The masked revolutionary icon of Latin America, Subcomandante Marcos, emerged from the Mexican jungle for the first time for four years over the weekend as his Zapatista movement rebranded itself as a non-violent proponent of alternative politics.
Wearing his trademark military fatigues and sweat-provoking black ski mask, the rebel appeared to be kick-starting a recently declared shift towards political engagement by the Zapatista National Liberation Army.
He carried with him a chicken dressed to look like a penguin - the unlikely new symbol of a revolutionary movement made up mainly of Maya Indians from the sweltering jungles of the southern Chiapas region.
The mysterious revolutionary, who led a brief armed uprising in Chiapas in January 1994 in the name of Indian rights, did not reveal where he had been hiding for the past four years.
While his base is thought to be in the jungle 500 miles south of Mexico City, he has found time to co-author a novel, Uncomfortable Dead, with the crime writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II.
Mexican officials have identified Marcos as the former university lecturer Rafael Sebastián Guillén. Marcos, who always denied being Guillén, was educated by Jesuit priests and got a masters degree in philosophy from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Guillén's family has also refused to say whether the pipe-smoking man in the ski mask is one of them, saying they lost contact with him long ago.
Subcomandante Marcos's public pronouncements in recent years have generally been issued via email letters published in the Mexican newspaper La Jornada. Last month, the Zapatistas declared a "red alert", recalling top commanders to hold high-level discussions, consulting its followers and announcing days later a move toward politics and away from armed conflict.
"Like penguins in the jungle, the Zapatistas will make an effort to stand upright and find a place for themselves in Mexico, Latin America and the world," Marcos explained in a recent missive quoted by Spain's El Periódico newspaper. "We are coming out, you might as well get used to the idea."
Marcos has said the rebels will embark on a cross-country, pre-election tour aimed at uniting workers, students and activists around a leftwing agenda. The new phase of Zapatista action "is not to draw lines, is not to promote the armed fight in another state", Marcos said. He added: "It is to go and ask the people what they think and how their problems are being resolved."
The main target of Marcos's weekend attacks on established politicians, delivered at a meeting of leftwing groups in the tiny settlement of San Rafael, was the former Mexico City mayor, Andres Manuel Lopéz Obrador.
Mr Lopez Obrador, himself a former Indian rights activist, is the leading candidate to become the country's new president next year. He looks set to be the leftwing Democratic Revolution Party's nominee in presidential elections and currently leads in opinion polls.
"They say, 'maybe Lopez Obrador doesn't steal'. But his team has shown its ability and appetite to do so," Marcos said.
In a video widely broadcast last year, one of Mr Lopez Obrador's closest advisers was secretly filmed accepting money and stuffing a briefcase full of cash.
About 150 people died when the Zapatistas emerged from the jungle in 1994 seizing towns and clashing with security forces in the first few days. There has been little fighting since then, however, and in 2001 the Zapatistas criss-crossed Mexico in a two-week tour to drum up support for an Indian rights bill. They were received like rock stars, were allowed to address Congress and drew about 100,000 supporters to Mexico City's main square. Hopes of talks to get the rebels to lay down their arms collapsed, however, when Congress gutted the Indian rights bill.www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,,1544510,00.htmlE-mail this article