ACULTZINGO, Mexico -- It was just after nightfall when Luis Hernandez Suarez, 18, left his family's shack on the side of Mount Atitla. He scrambled up a quarter-mile of arid, unyielding land and joined several dozen men, women and children from this poor town at a remote rail crossing.

Their plan: to greet the 14521 Express as it lurched through the rugged mountains of Veracruz state toward Mexico City and to force the night freight to make an unscheduled stop.

Hernandez -- who had just been laid off from a $3-a-day road crew job -- helped pile boulders onto the tracks, police said. When the train screeched to a halt at the blockade, villagers forced open three boxcars, emptied them of 5,000 pounds of corn and sugar and fled into the darkness.

All but Hernandez got away. He gave police a simple explanation for the crime. "No one here has enough to eat. We have many women and children who are dying of hunger, and there's no work," he said. "We rob out of hunger. We rob to live."

Federal and rail officials in Mexico City confirmed recently that in the past 18 months there have been at least 10 similar food robberies by peasants attacking freight trains and blaming hunger as the cause.

In Durango state, 600 miles to the north, women and children turned out by the hundreds to rob six freights in five months last year. There, children ages 11 to 13 were sent by mothers and grandmothers to use boulders to stop the trains and loot the boxcars.

The assaults, law enforcement officials and independent criminologists say, are among the dire steps rural Mexicans are taking to cope with the harshness of the poverty that two years of a brutal recession has worsened.

The robberies, they say, show just how that impoverishment has fueled desperation. Poverty appears to have deepened among rural families despite the nation's overall economic recovery.

Rail officials, however, say the robberies are not the work of starving peasants but are well-orchestrated attacks by criminal gangs. Officials say the criminals use women and children as fronts to steal commodities for resale.

Crime has soared nationwide since President Ernesto Zedillo's administration sharply devalued the peso in December 1994, triggering one of Mexico's worst recessions.

Burglaries, auto theft and robberies -- many the work of criminal gangs -- are at or near record levels in most cities and towns. But even as Mexico's economy shows signs of recovery, with projected growth rates of at least 4 percent this year, analysts say the spate of crimes for profit -- and even for survival -- shows few signs of abating.

Analysts say they see little difference between that official explanation and the comments of poor villagers like Hernandez: Whether they steal for food or for money, they add to a crime wave driven by joblessness and despair.

Pub Date: 4/21/97

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