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Rebel leader stirs little enthusiasm on Mexican campaign trail

SAN ANTONIO PUEBLO NUEVO, Mexico—Santiago Mendoza Marin, an indigenous-Mexican farmer, walked two miles on a rough dirt path over the weekend to see what the masked Zapatista rebel leader had to say.

But Mendoza and his buddies left the meeting early. "It's just talk," Mendoza said Saturday of his first encounter with the legendary Subcomandante Marcos as he sipped home-brewed pulque, the fermented juice of the maguey plant, at a roadside cantina on his way home. "What I want to know is what exactly is his program."

Marcos won fame in 1994 as the pipe-smoking, ski-mask-clad leader of a Mayan Indian rebellion in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas, which unsettled this country on the eve of its entry into the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada.

Marcos still commands the Zapatista National Liberation Army, but armed revolt is a thing of the past—and so perhaps is Marcos' luster. With a presidential election just a few months away, Marcos, who now calls himself Delegate Zero, has been traveling to the far corners of Mexico, talking to peasants and indigenous groups about organizing.

To close adherents, including a bohemian group of students, writers, documentary filmmakers and community organizers who're following Marcos in a caravan of some 50 cars, trucks and vans, the Zapatista leader is still charismatic, setting in motion a new social movement to empower Mexico's disenfranchised to create their own politics.

"To advance the process of self-organization of the people," said Sergio Rodriguez, the editor of Rebeldia, the Zapatista journal.

But the news media, which once gave Marcos pages and hours of coverage, have written little about this campaign, and many in the crowds that have come to see him have been unimpressed.

"I don't understand, as far as Subcomandante Marcos is concerned, what is the type of help he can offer," said Federico Garduno Primero Aflegando, one of about 300 festively dressed Mazahua Indians and other local farmers who walked, drove or rode horses to meet Marcos.

Marcos made no speech during the event, sitting instead on a high podium under a giant yellow tarp listening, smoking and taking notes on the needs of this farming district west of Mexico City.

President Vicente Fox came into office in 2000 seeking negotiations with the Zapatista army and Marcos. The talks led to a 2001 indigenous-rights bill that the rebels had lobbied for and then protested when a watered-down version passed.

But the law's passage took the wind out of their sails, and some analysts see the Other Campaign, as Marcos calls his tour, as a way to recapture the spotlight.

The three main candidates for Mexico's presidency—the vote to replace Fox is July 2—have visited with indigenous groups and farmers, but none is reaching out to them like Marcos, who's visited the remotest of villages.

But while the farmers were mostly happy to have Marcos in town for two days, few saw much hope for change in his tour.

Primero Aflegando said the people in the community needed jobs, housing and cheap fertilizer so they could improve their fields, things that the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, had promised for years but never supplied.

"We are PRI-istas in our hearts," he said, several neighbors nodding in agreement. "But we must change because we are not getting support."

But Primero Aflegando said he'd found the answer within Mexico's political mainstream. He said he planned to vote for Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the left-leaning candidate for the Party of the Democratic Revolution.

Others indicated that they, too, still had hope that the politicians in Mexico City, three hours but a world away, may do something for them.

"We aren't affiliated," said Mendoza Marin, indicating his buddy as they sipped pulque. "We're just looking for answers."

His buddy's shirt suggested he, at least, had already found one: It bore a picture of Felipe Calderon, the presidential candidate of the ruling National Action Party.

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(Hoffman reports for the Contra Costa Times.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MEXICO-ZAPATISTA

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