Mexico's Subcomandante Marcos back in spotlight

MEXICO CITY — MEXICO CITY -- The masked man brought his revolution to the capital last week. Hardly anyone paid attention until the riots broke out.

Subcomandante Marcos, the pipe-smoking leader of the Zapatista indigenous-rights movement, came to Mexico City as part of what he calls a peaceful national tour, 12 years after he led a famous uprising in Chiapas in 1994.


But the week ended anything but peacefully when a bloody melee erupted between radicals and police in a town east of Mexico City. While it is debated whether Marcos helped inspire the clashes, he certainly cheered on the radicals and is calling for more protests.

That Marcos still might represent a challenge to the government was a surprise for many Mexicans who thought his brand of what critics call "guerrilla theatre" was a thing of the past.


When Marcos marched from the U.S. Embassy to the city's central plaza Monday, he was escorted by machete-clanging radicals from San Salvador Atenco, a historically rebellious town east of the capital that is best-known for blocking President Vicente Fox's plan to build an international airport there in 2002.

Marcos had visited Atenco before entering the capital, praising the residents for having taught the Zapatistas "to challenge the powerful people, to confront them and to defend what they want to take away from us - land, liberty and life."

On Wednesday, some of the Atenco activists who marched alongside Marcos were arrested after a protest in town turned into a full-scale riots, only to be quashed a day later by 3,000 federal and state anti-riot police.

Staged confrontation?

Zapatista sympathizers called Thursday's crackdown a "direct aggression" against Marcos' movement. But his detractors wondered whether the clashes had been timed and organized to dramatize his Mexico City visit, which much of the news media had ignored or ridiculed.

On Friday, Eduardo Medina Mora, Fox's federal security chief, played down the Marcos connection, saying the Atenco protesters might have tried to attach themselves to his movement and that there were no worries about a wider security breakdown.

The riots erupted after local police tried to remove eight flower vendors from an Atenco street. The town's land-rights activists came to the vendors' defense, blocking roads.

Then clashes broke out with the police, one of whom was kicked and beaten bloody while cameramen in helicopters broadcast live images to the nation. Other wounded officers were held hostage.


At least one protester, a 14-year-old boy, was killed during the daylong melee.

An army of riot police moved in to crush the unrest at dawn Thursday, clubbing and bloodying some protesters who had fallen to the ground.

The protesters say Fox used the disturbances as a pretext to exact revenge for the town's opposition to the airport. The president, criticized then for caving in to the protesters, said the government would not put up with it anymore.

"The regrettable, violent acts perpetrated by a small group yesterday in the state of Mexico are an outrage against society and an attack on the rule of law," he said Thursday.

As the clashes escalated Wednesday, Marcos said the Zapatistas were going on "red alert." He stayed out of sight Thursday as police arrested more than 200 protesters but resurfaced Friday night in Atenco, where he said he planned to stay and lead more protests until the detainees are released.

The Zapatista rebels have never been considered a real national security threat, even during the seven weeks they battled Mexican soldiers after occupying the city of San Cristobal de las Casas on New Year's Day 1994 to call attention to the plight of Mexico's marginalized indigenous people.


Their rebellion never spread, but several Zapatista communities survive under a kind of self-rule in Chiapas. And Marcos continues to have a following in and out of Mexico as an outspoken voice of opposition to U.S. influence and globalization.

'Other Campaign'

Marcos began his national tour in January. He has visited dozens of towns on his so-called "Other Campaign" to underscore the grievances of millions of Mexicans who he says have been left behind in the country's pursuit of modernization and free trade.

While not defining exactly how he wants Mexico to be governed, Marcos criticizes nearly all Mexican leaders, including former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a top presidential contender, who Marcos says isn't leftist enough.

"We are fighting for another Mexico, one that doesn't oblige its workers to leave everything behind and go abroad in search of a life that here is impossible," he said in a speech Monday in front of the U.S. Embassy.

Later Monday, tens of thousands listened to him give another speech in the plaza. It was far fewer than the hundreds of thousands that crowded downtown to hear him when he first visited the capital in 2001 at Fox's invitation.


For some here and around the globe, Marcos is still a rock-star-like figure, and the Atenco clashes might only add to his following.

"There isn't probably the same turnout as he got 12 years ago, but the struggle continues," said Israel X. Chel, 25, who was listening to Marcos outside the embassy. "Not all has been said and done."

Hugh Dellios writes for the Chicago Tribune.