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Sorrows are plentiful, answers scarce in Acteal


“My own reaction I must confess to you. It was one of rage. That was -- as Bishop Samuel Ruiz García said -- the saddest Christmas of our lives. I would not want any of you ever to participate in such a Mass.

“I know what I was thinking. As the 45 coffins, blood oozing from them, were unloaded from the horse boxes, I could think only of the moment in the Book of Kings [1 K 21:19] when Elijah told King Ahab: ‘And Yahweh says this -- in the place where the dogs licked the blood of Nabob, the dogs will lick your blood, too.’ ”

The speaker was Oscar Salinas, a priest of the diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, who works in Acteal, where 45 unarmed men, women and children were massacred last year just three days before Christmas. Invited by Pax Christi-Texas, Salinas was speaking at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio.

Fr. Salinas paused. “That was what I was thinking. But as I listened, I could scarcely believe what the survivors who thronged the church were praying. ‘Forgive those who killed our brothers and sisters,’ was their prayer. ‘Forgive them.’ ”

The major facts about the massacre by paramilitary terrorists in the church of Acteal are already on record. But, as often happens, the details are critical, details I was only now learning.

I had known that those killed belonged to an organization called the Abejas, and that abeja is Spanish for bee. But who were they? Salinas explained that they came together originally in 1992 in the community of Tzanembolón in the county of Chenalhó to help resolve a family dispute over land. “They chose the name because ‘we are many and we want to build our house like a honeycomb where we all work collectively and all enjoy the honey, that is, the fruit of our common labor.’ They never read Marx or Gandhi, but from deep study of the scriptures came a total commitment to nonviolence, a refusal to bear arms, even in self-defense.”

The Abejas movement, ecumenical while predominantly Catholic, has spread to 25 communities. The movement now has 4,000 members who promote health, human rights, alternative marketing, women’s issues and musical groups. Committed to nonviolence, they refused to join the Zapatistas in 1994, but openly support the Zapatistas’ demands. “We do not obey the county and state governments,” they say, “because we did not elect them, and they are not just.”

As harassments and attacks of the paramilitary groups intensified last fall, many Abejas fled their homes and communities. They live in camps for displaced persons in San Cristóbal and other towns, including Acteal.

On Dec. 22, 1997, word of heavy shooting in Acteal reached the diocesan Human Rights Office in San Cristóbal. Msgr. Gonzalo Ituarte, vicar general, called the state secretary of government in Tuxtla Gutiérrez. He promised to investigate, called back shortly to report that some shots had been fired in the air, but there was no cause for alarm.

Late that evening, wounded persons began to reach San Cristóbal, where 24 were hospitalized. Members of the Human Rights Office collected their stories and went to Acteal early Dec. 23. They found blood, bullet holes in the church walls, scraps of clothing and other signs of violence but no bodies. The sub-secretary of government, assistant to the man who had assured Msgr. Ituarte that there was no cause for alarm, had come with a squad of police and trucked the bodies to Tuxtla.

Mayan traditional rituals for the dead are important. Thanks to Bishop Ruiz’s intervention, the state authorities finally promised to deliver the bodies -- now 48 hours dead -- in refrigerated cars to Acteal by 2 p.m. Dec. 24.

At 8 p.m. the bodies, transported in horse trailers with a few pieces of ice in each coffin, arrived at Polo, a village four kilometers from Acteal. There Fr. Salinas and other priests celebrated the Eucharist and shared the people’s long night of mourning, of tears, of wailing. It was indeed the saddest Christmas ever.

At dawn they set out for Acteal, now joined by Bishop Ruiz who had presided at Midnight Mass in the cathedral. I am sure I was not the only one to recall Elijah’s curse on Ahab as Salinas described the final scenes at Acteal. The sun was now high in the sky, the odor of death from the 45 coffins “terrifying,” swarms of flies blackened the sky. But two tasks still remained: the legal and the traditional.

Tags on most body bags simply described the contents as a woman, a female child, an infant. Each had to be opened, the person identified, a death certificate prepared. Then the parents, siblings or children of each had to grieve over the bloody remains, to touch, to weep, to place some special personal belongings of the dead person in the coffin.

Ahab repented of his wickedness: “He tore his garments and put sackcloth next to his skin and fasted.” And Yahweh forgave him.

Five months after the Acteal massacre, we have no sign of sackcloth or fasting. Ninety indigenous peasants are in jail as suspects, a typical public relations gesture to divert the accusing eyes of world opinion. But what was the role of the secretary of government of the state of Chiapas who told Msgr. Ituarte not to worry? Who planned and ordered the murders? Nobody has been tried. We have no answers.

Gary MacEoin’s recent books include The People’s Church: Bishop Samuel Ruiz of Mexico and Why He Matters (Crossroad).

National Catholic Reporter, July 17, 1998