On Dec. 22, 1997, 45 women, children and men were killed while praying in a church in the southern state of Chiapas. The rural village of Acteal was a refuge for people displaced by paramilitary violence in other parts of the municipality of Chenalhó and other nearby areas. Many of those who were eventually arrested said they were members of a paramilitary group that was supported by elements of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the Mexican army.

On the first anniversary and again on the second anniversary, I travelled with friends to Acteal (about 50 km northwest of San Cristóbal) to be with the survivors and to mourn the dead. Huipiles—hand-woven, brightly-coloured blouses—were evidence of the diversity of the people of Chiapas. Many had used mountain paths to get to Acteal, avoiding military patrols. Baseball caps and t-shirts marked both the similarity and diversity of the rest of us who came from other parts of Mexico and the world.

The Acteal massacre was the worst single incident in these 18 years since the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN) seized several cities within the diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, located in the highlands of Chiapas in southern Mexico.

The uprising began on Jan. 1, 1994. After 12 days of skirmishes, the bishop of San Cristóbal, Samuel Ruiz, agreed to mediate between the indigenous-led EZLN and the federal government.

But negotiations ended in mid-1996 because the government refused to implement agreements on indigenous rights reached earlier that year. At about the same time, paramilitary groups—often linked with the state government and its police force—began a series of attacks on civilians suspected of supporting the Zapatistas.

Bishop Ruiz resigned as mediator in 1998, citing government attacks on his credibility, on-going paramilitary violence and the government’s failure to implement previous accords as blocks to the peace process. His quest for peace and justice made him an exemplary church leader. After his death in January 2011, I wrote about what he meant to his people and to me personally here.

Over the years, events in Chiapas attracted global attention. Indigenous people in Mexico’s poorest state took up arms on the day that the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect. Their spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos, eloquently expressed the Zapatista calls for health care, housing, education, land and respect for human rights in Mexico’s poorest state.

Peace in Chiapas needs ecumenical collaboration

At different times, attempts were made to bring people together who were divided as much by religious issues as by political ones. In 1996 and 97, it was clear that the Mexican government and its armed forces were creating paramilitary groups (armed civilians) to provoke conflict and then use the conflict to justify repression of groups that press for social reforms. A few months before the Acteal massacre, I participated in an ecumenical encounter in San Cristóbal (and wrote about it for Sojourners magazine) that might have alleviated conflict among some Ch’ol communities in northern Chiapas, but could not stop what was going on in Acteal.

In the case of Acteal, the state and federal governments took advantage of and exacerbated religious and political differences in the communities around Acteal to provoke the attack.

The people who died in Acteal were members of a community development group called Las Abejas (“the bees”). While declaring themselves sympathetic with the goals of the Zapatista rebellion, they took a pacifist position, sought peaceful contact between the two sides, and refused to cooperate with anti-EZLN paramilitary groups in nearby communities. Knowing that an attack was imminent, Abejas members gathered in Acteal’s tiny chapel to pray. Most had earlier taken refuge in Acteal after fleeing other communities.

The diocese of San Cristobal said in 1998 that Acteal had become a point of pilgrimage for people from all continents because the tombs “are already a monument to hope in the future resurrection.”

What the Abejas say today, together with the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Centre in San Cristóbal, is that the massacre was carefully planned by government officials.

But the two governments did not anticipate the national and international response and were compelled to imprison some of the gunmen and a handful of state officials. In 2009, the federal government convinced the Supreme Court to free the accused. Impunity for crime—the normal state of things here—re-asserted itself.

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