He was the overnight messiah of Mexico’s hardcore political left, an instant symbol of empowerment and hope for millions of “campesinos” throughout Mexico. Shrouded in a ski mask, bandoleer belts of shotgun shells and a hip pistol, he had intense eyes and a voice that made him a sudden heartthrob for many Mexican women, from the pueblos to the affluent salons of Mexico City.
Thursday, the image was shattered.
Mexicans awoke Friday to a photograph of a round-faced, scraggly bearded son of a well-to-do furniture-store owner from the port town of Tampico.
Subcomandante Marcos, the spokesman and black-masked symbol of the peasant and Indian revolt for justice and equal rights in the southernmost state of Chiapas, was, in fact, Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo asserted on national television.
He was neither Indian nor peasant, but an upper-middle-class intellectual with graduate degrees who was raised with seven brothers and sisters by a furniture-store owner.
Marcos’ father, a prominent, softspoken local businessman, says he hasn’t seen nor heard from his 37-year-old son in nearly three years.
Around 5 a.m., hours after Zedillo revealed the identity of Marcos, as many as 4,000 troops set out for the vast jungle region near the Quatemanlen border, according to residents.
As the military helicopters and troops drove into the heart of rebel territory Friday, the guerrillas and their leader disappeared into the indigenous population.
Many of the 15,000 government troops stationed in the southern state of Chiapas also were apparently mobilizing.
By unmasking the man he identi fied as the charismatic leader of the Zapatista National Liberation Army late Thursday, Zedillo scored what analysts Friday called a coup de grace in the arena of propaganda.
Ill-armed and ill-manned, the Zapatistas were never seen as a serious military threat. Despite the enormous theater and human toll of their 12-day shooting war with the Mexican army, which left 145 people dead more than a year ago, many of the guerrillas only had wooden rifles.
Few shots have been fired in the conflict since a Jan. 10, 1994, ceasefire took effect. But Marcos had other weapons at his disposal: A computer and printer, video recorders, television sets and, by some accounts, access to a fax machine and satellite phone - all powered by modern generators.
He has spent the past year hosting national conventions of social activist groups, staging bizarre all-night interviews and news conferences and even hosting a nightlong dance fiesta to mark the first anniversary of his New Year’s Day uprising.
According to a biography released by federal prosecutors late Thursday, and confirmed in interviews with Guillen Vicente’s family, friends and former classmates, the man the government identified as Marcos was born June 19, 1957, in a well-to-do neighborhood of Tampico.
Family friends remember that he and his brothers and sisters all excelled in school, adding to a family reputation earned by their father, who owned the city’s best-known furniture outlet.
As a boy, Guillen studied at the Cultural Institute of Tampico, a Jesuit school. From there he went to the Technological Institute of Advance Studies in Guadalajara and later to the National Autonomous University in Mexico City, where he graduated with honors.
The last school he attended was The Sorbonne in Paris, where he earned a master’s degree in philosophy, his brother Hector Guillen said.
“We didn’t see much of him after that,” he said.
Published reports Friday indicated Guillen Vicente went to the Nicaraguan capital of Managua, where he had his first direct contact with the Sandinista forces. Government sources said he returned to Mexico in the late 1980s to lay the foundations for the future Zapatista National Liberation Army.
In the year that Marcos has held court for television networks, radio stations, newspapers and magazines from around the world, he has cast himself as mercurial, committed, always comic, clearly cosmopolitan but increasingly off-color and sometimes utterly bizarre.
Beginning several months after he and the Mexican army declared unilateral cease-fires, Marcos’ comments and behavior showed him to be a character far more colorful yet confounding than the steel-eyed guerrilla commander most Mexicans came to know through his official communiques and their television screens.
Invariably, Marcos appeared in a jungle clearing in the middle of the night to meet a handful of reporters who had waited an average of a week to see him.
His ever-present pipe in hand, Marcos joked, rambled and cajoled so frequently that most journalists and many residents in Chiapas nicknamed him “Subcomedian Marcos.”
Through those interviews, Marcos maintained that he had spent the past decade living in the jungle, that he had formed the Zapatistas with three indigenous Mexicans and two other descendants of Spaniards in 1984, and that the movement grew rapidly beginning in the early 1990s, when radical government economic reforms enriched a handful of Mexicans in the cities while leaving many peasants and Indians behind.
It was when Marcos was asked about his personal life that the rhetoric of a revolutionary gave way to fanciful ramblings that entertained some and offended others.
Speaking in excellent English, Marcos regaled a group of journalists last March with tales of jobs around the United States, including as a Santa Barbara, Calif., cabdriver, in a San Francisco sex shop and in a New Orleans massage parlor.
“I worked in Aspen (Colo.); that’s where I got the ski mask …” he said. “In Dallas, I provided security for the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. In Hollywood, I got an Oscar. I played the kid in `Kramer Against Kramer.”’