GOING INTO THE last military checkpoint of the day, a group of international human rights workers braced for another encounter with Mexico's army. The group was returning from a meeting with a community of Tzotzil Indians in the state of Chiapas, a zone filled with military checkpoints to hinder the movement of the Zapatista rebels.
The rebels burst onto the Mexican scene Jan. 1, 1994, not coincidentally, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement treaty went into effect. The short, sharp hostilities that followed ruined the Mexican government's self-congratulations for steering the treaty to completion.
The rebels said they resented the globalization the treaty would bring, something they feared would make the plight of the poor and indigenous worse. The media called it the first postmodern guerrilla war. The Zapatistas didn't want power; they just wanted to change the equation of power.
When the world community reacted strongly to the image of Mexican pilots strafing their own territory and word filtered out about atrocities at the hands of the army, the government called a halt to its brisk pursuit of the guerrillas.
A low-intensity war of wills and various rounds of peace negotiations filled the intervening six years.
"We have a low-intensity war for a country with a low intensity democracy," says the Rev. Gonzalo Ituarte, one of the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church's human rights efforts in Chiapas.
Chiapas is one of Mexico's troubled southern states, and it has more than its share of problems: armed smuggling rings that cart everything from drugs to lumber across the porous Guatemalan border; evangelical Christians clashing, sometimes violently, with Catholics; supporters of the corrupt power structure of Mexican politics trying to suppress the country's growing left wing; rich landowners fighting with peasants for land; indigenous groups sniping at each other and bearing the racism they face from those of Spanish heritage; and paramilitary organizations toting guns.
Mix in the presence of at least 40,000 military personnel trying to hold a few thousand guerrillas in place and you have a venomous, simmering stew.
The church is trying to maintain its traditional role of fighting for social justice in Chiapas by using human rights law as a lever. The lawyers who work at the church's human rights center are the people charged with taking on the sensitive cases.
One of the lawyers, Diego Cadenas, was at the wheel of the 4-wheel-drive Tracker as it stopped at the checkpoint. Cadenas was the main reason the group of international human rights workers had confidence they'd get through.
Several years ago, Mexico began deporting human rights workers in Chiapas from Europe and the United States. Two years ago, police assaulted photographers from the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse who tried to document the expulsions. In 1997, a reporter from Radio France International was expelled after visiting Zapatista territory.
The captain and the wasp
So this group of human rights workers had reason for concern. Along with Cadenas, the group included a law student from DePaul University in Chicago, a Costa Rican attorney and two members of the media. And as the group pulled up to the checkpoint, they discovered another passenger inside the Tracker - a large wasp.
An army captain peered in the passenger-side window, asking for names. The driver responded only with his first name. Everyone else stayed silent. When the captain asked again, the lawyer in the driver's seat barked, "My name is Diego, and that's sufficient."
As the tension in the front of the vehicle rose, those in the back were busy trying to shoo the wasp through an open window. Trying to keep quiet, they were communicating mainly through wide eyes and broad gestures. The captain gave them an odd look and asked everyone to get out of the vehicle.
"I don't think so," Cadenas responded. He lectured the captain about how the army has no legal authority over civilians in a domestic zone without civilian officials present. Faced with unexpected recalcitrance and the odd commotion in the back seat, the captain called for a lieutenant to take over this haywire attempt at an inspection.
Later, Cadenas confided that he often wondered where he got the strength to stand up to the military. He said people have disappeared or been beaten for less.
Visiting the Zapatista zone
What brought the carload of human rights workers into the Zapatista zone was the two-year anniversary of the deaths of Tzotzil villagers at the hands of Mexican authorities.
In 1998, more than 1,000 armed men - members of the Mexican army, along with federal and state police - swept through a Zapatista area known as El Bosque. The excuse for the armed sweep was to serve a variety of warrants. But the authorities met unexpected resistance. Two police officers were killed. A helicopter was shot down. Mexican officials said eight people from two villages in the zone were killed in the crossfire.
International journalism groups complained later that reporters were restricted from following the military into the zone, so there was no independent confirmation of what happened.
On the anniversary of the military sweep, Juan Nuñez led the group of human rights workers into the hills near the village of Union Progreso to tell his view of what happened. In a clearing of the dense forest, Nuñez stopped at mounds covered with fresh pine needles and flowers. Some of the needles were burning, set afire by a line of candles across each mound, the graves of five people killed during the military operation.
"They came before dawn," Nuñez said. "They brought us all to the center of town. They had us on our knees until noon. They asked us a thousand questions like, 'Where are the Zapatistas?' Then they called us Zapatistas. They robbed us, and then they killed my friends in the field up there before they killed all our animals and took all our food."
Cadenas is handling the legal case for the villagers. They see the deaths as murders at the hands of the military, who they also accuse of torture. They paint the picture of a frustrated military and police operation looking for victims after meeting unexpected resistance when it pushed into the zone.
Some tactics in this low-intensity war are eerily similar to military operations in Vietnam or El Salvador. In the United States, it is easy to forget the paramilitary raid that left 45 unarmed victims dead in the village of Acteal in 1997. It is also easy to forget that we introduced the concept of the "strategic hamlet" to anti-insurgency warfare.
To see the modern version, just drive through the mountains in Chiapas and look at how the Mexican army is guarding small villages, trying to keep them from becoming recruiting bases for the guerrillas.
Of course, the drive is not always easy.
Lieutenant vs. attorney
Back at the checkpoint, a lieutenant and a squad of troops approached the Tracker on the driver's side. The troops carried a video camera and also snapped photographs with pocket-sized cameras. The army says it uses these photos to show it is not violating human rights and to record who passes through the checkpoints for security reasons. Human-rights groups say this is just another form of intimidation.
By now, the wasp in the back seat had lighted on the back of one of the journalists. Others in the car swatted furiously at it.
"We have our orders to question you," the lieutenant said in a raised voice to regain everyone's attention. Cadenas countered that as a human rights attorney, he knows that only civilian immigration officials may question the foreigners in the car.
"So you're an attorney," the lieutenant said sarcastically, "you must know everything then."
At this crucial juncture, the wasp flew out of the vehicle, just as the lawyer growled, "Don't talk to me like I'm a child. I'm not a child."
Whether in surprise or exasperation, it isn't certain, the lieutenant stepped back and gave a slight wave. Cadenas gunned the engine and the car left the soldiers and the pesky wasp behind.
Inside the vehicle, silence prevailed for a stretch, then everyone seemed to sigh simultaneously.
"They are just trying to play with our minds, to scare us to keep us from coming back," Cadenas said.
Everyone seemed glad not to have been stung by the wasp or the military on this day. But most couldn't help but wonder what it was like for the people who couldn't easily drive away.
Vincente Fox, Mexico's president-elect, has promised to loosen the military's grip on Chiapas when he takes office in December. The world community will be watching to see if he lives up to that election promise, or lets the military continue to slowly squeeze the country's vulnerable indigenous groups.
Rick Rockwell teaches journalism at American University. He is a contributor to the new book, "Mexico: Facing the Challenges of Human Rights and Crime." He returned recently from Mexico.
Copyright 2000 Baltimore Sun