Mexico's Zapatista rebels were emerging from their jungle hideout yesterday to launch a nationwide campaign tour billed as a pacifist alternative to this year's already contentious presidential race.
The beginning of the six-month tour was timed to coincide with the anniversary of a brief Zapatista uprising in the name of Indian rights, on New Year's Day 12 years ago. This time, however, the Zapatistas say they will not wield Kalashnikov rifles or declare war.
Instead, the ski mask-wearing, pipe-smoking Zapatista leader Subcomandante Marcos -- who is adopting a more civilian-sounding title, "Delegate Zero" -- has promised to build a nationalist leftist movement that will "shake this country up from below" during a visit to Mexico's 31 states.
Marcos has also said the Zapatistas won't run for elected office or join Mexico's mainstream political process, which he describes as corrupt and out of touch with the people -- leaving some in Mexico confused about the rebels' intentions.
"What kind of movement is it going to be? That is the million-dollar question," said Miguel Alvarez, head of Serapaz, a pacifist group that helped with negotiations between the government and the Zapatistas. "I guess we'll just have to wait and see."
When the Zapatistas first stormed San Cristobal de las Casas on New Year's Day in 1994, they called for equal rights for Mexico's Indian minority and an end to one-party rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which governed Mexico without interruption for most of the 20th century.
After the PRI's defeat in 2000 at the hands of current President Vicente Fox of the National Action Party, the rebels focused on building a network of Zapatista-run schools and medical clinics in dozens of Indian villages they control in Mexico's southernmost state of Chiapas.
The Zapatistas say this year's tour is a third phase of their revolution.
"A step forward in the struggle is only possible if we unite with other sections of society," the Zapatistas' command council said in a recent statement.