Fox makes new appeal to Mexico’s Zapatistas


President Vicente Fox promised to meet nearly every Zapatista demand and appealed for a meeting with the rebels who have been locked in a seven-year conflict with the government. The rebels turned a cold shoulder, calling Fox a liar.

Fox’s announcement Tuesday was his latest effort at luring the rebels back to negotiations that have been stalled since 1996, and left in doubt whether the Zapatistas were willing to work with his administration.

Since taking office Dec. 1, Fox has sent an Indian rights bill to Congress, released dozens of Zapatista sympathizers from jail and closed four military bases in southern Chiapas state, where the rebels staged an uprising in 1994.

On Tuesday, he promised to close three more bases — the last three demanded by the rebels — and turn them into community centers. He also pledged to release more prisoners from jail, meeting what appeared to be nearly every rebel demand to restart peace negotiations.

The Zapatistas were unimpressed.

In an appearance before more than 1,000 enthusiastic students hours after Fox’s announcement, the rebels continued to criticize the president, saying they had little confidence in his promises.

“Don’t pay any attention to what Mr. Fox says,” Comandante Tacho told a cheering crowd. “He speaks with two tongues.”

Seemingly fed up with a Congress that so far has refused to hear them speak, the rebels announced Monday they would return to their jungle hideout on Friday after spending 15 days marching to Mexico City and more than a week in the capital to lobby for the Indian rights bill.

But Fox said he has an “absolute will to achieve peace.”

“Where there were weapons, there will be hearts and wills to promote the dignity of our indigenous brothers and sisters,” he said in a brief speech at the presidential residence.

He added that he was sending a letter inviting rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos to meet with him “before his return to Chiapas.”

That would appear to pose a possible scheduling conflict between Fox’s plan to visit California from Wednesday to Friday morning and the Zapatistas’ plans to leave Mexico City on Friday.

The rebels emerged on Jan. 1, 1994, to seize six towns. Within days they had retreated, but 12 days of fighting left more than 145 dead before a cease-fire took hold.

Peace talks started quickly, but stalled in 1996 after the government of previous President Ernesto Zedillo rejected a proposed bill to enact the Indian rights agreement.

Fox called on Congress to find a way to meet with Zapatista rebels to discuss the new rights proposal.