After 24 years, Acteal is still an open wound in Chiapas

In December of 1998, I travelled with several friends to Acteal to join events marking the first anniversary of the massacre. The survivors (including the woman at centre who faces the bishops) and families of those who died wore white shawls embroidered with red flowers. Today, reports (like this piece by Luis Hernández Navarro) show that little has been resolved in the community, the surrounding municipality of Chenalhó (where paramilitaries retain control), or Chiapas state.

Desire for reconciliation marks first anniversary of Acteal massacre

Text of an article I wrote that was published in Catholic New Times, Jan. 31, 1999.

ACTEAL, Chiapas, Mexico – The people who came to Acteal Dec. 22 made a brightly-coloured crowd.

Huipiles – hand-woven, brightly-coloured blouses – were evidence of the diversity of the people of Chiapas, many of whom used mountain paths to avoid military patrols. Baseball caps and t-shirts marked both the similarity and diversity of the rest of us who came from other parts of Mexico and the world.

Many people, perhaps 1,000 of the 5,000 who were there, wore ski-masks or bandanas to cover their faces. They were supporters of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN), the mostly-indigenous guerrilla movement which launched a rebellion five years ago this New Year’s Day.

In the year since 21 women, 15 children and nine men were murdered here, Acteal has changed dramatically. There are many more buildings now, including a community kitchen and a new chapel, and one of bricks and cement: the tomb of the victims.

In another respect, Acteal is exactly the same: it is a community of refugees from other hamlets, people forced to come here out of fear of paramilitary death squads who operate in the mountains of Chiapas. The diocese of San Cristóbal estimates that there are 10,000 displaced people in the municipality of Chenalhó, where Acteal is located.

We gathered on the hillside near the tiny chapel where members of the community group known as Las Abejas (the bees) were at prayer the morning that the paramilitaries arrived. Below us was the ravine where most of them died. The permanent tomb is there now. On its cement roof, a makeshift altar was built, and this was where the two bishops of San Cristóbal, Samuel Ruiz and his coadjutor, Raul Vera, led the celebration of a memorial mass.

‘Tatic’ Samuel Ruiz (left) served as bishop of San Cristóbal de Las Casas from 1959 until his retirement in 1999; he died in 2011. Raúl Vera was coadjutor bishop in San Cristobal from 1995 to 1999, and was widely expected to succeed Ruiz. He was abruptly transferred to Saltillo in northern Mexico, where he served until his retirement in 2020. Vera grew into a role as a staunch human rights defender, including the rights of LGBTIQ people. Photos: Jim Hodgson, February 1999, Mexico City.

Las Abejas, still faithful to their vision of a non-violent solution to the conflict in spite of the Chiapas violence to which they have been subjected, planned the event. They were assisted by Pablo and Salvador, two former paramilitaries who helped plan the massacre and who repented their crimes. They were accepted the community’s punishment and were pardoned by the survivors.

The survivors and families of those who died wore white shawls embroidered with red flowers and sat in the centre of the large crowd.

As the community choir – something else that is new in Acteal – sang the first hymn, an army helicopter circled slowly overhead, three times in all with a final pass by several minutes later.

For many, it exemplified the kind of harassment to which the people have been subjected by the army over the past five years in this area, where there is one soldier for every 12 inhabitants. This, say human rights workers, is one aspect of the application here of low intensity conflict, a war strategy developed by the U.S. military to destroy the spirit of popular support for social change movements. 

The first reading was the story of a catechist, Alonso Vázquez Gómez, who saw his wife and baby killed in the first volley of shots. He came close to her and said, “Woman, get up. Woman, get up.” Neither she nor the baby responded. Alonso stood and cried out, “Forgive them, Lord, for they don’t know what they are doing!” He was cut down then by two bullets which entered his head. The Gospel reading was Luke’s brief, spare account of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, who spoke the same words as he died.

Bishop Vera spoke of “the scandalous forgiveness” by Jesus and Alonso of their killers and said we stood on holy ground. While about 100 people are in jail on charges related to the massacre, human rights workers say those responsible for its planning have not been arrested. Bishop Vera invited all to accept the “divine amnesty” offered by the victims, but warned that any “human amnesty cannot be impunity, much less amnesia.”

Bishop Ruiz said we were in the presence of martyrs and that Acteal was a unique moment in salvation history – one, however, that must never be repeated. “Acteal is the seed of a new Mexico, the peaceful, just and worthy Mexico of which we all dream,” he said, adding that it is a monument to peace and hope in the resurrection.

After a sign of peace and the communion shared amongst masked and unmasked, pacifists and guerrillas, Mexicans and foreigners, we left Acteal. We passed nervously through the same two military checkpoints which had inspected and recorded our identification and travel documents on the way in.

The next day, we heard of five foreigners whose documents were taken from them at the same checkpoints and who would have to appear later before immigration authorities to explain why they had attended a mass in the mountains on a sunny December day.

Something else that hasn’t changed: the unquenchable fear that the Mexican government bears towards Christians, Indians, intellectuals, artists, peasants and a few half-awake foreigners.

This potent combination knows that what Samuel Ruiz said is true: Acteal is the seed of the peaceful and just Mexico of which we all dream, and we will not rest until those words become reality.

Solidarity: It was my privilege to accompany a Canadian Religious Conference visit to the diocese of San Cristóbal in March 1998. Here, Doryne Kirby, IBVM, and Jean-Claude Trottier, SM, stand beside Bishop Ruiz. Photo: Simon Appolloni, Development and Peace, Toronto.

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