From ......... National Catholic Reporter

October 7, 1994

page 6



By BILL and PATTY COLEMAN ......... Special Report Writers

SAN CRISTOBAL de las CASAS, Mexico—As the sun rose one day recently over this ancient mountain city, the fog dispersed and you could see the city hall where, on Jan. 1, Subcommandante Marcos stood on the outdoor balcony and denounced the Mexican government for repressing the poor.

That declaration marked the beginning of the Zapatista revolution that would throw Mexican politics into turmoil and catapult the rural Southern state of Chiapas and Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia onto the international stage.

But the revolution was hardly the final chapter, and Ruiz, who may be a hero of the rural poor and the indigenous people here, has also generated an increasingly vocal opposition among landowners and the business community.

On the morning of Sept. 21, several hundred well-dressed men and women scurried about the plaza in front of La Merced Church, intent on final preparations for their long-awaited chance to demonstrate against the man they called the "antichrist of San Cristobal." As they prepared, tiny Indian women, barefoot in the morning chill with babies on their backs and children clutching their knees, watched from the nearby street. They were on their way to the market to sell their popular little Subcommandante Marcos dolls to the tourists.

A Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round and other carnival rides surrounded the plaza because this was the barrio's anniversary. Their lights, which had burned all night, cast a festive air on the center of the plaza where a brass band was assembling for its part in the demonstration . A city truck arrived with professionally lettered posters that were quickly passed to the waiting crowd.

"The bishops are coming. They're coming," rippled through the crowd now gathered on the steps of the church, which dominates the plaza. Two station wagons, driven by federal judicial police drove past the protesters, and six bishops quickly entered the old church by a side entrance for a 7 a.m. Mass.

The protesters were enraged and began to denounce Ruiz with screams, chants and challenges to those who were now entering the church to attend the early morning liturgy. Some of the protesters' signs proclaimed that they were the "Authentic Coletos" (the real citizens of San Cristobal).

Other placards denounced Ruiz as the "Antichrist," "Enemy of the People," "Bishop of the Devil," and "Communist." Still others called for him to leave San Cristobal and to "Go to Cuba." A few wished death on foreign reporters, hippies and Indians.

The demonstrators, many of whom were officials in the city government and the ruling PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, signaled the band to begin. It blared its loudest music to disturb the Mass now beginning in the old baroque church. The angry mob chanted from outside, "Samuel, communist, leave now."

Inside the church, the Mass began in spite of the noise outside. Ruiz, mediator in the conflict between the government and the Zapatistas, was joined by five other bishops sent by the Mexican bishop's conference to search for ways to help the peace process in Chiapas and to support the obviously embattled Ruiz.

Amid the din of the screaming protesters and the band playing as loud as it could close to the church doors, Ruiz thanked the bishops for their visit, apologized for the embarrassment caused by the "Coletos" and reminded his listeners how important it is to love one's enemies, even when they do not love in return. "We are here in the Church of La Merced (God's Mercy)," he said. "Let us show mercy ourselves."

The confrontation's most poignant moment occurred as the Mass ended and Ruiz refused the suggestion of his six bodyguards that he leave by a side entrance. Instead, the bishops made their exit through the ornate church's main portal. Without a word being said, the 200 worshipers in the church formed a human shield for the bishops as they exited through the frenzied crowd of protesters to a waiting station wagon. Catcalls, pushing and shoving greeted the bishops. In the scuffle two women turned from screaming to pulling each hair.

An hour later, NCR spoke with merchants whose stores were close to the church. The walls along the street were filled with spray-painted graffiti. One read, "Vote for Peace. Kill Don Samuel." Another, "Death to the PRI Government." Still another, "Long Live the EZLN," referring to the Zapatista National Liberation Army. Posters sponsored by the Iberoamerican Solidarity Movement — often linked to Lyndon Larouche, an ultra-right U.S. candidate for president in 1988 — depicted Ruiz as a treacherous snake and called upon him to flee for his life.

Opposite the church, in a little storefront, sat Ignacia, a woman in her 80s who sold religious goods, candy and cigarettes. She called the demonstrators "hypocrites and detractors who only care about their own power and money."

Less than a block away, Luiz, an elderly tailor, applauded the demonstrators and promised that he and others like him would "drive the communist out." He said, "We have documented proof that (Ruiz) loves the Indians but hates the rest of us."

In a small bookstore, Julia commented, "He is probably a saint. Most of us are with him." When asked who Ruiz's enemies were, she rubbed her thumb and first finger together rapidly, indicating those who had money. Next door, Manuel, a tour guide, smiled as he explained what was happening. "The bishop has created this controversy. There is no injustice here in San Cristobal. We have lived peacefully with the Indians for over 500 years and never had a problem. The bishop is all mixed up in politics and we want our religion to be a comfort the way it used to be before he came."

When asked if it was true that some San Cristobal Catholics would no longer enter the cathedral, he said yes. "It was desecrated by the presence of those dirty Zapatista Indians who lived there like animals during the bishop's so-called peace dialogue. The cathedral must now be reconsecrated," Manuel said.

The story of the raucous demonstration made the front pages of local and national newspapers. The interim governor of Chiapas promised to investigate it. Yet, everyone knew that what happened in San Cristobal that Wednesday morning was only a symbol of the polarization sweeping Mexico.

In Chiapas, desperately poor peasants are occupying banana and coffee plantations and blocking highways. Fifty thousand troops of the Mexican army and the judicial police are harassing the mostly indigenous civilian population and the Zapatistas in their jungle stronghold. The military makes sorties into and flights over their territory, apparent attempts to intimidate or provoke a confrontation.

In Guerrero, an adjacent Southern state, 1,000 armed peasants have announced they are infiltrating Mexico City to make it their urban battleground. In Mexico City, students at the national university have called for an Oct. 2 demonstration in every city of the nation against the fraud in the recent elections.

Vincente Kramsky, a lifetime resident of San Cristobal, captured the somber mood of the country when asked if a revolution was coming. "No it isn't coming. It's already begun," he said.