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Chiapans regroup at scene of massacre

NCR Staff
ACTEAL, Mexico

María Vásquez Gómez spoke boldly during a three-hour memorial Mass at the site in the lush highlands of central Chiapas where a paramilitary squad murdered 45 unarmed Tzotzil Indians Dec. 22.

Restraining tears, Vásquez described how gunmen killed nine of her family members who were praying with other Tzotziles at a makeshift chapel on a muddy shelf in the hamlet of Acteal. Those slain included two of her brothers, both Catholic lay leaders of this tiny community.

Vásquez’s voice grew clear and strong. Draping her shoulders was a white shawl embroidered with red designs that showed her people’s Mayan ancestry.

“The blood of my brothers is still flowing. We must remain in our settlement even though my brothers are dead. They are gone, but we must continue their work, naming new people to their posts,” she told the approximately 500 Indians gathered on the eve of the new year for a Mass traditionally held nine days after a death occurs.

The setting for her remarks was fitting, for beneath the headlines generated by the recent massacre is a deeply Catholic story, one in which the church of the poor and marginalized is a central figure.

This church, led by Bishop Samuel Ruiz García, has recently won converts to its cause, including, apparently, the new papal nuncio, Archbishop García Justo Mullor, who replaced Bishop Girolamo Prigione, the rigid conservative who formerly served in that post.

The massacre in Acteal raised echoes from other quarters of Latin America, where the issues were so similar and the methods of suppression equally brutal. Today the issues are intricately entwined with global economics, raising the stakes even higher when the inevitable clash of Western capitalism with the ancient ways of indigenous populations occurs.

The Mass on New Year’s Eve also marked the eve of the fourth anniversary of the uprising of the indigenous Zapatista National Liberation Army, the EZLN. To arrive at Acteal, the mourners that day marched from the nearby village of Polho along a winding mountain road, easing past convoys of army soldiers and Mexican federal police.

Polho had served in recent months as a refuge for thousands of Indians displaced by mounting violence instigated by military and the paramilitary groups linked to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party -- PRI.

Walking solemnly and in silence, the mourners carried with them to Acteal hundreds of red bricks, symbols of the spilt blood of the massacre victims. They planned to build a shrine to the dead beside the bullet-pocked chapel where the attack occurred.

New leaders chosen

Many also brought white lilies, candles and mums to place on the fertile soil tamped over two lines of caskets holding the remains of 15 children, 21 women and nine men. Vásquez’s plea to her community was bolstered as several hundred women, children and men knelt in the mud in Acteal, offering prayers in Tzotzil.

A tear swelled on the wrinkles above the cheekbone of one Tzotzil man as he prayed. A few words that defied translation from Spanish into his native tongue permitted a non-Tzotzil speaker to grasp some of the content of his invocation: Jesus, 45 -- the number of those killed -- abandon, justice and then Totic, the Tzotzil word for God.

Later, he seemed confused when asked if the massacre had claimed any of his immediate family. “No,” he said, “but they are all my brothers and sisters. They are our people. They are Catholics.”

When Mass was ended, the Acteal Indians agreed on new leaders to fill the posts of Vásquez’ slain brothers, and they set about reorganizing their community. Women stoked fires and kneaded mounds of corn dough laced with nuts to make a communal meal for dozens who would spend their first night in Acteal since the massacre.

Reporters and camera technicians, who had crowded the Tzotziles as they lit candles for their dead, were invited to drink coffee before departing.

The 21 core families of the Acteal community arrived in the months before the massacre. All had fled paramilitary violence in their home villages only to see their loved ones gunned down in their place of refuge. Despite the killings, the Tzotzil said they were determined not to uproot their community again.

In early January they announced that approximately 400 displaced from other hamlets had asked to join them in this civil peace camp. “We shall stay in Acteal because our dead are here. But we are afraid and we do not feel at ease with the public security forces nearby. They did not defend us before,” community leaders wrote in a communiqué posted at the office of the San Cristóbal de Las Casas diocese, which is led by Bishop Ruiz.

On Jan. 11, a statement from the Mexican attorney general’s office provided the first concrete link between security forces and the Acteal killings. Federal prosecutors charged Los Chorros police commander Felipe Vázquez Espinoza with arms trafficking, permitting civilians to carry illegal weapons and abuse of authority in relation to the massacre. Vázquez, who commanded subordinates to use state police vehicles to gather weapons prior to the massacre, said he was acting under orders from superiors.

According to human rights monitors and community members, the Acteal Tzotzil formed part of an organization called Las Abejas -- The Bees. Las Abejas operates in the municipality of Chenalhó, which includes Acteal and Polho, and the municipality of Pantelhó further north. The organization has adopted a neutral stance, affiliating with neither the PRI-backed paramilitaries nor the Zapatista rebel army.

While members of Las Abejas and other organizations often sympathize with the Zapatistas, they claim status as part of Mexico’s “civil society” that is searching for nonviolent, democratic solutions to end years of political and economic crises. Human rights monitors and church sources say initiatives like Las Abejas are key to ending violence and advancing democracy in Chiapas.

The Acteal community’s stance is indicative of a broader nonviolent resistance by Chiapan Indians. According to analysts and human rights observers here, the Indians’ position stands in contrast to the militarization of Chiapas by President Ernesto Zedillo’s government four years after the uprising of Zapatista rebels.

Following the December killings, more than 35,000 government troops spread throughout the misty cloud forests, the highland slopes and subtropical jungle of this southern state.

Soldiers in convoys surrounded villages like La Realidad, a Zapatista stronghold. According to press reports, they tromped just after dawn through corn and coffee fields and into the mud-covered dwellings inhabited by the descendants of the Mayans, an overwhelming majority of the population of the impoverished eastern half of Chiapas that corresponds to the San Cristóbal diocese. In the hamlet of X’oyep, the largest camp of displaced people in Chiapas, a four-hour standoff occurred Jan. 3 between anti-riot police patrolling with army troops and 200 indigenous refugees, mostly women and children, who had gathered to protest the establishment of a military base nearby.

The muckraking daily La Jornada reported that as Tzotzil women in X’oyep grappled with soldiers toting machine guns, a military police commander demanded to speak to community leaders. The protesters replied in Tzotzil, “Here we are all leaders.” Military and police patrols intensified further when Mexico’s new Interior Secretary Francisco Labastida announced a campaign to disarm Chiapans. Labastida replaced Emilio Chuayffet, who resigned after widespread criticism of his handling of the massacre and its aftermath. On the heels of his resignation came the departure of the PRI governor of Chiapas, Julio Cesar Ruiz Ferro.

The governor’s office reportedly failed to respond effectively to calls from church and human rights officials in Chiapas and from a legislator warning something was wrong in Acteal. After the massacre, the administration was accused of rushing the bodies of the dead from the site of the killings in an alleged cover-up. Both Ruiz Ferro and Chuayffet had come under fire from opponents for ignoring reports of paramilitary violence throughout Chiapas.

From Mexico City, Labastida pledged to implement peace agreements signed two years ago between the government and the Zapatistas and to revive conversations among government officials, Congress, local political organizations and church leaders in Chiapas.

But critics said Labastida’s peace talk is a continuation of two years of government doublespeak about dialogue and negotiations that has accompanied low intensity warfare strategies against the Zapatistas, their supporters and anyone who defies the political control of the PRI in Chiapas -- including the Catholic church.

During the first week of Labastida’s gun control sweeps, security forces targeted only those villages where inhabitants were known to sympathize with the Zapatista struggle. In at least three cases, unarmed villagers, mostly women, physically resisted the soldiers’ advance.

No raids were reported in areas where human rights monitors and indigenous leaders report that it is widely known that the paramilitaries train.

Beyond providing cover

Ediberto Cruz, a Catholic priest in Chiapas for 22 years, works in the parish of Tila, a hub of paramilitary activity to the north. He said the disarmament strategy will have little effect on paramilitary violence because “when the paramilitary groups attack, their backs are covered by the army and public security forces.”

On Jan. 4, the newsweekly Proceso published a series of documents reportedly written by high ranking officials of the Mexican Secretary of National Defense that indicate the army’s support for paramilitaries goes far beyond providing cover. The article by Carlos Marin, who reports on military issues, says the massacre in Acteal “agrees” with the “precise counterinsurgency strategy” for Chiapas outlined in the documents. Proceso reported that the strategy calls for the “training and support of self-defense forces or other paramilitary organizations” and the “secret organization of certain sectors of the population.”

The previously unpublished document is dated October 1994, nine months after the Zapatista uprising and less than a year before human rights monitors began to record an increase in paramilitary violence in eastern and northern Chiapas.

The strategy outlined by the defense command recommends the displacement of civilians who act as “support bases” for the rebels “to other areas to leave the Zapatistas void of these essential elements and to bring down their morale by distancing them from their families.”

Demands by the Indians for political and territorial autonomy and for demilitarization in Chiapas, the document states, “threaten not only peace, but the sovereignty, integrity and independence of Mexico.”

Chiapan Indians who criticize the government’s lack of attention to the region, the document says, are motivated by “a feeling that could be described as genetic, of being forgotten and marginalized.” Pablo Romo, a Dominican friar who has worked in human rights in Chiapas for years, said such strategies, if pursued further, will discourage nonviolent postures like that adopted by the Las Abejas community and push Chiapas closer to civil war.

“To the extent that the army keeps increasing its presence and repression, it will inhibit the peaceful response and participation of the people,” he said. “This will force people to lower their voices and adopt more clandestine means of expression.”

The military command’s attack on the Catholic church in Chiapas is significant. The document published in Proceso claims that attempts by Bishop Ruiz to “dignify” the indigenous people, “to bring them out of their ignorance, poverty and marginalization” were influenced by liberation theologians. The church, it says, thus “oriented” the indigenous communities to believe that the rich, who are not loved by God, cause the disgrace of the poor; that Jesus was the first guerrilla; that violence is justified; that the PRI is corrupt and that Mexico is not a democracy, among other concepts. “The Vatican is the indirect cause of the conflict in Chiapas, which has as it’s direct patron the contaminating trend of liberation theology in Mexico. This trend is backed by counterparts throughout Latin America and by the majority of the national clergy, and, to carry out its tasks, it uses socialist and political organizations, the mafia and other groups discontent with the government,” the document states.

Church officials have repeatedly denied any support for armed struggle as the solution to poverty in the largely Indian eastern half of Chiapas that territorial corresponds to Ruiz’s diocese.

Part of ‘civil society’

Instead, the words of a Tzotzil woman displaced from Los Chorros, where PRI paramilitary groups are said to hold training camps, best reveal the impact of the last few decades of the work of the Catholic church. “We are part of the civil society. Those who died (at Acteal) are our companions,” she said, beginning to sob. “We all just wanted peace to love our companions. We wanted truth and justice in the name of God. We do not want arms. Jesus Christ spoke and said, ‘I am your arm.’ “

The woman went on to describe how paramilitaries backed by the PRI ran her community out of the local church: “They sealed it up and they made us scatter here and there. Now we cannot go to our church. We are all filled with fear, especially fear of the guns. They want to finish us off.”

The military documents, in a rather twisted way, got one thing right: Molded in the 16th century by its founding bishop, Dominican Friar Bartolome de las Casas, and guided for the past 35 years by Ruiz, the diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas has become a foremost advocate of the rights of the indigenous people and a central player in events not only in Chiapas but nationally.

Endorsed by the charismatic Zapatista leader Sub Comandante Marcos, Ruiz has served as mediator between the rebels and the Mexican government. Other church leaders from Chiapas have played key roles in forums of national reconciliation and human rights. Perhaps more powerful than these public postures, though, and more threatening to Mexico’s political, economic and military elites are the ways in which the church has walked with indigenous communities as they discover their voices and dignity for themselves.

“The evangelization style of the diocese has been to help the communities become subjects, not objects, of their own evangelization. When people become subjects, they then freely decide to seek their own paths to dignity and to occupy the place that corresponds to them in society,” said Cruz, who is a parish pastor.

The parish Cruz heads, in the subtropical cloud forest of Tila, was founded in 1564 by Dominican Friar Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada, who learned the language of the Ch’ol Indians of this region in northern Chiapas and opposed Spanish violence against them.

Catechists killed

Today Cruz carries on in the tradition of de la Nada. On the gates outside the white stone structure of the church that crowns this hillside village are signs reminding people that the chapel is a place of prayer and prohibiting the entrance of persons in uniform.

Following the massacre in Acteal, rumors spread that the paramilitary group, called Peace and Justice, in the Tila area was planning a similar action against Ch’ol Indians.

When asked about the reports, Cruz was blunt. “They’ve already done it, not through mass killings but through selective ones. We have 4,000 people who have been displaced in this region,” he said. “I cannot give you an exact number of deaths from the last two years.”

Cruz said paramilitaries killed two Ch’ol catechists and beat two others. When asked if reporters could visit the communities where the catechists still live and work, Cruz grimaced. “There is not free transit through there. You have to cross paramilitary lines. They check everyone who passes. You don’t want to do that,” he said.

He said that foreigners were at special risk. Jesuit Fr. Loren Riebe of Los Angeles was expelled from the parish in Tila in 1995.

It was in the rural outskirts of Tila, a municipality, that paramilitaries attacked a convoy of vehicles in November carrying Bishop Ruiz and Coadjutor Bishop Raul Vera Lopez, Fr. Cruz, two nuns and a dozen catechists. Gunshots wounded two catechists and, to date, judicial investigations of the attack have produced no results. One reason for this might be that, according to Cruz, paramilitaries administer justice in Tila.

“They carry out informal, summary trials in the town squares. Two of our catechists were subjected to this. They were brought before the community and accused of violating some norm, they were beaten with weapons. Others have been jailed,” he said.

Despite the violence and repeated denunciations, no one from the Peace and Justice paramilitary group is in jail. “Yet there are 23 Indians jailed, accused by Peace and Justice of criminal conspiracy,” Cruz said. Paramilitaries have also burned houses and closed down 14 of Tila’s 128 rural chapels, tiny churches where Indian symbols mix with Christian ones.

“The new nuncio (Archbishop García Justo Mullor) came here on Dec. 15 and found the church in El Limar closed. It is there where our catechists have suffered most,” Cruz said.

One El Limar catechist, Margarita Martinez, was wounded in her home by paramilitaries who cut her with a knife. A second, Gustavo Martinez, was kidnapped, blindfolded and taken to a mausoleum. His captors demanded he sign a document stating that Bishop Ruiz and Cruz supplied arms to the Zapatistas -- or die. Martinez refused and was eventually released.

It is the faith of people like the catechists and the reality of life in places like Tila that have converted higher-ups in the church who used to attack the work of the San Cristóbal diocese

Cruz pointed out that Tila was one of the first places visited by Coadjutor Bishop Vera. Vera’s appointment in 1995 was widely regarded as an attempt by the Vatican to control Ruiz. That assessment did not last long. “That didn’t work for them,” said one international observer. “Now they have two of them to fight against!”

Less than a year into his tenure, the Vatican’s new nuncio, Archbishop García Justo Mullor, has detoured dramatically from some of the anti-Ruiz strategies of his predecessor, Prigione. Cruz said that Mullor “came here and experienced firsthand the tension in which we live. He confirmed the activities of the Peace and Justice paramilitary group.” Cruz said that at one point in Mullor’s visit to Tila, the archbishop said, “What you are doing here is evangelizing. You are not doing politics.”

In the aftermath of the Acteal massacre and following a visit with Ruiz and Vera, Mullor told Mexicans that Chiapas needs “social justice with a commitment for development from the business class.” He then told television audiences that the Indians of Chiapas should be “inserted within the great world trend, which I call Judeo-Christian civilization, which is based on freedom and respect for the human person.”

Mullor apparently still has much to learn from the leaders of the church of Chiapas and from the Ch’ol, Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Tojolobal, Zoque, Lacandon, Mixe, Mam and Kakchiquel Indians who, in municipalities like Tila, represent upwards of 98 percent of the population.

“Development” means something very different in these Mayan languages than it does in Spanish or in English or the other languages of those who see profits in a Westernized Chiapas. Looking forward, more difficult than negotiations about cease-fires between the Zapatistas and the Mexican army will be the definition of who has a say over the use or preservation of resources, the treatment of the land, the design of the social, political and cultural life in Chiapas. It is here where the gulf between the cosmology of the Indians and the neoliberal plans to extract resources for export revenues is as insurmountable as the lush green walls of the mountains that mark the gateway to the Lacandon jungle, where the Zapatistas thrive.

While militarization was one factor leading to a 1996 halt in negotiations between the Zapatista rebels and the Zedillo administration, the government’s failure to implement accords it signed granting cultural and political autonomy to Indian communities was an even more powerful barrier.

Tila is a microcosm of what is culturally and economically at stake in Chiapas. Tila forms part of the Valley of Tulija which embraces rich, bougainvillea-dotted lands suitable for cattle grazing. The land slides northward from the slopes of the Altos of Chiapas -- the highland coniferous cloud forests -- toward the oil fields of the state of Tabasco.

Tila and dozens of other municipalities to the east are believed to contain this “black gold” as well as natural gas -- treasures sought by today’s multinational conquistadors.

With its pounding waterfalls and delightful climate, Tila has been eyed by prospectors for the tourist industry. It lies between San Cristóbal to the south and the Mayan ruins of Palenque to the north. “This is all part of a development called ‘the Mayan Route,’ “ Cruz said. “It seems the Indians just get in the way of these and other development plans.”

Cruz said such economic schemes will only “bring more marginalization, sharpening the misery of the people.” For example, the pricing of corn -- the Chiapan mainstay next to coffee -- was included in the North American Free Trade Agreement. “New York now imposes the price of our grains, and we are not allowed to sell it at prices higher than agreed under NAFTA,” Cruz said.

It is the army and those who control commerce, he said, who benefit from new roads built by the government in the region. “This morning, I watched a Ch’ol cry when he described how a road had destroyed his coffee field,” Cruz said. “These roads do little to improve the lives of the Indians. You see the shacks that line the roadside. It’s like a woman wearing an expensive dress, but she has no shoes.”

Cruz said the only way for impoverished communities to confront misery is through forming cooperatives and by preserving their lives of communal sharing, “in the way of the earliest Christian communities.” This model is threatening, he said, “and just like the first Christians, they must be persecuted.” Cruz said that both economic and military strategies undermine the unity the communities need to live in dignity. NAFTA brought revisions in Article 27 of the Mexican constitution, for example, which destroyed protection for the ejido or communal landholding system. Ejido land may now be titled -- and sold. “Telling Indians to sell their land like a capitalist is comparable to turning them into slaves again,” he said. “An Indian without land is a dead Indian. This does not fit in their mentality.”

Displacement through military or paramilitary violence has a similar effect, he said. “Forcing them to leave their lands is another way of killing them,” Cruz said. “It is no wonder they grow physically sick when they are forced to flee. They are longing for their land, for the rivers, for life.”

Agricultural development, then, Cruz said, “must respect the Indians’ way of making the land produce. It must take into account their mentality.”

Such tension is not exclusive to Tila or to Chiapas or to Mexico, for that matter. From the Kuna and Embera tribes opposing the extension of the Pan-American Highway through southern Panama, to Amazon communities blocking large scale hydroelectric and other infrastructure projects in Brazil, indigenous peoples throughout Latin America are strengthening their resistance to a new wave of “invaders” bringing, not trinkets, swords and crosses, but briefcases, assault rifles and bank loans for producing crops for export.

Many members of the church have taken a cue from the legacy of Dominican Bartolome de las Casas and made a preferential option to defend the faith and vision of the Indian people. “From the moment we begin to respect their culture, we see the face of God. We have learned that God and Jesus Christ did not arrive in the ships of Christopher Columbus,” Cruz said.

National Catholic Reporter, January 23, 1998