They are also calling for the closure of all of the city's Roman Catholic churches in protest against the city's bishop, Samuel Ruiz, whom they accuse of inciting the Zapatista rebellion, ..."

Wire Service: RTw - Reuters World Report



Date: Sat, Mar 19, 1994

By Janet Duncan

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico, March 20 (Reuter) - This colonial city, site of peace talks between Mayan rebels and the government, has become a hotbed of tension as residents plead for a return to normalcy and impoverished Indians from outlying areas seek to make their demands heard.

Contributing to the tension is the need to wait for the rebels of the self-styled Zapatista National Liberation Army to respond to the tentative accord it reached with the government earlier this month.

Strengthened by the success of the Zapatistas in bringing the government to the bargaining table, local indigenous people are stepping up land takeovers.

A conservative citizen's group calling itself the "Authentic Coletos," a reference to the ponytails worn by Spaniards who founded the city over 450 years ago, is protesting the land grabs and the use of the city as a magnet for those seeking political or religious change.

The Indians, many expelled from their home towns for political or religious reasons, have seized land here and in Ocosingo, Altamirano, Chenalho and other nearby communities.

The land grabbing and the flood of outsiders -- journalists, Indians from other states and others -- have triggered a backlash from some residents.

The city, with its elegant arcaded mansions, restful patios and pastel-toned churches, was founded in 1528 as the Spanish colonial capital of the region.

It was named after Bartolome de Las Casas, a Spanish priest who was the city's second bishop and a passionate defender of the indigenous peoples of Chiapas.

Las Casas, who became known as the "Defender of the Indians," campaigned for the humane treatment of the Indians and for the return of lands seized from them by the Spaniards.

Nearly a thousand ranchers and San Cristobal residents marched together Saturday, calling for a return of all land that has been invaded and a seat at the peace talks between rebel and the government.

There is speculation also that landowners have begun to beef up their so-called "white guards," security forces they say protect their land from squatters.

They are also calling for the closure of all of the city's Roman Catholic churches in protest against the city's bishop, Samuel Ruiz, whom they accuse of inciting the Zapatista rebellion, begun on New Year's Day.

Traders say the tumult in the city jeopardises its annual festival held right after Holy Week, a peak tourist period.

Others see the Coletos, led by municipal president Jorge Mario Lescieur Talavera, as standing in the way of necessary social change in this impoverished state.

"They set about sowing (ideas) among their neighbours but only to justify themselves, only out of fear for their possessions, nothing more," said Amado Avendano, editor of the town's daily newspaper El Tiempo.

Some of the Indians seizing land in the area are evangelical Christians who have been driven out of places such as San Juan Chamula by conservative Roman Catholics.

"There is no land (available) there," said Antonio Hernandez Gomez, the leader of an indigenous group that is squatting on land on the western outskirts of the city. He said they hope the government will buy the land for them.

As part of its response to the Zapatistas' demands, the government promised to resolve land conflicts in Chiapas under the terms of an umbrella indigenous rights law.

Government peace envoy Manuel Camacho Solis met residents including Coleto members last week, securing what he called their "complete support" for the peace process.

But Ruiz says signing a peace agreement can only go so far in resolving the state's deep-seated cultural problems.

"We cannot say that peace will come about because there is a signing. It requires a personal conversion, a different attitude and the imparting of justice not only by the authorities but in our relations with people," Ruiz said.

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