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Death Count Passes 100 in Southern Mexico Rebellion

By Juanita Darling
Los Angeles Times

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico

The death count exceeded 100 Monday on the third day of fighting between the army and Indian guerrillas who captured -- and largely abandoned -- eight towns in the southern state of Chiapas.

The guerrillas also reportedly kidnapped the former state governor and executed five members of a prominent ranching family.

The state's three Roman Catholic bishops are offering to serve as mediators between the government and the Zapatista National Liberation Army, as the guerrillas call themsleves. They are demanding better living conditions and democracy for the inhabitants of the impoverished state with its largely indigenous population on the border with Guatemala.

President Carlos Salinas de Gortari called for an end to the violence and for unity among citizens to confront the nation's problems. During a ceremony at the presidential palace, he acknowledged that his economic reform program has not yet benefited all sectors of Mexican society.

"We know that needs and inequalities persist," Salinas told legislators. "We know that benefits and opportunities still are not tangible realities for many."

The economic reform program, particularly the North American Free Trade agreement, which took effect Jan. 1 -- the day the crisis began -- was one of the main targets of criticism by the guerrillas on Sunday in a lengthy declaration of war.

They said NAFTA, an agreement among the United States, Mexico and Canada to eliminate trade barriers over a 15-year period, is an example of growing foreign influence in their country and an economic policy that favors the rich.

New Social Development Minister Carlos Rojas said in a news conference in Mexico City that Chiapas has received more money than any other state from the Solidarity poverty alleviation program.

He announced the creation of a committee of state and federal officials to devise projects to address the state's problems.

Overall, federal spending in Chiapas has risen more than tenfold in the past five years to $250 million last year, Diaz said.

In a Mexico City press conference, Socorro Diaz, undersecretary of the interior, said the guerrillas are "influenced and manipulated" by similar Central American groups. The Indians have denied any foreign ties.

Diaz acknowledged that the government had received information about arms smuggling and military training camps on the Guatemalan border in the final months of last year. As recently as November, officials in her ministry were denying the existence of guerrilla groups here.

"A long-standing backwardness in the area obligated us to act with extra prudence and caution," she explained.

A military spokesman in Guatemala said that the government had not ruled out the possibility that members of the leftist Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit were helping the Mexican guerrillas.

And one rebel leader told Mexico's official news agency Notimex that the Zapatistas had trained in the jungle in Chiapas, which borders Guatemala.

Meanwhile, the government increased security forces in Guerrero, another southern state that was the base of operations for guerrilla groups wiped out two decades ago.

The guerrillas have withdrawn from at least three of the five towns captured New Year's Day, including this tourist center, the state's second-largest city. However, they have captured three new towns: Oxchuc, Huixtan and Guadalupe Tepeyac.

Mexican reporters who tried to enter Huixtan said they were captured by a group claiming to be part of the guerrilla movement and charged a $230 "war tax" to be set free. One journalist, Ismael Romero of the Mexico City daily La Jornada, was shot in the shoulder at a military checkpoint.

The niece of Absalon Castellanos, governor of the state from 1982-1988, claimed that Castellanos was been kidnapped by guerrillas at his ranch 22 miles east of Comitan, another tourist attraction that the rebels have said they intend to invade. Castellanos is also the former Chiapas regional army commander.

He was reportedly put in his own truck and driven toward the Lacandon jungle, where the guerrillas are believed to have trained.

The U.S. Embassy sent five representatives to Chiapas on Monday to help Americans find safety or a way out if they chose. It was not known how many Americans were in the state, a popular tourist destination for its scenery and traditional architecture and culture.