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Celebration Amid Occupation In Chiapas:
Remembering The Massacre Of Innocents In Acteal

by Cliff Pearson

On Jan. 1, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation took control of several towns in the southern-most state of Chiapas in Mexico. The Zapatistas declared themselves in rebellion against the Mexican government. In printed leaflets and broadcasts from a captured radio station the Zapatistas proclaimed, “Hoy Decimos Basta! Today we say enough!” Thus launched the movement for rights and justice for the indigenous and poor of Mexico.

The Zapatistas and the Mexican government quickly reached a cease fire that the Zapatistas are still following. The Mexican government, however, is waging what human rights observers are calling a “low intensity war” against the Zapatistas and their supporters. Human rights workers in Chiapas say this counterinsurgency military campaign is designed to break up organizational efforts and instill fear. Witnesses and survivors say the campaign uses misinformation, military occupation, psychological warfare, and paramilitaries. Paramilitaries are armed groups of civilians that act at the fringes of the law. They are made up of indigenous people tied to the Mexican government. There is evidence they receive training and arms from the Mexican military and police.

On Dec. 22, 1997 masked gunmen belonging to a paramilitary murdered 45 unarmed indigenous people — almost all women and children — while they prayed and fasted for peace in the village of Acteal. The victims were members of the Bees (Las Abejas), a group of Catholic Mayans who are absolute pacifists (see Las Abejas: Nonviolence on the Line, PTNv3i1 and The Bees “Arm” Themselves with God’s Word, PTNv3i1). Our small delegation was there to see for ourselves the plight of the indigenous in Chiapas and to remember Acteal.

Day 1, Dec. 18, 1998: Arrival in Tuxtla Gutierrez

The occupation was obvious as our plane landed in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital city of Chiapas. We counted 12 military planes and helicopters along the runway, sharing space with civilian jets at what was supposed to be a civilian airport. After we got off the plane, we saw two soldiers of the Mexican Federal Army walking casually around the airport. It was 5:40 p.m. and we had finally arrived in Chiapas after flying there by way of Mexico City from Dallas. Our delegation — led by Peace Action Texas chairperson, Lon Burnam of Ft. Worth — also included Dolly Warden, a Dallas legal assistant who works with refugees and asylum-seekers; her daughter Alison Warden, a college student from Oklahoma; and Colette Nies, a University of North Texas student who plans to become a Presbyterian missionary.

At about 6 p.m. the restaurant and the airport closed. While Lon and I watched from the curb, dark blue-suited men with machine guns, members of the State Public Security, locked the place down. It was like watching a commando invasion. There was no mistaking — Chiapas is occupied territory. (Later we would be told that the paramilitary involved in the massacre at Acteal often goes escorted by members of this police department.)

At our hotel we were joined by Andy Mares, a friend of Lonıs and a well-known environmental and civil-rights activist from El Paso, Texas. Andy had traveled separately to Chiapas.

Day 2, Dec. 19, 1998: San Cristobal de Las Casas

The following morning, we went to San Cristobal de Las Casas. Across the street from our hotel was a building belonging to the Workerıs Party, the Party of the Democratic Revolution, and the Green Party. These groups have formed a coalition in an effort to oust the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The PRI has been the ruling party in Mexico since the 1920s.

After meeting up with Teresa Ortiz, executive director of the Cloudforest Initiative and our leader in Mexico, Dolly, Alison and I went to the public square to shop. The indigenous Mayans saw us coming a mile away. Old women and children came up to us begging us to buy their handmade dolls and trinkets. It was heartbreaking to say no to them. After all, they need money much more than I do. But of course I couldn't buy everything.

One old woman kept trying to sell me something despite my refusals and finally gave me a “friendship bracelet” as a gift. As she tied it around my wrist she said, “Welcome, welcome. Thank you for coming. Thank you for hearing us.” It brought a tear to my eye.

A Meeting with the Bees After having lunch, our delegation was joined by members of a delegation from Chicago at an internal refugee camp occupied by displaced members of the Bees (Las Abejas). There we met with Alonso, a member of the Bees who came to Dallas last November with his wife Faustina on a U.S. speaking tour.

Alonso spoke of his displacement two years ago by a paramilitary group from the village of Los Chorros in the municipality (county) of Chenalho. He talked about how he escaped the attack on his village, of the difficulty he had in rescuing his wife, and of the death threats his wife received from the paramilitary. He added that of the more than 5,500 Tzotzil Mayan members of the Bees, almost all are displaced.

Alonso also mentioned the massacre at Acteal and of the plans for the first anniversary commemoration that were underway. He said they were expecting thousands of people from all over the world and that they were very busy with the preparations.

Alonso kept thanking all of us for coming to Chiapas and for caring about them. He thanked our sponsors for sending us. He said repeatedly that his trip to the U.S. and our trip to Chiapas gives them all hope — it tells them they are not alone in their struggle.

Alonso was worried about the Bees' coffee crops. He said that paramilitary activity in Chenalho has made it impossible to check on them, and it may be impossible to harvest. Since the coffee is their livelihood, the loss of the crops would be devastating to the Bees. He asked for all of us, their “brothers and sisters in the United States,” to pray for them.

Another issue that came up was the lack of documentation of the indigenous. In Mexico, the indigenous are basically “non-people,” having no documentation of their existence. Alonso and Faustina, for example, don't even have proof they are married because the records of the church in Los Chorros have been destroyed. (The pro-indigenous parish priest, a Frenchman, was deported by the Mexican government and replaced with a pro-PRI priest that the diocese doesn't want.) Andy suggested that peace activists might consider working on getting the U.N. to call for documenting the indigenous people of the world.

The Briefing Session At a meeting that evening, Teresa Ortiz told us that if we didn't behave as tourists, avoiding “political” activities as much as possible, that we could be branded “revolutionary tourists” by the Mexican government. She said there were two ways we could get into trouble, through La Migra (immigration) or through the military.

Teresa told us that the Mexican Federal Army operates a checkpoint in Chenalho that they sometimes share with La Migra. She told us that the military can't legally ask us for passports, but that they do anyway, and that since they have machine guns we should cooperate. Teresa added that La Migra does have the authority to ask us for passports as well as for our tourist visas. According to Teresa, without our visas we are illegal and can be deported immediately. Teresa emphasized that the worst case scenario would be that we would be denied passage into Acteal. The likelihood of arrest or detention, or even of deportation, was remote. No foreigner has ever been shot, according to Teresa.

Teresa told us there are 12 paramilitaries operating in Chiapas. Some are made up of indigenous from evangelical Christian Mayan communities, others are Catholic. All are linked to the government.

Speaking of the Zapatistas, Teresa said they are actually a mostly nonviolent group, only using arms to defend themselves. There are exactly 1,111 communities forming “autonomous regions” in Chiapas. These Zapatista communities have declared themselves independent of Mexico. Teresa added that when the cease fire was declared, the Zapatistas and the Mexican government sat down for peace talks. The Zapatistas are demanding: indigenous rights, equality for all Mexicans, true democracy, agrarian reform, and women's rights. Teresa said that on Feb. 16, 1996, the Zaptistas and the Mexican government signed the San Andres Accords — historic peace treaties. But the Mexican government has not been keeping them. For this reason Bishop Samuel Ruiz of the Catholic Diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas resigned his position as head of the National Mediation Commission (CONAI).

Bishop Ruiz, said Teresa, has long been both loved and hated in Chiapas. His enemies call him the “red bishop,” while the indigenous call him Tatic, the Mayan word for “dear father.” Bishop Ruiz preaches “liberation theology,” which encourages priests to advocate for the poor and oppressed. With the demise of the peace talks, who knows what lies ahead for the indigenous of Chiapas?

Interestingly, said Teresa, the Bees are not Zapatistas. Unlike the Zapatistas, they will not take arms under any circumstances. This makes their massacre at Acteal all the more obscene. I asked Teresa, what then was the rationale for attacking Acteal? According to Teresa, the Mexican government is officially calling it an “inter-communal and inter-racial regional conflict.” She claimed the government is using the massacre to justify the military presence in Chiapas to “keep the peace,” although, she said, the army's presence in autonomous regions violates the San Andres Accords.

Teresa added that political analysts have offered three theories for the massacre at Acteal: (1) it was an attempt to provoke a full-scale war between the Zapatistas and the Mexican government, (2) it was a mistake — they didn't know the Bees are nonviolent, or (3) it was an attempt to stop the rebellion in one example-making blow.

What does NAFTA have to do with it? The Zapatistas link the plight of the poor and indigenous in Chiapas to NAFTA. Why? Some books I brought with me had the answers. Before NAFTA was even signed, indigenous people's land was being leased to timber companies, oil exploration companies, and international coffee growers — mostly from the U.S. Part of what triggered the 1994 revolt was that coffee prices bottomed out, which hit the small producers hard. Most of these were indigenous cooperatives.

When NAFTA was signed, the Mexican government continued its pattern of ignoring previous promises of reform by allowing foreign and private ownership of communally-held indigenous land. This was devastating to the indigenous people because they couldn't compete with large multinational corporations. They didn't have access to seeds, credit, or fertilizer. They were also being pushed to the worst lands.

State representative Norma Chavez of El Paso, Texas — who had just joined our delegation, having traveled separately — told Teresa that she thought this was about oil. Teresa confirmed that Chiapas has the main oil reserves in Mexico — primarily in the eastern jungle portion of the state where the most conflicts are taking place. By changing the land-tenure laws, NAFTA gave U.S. companies access to these reserves through leasing.

Teresa emphasized that one of the primary ways the Mexican government is waging its “low intensity” war now is by creating paramilitaries through aggravating religious and other prejudices and exploiting fear of the Zapatistas. By arming civilians from a village of evangelical Mayans, and telling them a nearby Catholic village is full of Zapatistas coming soon to steal their land, the Mexican government can instigate armed conflict. Afterwards, the army can move into and occupy the Zapatista community to “keep the peace.”

Day 3, Dec. 20, 1998: Fray Bartolome Center for Human Rights

Our next meeting was with Marina Patricia Jimenez, executive director of the Fray Bartolome de Las Casas Center for Human Rights. The Center, founded in 1989 by the Catholic Diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas, defends human rights in Mexico. Marina said most of the Center's work has been to document human rights violations and to work with national and international observers. The Center puts pressure on the military and the various police departments — the primary human rights abusers in Chiapas according to Marina — to stop their abuse. Marina defines human rights abuse as “any case where those with authority abuse their authority in such a way as to adversely affect the minds, bodies, or spirits of others.”

Marina said the mere presence of the army in the autonomous regions is a human rights violation, because it's intimidating. She felt the army is using intimidation as a destabilizing tool. She agreed with Teresa that the government's “keeping the peace” explanation for the army's presence in the autonomous regions is nothing more than a smokescreen. If the army really wants to keep the peace, said Marina, then why are they occupying Zapatista territory? Marina said it's the government-backed paramilitaries that are killing people. Marina wondered why the army doesn't disarm the paramilitaries? After all, she said, they claim their checkpoints are to look for weapons.

Marina remains very concerned that the only people prosecuted for the massacre at Acteal are local people. According to Marina, the people at the national level, who ordered the attack, are still free and clear.

Members of our delegation wondered about the role of the U.S. military in Chiapas. Marina knew nothing specific about the massive U.S. arms sales to Mexico, and knew nothing at all about the numerous allegations of U.S. soldiers in Chiapas. She did, of course, know all about the School of the Americas — the U.S. Army facility at Ft. Benning, Ga. linked to human rights abuse in Central America. Marina mentioned that many Mexican Federal Army soldiers are graduates of the SOA — including the present Mexican Secretary of Defense. (SOA records show that Mexico currently has the highest number of soldiers of any other country enrolled at the SOA.)

Lastly, Marina mentioned that the Fray Bartolome Center for Human Rights is deeply involved in ecumenical programs to build interdenominational understanding among the indigenous, and to make it harder for the government to exploit religious prejudice.

Day 4, Dec. 21, 1998: International Service for Peace

The next day we met with SIPAZ, the International Service for Peace, to hear about the overall political situation in Chiapas. The discussion was led by Jella and Betty, a married couple from Holland who are serving a two year term with SIPAZ. Jella said SIPAZ has been organizing around the anniversary of the assassination of Gandhi to encourage the indigenous toward nonviolence. In doing so SIPAZ is giving the people what they want. The people, said Jella, are asking for Gandhian nonviolent mass struggle.

Jella also mentioned that SIPAZ is concerned with the outcome of the Oct. 4 general elections in Mexico. There was very low voter turn-out, and the PRI won control of many more municipalities. SIPAZ wishes more indigenous people had turned out for the election, but the Zapatistas are not allied with any political party. And because they consider themselves autonomous, they don't vote. As far as they are concerned, Mexico is a foreign country.

Jella provided us with a written report about Chiapas that covered the six months following the massacre at Acteal. According to the report, more than 70,000 troops (one third of the entire Mexican Federal Army) are stationed in Chiapas. The paramilitary group, Paz y Justicia, has been linked to more than 60 deaths in the past three years, yet the army has yet to disarm any paramilitaries. There are five soldiers for every police officer in Chiapas. The army has occupied 60 communities since the massacre at Acteal -- all of them Zapatista.

It was very heartwarming to hear that the indigenous of Chiapas, rather than launch a civil war, have responded to the oppression of their people by calling for international solidarity and peace.

Day 5, Dec. 22, 1998: Remembering Acteal

The following morning, we were stopped by the Mexican Federal Army as we entered the municipality (county) of Chenalho. We were on our way to Acteal for the commemoration. We were ordered out of our van and the army searched the vehicle “for weapons.” The soldiers took our names and recorded our passport numbers and visa information. It was very difficult and a bit risky to get pictures of the military, but we all sneaked a few shots when the soldiers weren't looking.

As we passed through a tiny village called Las Limas, we were stopped by another army checkpoint. This time the soldiers just peeked in, counted people, and waved us through. It was easier to get pictures this time.

As we continued up the mountain road to Acteal, I took note of the incredible poverty I saw. The economic status of the indigenous is blatantly destitute. I saw families huddled together in huts thrown together out of loose boards, sheet metal and cardboard. Elderly and children alike went barefoot, with clothes inappropriate for the weather. There were no signs of electricity, plumbing, decent sanitation, or even potable water. It was hard to believe I was seeing the descendants of the proud people that had built the great sites at Palenque and Chichen-Itza. My despair turned to anger when I saw that despite their squalor, there were Coca-Cola and Pepsi billboards everywhere. Many of the indigenous even operated tienditas, or “little stores,” where they sold these beverages. These people didn't have decent living conditions, but they all had plenty of Coke and Pepsi.

We arrived in Acteal at about 9 a.m. The first thing I noticed as I descended the steps into the village (built on the side of the mountain), was the light blue flag flapping in the wind bearing the word “paz” (peace). As I got into the village, I saw a large white cross drawn with chalk in the dirt. It was the exact spot where the 45 innocent Tzotzil Mayans were murdered. It was a deeply spiritual experience to be standing on that spot. I could almost hear the blood of the martyrs screaming for justice.

There were thousands of people milling around, waiting for the service to begin. Almost all were indigenous or Mexican, but a few groups of white people were there too. I talked to several of them. Most of these international observers were European — German, English, French, Swedish, Dutch and Hungarian. The only Americans I saw, besides us, were from Chicago, Washington, D.C. and New York. Most of the members of the media were Mexican, although I did meet a photojournalist from Cuba.

No sooner had we arrived than the Mayan ceremonial dancers showed up. The mournful wail of the conch shells they blew to begin the service brought silence to the crowd. Dressed in colorful costumes of feathers and shells, the dancers first “smudged” the attenders by blowing sweet-smelling smoke on everyone. This was to purify and bless us. Then they danced in honor of Mother Earth, Father Sky, and the four directions — as well as in the name of the Holy Trinity.

After the opening ceremony there was nothing to do but wait for the pilgrimage to arrive. We mingled with the crowd, and tried to talk to the people. Most, however, didn't speak Spanish, only the Tzotzil Mayan language. The small children seemed fascinated with me, so I asked someone why. I was told that most of the little children had never seen a white person before, much less a big man like me. (I found that the best way to bridge the language barrier with the little ones was to smile and offer to share my crackers.)

While we were waiting for the pilgrimage, Teresa found out that one of her American friends who lived in San Cristobal had been detained by the army and was going to be deported. Apparently her attempt to go to Acteal for the anniversary of the massacre was one too many “political” activities.

At about 11 a.m. the pilgrimage arrived. It was led by Bishop Ruiz. He and several priests made their way to the top of a building that had been converted into a makeshift altar and pulpit. The Mass was in Spanish and Tzotzil. At about 11:20 a.m. several hundred Zapatista Army members showed up, complete with their trademark black ski masks and red bandanas. They had been marching with the pilgrimage. They were carrying white lilies and large crosses. It was an overwhelming feeling to be standing only two feet from these people who only five years ago had seized control of Chiapas in rebellion against their oppression.

The whole time the Mass of Remembrance was going on, a Mexican Federal Army helicopter circled ominously above us. Yet there was no sign of fear in anyone. Everyone was joyously celebrating life. It was hard to believe that one year ago to the day, 45 innocent people were murdered there. By attending the service, and by standing on that spot, I achieved a great moment of clarity. I knew why I had come to Chiapas, and I knew I was being called by God to spread the word about the crisis in Mexico. Never before in my life had I felt so moved to work for peace and justice. I promised myself I would do everything I could to help the people. Itıs a promise I plan to keep.

Cliff Pearson is the editor of the Dallas Peace Times, a monthly publication of the Dallas Peace Center. He is a member of the Dallas Monthly Meeting of Friends, and serves on the South Central Yearly Meeting Peace and Justice Committee and the Friends Peace Team Project Coordinating Council. He can be reached at:

Cliff Pearson
The Dallas Peace Center
4301 Bryan Street, Suite #202
Dallas, TX 75204
Tel: 214-823-7793 • Fax: 214-823-8356 • E-mail: [email protected]

The Dallas Peace Center, the oldest peace and justice organization in North Texas, is an ecumenical nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting world peace and social justice. Visit its website at Memberships to the Dallas Peace Center, are available for only $35 per year. The Dallas Peace Center is an ecumenical 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.