The First Anniversary of the Acteal Massacre in Chiapas

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December 22, 1997, forty five Tzotzil indigenous women, children, and men were massacred while praying for peace in their chapel in Acteal by paramilitaries. Among those assembled in the church were people not only from Acteal, but also from several surrounding communities such as Los Chorros, Pechquil, and Yabteclum, who had been driven out by paramilitaries. Increasing violence in the fall of 1997 included the burning of homes, the destruction of crops and animals, and threats that people either join the local paramilitary group or be killed. They sought refuge in Actcal. Many were members of an organization known as the Bees Civil Society, which was initiated through pastoral work done in the parish of San Pedro de Chenalho in the 1980s and 1990s. The Bees began as an organization in 1992. The Bees are quite explicit about their peaceful approach to change and while they support many of the demands of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, they do not sympathize with armed struggle. Their strength is based in civil organization and a belief in a pacifist road to change. This fact makes their massacre all the more alarming.

One year later, on December 22, 1998 a major pilgrimage and mass was carried out to mark the one year anniversary of the massacre. Political conditions in and around Acteal have deteriorated in the past year making the scenario for the massive commemoration precarious and tense. While some 88 local residents who are members of paramilitary groups have been charged with the massacre and are in prison, more than 32 more who have been openly implicated in the massacre are still free and moving about the communities that are home to the victims and their survivors. The National Commission for Human Rights (of the Mexican government) stated that there were more than 17 state officials linked to the massacre. None have been prosecuted.

After the Acteal massacre, thousands of refugees fled to the mountains and then settled in and around the community of Polho which has been declared as an "autonomous municipality in rebellion" by the Zapatistas. The 10,500 refugees are organized into approximately 9 camps with 1000 to 1500 people in each camp. Their existence is dependent on national and international humanitarian aid. The camps are surrounded by military bases and subject to constant patrols from the Mexican army and their partners, the public security police of the state of Chiapas. US-built Humvees with mounted machine guns drive slowly through Polho on a daily basis, with soldiers staring intently at local residents.

Another 200 to 250 refugees, primarily the families of the victims of Acteal, have been living for the past year in three different refugee camps in and around the city of San Cristobal de las Casas. In Nueva Primavera, for example, in a camp run by three Jesuit priests for the Diocese of San Cristobal, there are 75 people packed into several precariously built wooden houses with tin roofs, with 15 to 25 people per building. Most of the children are not in school, and people are unable to plant and are dependent on church aid. In December 1998, many were thinking about their small coffee groves where their only cash crop was ripening with no one to pick it. Those members of the Bees who have returned to Acteal have attempted to harvest their coffee in teams of 10, but say that it is very dangerous because the paramilitaries are out patrolling and have threatened them if they attempt to complete their harvests. One week before the anniversary of the massacre, the paramilitary group from Los Chorros, one of the communities with massacre victims, openly met and brought out their arms. They also threatened to block the road to Acteal on the day of the anniversary in order to pressure the government to free those who are in jail for participating in the massacre.

Despite the threat, 3000 to 5000 people made a pilgrimage to Acteal on December 22, 1998 to participate in a special mass to commemorate the massacre. Members of the Bees who have been living in the three refugee camps in and around San Cristobal returned on rented buses arranged by the Diocese. I accompanied a group of composed primarily of women and children from one of the camps. As we approached the area where the paramilitaries have a strong presence, the women began to talk about what had happened before the massacre. After we passed through three army roadblocks and soldiers entered the bus and walked up and down the aisles carefully scrutinizing everyone, the bus fell silent. As we approached the cut off road to Los Chorros, the women made comments such as,

"They took everything from us."

"They burned our houses, destroyed our fields. Now we have nothing."

As the bus moved through the landscape the women re-experienced the horrible events leading up to the massacre that had forced them to flee their homes.

The commemoration mass for the dead took place literally on top of the dead. A long procession that included local branches of the Bees, the two bishops of San Cristobal, Samuel Ruiz Garcia and Raul Vera Lopez, and national and international representatives made its way down the road and into an outdoor amphitheater carved into the hillside in front of the brick building housing the graves of the martyrs of Acteal. Behind this procession was another one which left from the autonomous municipality of Polho in rebellion, controlled by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. The Zapatista procession which included representatives from other areas of Chiapas arrived about 30 minutes after the procession of the Bees. More than 5000 people crowded around the natural amphitheater seeking shade in coffee trees, banana plants and whatever else would block the strong sun. A chorus of Ttzotzil women and girls from the Bees took up one side of the amphitheater with other local catechist bands also sprinkled about. When the Zapatista procession arrived, the band of Polho and the community authorities moved towards the front to their places.

The commemoration was structured around a mass led by the Organization of Civil Society, the Bees and the Pastoral Team of the Parish of San Pedro Chanelho. What transpired over the next four hours was an amazing mixture of emotion, inspiration, politics, and recognition of the different strands of indigenous organization which predominate in the area -- primarily that of the Bees based in the organizational work of indigenous pacifists trained in liberation theology through the Parish of San Pedro Chenalho as well as the Zapatistas who control the de facto government of Polho and have strong support in many surrounding communities. The Bees have grown in size since the massacre increasing from 4000 to 5000 members. The message of the Bees read at the beginning of the mass did not mince words about what lay behind the massacre and how it is interpreted.

"The martyrs of Acteal have opened our eyes even further. We already knew how the world was, what it is like to be indigenous people in Mexico, we already knew enough about how difficult it is. But we didn't know that it could come to these extremes: Our martyrs have tom us how extreme the situation is. They paid with their own lives to tell us the hard truth. They left us [the truth] as an inheritance...We see how there is no justice in Mexico, how we only get false words and promises...we see how a lot of arms have come to our communities when we are in the middle of a terrible crises. These arms are given to assassins who help to consolidate the control of government groups, to strengthen the army that never tires of taking over our lands and controlling our populations...

One year from the massacre our situation has not been resolved, it has simply gotten worse. There are 10,500 displaced people in our country who can't return to work on their lands, there are armed paramilitaries running loose, we have more army presence than ever in our communities with one soldier for every 12 people in Chenalho according to the Public Security Police. But at the same time we have fewer schools than ever, our children have lost a year of education, our priest was expelled two months after the massacre....

But our resistance is present. We have transformed our wound despite the fact that it will always be open...We want to open our hearts to you and to inspire you to keep walking, resisting, fighting and working with all of the means possible so that peace with justice and dignity is not just a motto, but becomes a reality."

The most dramatic and emotional part of the commemoration was a re-enactment of the massacre. Shortly before, an army helicopter began to fly in tight circles about the crowd, circling the amphitheater and a white flag reading "Peace" suspended on a long wooden pole. Alonso, one of the master of ceremonies, said, "Please move forward so that the paramilitaries (referring to those playing paramilitaries in the re-enactment) can come in. Don't be frightened. The shots you hear will be part of the enactment...Please don't laugh during this, be silent. We are going to enact and narrate what happened."

One of the priests added, "The helicopters are real, but the shots you will hear are not."

In the middle of the amphitheater an area was marked and roped off in the sign of a cross. Families and survivors of the victims of the massacre sat down inside the cross. They began praying and the narrator began. "They were praying for peace." At that moment, paramilitaries came in, young men dressed in fatigues who began shooting. The people praying inside the cross fell. The narrator stated, "The paramilitaries came and were shooting. Alonso, a catechist, bent over his wife and child and said, `Wife, wife, get up. Get up.' But she didn't get up. Then he turned towards the heavens and said, `Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.' Then Alonso was also gunned down." The narrator continued, "They were praying, then they began to cry. The wounded were crying out. Then the doctors came to help." At this point two people dressed as doctors, one in white with a stethoscope and another dressed as a nurse entered. The narrator then continued, "Then they were resurrected." At that point catechists dressed in white came around and began lifting up the dead one by one. As they were resurrected they lifted their hands up to the heavens and left them raised. A priest then brought down a large wooden cross to plant in the middle of those who had risen from the dead. Most of those watching were crying at this point. The survivors and their families were also crying as they were lifted up in symbolic resurrection.

Many offerings were made in the mass by people from Chiapas, other parts of Mexico and by two indigenous visitors from the United States including a Navajo representative from New Mexico and a Paiute representative from Nevada.

After the mass was closed with communion, the Zapatistas representing the displaced communities in the autonomous municipality of Polho came onto the stage and delivered a commemoration to those who were massacred in Acteal. The words of the Zapatistas were not far from the words of the Bees in content. The Zapatista representatives asked to know,

"Why do the intellectual authors of the massacres such as President Ernesto Zedillo and others continue to live in liberty, the same liberty that they have robbed firm the state of Chiapas? Why don't they get tired of torturing us, of persecuting us...They have tried to buy us out with promises of resources...As indigenous people we will not permit them to damage our dignity. Our dead keep on speaking, they keep on fighting with us."

The EZLN pointed to many of the same problems as the Bees, directly accusing the government of causing the situation to deteriorate. The EZLN representatives then ended by commemorating a series of martyrs.

"In memory of our brothers and sisters massacred in Acteal. PRESENTE. In memory of our companeros massacred in Union Progresso. PRESENTE. In memory of our companeros who have fallen in the struggle. PRESENTE."

Following the words of the EZLN representatives and closing out the event with the last word, was the president of Polho, autonomous municipio in rebellion. He pointed out the contradictions between a government which states that it wants to help the indigenous peoples, but instead sends tanks, guns, and planes.

"When the government wants to put on a good face, it offers us its miserable and hypocritical help. But when our communities are dying of hunger, misery, and illness the government first has to kill and massacre our indigenous brothers and sisters to justify its entrance into our communities to offer its help. But now with thousands of soldiers equipped with tanks, helicopters, and airplanes of war, we the indigenous men, women, children, young people and old people want our dignity. The government has no reason to reject us, to expel us, to disrespect us."

Following the end of the mass and presentations, most of the people present began to file into the tomb where the dead are buried. On one wall are photographs of each of the martyrs with their names. For those who had not returned this was a an overwhelming experience. Seeing the photograph of a daughter, nephew, aunt, uncle, husband or wife, having relived the massacre, and trying to cope with not being able to live at home brought many to their knees in grief inside the tomb. Hundreds of candles lit the tomb and were accompanied by wails and tears while outside a marimba band struck up a tune to begin a dance.

Sorrow, resurrection, and continued struggle for the rights of the indigenous were the lasting messages of this event. The coming together of the pacifist Bees with their Zapatista neighbors and the speaking of a common language suggests the depth of commitment and understanding which exists among those who share the conditions of low-intensity war in San Pedro Chenalho. All those present hope that the memory of Acteal and the other under-reported Acteals in other parts of Chiapas and Mexico will serve as a wake up call to the world to recognize the contradictory and alarming political conditions in Mexico. While it may appear that the country is in a transition to democracy, in Chiapas and other parts of the country where indigenous and other opposition movements are present, the opposite is occurring. Opposition movements calling for democracy are being squeezed out of existence through a complete militarization of local governments, electoral processes, and the right to freedom of expression and movement. 1999 is a critical year in Mexico as the country moves towards presidential elections in the year 2000. Unless a strong commitment exists both nationally and internationally to defend basic human rights, Acteal may just be one of many violent events to come.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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