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Rebels Apparently Reject Mexican President Zedillo's Amnesty Offer

By Tod Robberson
The Washington Post

Rebels hiding out near this central town in Chiapas state warned President Ernesto Zedillo Thursday that he must withdraw Mexican troops from recently occupied areas and cease what they called harassment of civilians if he hopes to bring guerrilla leaders to the negotiating table.

Statements here by members of the rebel Zapatista National Liberation Army appeared to reject an amnesty offer that Zedillo issued Tuesday as he called off a short-lived military offensive across this southern state aimed at crushing the 13-month-old rebellion. Zedillo said he would rescind arrest warrants for several senior commanders if the Zapatistas put down their weapons and agree to peace talks.

"We are ready for dialogue, but we cannot talk as long as the army stays here," a rebel spokesman said Thursday, declining to identify himself. "Until they leave and stop harassing the people, nothing can happen."

"The government must understand that you cannot talk to someone who is chasing you," said Ana Maria, a masked rebel "major" who met with reporters near here late Wednesday. Zedillo "is not stopping the military advance. He talks of dialogue, but what is going on with the army?"

The rebel response, as well as the Zapatistas' clear demonstrations this week that they remain a cohesive armed force, added pressure on Zedillo to find a new formula for ending the conflict while simultaneously calming Mexico's nervous financial markets. Financial analysts say Zedillo must resolve the Chiapas rebellion quickly to restore investor confidence and ease a national economic crisis.

The peso, which crashed after the Zapatistas launched a new military offensive around Larrainzar on Dec. 20, reached an all-time low today as its closing value on exchange markets fell below 6 to $1-a more than 42 percent drop from its pre-devaluation rate. On Wednesday, the main Mexico City stock market index registered a 123 percent free-fall, losing 6.4 percent of its value to close for the first time in 17 months below 1,800 points.

"You can't send a bunch of troops down to Chiapas and create a military confrontation, and then expect the financial markets to regard this as a measure to restore stability," said Mexico City financial analyst Daniel Goldstein.

At the same time, however, international investors have been pressing the Zedillo government to take decisive action in Chiapas to eliminate the Zapatista rebellion as one of the chief sources of political instability in Mexico.

A memo last month by Chase Manhattan Bank's emerging markets group warned that a peaceful solution to the rebellion was "difficult to imagine" after face-to-face peace talks with the government one year ago failed to demobilize the rebels. The memo warned that the rebel leader known as Subcomandante Marcos "may decide to embarrass the government with an increase in local violence and force the administration to cede to Zapatista demands and accept an embarrassing political defeat."

"While Chiapas, in our opinion, does not pose a fundamental threat to Mexican political stability, it is perceived to be so by many in the investment community," the memo added. "The government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and of security policy."