Mexico's Virtual Guerrillas

While their revolution may not be televised, the Zapatista rebels are at least making sure it's online.

Their enigmatic leader, Subcommander Marcos, though struggling to keep his troops -- and identity -- cloaked, still manages to regularly rouse his global supporters. "They're saying, 'Stop the War,' " he recently posted, "in Spain, in France, in England, in the U.S., in Argentina."

Since last fall, his communiqués (previously typed out and hand-delivered to Mexico's newspaper editors) are posted on Ya Basta!, which draws an audience that checks in 400 times daily for the latest reports.

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Not surprisingly, coverage of the Zapatistas' Chiapas uprising on the Net -- where rumors spread freely -- has had its low points (like last winter, when a widely circulated message mistakenly reported tanks in the streets of San Cristobal).

But when a mob of 200 conservative opponents of Zapatista-sympathizer Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia attacked the cathedral in San Cristobal de las Casas last February, Father Pablo Romo sent out an urgent plea on the Internet.

"People in the U.S. who got the message called the Mexican consulates," recalls Romo. "The consulates called Mexico City, Mexico City called the state government in Chiapas, and within two hours the police who had been standing around were ordered to stop the riot."

Many analysts, including David F. Ronfeldt of the Santa Monica-based Rand think tank, argue that hierarchical institutions (including governments) are losing power because they cannot control the enormous amount of information avenues like the Internet -- or even the fax machine -- make available. And Ronfeldt credits the Zapatista presence on the Net with preventing a harsher crackdown from the Mexican government.

In the 1970s, the Mexican army launched a brutal campaign against a small guerrilla force in the state of Guerrero. Hundreds of peasants were killed, but the event went largely unreported, and few outsiders noticed.

That, according to Ronfeldt, isn't as likely to happen again. The address for Ya Basta!: http://www.ezln.org/