From ............. Washington Post

National Weekly Edition

February 27 - March 5, 1995

page 17


Mexican rebels are waging a war of words in cyberspace

By Tod Robberson Washington Post Foreign Service

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico They have waged war on the ground with stick rifles and World War II vintage guns, but in fighting the international propaganda war, the rebels of the Zapatista National Liberation Army have invaded cyberspace.

With help from peace activists and rebel support groups here in southern Chiapas state the Zapatista message is spreading around the world, literally at lightning speed, thanks to telephone links to the Internet computer network.

Ever since the rebels, most of them peasant Indians, launched their uprising here 13 months ago, Chiapas has become one of the hottest informational topics on the Internet with computer linkups enabling Zapatista leader Subcommandante Marcos to circulate his communiques world-wide, at virtually the push of a button, via Internet bulletin boards like PeaceNet, Chiapas-List, Mexpaz and Mexico 94.

Two weeks ago, President Ernesto Zedillo became acquainted with the power at Marcos's fingertips through the Internet when the president announced the start of a military offensive aimed at capturing the ski-masked Zapatista leader and bringing the rebellion to a decisive close.

Within hours, "cyber-peaceniks" and human rights activists here and elsewhere in Mexico had distributed the president's words verbatim via the Internet—along with a call for "urgent action" to press Zedillo into reversing course. Included in their computer messages was the direct fax number to Zedillo's office, as well as the fax line to Interior Minister Esteban Moctezuma.

"I don't know how effective the campaign was, but I do know that Zedillo's fax machine broke or was eventually turned off," says Mariclaire Acosta, president of the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights. She estimates hundreds of faxes were sent to the president, who eventually changed tack and ordered his troops to halt their advance.

The Chiapas rebels are only the latest group embroiled in conflict or afflicted by disaster to use the Internet to disseminate information and opinion around the globe—and given the huge volume, apparently the most successful in mobilizing international support. Peru and Ecuador have used it in their border claims.

Warring factions in Bosnia, separatists in Chechnya and relief organizations in quake stricken Kobe, Japan, all circulated reports—some of which reached news organizations.

It remains a matter of speculation whether Marcos, recently identified by the government as Rafael Sebastian Guillen, or any other top Zapatista leader has hooked into the Internet directly, although acquaintances say the rebel leaders are no strangers to computers and high technology. When federal police raided alleged Zapatista safe houses in Mexico City and the southern state of Veracruz two weeks ago, they found as many computer diskettes as bullets. Reporters were allowed to examine the captured rebel computer equipment at a press conference in Mexico City

According to federal legislator Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, who met with Marcos at a jungle hideout last year, the rebel leader typically would write his voluminous communiques on a laptop computer, which he carried in a backpack and plugged into the lighter socket of an old pickup truck he used when traveling between the remote Zapatista strongholds of La Garrucha andGuadalupe Tepeyac. Today, both villages are firmly under Mexican army control, while the whereabouts of Marcos and his followers remains a mystery.