Las Abejas: Nonviolence on the Line by Suzanne O'Hatnick
"We look for the good path of peace without arms. We welcome those of all faiths to join us in a path of nonviolence. We do not know where this path will lead; we are creating it as we go."
This was the remarkable welcome from a member of the Bees (Las Abejas) to our Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) delegation our first day in Chiapas, Mexico. We had come to learn more about the Bees, an ecumenical indigenous group practicing nonviolence in the midst of a low intensity war in Chiapas, Mexico.
On December 22, 1997, forty-five members of the Bees, mostly women and children, were massacred in Acteal, a refugee village in Chiapas in southern Mexico. Those who were murdered had been fasting and praying for peace. The murderers were other indigenous people.
The attention of the world suddenly turned to Acteal. CPT had already been invited by the Diocese of Chiapas to open a project in Chiapas to work nonviolently for social change, and members of earlier delegations had met with members of the Bees in November, 1997. Our delegation traveled to Chiapas at the end of February returning in early March.
We met with many groups in San Cristobal de las Casas, the capital city of the state of Chiapas. Most moving were our meetings with members of the Bees, some of whom we met in a refugee center in San Cristobal, others in an outlying refugee village that we reached by hiking an hour and a half over mountain passes.
"Can you forgive?" we asked. "Will you continue the practice of nonviolence?"
One man responded, "We can forgive those who robbed us, stole our land and forced us from our homes and then burned them. They were forced to do that. But we cannot yet forgive those who murdered our people, our women and children, nor do we forgive the government, for they permitted this to happen.
"In our culture, when one man offends another, he must bring a token, a gift to express his regret to the one he has offended, and beg his pardon. Then he will be forgiven. We will not take up arms against the murderers, but we expect the government to arrest the guilty, to disarm the paramilitaries, to indemnify us for our losses and help us to return to our lands, to rebuild our homes."
Chiapas has been the neglected "poor cousin" in Mexico, operating with a feudal system of patronage long after other parts of Mexico have begun to practice democratic forms of governance.
At the bottom of the political and economic scale are the indigenous people, many of whom do not speak Spanish, who have the least access to education and most of whom are subsistence farmers living in small rural communities.
The Zapatista armed uprising in January of 1994 was a cry for greater autonomy for the indigenous and other rural poor of Mexico. Named for Emiliano Zapata, a leader of agrarian revolt in Mexico in the early 1900's, the Zapatistas captured the attention and the sympathy of the world. Faced with an uprising on the very day NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) was to be implemented, the Mexican government chose to negotiate with the rebels and a cease-fire was quickly established. Those talks have hit a stalemate.
The Bees were inspired by the aims of the Zapatistas, but not by their means. The Bees had already begun to practice nonviolent demonstrations on a small scale, initially to seek justice for their neighbors in Chenalho who had been apprehended and jailed unjustly. They decided to form an organization called "the Bees" for they had "stung" the government into action.
Not all indigenous people share the goals of the Zapatistas. Some have profited from the patronage system, receiving their positions and payment from the leading government party, the PRI, and fear losing their positions of relative power if community leaders are chosen by the community. They began to arm themselves. Often working in collusion with local police and military these armed civilian groups, also referred to as paramilitaries, seek out Zapatista sympathizers, threatening, attacking, recruiting or forcing others to steal or to pay for their own safety with cash. The paramilitaries then buy more arms with the cash.
Targeted by paramilitaries for their sympathy with the Zapatistas, the Bees were evicted from their homes and fled south into hastily erected refugee camps. Before the Bees left, they contacted the local authorities, informing on the paramilitaries. Apparently thinking they would "make the Bees pay," the armed civilians planned the attack on Acteal working in collusion with local authorities. The national government has turned a blind eye to the paramilitaries who, until the massacre at Acteal, have operated with impunity.
"How can we in North America support you in your nonviolent path?" we asked.
"Pray with us and for us," a man responded.
"Continue to send delegations as public witnesses to what is happening. Your presence is a protection for us.
"The Mexican government has taken some steps. Many, although not all yet, who were involved in the massacre have been arrested. Investigations continue. But the paramilitary groups continue to operate in the North and we cannot return to our homes. Your government has a great deal of influence on ours. Urge your government to pressure the Mexican government to disarm the paramilitaries and to help us to return and restore our lives. We do want local autonomy, the right to choose our community leaders. And we want to be full-fledged citizens of Mexico, with all the rights of citizenship. We cannot yet return to our homes. You can help."
"We will lend our support," we replied. CPT is organizing other delegations this year. Many of our delegates returned home to give speeches, meet with political leaders and write articles about the experience. We urge all who read this to contact your national political leadership and to consider participating in a CPT delegation to Chiapas. For more information see Volunteer Opportunities.
For more on Las Abejas see PTNv5i2, Summer 2000.