QUERETARO, Mexico, Feb. 6 (UPI) -- Go to Chiapas, many Mexicans have told me, there you will find the best of Mexico: great natural beauty, the kindest of people.
Two Americans did go there, set up a small, environmentally friendly hotel and farm, and now the farm is surrounded by Zapatistas, members of a rebel movement that rejects the authority of the Mexican state. The Zapatistas are trying to drive the American couple out.
This is part of a conflict that goes back 500 years.
The Cacique (chieftain) "with a smiling face and every appearance of friendliness ... made signs that we should go to his town. ... Then (he) started shouting to some bands of warriors whom he had placed in ambush to kill us."
That is how Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a Spaniard who was a member of the expedition of Hernan Cortes that overthrew the Aztec empire, described, on an earlier expedition in 1517, the first encounter with the indigenous people of the Mexican mainland.
The Indians had reason to be wary. They lived in warlike times in which strangers, people from a different tribe, were likely to be dangerous. The very name Mexico comes from the warlike Mexica tribe, which conquered or drove out other tribes in the central valley of Mexico.
"Now it is a fact, as we afterwards heard, that the Indians' ancestors had prophesied that men with beards would come from the direction of the sunrise and rule over them," writes Diaz.
It is extraordinary that indigenous myths and the fact that the Spaniards of the time did not shave facilitated the conquest of a hostile continent by tiny bands of men. Superior technology, firearms, were another vital factor. But there was also another element to the victory of the Spanish adventurers -- which may surprise.
"The arrival of the Spaniards seemed a liberation to the people under Aztec rule. The various city-states allied themselves with the conquistadors or watched with indifference -- if not with pleasure -- the fall of each of their rivals." So writes Octavio Paz, the Nobel Prize-winning Mexican poet, in his "Labyrinth of Solitude," a prose analysis of the character of Mexico.
Conquest or liberation? That debate can still rage 500 years on.
In the West, we tend nowadays to look with sympathy at the indigenous peoples of the Americas. And rightly so. Both their history and their modern fate plead for them.
But 500 years on, prejudice against the indigenous population and outright violence committed against them is still an important issue. Mexico's indigenous people and indigenous states, such as Chiapas, Oaxaca and Guerrero, are the poorest in the country. In Guatemala in the 1970s and 1980s, tens of thousands of indigenous people were slaughtered. In the Andes, Central America, Brazil and Mexico, in particular, the relationship between the state and indigenous people remains a difficult one. There are still many injustices to be righted.
The Zapatistas, or the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional, to give their full name, a group that emerged in the southern state of Chiapas in 1994, point that out.
But what is the Zapatistas' latest target? It turns out to be an American couple living in Chiapas. They are Glen Wersch, 49, and Ellen Jones, 55. They own a 26-acre ranch called Rancho Esmeralda. They grow food on the ranch and operate a hotel.
They rent out 10 simple log cabins without electricity. The Mexico guide of the Lonely Planet series of travel books lists the ranch as one of its top 10 places to stay in Mexico.
Tourists want to come. The Zapatistas want Wersch and Jones out. "We don't want you here anymore," they wrote, in a message to the couple. "We are not playing. This time was simple, but the next time will be worse if you do not understand."
Why are the Zapatistas trying to intimidate Wersch and Jones?
Many land invasions by the Zapatistas have occurred in Chiapas in recent years. Properties have much that can be plundered. But the local people who work on the property, Tzeltal Indians just like those who are seeking to seize it, are opposed to Zapatistas. They want to keep their jobs. Close the ranch, drive the tourists away, and there will be no jobs.
Other than from their workers, what support do Wersch and Jones have? The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City has advised them to abandon their property. Perhaps it might do better to urge the Mexican authorities to protect American citizens.
The Mexican authorities, for their part, appear reluctant to act. The state treads carefully in these land disputes in the indigenous states, and many of them drag on for generations or end violently. Spilt blood is not the only cost. When conflict and uncertainty persist, so does poverty.
And now yet another land dispute in Mexico might be won by violence. That was always the way, going back hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. But if the Zapatistas succeed in driving out Wersch and Jones, people who are not just inoffensive but positive for the area, it will be a tragedy, an act of bullying that will leave most local people poorer.
There is a difference between sensitivity to the claims of indigenous groups and lawlessness. The state should investigate demands for land distribution; it should not give way to intimidation and violence.
A couple that has invested in Chiapas and provides jobs and income there should be protected, and protection is one of the central roles of government. Not to protect them does nothing but add to the long list of injustices in the Americas.
(Inside Mexico, a weekly column by our international economics correspondent, returns this week after a two-week break. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)