ovantic, chiapas -- their faces covered by ski masks and red kerchiefs, the men and women of this important Zapatista community march defiantly down the misty mountain highway toward the military base. When the Indians arrive at the camp in Jolnachoj, they waste little time. First the stiff cyclone fence is peeled back and a second fence pushed aside. Once inside the perimeter, the rebels cut the communication cables so reinforcements cannot be summoned. Then, chanting "Chiapas is not a military base! Get the army out of here!," they advance as one on the retreating troops.
Later that December 31 morning, Mexican president Vicente Fox orders the evacuation of Jolnachoj to "permit tranquility" in this conflict zone. It's the second base he's ordered the military to shut down since taking office December 1; the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) has insisted that seven military installations located near rebel strongholds be dismantled as one condition for returning to the peace table.
On New Year's Eve at the Ovantic "Aguascalientes II" cultural centre, several thousand Tzotzil Indian EZLN supporters and a handful of outlanders celebrate the departure of the troops and the seven years of Zapatista resistance since they first took up arms on January 1, 1994.
Not all of those marching on the Jolnachoj base are Indians. Solidarity groups from Mexico City and other central Mexican states put on the ski mask to participate. The military, in a press bulletin issued December 31, charge that non-Mexicans have taken part in the action. Indeed, the "extranjeros" were not hard to spot -- several measure well over 6 feet, almost twice the size of many Indian marchers.
In the bad old days during the presidency of Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000), such intervention in domestic politics by foreigners would have been an automatic invitation to deportation. But Fox, in yet another gesture of reconciliation, has invited back those extranjeros once asked to leave and sometimes thrown bodily out of the country. "All we ask is that they obey our laws," states the new president.
The Fox administration's overtures to those expelled under Zedillo extend to seven foreign priests who once played prominent roles in the San Cristobal de las Casas diocese, then under the mandate of liberation theologist Samuel Ruiz. Perhaps the most egregious of the expulsions was that of Michel Chanteau, the French-born padre of the highlands community of Chenalho, where parishioners were massacred at Christmas 1997.
Soon after the killings, the Zedillo government summarily tossed Chanteau out of the country where he had laboured for 32 years. Also slated to return are five foreign priests barred from Mexico in 1995 in Zedillo's first crackdown on Bishop Ruiz's church.
Whether San Cristobal's latest bishop, Felipe Arizmendi, a religious and political conservative, will welcome the deported priests back to the diocese remains to be seen.
The New Year's Eve march on the military camp at Jolnachoj punctures the unusual holiday peace. Since the Zapatista uprising in January 1994, the season has always been marked by shootings, mass killings, invasions of rebel villages and the booting out of foreign visitors. Now the roads are empty of soldiers (and immigration agents), there are no air force overflights, and Zapatista prisoners are being released from state jails.
Even the confrontation at Jolnachoj is tempered by the military's eagerness to leave. "We knew they were all ready to go home -- they just needed a little push," muses the EZLN's chief highland comandante, David, at the Ovantic New Year's Eve fete.
Nonetheless, the forced shutdown of the base appears to have gotten the military's dander up. But rather than retire from encampments at Francisco Gomez, Roberto Barrios in the north of Chiapas and Cuxulja near the autonomous municipality of Moises Gandhi, the bases have been fortified with new troops, in defiance of EZLN conditions for a return to dialogue.
Withdrawal from a major installation at Guadalupe Tepeyac, 15 kilometres from the EZLN's most public outpost of La Realidad and a village that once housed the rebels, is even more problematic. Hundreds of Indians fled Guadalupe Tepeyac when the military invaded the town in February 1995 and installed a large base on the site of the one-time Zapatista headquarters.
The takeover at Jolnachoj appears to be one spur of a renewed EZLN effort to seize the initiative in Chiapas from Fox, whose impeccably timed pronouncements for peace have earned him international kudos. Rather than wait for the president to order the camp vacated, the rebels have forced evacuation in a tug-of-war for national attention.
But Fox, operating from the very centre of power, continues to hold the upper hand. This February, 24 of the rebels' general command, including Subcomandante Marcos, will travel to the capital to lobby congress to pass an Indian rights law and to try to steal the limelight from Vicente Fox.
"We will go to where the Señor speaks with many tongues but listens little," Comandante David, decked out in a beribboned ceremonial sombrero, proclaims on New Year's Eve.