In a surprise address televised on the evening of February 9, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon announced that he had issued orders to arrest several leaders of the rebel Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN).
Zedillo said that his government had uncovered Zapatista arms caches in Mexico City and in the eastern state of Veracruz the day before, and that a number of rebels had been captured in the raids.
He offered identifications of several EZLN leaders, who have concealed themselves behind pseudonyms and ski masks. Zedillo said the group's best-known leader, Sub-commander Marcos, is in fact Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente.
A few hours before Zedillo's address, the Mexican army began sweeping into areas controlled by the EZLN or sympathetic to the rebels in the southern state of Chiapas. Troops moved with armoured cars and small tanks into parts of the municipality of Ocosingo in Zapatista territory and into Simojovel and San Andres Larrainzar, which were held briefly by the rebels in December.
The next day a military force with more than 100 vehicles and with helicopter support seized the EZLN headquarters in the Lacandona Forest at the town of Guadalupe Tepeyac, near the border with Guatemala. The rebels had disappeared, however. There was no fighting reported in the operation, but a colonel was apparently killed later in a sniper attack, along with an unidentified soldier.
The National Defence Secretariat (SEDENA) says the Chiapas operation involves 2500 troops, 33 aircraft, 30 tanks and 32 armoured vehicles.
Mexican analysts expected a new government offensive well before the announced discovery of the arms caches. "It is clear that a decision [on the use of force] has been made", columnist Javier Ibarrola wrote in El Financiero before Zedillo's announcement.
At the beginning of the month police began evicting squatters from some of the 2400 ranches and small farms campesino groups have occupied in Chiapas since the Zapatista rebellion began on January 1, 1994.
Opposition groups and leaders in Chiapas have also been targeted for harassment.
The crackdown is not limited to Chiapas. The government claims it has found a network of financial support for the EZLN, including a leftist union of bus drivers in Mexico City. Four professors from the Xochimilco campus of the Autonomous Metropolitan University, where Guillen once taught, were reportedly arrested on the night of February 9.
US State Department spokesperson Christine Shelly told reporters on February 10: "I expect that our relationship with Mexico will go forward in the same way that it has been proceeding". Shelly spoke of Zedillo's "very strong record ... in areas we think represent his determination and his courageous leadership on a wide range of political issues".
The New York Times refers to "rumours" about "foreign investors" pushing for a crackdown. In fact, at the beginning of the month the investigative biweekly Counterpunch published solid evidence from a January 13 memo issued by the Chase Bank Emerging Markets Group, which has billions invested in Mexico.
"The [Mexican] government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and security policy", the Chase memo advised. "[T]he monetary crisis limits the resources available to the government for social and economic reforms", Chase noted, indicating that the government should suppress the opposition rather than attempt to buy it off.
The memo's author also writes: "The Zedillo administration will need to consider carefully whether or not to allow opposition victories if fairly won at the ballot box".
The New York Times reports that "American intelligence services" "helped" the Mexican government in "tracking" EZLN Sub-commander Marcos' "real identity".
[From Weekly News Update on the Americas, produced by the Nicaragua Solidarity Network of Greater New York.]