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Chiapas Hospital Becomes Focus For Ranchers' Anger
By LAWRENCE KOOTNIKOFF
Associated Press Writer
ALTAMIRANO, Chiapas, Mexico (AP) (Feb. 21, 1994) - The Sisters of Charity are proud of their tiny, one-story red brick hospital, which caters mainly to the impoverished Indian communities in the surrounding hills. Patients make the trek, often on foot, for the specialized service at the San Carlos Hospital which includes traditional Indian food and nurses who speak Tzeltal, Tojolobal, Chol and other Mayan Indian languages.
Epijuana Vazquez brought her feverish son Miguel here rather than to a government clinic nearer their community. ``The treatment here is better,'' she said. ``The sisters look after us very well.''
But since a New Year's Day uprising by Zapatista rebels, the hospital has become a target for angry ranchers who accuse the ten nuns here of encouraging the revolt. Ranchers and political bosses gave the sisters until noon Monday to get out of town, or be thrown out.
``We don't want those people here,'' said Aaron Lopez Vazquez, who says rebels forced him to leave behind his small ranch and leave 42 head of cattle. ``They have to go. The community has taken a decision.''
``They go to the ejidos (mostly Indian communal farms) and stir people up,'' said Andres Estrada, another small rancher. ``They tell them our land should belong to them.'' Ranchers and their supporters staged a noisy demonstration outside the hospital on Sunday.
But Monday's deadline came and went without the threatened action, possibly because of the presence of journalists - and the arrival of four truckloads of heavily armed state police. Sister Patricia Moiysen smiles when told of the ranchers' accusations. ``They're making those things up,'' Moiysen said.
``Let them tell us where and when we ever did that. Everything we do in the communities is related to health.'' Racism is at the root of the ranchers' anger, she charged. ``There is discrimination against indigenous people, and everything that helps them, whether it's the church, human rights groups, or anything,'' she said.
The Jan. 1 uprising has left its mark on Altamirano, one of several towns occupied briefly last month by guerrillas of the Zapatista National Liberation Army. While the rebels have left, tension still runs high. Mexican soldiers still patrol the streets and maintain checkpoints at entrances to town.
But like many areas of Chiapas, Mexico's poorest state, friction between ranchers and peasants in the mainly Indian ejido communities has a long history. The Zapatista revolt was just the latest chapter. On Monday, angry ranchers gathered in a restaurant courtyard to tell journalists how rebels and local peasants drove them from their properties and stole all their livestock, some 70,000 head of cattle.
``We ranchers are refugees,'' Estrada said. ``They took all our cattle. The people in the communities just don't want to work. They'd rather steal what belongs to other people.''
``The Zapatistas are the ranchers now,'' said Jorge Constantino, the hard-eyed owner of 55 hectares and local president of Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. Sister Patricia blames Constantino and other local ``caciques,'' or ruling party political bosses, for rousing people against the hospital. But Constantino denies the charge.
``I'm no cacique,'' he said. ``I have nothing to do with the hospital.'' But when asked whether he too wants the nuns run out of town, he answers, ``what do you think?'' Sister Patricia says the hospital, a private organization, charges on the basis of what patients can pay.
But the ranchers and their supporters claim the nuns charge more to people who don't support their alleged political activities. Tension here is reaching a boiling point as talks get under way in nearby San Cristobal de las Casas between the Zapatistas and government peace envoy Manuel Camacho Solis.
On Friday, ranchers blocked a student aid convoy and stole tons of food and medicine headed for an ejido community sympathetic to the rebels. And earlier Monday, a group of 20 followed two women journalists who had visited the hospital, accusing them of being Zapatista sympathizers. They shoved them and stole a tape from a tape recorder, the women said.
Camacho has asked Chiapas' traditionally conservative ranchers not to do anything that may derail the negotiations. But in Altamirano, ranchers scoff at that appeal. ``The Zapatistas are there (at the talks) with weapons, while the soldiers are unarmed'' Constantino said. ``It's a joke. The government is harassing us. How are we supposed to sit quietly, when they're taking everything we own?''
(PHOTO: LA GARRUCHA, Mexico - A young girl inspects a dress donated by Mexicans to the poor of Chiapas, as part of a national aid carravan.)
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