michoacan, chiapas -- over sixweeks after the Mexican Congress gutted the Indian Rights law for which the rebel Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) has battled for the better part of the last decade, the silence from the cloud-shrouded mountains of southeastern Chiapas is pregnant with questions.Just a few months after their historic march on Mexico City, the Zapatistas are nestled in their jungle mountain camps as the rains that will stretch on into October descend in sheets over the Lacandon forest.
But the comandantes have not uttered a syllable since they broke off communication with the government of freshman president Vicente Fox on May 1, the day after Mexican legislators removed from the Indian Rights bill key sections granting autonomy to the nation's 57 distinct Indian peoples.
The original text of the law was prepared by a congressional oversight commission (the COCOPA) and was based on a 1996 agreement between the EZLN and Mexican government representatives.
The now eviscerated "Indian Rights" law was overwhelmingly voted up by representatives of both Fox's right-wing National Action Party (PAN) and the once-ruling (71 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which together hold the vast majority of seats in both houses of the Mexican legislature.
More than half the members of the multi-party COCOPA that framed the original text -- the only text endorsed by the EZLN -- voted in favour of the mutilated law.
The current silence is not the most protracted period of mumness for the unorthodox Chiapas-based rebels, but coming as it does on the heels of the Zapatistas' maximum media moment during the march to Mexico City for Indigenous Dignity, the quiescence of the comandantes is disquieting to the Fox regime.
"I am completely confused by the behaviour of the EZLN," professes Rodolfo Elizondo, administration point man on Chiapas and one-time member of the COCOPA.
But while the Zapatistas have clammed up, other Indian voices haven't. Linked together by the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), a representative assembly of most of Mexico's Indian nations, local leaders have gone on the warpath against the "Indian Rights" law as it makes its way through Mexico's 31 state congresses. (Because the law contains constitutional amendments, it must be ratified by half of the state legislatures.)
Setting up camp in front of state congress buildings, the Indians and their accomplices in the civil society hold candlelight vigils and perform traditional rituals. Conchero dancers circle the bonfires demanding that local politicos respect the rights of Indians and their cultures and reject ratification of the gutted bill.
"They have mutilated the Indian law. This is not the same law we wanted," the Yaqui Council of Elders testified to the Sonora state legislators. "We are neither deaf nor dumb nor ignorant Indians -- this law does not respect the accords," Huichol tribal elders wrote to President Fox. "Listen to our voices! Listen to our words!" pleaded the three nations of the Tarahumara sierra -- Raramuri, Tepehuan and Pima -- to the congress of Chihuahua.
Under a banner that read "Never Again A Mexico Without Us!," the Purepecha Nation marched to the great doors of the congress in Morelia, Michoacan. "This law must be rejected," demanded CNI founder Juan Chavez, who recently brought Purepecha realities to the attention of the Peoples' Summit of the Americas during April's free trade conclave in Quebec City.
When representatives of four Indian nations occupied the local legislatures in neighbouring Guerrero for three days, the state attorney general threatened to prosecute them for a variety of high crimes, including sedition and treason. Both Guerrero and Michoacan have scheduled open forums to explore indigenous resistance to the "Indian Rights" law. The forums will prolong the ratification debate for months.
Despite the outspoken opposition of those whom the "Indian Rights" law would supposedly serve, the PRI-PAN steamroller has put ratification of the controversial measure on the fast track in the state congresses they control. PRI-run Veracruz was the first to vote approval, followed by Puebla. Both are states with large Indian populations.
Mexico's state congresses have traditionally been boss-controlled, discredited by rampant back-biting, bickering and fisticuffs, and rife with flagrant bribe-taking and favour-buying. Each local congress obeys a distinct dynamic. For instance, despite still being a PRI-dominated entity, Oaxaca, which has 1.6 million Indian citizens and its own questionably progressive Indian Rights law, voted down ratification. Oaxaca state governor Jose Murat is at odds with the national PRI leadership.
One of the most intriguing state congress votes on ratification looms in Tamaulipas, on the east Texas border, where the leader of the PRI majority is Mercedes Guillen, sister of Rafael Sebastian Guillen (which the government insists is Subcomandante Marcos's true identity).
The most crucial battle for ratification is shaping up in the Chiapas legislature, the area where the Zapatista struggle first blossomed and where failure to stop the fake Indian Rights law would be a cruel blow to rebel fortunes. At present, the congress appears deadlocked 20 to 20, with half the PRI majority lining up behind Governor Pablo Salazar, an ex-PRIista who ran as an opposition candidate and who, as president of the COCOPA, was instrumental in framing the original Indian Rights law. Salazar is opposed to ratification of the mutilated text.
Angry mobilizations of the state's million-plus Mayan Indians are expected to accompany the ratification process .
In interviews, Salazar is less than sanguine about chances for rejection of the "Indian Rights" law, calculating that only two or three states will vote no. At this writing, in baseball terms, the yeses are whipping the nos 10 to 3 in the bottom of the seventh -- the yeses need 16 to clinch it.
With ratification imminent, those who support the original text are looking for fallback positions. The PRD (the centre-left party) insists that it will reintroduce the original COCOPA bill in the next session of the national Congress, a manoeuvre that hasn't a snowball's chance in the Sonoran desert of passing. PRD attempts to amend the law in the state congresses have been flattened by the PRI-PAN steamroller.
The CNI says it will go to the Supreme Court to have the law nullified, and appeals to Vicente Fox to veto it. But because the bill includes constitutional changes, Fox has no veto powers.
Secretary of the Interior Santiago Creel proposes that the government write an implementation law that will address the Indians' grievances, but no implementation law can supersede the law it is designed to implement.
With ratification a certainty, the Fox administration is trying to put the issue behind it by proclaiming "Indian Rights" a done deal and unilaterally declaring that peace has come at last.
"Sainted peace has come to Chiapas -- we have no problems there. The EZLN does not represent Mexico," Fox told reporters.
When and if they speak again, the comandantes will no doubt have something to say about Fox's self-declared "peace."
By refusing to listen to the voice of the Indians and the civil society that supports their struggle, the PRI and the PAN have pushed aside their democratic aspirations and transformed the moral issue of justice for Mexico's Indians into a graceless and arrogant affirmation of the power of the parties.
Dire predictions that the gutting of the Indian Rights law would detonate violence cannot be discounted. "No Mexican legislature has ever been so brutally mistaken," exclaims Carlos Montemayor, a much-respected scholar of Mexico's armed movements. He insists that passage of the false law would negate peaceful negotiations to resolve the problems of the nation's 10 million Indians.
During the EZLN's historic March for Indigenous Dignity, the Zapatista comandantes travelled to Iguala in Guerrero, a state considered the cradle of armed insurrection in Mexico, and appealed to the region's four declared armed groups to add the Indian Rights law to their agendas.
This May 6, following Congress's evisceration of the law, one of those formations , the Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People (ERPI), applauded the EZLN's break with the Fox government and urged indigenous peoples to "prepare the way" for self-proclaimed autonomy.
Then, on June 1, a tripartite coalition including the ERPI, the Armed Forces of the Revolutionary People and the Adjudication Command laid siege to a judicial police roadblock outside Iguala. Despite a half-hour firefight on that occasion, no one has been wounded or killed -- yet.