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Mexican Zapatistas celebrate 9th anniversary with anti-government protests

ALEJANDRO RUIZ; Associated Press Writer

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico Associated Press Worldstream January 1, 2003

Wednesday Thousands of Zapatistas thronged the streets of this historic colonial city Wednesday to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the rebel group's uprising against a government that they say continues to betray them. Carrying machetes and wearing their trademark ski masks, the Zapatistas rolled into town aboard more than 200 trucks and buses for the first joint celebration of the rebels' takeover of San Cristobal and several other towns on Jan. 1, 1994. At least 57 people died in battles between the Zapatistas and government troops during the short-lived rebellion. The rebels have waged a peaceful struggle since then.

Previous anniversaries had been celebrated in individual villages; this year's event brought together more than 15,000 Zapatista sympathizers from towns throughout the region, some as far as 300 kilometers (185 miles) away. In a march to the city's central plaza, the rebels knocked their machetes together and against the asphalt pavement, yelling chants in favor of Indian rights and against the government as intrigued visitors to this popular vacation city snapped photos or shied away intimidated.

Among the rebels were women carrying small babies in their arms. Some protesters carried banners critical of President Vicente Fox that read "Fox equals Zedillo," a reference to former President Ernesto Zedillo, who took office just weeks before the 1994 uprising. Fox made the Zapatistas his first priority after he assumed the presidency in December 2000, closing a number of military bases in rebel territory and backing an Indian rights bill championed by the Zapatistas. Led by leader Subcomandante Marcos, the rebels and hundreds of their supporters made a two-week pilgrimage to Mexico City in March 2001 in favor of the bill. But the Congress passed a watered-down version of the bill that the Zapatistas unanimously rejected.

Marcos had been silent for more than a year before he resurfaced last November with a letter published in the newspaper La Jornada that blasted all of Mexico's political parties and criticized Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon. Garzon is perhaps best known for his effort to bring former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to trial for human rights abuses. This latest communique drew criticism from Mexican intellectuals who previously had supported Marcos and his cause.

Last month, the peace envoy in charge of negotiating an end to the 9-year-old conflict between the government and the Zapatistas said that Zapatista rebel commanders had lost the trust of many of their supporters. "I think Marcos has been left behind," Luis Alvarez said. In his November letter, Marcos denied the pro-Indian movement was "finished," but did acknowledge that the National Zapatista Liberation Army was suffering from "disorganized rebellions."

In 1994, the rebels timed their takeover of San Cristobal and other towns to coincide with the day the North American Free Trade agreement went into effect. Since then, the Zapatistas have become icons for the so-called anti-globalization movement worldwide. On Wednesday, as they celebrated their ninth anniversary, key elements of NAFTA went into effect as tariffs on nearly 80 U.S. agricultural goods dropped from 49 percent to zero. Mexican farmers groups have complained that without the tariffs they won't be able to compete with their U.S. counterparts. Major farm groups had threatened to block bridges along the length of the U.S.-Mexican border on Wednesday to protest the dropped tariffs but backed down after the government promised to work on a national accord in favor of farmers. Despite the agreement, an organization representing other Mexican farm groups held small protests against NAFTA on New Year's Eve on the border between Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Texas. A dozen of the protesters also began what they said would be three days of fasting.

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