Paramilitary Group Claims Responsibility for Attack

Leader of paramilitary group claims responsibility for attack on Mexican village

August 5, 2000

PARAISO, Mexico (AP) -- Standing among farmers armed with machetes and shotguns, the apparent leader of a paramilitary group claimed responsibility for attacking this village in Chiapas state.

Ironically called Peace and Justice, the group told the Associated Press late Friday night it burned down a half a dozen homes a day earlier to force out Zapatista rebel supporters whom they claim have invaded their lands in this village.

Meanwhile -- on a nearby hillside overlooking the coffee farm where the assailants spoke -- some 90 men, women and children remained in hiding, sleeping on the damp ground after being violently forced from Paraiso, which means Paradise.

Rains have fallen daily. Some of the children remain barely clothed and with little food. But the families said they are too scared to return.

The incident marks the latest skirmishes reported in the troubled southern Mexican state leading up to the August 20 elections for state governor.

The elections are seen as crucial to resolving the armed conflict that has plagued Chiapas since Zapatista rebels rose up against the government on January 1, 1994, demanding greater democracy and rights for the indigenous poor.

The conflict has been halted by a cease-fire since mid-January 1994, but there have been repeated clashes between pro- and anti-Zapatista forces, sometimes over disputed lands such as in Thursday's attack.

Mario Cruz said he ordered the attack after officials refused to evict rebel supporters, whom he contends invaded his group's lands in October 1997. Cruz's paramilitary group supports the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. His group has been accused of numerous human rights violations by opposition groups.

"The authorities did not want to execute an order to evict them from lands that belong to us, therefore we kicked them out ourselves," Cruz said.

And the leader, with a pistol in a cloth holster on his hip, said the rebel supporters won't be welcome back.

"We can't let them return because we want to live in peace," Cruz said.

But Carlos Mendez, 40, said he hasn't been at peace since the attack. The self-described rebel supporter hasn't seen his wife, father or children since they fled into the hills after men toting assault rifles barged into the community of shacks Thursday morning and started shooting.

"The bullets zoomed past the heads of children and elderly," Mendez said.

Another disturbance broke out Friday during the PRI party's campaign stop in Soyalo, 50 miles, northeast of San Cristobal de las Casas.

The PRI's candidate for Chiapas governor, Sami David, was hit in the face with a piece of metal during a disturbance caused by presumed supporters of opposition candidate Pablo Salazar. Eleven others were also injured in the melee.

The PRI is fighting to keep its traditionally tight hold on Chiapas state after its stunning defeat in Mexico's presidential elections July 2, ending its 71-year reign.

Copyright 2000 The Associated Press

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