Mexican rebel leader Marcos retires, says 'no longer exists'

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Subcommandante Marcos, who led an indigenous uprising in southern Mexico and became one of Latin America’s most iconic revolutionaries, on Sunday said he was stepping down as spokesman for the Zapatista rebels and would disappear.

The leader of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), Subcomandante Marcos (C) smokes a pipe during opening of the forum to mark the fifteenth anniversary of the Zapatista uprising in San Critobal de las Casas in Mexico's state of Chiapas, January 2, 2009. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

The ski-masked, pipe-smoking guerrilla leader became an idol of the anti-globalization movement after he led the 1994 Zapatista rebellion in the southern state of Chiapas, but he had avoided public appearances in recent years.

“We have decided that today Marcos no longer exists,” he wrote in a lengthy statement published on the Zapatista website that he said was his last message as the rebel leader.

Marcos denied rumors he had become ill, saying he was making way for a new generation to take over speaking for the rebels, who still hold a handful of communities deep in Chiapas.

Named for Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, the Zapatista National Liberation Army launched a 12-day battle with the Mexican Army that claimed at least 140 lives, rising up on the day Mexico opened its borders to free trade.

Marcos became a hero to leftist activists and intellectuals by championing the rights of Maya Indians who had been oppressed for centuries, but he was seen as a self-serving publicist to his critics on the right.

Marcos has not made any major appearance since 2006, when he traveled across Mexico to condemn the country’s political class during a presidential election campaign. He banned media from a 20th anniversary celebration this year.

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The government had identified him as a former professor, but Marcos denied and mocked the government’s claims in his statement, calling himself a “hologram.”

He said that his figure, now emblazoned on t-shirts and the target of criticism from the right, had become a “distraction.”

“Those who loved and hated Subcomandante Marcos now know that they have hated and loved a hologram,” he wrote. “The persona was created and now its creators, Zapatista men and Zapatista women, destroy him.”

The Zapatistas brought to prominence the plight of the region’s impoverished Maya Indians, but Chiapas remains one Mexico’s poorest states, where three-quarters of the population live in poverty.

In 2001, Congress passed legislation to give the indigenous more rights. But the Zapatistas rejected government efforts to appease them and they set up their own autonomous governments in five municipalities in Chiapas known as caracoles, or shells.

About half the Mexican population still live in poverty, little changed from when then-President Carlos Salinas signed up to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that came into force the day of the Zapatista rebellion on January 1, 1994.

Reporting by Michael O’Boyle and Tomas Sarmiento; Editing by Matt Driskill