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Mud means new woes for benighted Chiapas

MEXICO CITY - Depending from where one views it, Chiapas appears to be many places:

For much of Mexico and the world, Chiapas means Mayan Indians and brutal massacres; ski-masked subcomandantes hosting illustrious international guests like Oliver Stone and Danielle Mitterand in an exotic jungle setting.

From Washington, Chiapas looks like a natural-resource-rich state bordering Guatemala in southern Mexico where endemic poverty, injustice and Indian rebellion stain the image of an important U.S. trading partner.

From the presidential palace in Mexico City, Chiapas looks more like an internal problem, devoid of international significance, that government maps reduce to the southeastern corner of the state, from which subversion threatens to spread throughout the Indian and mestizo underbelly of the nation and weaken its claim to First World status.

From the state capital in Tuxtla Gutierrez, where multiple (six in the past five years) governors representing the long-ruling (69 years) Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) have held power in perpetuity, Chiapas resembles more a bulging boodle of federal aid - over $1 billion USD this year alone - that is administered in the interests of the region's entrenched oligarchy.

From the rural mestizo and Indian municipalities of the state, Chiapas looks, tastes and feels a lot more like mud.

The mud has been piling up in record amounts since an unnamed tropical squall settled in over Chiapas in early September. All over the state, swollen rivers flooded out impoverished communities hugging their banks, carried off bridges and ripped roadbeds to shreds. The destruction has been most complete out on the Pacific coastal plain and the hardscrabble Sierra Madre above it, where the rainfall has been biblical (23 inches in the first five days) and 15 rivers have risen to spread death (between 400 and 1,000 by divergent estimates) and devastation in an agricultural region populated by a million citizens. The 41 counties most affected cover the western third of the state and are the engine of Chiapas' coffee, fishing and fresh-fruit export economy.

Coastal Chiapas is the Other Chiapas, dotted with isolated farming and fishing communities of mestizo campesinos and Mam Indians and ruled by rural bosses called caciques, some the descendants of German coffee-growing families who have been players in the region since the turn of the 20th century. Tapachula, the seething boomtown fronting the Guatemalan border, is a gateway for Colombian cocaine, Central American immigrants heading north, and guns and stolen cars going south. The coastal region has traditionally been so separated from the rest of Chiapas that secession was still a live issue here in the early 1990s.

President Ernesto Zedillo made no mention of Chiapas in his annual state-of-the-union address September 1, but the region is much on his mind - since spring, he has made seven trips to that jurisdiction, all of them in and around the conflict zone in the jungles and mountains of the eastern part of the state, where the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) rose up in rebellion in January 1994. Speaking from heavily fortified county seats controlled by the military and the PRI, the president has attacked the Catholic bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas for spreading what he termed "the theology of violence"; defended substitute Governor Roberto Albores Guillen, whose bloody assaults on Zapatista autonomous municipalities have left at least 10 dead; and insisted upon a face-to-face dialogue with ski-masked comandantes. Zedillo's eighth trip to the conflict zone was in the works when the hard rain began to fall up in the sierra and out on the coast.

The president promptly re-routed into Tapachula to coordinate government relief activities, ordering 2,000 fresh troops into a state where 63,000 soldiers are already concentrated. Still, in the eyes of many Chiapanecos, the military presence is much more geared to war than it is to rescuing locals from natural disaster.

After inspecting washed-out infrastructure along the coast - construction of which the president had boasted in a written appendix to his state-of-the-union message - Zedillo plunged into micro-managing the relief operations with a zeal seldom seen in his colorless public appearances up in the capital. Pronouncing the floods "our greatest natural disaster" since the 1985 Mexico City earthquake (10,000 to 30,000 dead), Zedillo trudged from village to village in the coffee-colored rain, pleading for patience as distraught victims shouted for food and clean water. Indeed, for the president, dealing with the plaints of citizens who had lost everything seemed almost welcome relief from spiraling national banking scandals and a global financial crisis that is as out of control as Chiapas' angry rivers.

The debacle on the Chiapas coast was a predictable catastrophe - hurricanes and tropical storms batter both coasts of Mexico every fall. Last September, over 300 died in Guerrero and Oaxaca when the government failed to evacuate residents in time before Hurricane Pauline roared in from the Pacific. Devastating as they may be for the locals, such natural calamities are helpful to the president's image. He is seen repeatedly on national television interacting with the populace, and the influence of his government and the party that it has dominated for seven decades is strengthened in the afflicted region - Peru's Alberto Fujimori has apparently just parlayed the ravages caused by El Nino into a third presidential term.

Not everyone buys Zedillo's act. The president's archnemesis (Zedillo calls him "a stone in my shoe"), Subcomandante Marcos, the EZLN's glib, brainy spokesperson, has been as unmerciful as the weather in his critique of how the disaster is being used as one more weapon in the government's arsenal against those who oppose it. Writing from his damp lair in the Lacandon jungle, Marcos reminded Mexicans that it had been raining for days in Chiapas before Zedillo noticed: "This government knows how to kill Indians, but it doesn't know how to avoid their deaths." According to EZLN base-community informants on the coast and up in the sierra, material aid is being channeled by the governor through PRI electoral coordinators in the region who distribute the goods in exchange for promised votes - Chiapas is scheduled to hold municipal elections this October 4.

The Zapatista spokesperson also accused Governor Albores of converting the tragedy into "a lucrative family business." Marcos drew a direct parallel to Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, whose looting of aid sent to victims of the 1979 earthquake in that Central American republic was a determining factor in his downfall. All outside aid, Marcos proposed, should be sent through the church or reputable non-government organizations. The EZLN, he announced, was donating an unspecified portion of its war chest to the flood victims.

The ruling party's use of Chiapas disaster aid to feather its nest for the October balloting has been well-documented by both reporters and the political opposition. In Huixtla, a coastal community decimated by the flooding, the right-center National Action Party (PAN) complains that aid packets arrived stamped with the PRI logo. A truckload of powdered milk provided by the federal government was alleged to have been diverted by a top-ranking Albores government official, Arely Madrid, to a cousin who is coordinating the PRI electoral campaign in that municipality. Reuters correspondent Jesus Ramirez Cuevas reports that only members of the PRI are welcome at shelters set up by the military in the region. Similar complaints were voiced by residents of Motozintla, a half-buried enclave in the muddy Sierra Madre, where 200 are reported to have died - the EPR is thought to have cadre in the sierra.

PRI misuse of the aid has the opposition and maverick Chiapas Senator Pablo Salazar calling for postponement of the October balloting, for which the ravaged region is ill-prepared anyway - local offices of the state electoral commission are buried under tons of mud, and many voters who escaped with their lives did not escape with their voting credentials. In a state where a growing number of indigenous communities defy electoral regulations and select local leaders in traditional communal assemblies, municipal elections are always a moment of high tension.

One other victim of this apocalyptic storm, which, unlike even minor hurricanes, did not get a name: a major propaganda blitz organized by the Foreign Secretariat, which had invited 50 ambassadors to Chiapas on September 10, where they were to be wined and dined by Governor Albores at Tuxtla's swank Flamboyente Hotel and then go boating on the state's lakes and rivers. Side trips were planned to dialogue with PRI officials in conflict-zone hot spots like Chenalho (the municipality in which the Acteal massacre took pace), San Juan Chamula and a dismantled Zapatista autonomous town. Also on the agenda was a meeting with the government's Chiapas peace coordinator Emilio Rabasa and a surprise fly-in visit from President Zedillo himself. But "Chiapas - the Last Frontier," a tour designed, as Governor Albores explained, "to show the world there is no war in Chiapas," was never consummated. Instead, a tropical storm with no name blew in from the south and diverted Ernesto Zedillo's flight plans to the Other Chiapas.