MEXICO: CONTROLLING THE ZAPATISTAS

Not far from the town square, there's an old, weather-beaten building adorned with huge white and black banners of Mexico's most famous revolutionaries, Emiliano Zapata and Francisco Villa.

Inside the squat colonial building, the National Confederation of Campesinos, CNC by its Spanish initials, is working feverishly to win the loyalty of Oaxaca's beleaguered farmers.What no one in the confederation wants is for Oaxaca's poor to start taking up with the Zapatista rebels and other anti-government groups. But rather than criticize the revolutionary cause, the CNC adopts it, at least in its rhetoric.

''We've been Zapatistas since 1910, the beginning of the Mexican Revolution,'' declared Manuel Garcia, the CNC chief in the state of Oaxaca.

The confederation's efforts to capitalize on the popularity of the Zapatistas are part of a broader pro-government campaign to maintain control of Oaxaca and other potential flash points.

The government is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars in social aid into the states of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero, Michoacan, Veracruz and Puebla as part of a five-year national development plan. The Mexican military is stepping up patrols in Guerrero and Oaxaca to detect not only illicit drugs but also weapons that might fall into the hands of subversive groups.

The ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), in power for 67 years, is trying to reinvent itself to make the party more appealing to the masses. And PRI-affiliated groups such as the CNC - the country's largest ''campesino'' organization - are trying to teach new farming techniques to raise productivity and improve the standard of living. The PRI-government machine wants to avoid a repeat of the January 1994 peasant revolt in the southern state of Chiapas.

The uprising by a ragtag band of Indians calling themselves the Zapatistas took the world by surprise and shattered the image of Mexico as a modern, stable democracy. For those who were looking, there were warning signs before the rebellion. The Mexican army and the Zapatistas had clashed in May 1993 in Chiapas, leaving several people dead. Military commanders at the time urged the previous administration, headed by then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, to take the rebels seriously.

More than two years later, many Mexicans believe that guerrilla groups may again be preparing for rebellion in some of the country's poorest regions. Not that there's any hard evidence. Mostly it's just rumors and gossip, fueled by accounts in the Mexican news media.

Government officials deny the existence of such groups, but go to great length to quell signs of popular discontent. For instance, after the governor of Guerrero, Ruben Figueroa, was absolved of any responsibility in the June killings of 17 ''campesinos'' in that state, Mr. Zedillo took the highly unusual step of asking the Mexican Supreme Court to investigate. He said: ''I've been and will always be respectful of the sovereignty of the states. . .but when the circumstances merit, I'll make full use of the powers granted to me by the constitution. We Mexicans are determined to live in a country of laws and institutions.''

The ''campesinos'' killed in Guerrero were gunned down by police while on their way to an anti-government rally. Police initially claimed they were fired upon first. Nearly two dozen officers and other government employees have since been arrested as part of a widening scandal.

A number of anti-government groups that emerged in the revolutionary 1960s and early 1970s still exist. One of the most radical is the Clandestine Workers Revolutionary Party - Union of the People. It is believed to have secret cells in Oaxaca, Guerrero, Mexico City and other regions.

Another organization founded in the 1970s was the Forces of National Liberation, which was active in Chiapas state and was the precursor to the Zapatista National Liberation Army.

Oaxaca is seen as a natural choice for such groups because of the state's extreme poverty. More than 40 percent of the homes in the state have no plumbing, 24 percent have no electricity. Land disputes with ranchers and drug traffickers are common.

Under such conditions, many residents are Zapatista loyalists. ''Ninety-nine percent of the people around here support the Zapatista army,'' said one activist in Chimalapas.

But backing the rebels' struggle for land rights, democracy and justice and actually taking up arms are very different propositions. And that's why many of those in Oaxaca aren't convinced that the peasants are anywhere close to rebelling.

''We support what the Zapatistas are doing. But we're peaceful,'' said Hugo Meliton Perez, president of the Union of Indigenous Organizations of the Juarez Mountains. ''What our people want is dialogue with the government. We don't want anything to do with violence.''

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