Much like the impeccable timing and collective organizing capabilities displayed by the bread-bakers of La Realidad, this New Year's Day, the EZLN silently cooked up a massive, militant anniversary occupation of San Cristobal de las Casas, the colonial capital of Chiapas' Mayan highlands, to mark the Indian rebels' surprise takeover of the city nine years ago. In the first hour of the North American Free Trade Agreement - ironically, this January 1, in accordance with NAFTA schedules, all tariff barriers on most basic agricultural products were removed, precipitating a flood of imports that many Mexican farmers fear will bring them to ruin.

The Zapatistas' 20,000-strong march into San Cristobal, the largest gathering of the Indian rebels since the first year of their 1994 uprising, officially marked the end of 20 months of silence by the Clandestine Indigenous Revolutionary Committee (CCRI), or EZLN general command, that began April 30, 2001, after the Mexican congress mutilated an Indian Rights law guaranteeing autonomy to the nation's 57 distinct indigenous nations, for which the Zapatistas had long battled.

Although it required maximum coordination between widely disparate EZLN bases, the giant march was kept secret for weeks in the rebels' 38 autonomous municipalities that dot the highlands and jungle of southeastern Chiapas. At dawn on the first day of 2003, hundreds of tiny farm trucks arrived down at the Coca-Cola plant just south of the old city, from where the Mayan rebels launched their first takeover of this tourist nexus nine New Years ago. Each vehicle discharged dozens of vividly dressed villagers, the women wearing blazingly embroidered blouses, their plaited hair shining in the morning light; the men in rubber farmers' boots and each carrying a broad-bladed machete and a stick of "jocote" (pitch-pine.)

"We have a right to our opinions about the world - these governments think we do not know about their plans for the death of humanity," thundered Comandante "Mister," a member of the CCRI, to the huge throng gathered in the darkened Cathedral plaza here, defending the EZLN's revived internationalist posture.

The line of tens of thousands of ski-masked rebels took nearly three hours to enter the city just as darkness fell on New Year's night. Softly pinging their machetes as if each held a small marimba, and chanting rejection of the "mal gobierno" (bad government) of President Vicente Fox and his projected Puebla to Panama "development" plan (PPP), NAFTA, and its expanded version, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, the masked rebels soon filled the immense plaza that fronts the San Cristobal cathedral.

From the small stage, seven comandantes representing the four Zapatista regions (highlands, jungle, Guatemalan border, north Chiapas) and the Mayan sub-groups that compose the EZLN (Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Tojolabal, and Chol), decried the complicity of the major political parties in gutting the Indian rights bill, and affirmed they needed no one's permission to declare themselves autonomous of the Mexican "mal gobierno."

Appearing for the first time since she spoke before congress to urge passage of the Indian rights law in March 2001, a defiant, diminutive Comandante Esther upbraided the Fox administration - "They are racists!" - for turning its back on the nation's 10 to 20 million indigenous peoples.

The comandantes also denounced the Fox government eviction of Mayan villagers from the Montes Azules reserve at the core of the Lacandon jungle - in a communiqué issued days before, Subcomandante Marcos, who did not show his ski mask in San Cristobal January 1, insisted that the EZLN would not sit by peacefully if the evictions continued.

As a chill midnight neared in the packed plaza, Comandante David, the leader of the highland rebels, took the microphone, and in his immensely sad and measured voice, spoke both in Tzotzil and Spanish to the silenced throng of the their long struggle whose tenth year the EZLN entered into January 1. "Are we tired yet?" David asked the compañeras and compañeros. A huge collective "NO!" swelled out of the dark. "Now you can light your jocotes," the Comandante instructed, and suddenly, the plaza was a-blaze with the fragrant, pitch-pine torches. David gave the signal to intone the Zapatista hymn, and 20,000 rebels raised their voices and sang about "advancing on the horizon" with the fire in their fists.

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