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Arms Race: Brian Willson achieved fame when he sat down in the path of a locomotive approaching the Concord Naval Weapons Station--all in the name of peace. He lost his legs that day.

Part-time Santa Cruzan and world-famed activist Brian Willson risks life and remaining limbs working for peace in Chiapas

By Catherine Ryan

SAN JOSE LOOKS LIKE any tranquil Mexican town. But peace activist Brian Willson is helping to keep an eye on everything there, because this Chiapas village is not as peaceful as it seems.

The locals are all Zapatista rebels. Their ski masks and guns are hidden away--as long as negotiations with the government continue. Like every village in these parts, San Jose is surrounded by federal army troops and plays unwilling host to convoys that patrol their way through town each day. It feels like an explosion waiting to happen. The villagers hope that the presence of international "peace camp" volunteers such as Willson will discourage confrontations between the opposing armies.

Willson has a long history of participating in international peace missions. His activist career began as a soldier in 1969 Vietnam, where he spoke out against human-rights violations. He received a never-explained honorable discharge shortly thereafter. Willson believes that he was sent home so that he wouldn't stir up anti-war sentiment among the troops. He went on to earn a law degree before turning to anti-war work. In 1986, he and three other veterans fasted for 47 days on the steps of the Capitol in Washington. They had hoped to get Americans to pressure Congress into cutting off aid to the Contras in Nicaragua.

Throughout much of Central America and beyond, Willson has been considered a hero since 1987, when, on a fateful September day, his anti-war efforts finally made worldwide headlines. He began a sit-in on the railroad tracks of the Naval Weapons Station in Concord, Calif., on the first day of what was planned as a 40-day fast for peace. He chose Concord because weapons manufactured at that facility were destined for use in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Willson lost both his legs and nearly his life in that protest, because a now-infamous armaments train didn't stop. His broken body eventually recovered, and he learned to use prosthetic legs, upon which he walked right back into the fray.

Willson spent the next three years organizing veterans' peace-action teams in Nicaragua. He worked in the war zones there, moving into areas immediately after they were hit by Contra attacks. The organization's motto was "What the United States-financed Contras destroy, United States military veterans rebuild."

Land of Mines and Honey

NICARAGUA WAS MORE DANGEROUS than Chiapas is now, Willson says, as he leans on a cane. "In those days, Contra terrorists were constantly roaming through the mountainsides, not subject to any accountability--mercenaries of the U.S. government, not of the government of Nicaragua." The peace volunteers lived under the constant threat of ambushes, "And we also learned to constantly look out for land mines," he explains. Fifty of his friends were killed there.

The Mexican army is much more disciplined than the other Latin American armies he's encountered, Willson says. "I think this reflects strong U.S. advisory participation. I believe that the strategy is to keep U.S. citizens uninvolved in this conflict. The best way to do that is to prevent major incidents from happening here and to avoid anything that would scare the American people into thinking that our soldiers might be used here."

Willson believes that the United States is particularly cautious in its dealings with Mexico because of the high financial stakes involved--not only the nearly $50 billion lent by the Clinton administration, the International Monetary Fund and other banking institutions to save Mexico from economic collapse, but NAFTA-related business enterprises as well.

"Militar!" one of the locals shouts. His announcement is echoed throughout the town by other residents. The deep rumble of the army convoy can be heard a long way off. Willson stays where he is. Eventually, the vehicles begin to round the bend. Other peace-camp volunteers come running up to the road carrying cameras and notepads. Fourteen armed personnel carriers and Humvees inch through the center of San Jose on the town's only road. Each vehicle is packed with soldiers, rifles and machine guns at the ready.

The peace volunteers photograph the soldiers, and the soldiers photograph the volunteers. The locals stay out of sight. In addition to various still cameras, each vehicle sports a videographer who captures everything. It is a surreal scene--a shooting war in which both sides appear to win.

According to the current truce agreement, army vehicles may not stop in or near the towns, and the soldiers must remain in their vehicles. "Well, I get a shot of fear, you know," says Willson as the convoy passes, pausing to write something in his notebook. "I stay 20 to 30 feet off the road. Just breathe, stay relaxed, write down the number of vehicles and soldiers, because that is part of our responsibilities here." He says he hangs back to avoid making the soldiers feel threatened. "The point is just to let them know their actions are monitored."

The Mexican army is 120,000 strong and between 40,000 and 60,000 soldiers are now stationed in Chiapas, according to some estimates. Willson says that the townspeople perceive the current military occupation to be part of a low-intensity war intended to gradually undermine their resistance. "It has a huge impact on the people's psyches," he observes.

Torn Between the Tinderbox and the Garden's Calm

WILLSON IS NONCOMMITTAL about whether he supports the rebels' ideology. "What is clear, though, is that they don't want any more repression. They want control of their lives, and they want justice. That's not much different than the other revolutions, but the Zapatistas seem much more decentralist than the national-socialism, nation-state models I've seen. But what really stands out is the fact that the indigenous people from all over Mexico finally feel free to express themselves. That is incredible."

A white Suburban bounces by on the road, apparently in a hurry. The man in the front passenger seat waves out the window just before his vehicle disappears around the curve in the road. A cloud of dust hangs in the air behind.

"Let's say there was an ambush on this road," Willson continues, "just one ambush by the Zapatistas against a military convoy. That would have disastrous financial repercussions. In that sense, the rebels have a lot of power. But if they wielded that power, they would also give the army the excuse it might be waiting for to completely annihilate every community that is considered Zapatista."

Willson mentions that the day before, the peace-camp volunteers had heard via short-wave radio that thousands of indigenous people were going on hunger strikes in two Mexican states as part of various ongoing protests against the government. "Mexico is a tinderbox," he says.

Back in the States, Willson divides his time between Santa Cruz and Wendell, Mass. When he returns to the U.S., he plans to resume work on an eco-sensitive house he is building in Massachusetts. He says that he's putting in a zero percent discharge sanitation system, using recycled materials, and expanding his organic garden.

Willson admits that he's now torn between heading back and staying in Chiapas, trying to help teach the locals to create similar self-sufficient communities that would make them even more independent from further government involvement in the area. But his physical condition gets in the way. "I just can't sustain being on my legs all the time--one of those practical things I have to take into consideration," he says.

Willson has been in Mexico for several months this time, mostly in Chiapas. In his travels around the countryside, he says that people spoke often to him of their hopes for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. But Willson adds that the locals fear that the government is participating in peace talks primarily to buy time for an eventual invasion.

"I'm watching the army build permanent buildings throughout the area," he says. "It appears that the military is preparing to stay here for a very long time. It isn't looking too good."

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From the June 13-19, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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