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DENTIST WHO RAN CLINIC NEAR ACTEAL SAYS UNREST BEGAN WEEKS AGO

When Tom Potts, a dentist in Belmont, read last week of the massacre of 45 peasants in a poor village in Chiapas, Mexico, he felt rage and sorrow.

Worse, though, was what he did not feel: surprise.

Potts, who has helped run a dental clinic for that region's poor since 1987, had returned from Chiapas a few weeks earlier. And the violence, he says, had already begun.

"The people were terrified," Potts said Saturday as he remembered his weeklong trip to Chenalho, a town near Acteal, the tiny farming village -- or "paraje" -- where the massacre occurred Monday.

The killings were the deadliest attack since rebels of the Zapatista National Liberation Army rose up to demand rights for Mayan Indians in 1994, a conflict that left more than 135 dead.

Since the rebellion began, villagers have splintered into a variety of factions, primarily aligning themselves with either Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party or with the Zapatistas.

Survivors of the attack, all of them aligned with the Zapatistas, blamed paramilitary loyalists of the Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Potts said he had arrived in Chenalho in early November to open the clinic, which is run for a few weeks each year by the Western New York Peace Center.

This year, he was bringing unusually good news. The center had raised enough money to hire a Mexican dentist to run the clinic one day a week all year.

But when Potts arrived, the clinic had been taken over by armed state police, he said. The entrances were blocked by sandbags, the walls topped with barbed wire, the windows boarded up. He and the Mexican dentists he worked with were denied entrance, he said.

Meanwhile, he said, paramilitary groups already had begun burning the homes of farmers in the outlying hamlets of Chenalho. Some families -- particularly women and children -- were starting to seek shelter in the town. More, however, were fleeing into the hillsides.

He said a local priest told him "people were being shot and killed (in the villages) and that many houses had been burned down."

"They were unarmed," Potts said of the villagers. "They were not in anyway participants in warfare."

Potts said he spent days trying to negotiate to open the clinic or relocate it, but to no avail. When he arrived back home, Potts warned the Peace Center of conditions in Chiapas and urged it to contact the Mexican Embassy, Mexican President Ernest Zedillo and others. The centers members did so, but, again, to no avail.

"We couldn't help anyone," said Potts, who is now trying to find a site in the region to relocate the clinic.

The fighting has increased poverty and starvation in a region that already has plenty of both, said Christine Eber, an anthropologist with New Mexico State University who began studying the region as a doctoral student at the University at Buffalo a decade ago.

She visited Chiapas in August, she said. Conditions were already deteriorating rapidly. She said members of paramilitary groups were raiding coffee crops -- the only cash crop for most farmers.

There were also rumors that anti-Zapatistas were planning action, "although no one knew what exactly," she said.

"These people (para-military members) are sons," she said, adding that they are often paid to fight. "They are from the villages, and they were going off to camps. That's how people knew."

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