Mexico City -- for 57 days, the Ants and the Bees walked single-file along roadsides, through foggy forests, over steep mountains, through broad valleys and across rivers in the rain and the cold and the heat of day, nearly 1,400 kilometres from the highlands of Chiapas to the capital of their country. Now, the 300 pilgrims advanced up the final stretch before their destination, the bustling, shoe-store-cluttered commercial strip that flanks the traditional passage to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose annual veneration December 12 is both Mexico's maximum religious celebration and a fiesta of nationalist fervour.The Ants ("Xi'Nich" in Mayan Chol) and the Tzotzil Maya Bees ("Las Abejas") had set out in October from Acteal, where three Christmases ago paramilitaries affiliated with the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) massacred 46 members of the Abejas Civil Association, a coffee-growing and honey-gathering cooperative.
December 22, 1997, the day of the massacre, is a sacred day of remembrance on the Chiapas Christian calendar. And the soil of Acteal, soaked with the blood of martyrs, is now a holy relic of the struggle of Mexico's Indians for peace and justice. As they streamed toward the capital, the Ants and the Bees sprinkled handfuls everywhere they visited.
Both the Abejas and the Xi'Nich are supporters of the rebel Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN).
The footsteps of the Ants and the Bees as they marched up to Mexico City "sounded like drumbeats on the hearts of the Zapatistas," Subcomandante Marcos wrote of the pilgrimage in a recent communique.
The journey from the conflict zone to the shrine of the Virgin was slow and arduous but, like the creatures for which the Indians have named their organizations, unstoppable. Fed by villagers along the way and housed in churches like medieval pilgrims, the Mayans had brought their message of peace and justice to a broad swath of Mexico's Indian south.
Now, decked in beribboned ceremonial sombreros and brilliant red huipiles, the Ants and the Bees were filled with cautious hope.
"The winds of democratic change that are blowing across Mexico depend not only on the politicians but on the will of God as well," the Xi'Nich leader Victor Guzman read in a joint letter before the group filed into the modernist basilica, the most important (and profitable) religious shrine in all of the Americas.
The Mayans had been invited to Mexico City to participate in a jubilee-year conclave of the nation's indigenous peoples organized by the Mexican Council of Bishops to coincide with the Saint's Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The event was apparently designed to prod the Vatican into the long-awaited canonization of Juan Diego, the Indian who is alleged to have been the first Mexican to be visited by the Brown Madonna.
Juan Diego's subsequent conversion became the cornerstone of the Catholic evangelization of indigenous America. But doubt about whether Juan Diego ever really existed or was simply invented by the Church to speed conversion (and conquest) has been holding up his canonization.
On the day of his inauguration, December 1, Vicente Fox became Mexico's first modern president to express his devotion to the "Virgencita" when he made his own personal pilgrimage to the Basilica.
As the holiday season washes over Mexico and the candlelit posada processions pass from house to house symbolically seeking sanctuary for the birth of the baby Jesus, it is suddenly a time of hope here, particularly in the long-savaged state of Chiapas. Fox, the nation's first opposition president after seven decades of PRI dictatorship, set the tone at his inauguration when he ordered the dismantling of some military checkpoints in the conflict zone, and sent the Indian rights treaty negotiated in the San Andreas highlands in 1996 on to congress for ratification. The so-called San Andres Accords would guarantee limited autonomy for Mexico's 56 distinct Indian peoples.
In response to the new president's overtures, the EZLN, which does not share Fox's neo-liberal plans for Chiapas (he suggests bringing maquiladoras, foreign-owned assembly plants, to the jungle), broke its five- month silence.
Subcomandante Marcos now speaks of renewed peace negotiations and even of accompanying 23 comandantes up to Mexico City to lobby congress for passage of the Indian rights law -- his first-ever appearance in the big city and an event that was unthinkable during the Zedillo regime.
There's a tantalizing possibility of a Marcos-Fox tete-a-tete and photo op that would be a giant plume in the new president's cap.
All this bubbling optimism must have the rebels pinching themselves. After years of harassment and confrontation by and with the government and the military, rumours float that Fox will soon demilitarize the entire conflict zone, creating a "white" area much as in Colombia, where the Pastrana government has allowed guerrillas free rein in an Amazon jungle region.
For the comandantes, such rumours must seem a little like Christmas morning -- or, more accurately, the Day of the Innocents (December 28), the Mexican April Fool's Day. Thus far, redeployment has been limited to taking down the checkpoints, a move that some generals consider equivalent to retreat despite the fact that there's been no reduction in troop strength.
The "white zone" floated by the Fox brain trust exceeds Marcos's wildest pipe dream. Indeed, even he hasn't asked that the military completely abandon southeastern Chiapas -- only that seven key outposts located adjacent to EZLN strongholds be closed down.
But hope has a way of turning sour when it meets the Mexican reality. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation has been betrayed before. In January 1995, the then president of Mexico offered peace but instead sent 30,000 troops into the jungle to arrest the rebel leadership and occupy Zapatista villages.
Should congress consign Indian rights to the legislative dust bin, there will be no resumption of peace negotiations. The two sides will slip back into the stalemate that doomed Fox's predecessors, Carlos Salinas and Ernesto Zedillo, from whom he inherits this treacherous imbroglio, to failure and humiliation in Chiapas.
The hopes Vicente Fox has showered on the conflict may yet be disappointed. The new president needs a well-publicized peace both to establish his political credibility and to stimulate the investment flow upon which macro-economic growth depends.
In this light, Fox is marketing his peace offensive just as enthusiastically as he marketed both Coca-Cola when he headed up that transnational's operations in Mexico and his own come-from-behind climb to Los Pinos, the Mexican White House.
As a political marketer, Fox has no equal in Mexican history, except perhaps the Roman Catholic Church's successful selling of the miracle of the Virgin of Guadalupe to the nation's Indian peoples to consolidate European conquest. That event was once again fervently celebrated all over Mexico on December 12.