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
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
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
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
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
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
Day 5, Dec. 22, 1998: Remembering
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.