TLAHUITOLTEPEC, Mexico -- She looks healthy now, laughing among two dozen other children in a rescue center run by Roman Catholic nuns. But when 8-year-old Catarina Hernandez arrived here, her belly was bloated and her legs swollen with water -- the final stage of malnutrition.
The condition is so close to starvation that it normally appears only in times of famine, but Sister Alicia Estrada, who runs the center, says the nuns see it routinely. In the lush hills that surround this village in southern Mexico, hunger is day-to-day normality.
"Seventy percent of the children come to school undernourished," says Roberto Francisco Vasquez, a teacher in the town's parochial school in Mexico's Oaxaca state. "They have sores on their skin, their arms and legs. The majority are so poor, they can eat only twice a day, and then it's only beans, tortillas and coffee."
In a country whose economy is increasingly industrialized -- where factories along the northern border pour out computers and televisions -- the fact that children starve is jarring. But Oaxaca is in Mexico's south, a different world from the country's economic engine in the north.
The five-year anniversaries last month of two critical events highlighted the increasing regional divide in Mexico -- the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the outbreak of the Zapatista insurgency that the accord helped spark.
Like the American South at mid-century, southern Mexico combines a stifling racial divide, parochial "boss" politics and high levels of rural poverty to produce an explosive mix. "Southern Mexico is like Alabama writ large," says Federico Esteves, a political scientist in Mexico City.
According to the World Bank, 65 percent of the population in Mexico's south live in poverty, nearly twice the national average. In Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero, the three states that make up what some call Mexico's "deep south," nearly 50 percent of the population is illiterate. Malnutrition is widespread in the south, rare in the north.
The south is also home to the majority of Mexico's approximately 10 million Indians, who suffer disproportionately high rates of everything from malnutrition to dirt-floor homes. "Ninety percent of Indians are malnourished and 90 percent of the malnourished are Indians," says Adolfo Chavez of Mexico's National Institute of Nutrition.
Mexico's free-trade agreement with the United States and Canada is reinforcing these trends. New export-oriented factories along the U.S.-Mexican border are creating an industrial boom. Since NAFTA's inception, 75,000 new manufacturing jobs have been created in Tijuana, across the border from San Diego. About 80,000 new jobs have been added in Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso, Texas.
Manufacturing regions also are developing in the interior -- for example, the state of Jalisco is a new center for high-technology factories. But as in the case of Jalisco the growth is nearly all north of Mexico City, where education levels are higher and infrastructure more modern.
Guerrilla groups form
As the south gets left behind, social conflicts erupt into violence. On Jan. 1, 1994, the day NAFTA was implemented, the armed, mainly indigenous Zapatista National Liberation Army burst onto the scene in Chiapas. Two years later, the Popular Revolutionary Army, using a more brutal brand of guerrilla warfare, appeared in Guerrero and Oaxaca.
While those two groups have the widest social base and are the best organized, more than a dozen other armed insurgency movements operate in Mexico, according to the Center for Historical Investigation of Armed Movements in Mexico City.
Most represent little more than small pockets, but all but two of the 15 tracked by the center are in southern Mexico, particularly in the poorest states of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Chiapas.
To keep a lid on the guerrilla groups, Mexico has increased the size and budget of its security forces at a time when militaries are shrinking in nearly every country in the hemisphere. The Mexican army's budget, too, had begun to decline in the early 1990s, but it increased 56 percent between 1995 and 1998.
A rising anti-drug effort occupies some of these troops, but independent military analysts say the military expansion is principally a result of the south's social conflict.
Jorge Luis Sierra, of the Iberoamerican University, estimates that about 25,000 military personnel are involved directly in the fight against drug trafficking -- and three times as many are concentrated in Chiapas, Guerrero and Oaxaca, the states where armed movements are most active.
Some areas militarized
One effect has been a militarization of some areas, especially those where the Popular Revolutionary Army and the Zapatistas are strongest.
Only 45 minutes from the famous white sand beaches of Acapulco in Guerrero state, heavily armed government troops move continually through mountain villages, and joint military-police units man checkpoints along curvy, rutted roads. Reports of beatings, disappearances and torture of the local populations are increasing.
"It's a vicious cycle. The government is getting rougher, and the people are reacting more," says the Rev. Maximo Gomez, a Roman Catholic priest in Atoyac in Guerrero state.
Gomex is known locally as the "guerrilla priest" because of his acknowledged role as political adviser to the Popular Revolutionary Army.
Government officials say the south's problems are essentially economic. The region is benefiting from President Ernesto Zedillo's policy of targeting social spending to communities based on a poverty index. Under this policy, the bulk of social spending is expected to go south. And the governor of Chiapas is working on a new program to increase private investment in the state.
There is a political dimension, too. The autonomy sought by the revolutionary movements is in conflict with old-time political bosses who dominate the region by delivering votes to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in exchange for the right to rule their mini-fiefdoms.
After five years of virtual stalemate, the Zapatista conflict has come down to the issue of political autonomy for Indians in the region. The rebels demand constitutional changes that would allow indigenous communities to form autonomous municipalities, to decide how to spend federal funds and to apply traditional customs in electing officials.
Threatened with a shrinking power base and afraid of the legal ambiguity of the proposal, the government has repeatedly rejected autonomous municipalities as a violation of national sovereignty.
"The Zapatistas are saying, 'We simply want adequate political space to express our form of life.' That seems to me very democratic," says Jose del Val, director of the Inter-American Indigenous Institute. "But autonomous municipalities would transfer a lot of the resources now controlled by the federal government to municipalities. It's really a fight against Mexico's centralized political system."
With the government and the Zapatistas holding firm on the issue, a dialogue looks unlikely anytime soon.
"There will be a revolution. There's is no other road left," says Gomez, the guerrilla priest, his rectory surrounded by one of the country's richest coffee growing regions and some of its worst poverty.
"It's not possible to wait much longer. The people here just can't stand it."
Pub Date: 2/02/99