and military boots, the rebels urged the people of Guerrero and the rest of Mexico to join them in overthrowing the federal government. The insurgents raised shiny,

brand-new AK-47 rifles into the air and fired 17 rounds of ammunition—one for each of the martyred peasants—before they faded into the rolling hills nearby. The undersecretary of the interior quickly dismissed the group as a “pantomime organization with no popular support base” whose leaders would easily be tracked down.

Then came the Aug. 28 offensive. With the death toll of government soldiers still rising, Zedillo has declared the EPR a terrorist group and stepped up his efforts to crush it. Officials have been at pains to differentiate

the Marxist EPR from the Maya Indian-based Zapatistas in far southern Chiapas state; the latter led a similarly unexpected uprising in early 1994, but have since renounced violence. Yet the Zapatistas claim the military is using the EPR threat as an excuse to crack down on the Chiapas movement as well. A recently stepped-up military presence in the Zapatistacontrolled Lacandon jungle has g raised tensions between the gov§ ernment and the supporters of the I masked professor known as Sub5 commandante Marcos. Shortly af8 ter the EPR uprising, the Zapatistas I pulled out of peace talks, demandi ing the release of additional prison3 ers and accusing the government of negotiating in bad faith.

The new strife, as well as high crime, prompted Ottawa last week to issue a strongly worded travel advisory for Canadians heading to Mexico this season—a rare move at a time when the two countries are promoting the North American Free Trade Agreement and trying to boost business ties. The advisory urges “extreme caution” in Chiapas and “caution and prudence” in the five states hit by the EPR. The leftist insurgents have warned that their next target will be Cancún, where many of the 400,000 Canadian tourists expected in Mexico this winter will vacation. Complicating matters for Zedillo, last week key business leaders in the rich northern state of Nuevo Leon—which borders Texas—joined a growing local movement to secede from the rest of the country.

The developments point to the vast gap between Mexico’s wealthy, U.S.-oriented north and its poorer south, which has much in common with strifetorn Central America. Many experts say the new rebel offensive in the south poses a major threat to the economic gains Zedillo has achieved since the devastating crash of the peso just after he took over in late 1994. Since the EPR hit the scene, the Mexican currency has oscillated between 7.52 and 7.62 pesos per U.S. dollar, a range financial experts consider far too wide. Eric Olsen, an analyst for the Washington Office on Latin America, a think-tank based in the U.S. capital, says the government’s failure to deal effectively with the EPR is cause for alarm among international investors and could prompt a new exodus of money, as happened in 1994. “The government has presented the EPR as a problem only in the southern states,” he said. “But investors are more sophisticated and aware of how volatile this situation actually is.”

At least two international brokers stationed in Mexico City, who asked that their names not be used, say that if rebel attacks escalate they will advise their clients to halt investment in Mexico. But others are more sanguine. “This situation should not be exaggerated,” says Herfried Woss, a Mexico City-based expert on international business law. “People invest in Ireland, despite bombings once a week, and in Spain, where the terrorist threat really touches the international business community.” Unless the EPR directly targets foreigners, Woss says, the effect on investment will be short term. “So far, this is a purely political matter.”

While economists may debate the EPR’s financial effect, there is no longer much dispute that the group is a threat to national security. Troops throughout the country are on alert. EPR safe houses and weapons caches have been uncovered from Chiapas in the south to Veracruz state on the east coast. Yet the rebels’ roots remain clouded, and theories abound on who is backing them. Some academics see a direct link to guerrilla movements active in Guerrero in the 1970s. Raul Javier Carmon, an expert on insurgency at the Autonomous University of Guerrero in Acapulco, says the EPR’s manifesto is nearly identical to one drafted by the

rebel Party of the Poor two decades ago. Says Carmon: “They have been planning for a long time and they are prepared.”

The government says it believes the EPR may be the armed wing of a leftist political group called the Clandestine Revolutionary Workers Party-People’s Union, formed in the 1970s by a former rector of the University of Oaxaca, Felipe Martinez Soriano.

Theories abound over who backs the leftist guerrillas

Soriano, jailed for murder in 1990, was moved to a maximum security prison soon after the EPR attacks began, on suspicions that he masterminded the offensive from his jail cell. He has denied any ties to the party or the EPR.

More sensationally, members of Mexico’s political opposition have linked the EPR to radical elements within the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, who oppose Zedillo’s bid to reform the political system that has kept the PRI in power for 70 years. Congressman Jose Alejandro Zapata Perogordo of the National Action Party, the leading opposition group, suggests that certain members in the ruling party are

dead set against ceding power to the opposition. “We’re not talking about casual protest here,” says Zapata, a vice-president of the chamber of deputies’ justice commission. “These people have co-ordinated their resources to create a significant military force for this offensive.” He and other opposition figures claim that PRI militants are secretly meeting with members of Zedillo’s cabinet to broker an EPR ceasefire. If the militants are not appeased, Zapata contends, rebel attacks may spread to urban areas, including Mexico City.

Whatever the source of the EPR, Zedillo has already come under criticism for labelling the new insurgents a terrorist group and summoning so much army muscle to quash them. “The government is making a grave error in thinking it can deal with a guerrilla group today with the same heavyhanded tactics it used in the ’70s,” says Acapulco scholar Carmon. “Nothing was learned from those years of bloodletting.” Washington-based Olsen believes the tactics may backfire and fuel popular support for the rebel army. Zedillo has declined an American offer of help in battling the masked fighters, saying it is an internal problem. Mexicans—along with foreign investors and tourists—can only hope the problem does not get worse.

PAV JORDON