After years of silence, the ski-masked Zapatista rebels suddenly have a lot to say as they try to break out of isolation, build a political movement and reshape the campaign season ahead of next summer's presidential elections.
But whether the rebels can recapture the attention of the world -- and sway Mexican voters -- remains unclear. Unlike the 1994 armed uprising in Chiapas state that startled Mexico and gave the Zapatistas a romantic aura, their latest effort seems oddly timed.
Rebel leader Subcomandante Marcos has grown pudgy and quarrelsome, while Mexico's left seems to have moved on, gathering around former Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who leads polls on next year's presidential race.
Marcos on Saturday renewed bitter recriminations against Mexico's political establishment.
"Only tricks, lies, mockery and disdain were what we received from the political parties that now are competing for the presidency," said Marcos, smoking a pipe from behind his trademark balaclava.
Flanked by rifle-bearing guards, Marcos said the upcoming nationwide tour by the Zapatistas will last months, if not years -- unlike the Zapatistas' weekslong march to Mexico City in 2001.
"All these discussions are going to help decide what we are," Marcos said. "But now that the `we' is bigger, and not just the Zapatista National Liberation Army, this is so that other people outside who are not in these meetings can say if they want to enter the `we.'"
The comments underlined the rebels' intent to reach out. But where they are headed ideologically remains to be seen.
Will the journey mean giving up guns and masks? Marcos has suggested the movement will no longer rely on weapons, but has stopped short of saying it will disarm.
"For Marcos, not being clear and leaving everyone with doubts and questions has worked well," said Janet Ovando, a federal lawmaker from San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas' second-largest city. "Mexico and even more so, the outside world, have remained fascinated by what he says and the mystery, that just makes for more curiosity."
Marcos, whom Mexican officials identified in 1995 as former university instructor Rafael Sebastian Guillen, is making public appearances for the first time in four years, overseeing on Saturday a meeting with Indian groups in Carmen Patate, a sun-scorched, corn- and coffee-growing corner of the Lancandon jungle.
Indian groups were asked to allow Zapatistas to stay with them in different parts of the country during the upcoming national tour.
Marcos recently has used the new forums to poke fun at Lopez Obrador, who leads public opinion polls ahead of the July 2006 race.
Lopez Obrador is a former Indian activist, but became popular in Mexico City through heavy spending on public works projects, pensions, and other handouts for key voting blocs. The leftist candidate respectfully disagrees with Marcos, but will not argue with him.
In Zapatistas strongholds, where an estimated 250,000 rebel supporters live mostly in wooden shacks -- without electricity, government schools or hospitals -- there is excitement about the movement's new direction, but few answers about what it will mean.
"I think the time has come for a new phase, where we are watching everything and discussing," said Gabriel, a member of the Zapatista "information committee" for a region that includes Carmen Patate. Like all rebel supporters, he said community rules barred him from disclosing his full name.