Fanning the fires of hope in Chiapas, still

There was one time when I was glad to see the riot place arrive: Sunday afternoon, February 19, 1995 in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas. 

For more than a week, Maya Indigenous people of the Chiapas highlands had protected their cathedral, the seat of Bishop Samuel Ruiz. On that Sunday afternoon, the feared attack had become real as a larger group of about 400 “auténticos coletos” (denoting descendants of the European settlers in the city) hurled stones: the settlers saw the Indigenous people as interlopers, the ones who had no business in the heart of their city.

The defenders stood three deep in scraggly lines surrounding the cathedral. They held flowers. Men, women and children, old and young, Indigenous and Mestizo, Mexican and foreign, held marigolds, lilies and carnations and wore white ribbons across their chests as they faced the attack. They endured the attack, holding blankets over their heads and trying to duck the stones. The woman next to me whispered prayers and repeatedly blessed the rock-throwers: “God, forgive them.”

The mob tried for more than an hour to storm into the cathedral and the diocesan office next to it. Finally, the riot squad arrived and traced a line between the two groups. The people on the steps cheered; the mob dispersed. In the meantime, at least five people, including two reporters, had been injured. 

For 10 days, ever since Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo pledged to capture the leaders of the rebel Zapatista army (EZLN), the people of this diocese had maintained a vigil around the cathedral and diocesan office. That building also housed the National Mediation Commission (CONAI), chaired by Bishop Ruiz and in session at the time of the attack.

Left: a view of San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Right: a “wanted” poster that describes Bishop Ruiz variously as a traitor, existentialist, liberation theologian and Marxist – typical of the charges laid against him by his opponents over many years.

For more than a year, Ruiz had been at the centre of ecclesial and political controversies over his decades-long advocacy for and with Indigenous and impoverished people in Chiapas and his role as a mediator between the government and the Zapatistas. The EZLN uprising had begun on January 1, 1994, the day that the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect.

Zedillo failed to capture Zapatista leaders, but instead arrested people who worked for community development organizations (notably Jorge Santiago of DESMI, Economic and Social Development of Mexican Indigenous Peoples). His army also achieved what it considered to be better strategic positions near the Zapatista communities. 

Over the subsequent year, CONAI’s mediation work continued and bore fruit: on February 16, 1996, the government and EZLN representatives signed an Agreement on Indigenous Culture and Rights in San Andrés Sakamch’en. It was not a comprehensive peace deal, but rather the first step in a planned process to address Indigenous rights in Chiapas and beyond. “It was the first time in Mexican history that the state had sat down with Indigenous people to hear their demands,” wrote La Jornada columnist Magdalena Gómez recently. Later that year, the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) was created and continues its work today.

But from the government side, nothing happened! The first agreement has not been implemented; worse, the government negotiators essentially sabotaged a second round that was to address issues of democracy and justice, leading the EZLN to suspend the dialogue on September 4, 1996. It has not been renewed. The EZLN continues to press its cause in multiple public fora in Mexico and far beyond, and the communities persist in building a fairly successful example of Indigenous autonomy. 

Sadly, even the somewhat more progressive government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in power now for more than three years, has failed to move beyond what Gómez called “recycled, low-intensity, neo-Indigenous” policies of individual support and mega-projects without reference to the San Andrés Accords. 

A year ago, the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Centre in San Cristóbal said the San Andrés Accords persist as a framework and reference for the people of Chiapas. “The people who struggle will continue to fan the fire of hope, and history will give an account of this, because despite the war of extermination, the construction of autonomy gives light and fire to women and men throughout the world.”

Parts of this post are adapted from two of my articles published in Catholic New Times, March 5 and 19, 1995.

“I give you a flower,” says a t-shirt from Yajalón, Chiapas.

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.

Mexico and the world: “For the good of all, the poor come first”


As Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), gets ready to meet Thursday, Nov. 18, with U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Nov. 18, I prepared a few notes to keep in mind.

In the lead-up to the summit, much attention is paid to U.S. “Buy America” initiatives that threaten the (messy and often-unfair) market created after 1994 by the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). On that issue, Trudeau and AMLO will each back the other, especially with regard to the automobile industry.

But there are other issues.

Most media fail to understand the Mexican president, or worse: they misrepresent his intent to put impoverished people at the centre of policy-making. I’ll touch on two issues here—energy and Mexican proposals on international development—but their treatment has an impact on climate, deforestation, corruption and migration.

AMLO in Juárez, Chiapas, July 2014–campaigning four years ahead of the 2018 election. Behind him, the lower part of his party’s banner says in part: “We reject the energy reform.” Photo: Jim Hodgson

Energy—and learning about coal and colonialism

One of the points of tension in the Glasgow climate negotiations was the enormous advantage the rich countries of the global “North” have over countries in the global “South,” most of which still struggle to overcome colonial and neo-colonial exploitation. 

And one of the countries that gets criticized for not doing more is Mexico, where energy policy has been a hot topic for most of the past century. (In 1925, when Mexico declared all petroleum products to be of “public use,” and then in 1938 when Mexico expropriated assets of foreign oil companies, the United States (which always sees its corporations’ interests as national interests) objected. Mexico excluded energy from NAFTA, but governments from 2000 to 2018 began allowed limited foreign investment in the sector. AMLO is now trying to reform those reforms.)

While the Mexican representative in Glasgow criticized the last-minute move by India and China to change the language on coal from “phase-out” to “phase-down,” Mexico currently has no phase-out policy in place

In Glasgow, Prime Minister Trudeau repeated his campaign pledge to stop the export of “thermal coal” (the kind used for power production) by 2030. It’s an easy promise to keep: just five per cent of Canadian coal exports are of thermal coal. Most of the Canadian production that is exported is “metallurgical coal” (the kind used for making steel—also harmful to the atmosphere, but harder to do without). 

But Canada does not track shipments of thermal coal that originate in the United States. During the Glasgow summit, a coalition of Canadian groups demanded that Canada end thermal coal exports by 2023

In front, you see the Roberts Bank Superport, and just beyond it, the Tsawwassen B.C. ferry terminal. The superport is owned by Westshore Terminals Ltd., and is the largest single export coal terminal in all of North America. Further back, you see Point Roberts and Mount Baker in Washington state. Photo: Jim Hodgson

Indeed, comparisons of Canadian and Mexican CO2 outputs typify the hypocrisy of global North promises from the perspective of people in the global South. Here’s a comparison of per capital CO2 output based on information from Our World in Data:

Canada (1980 18.14t)  2000 18.52t     2020 14.20t (a 23% drop)
Mexico (1980 3.95t)    2000 4.00t       2020 2.77t (a 31% drop)

And yes: Canada has a colder climate, and our population is spread thinly. But the CO2 output of Mexicans is far lower than that of Canadians, and it’s dropping more quickly.

Development, or something like it, in the face of climate change and migration

Every time someone utters the world ”development” these days, I shudder. Much of what rich countries have done in the name of development over the past 80 years has worsened inequalities and perpetuated colonial patterns of exploitation. But let us rescue what we can….

Front page of La Jornada Nov. 10: AMLO at the UN; cartoon by José Hernández, Nov. 10

In a speech to the UN Security Council on Nov. 9, AMLO proposed a plan that would lift about 750 million people living on less than US$2 per day out of extreme poverty. The plan, which would raise about U.S.$1 billion each year, has three sources:

  • An annual voluntary contribution of four per cent of the fortunes of the 1,000 richest people on the planet
  • A similar contribution from the largest 1,000 private corporations on the planet
  • A contribution of 0.2 per cent from each of the members of the G20.

“Never in the history of this organisation has something substantial been really done for the benefit of the poor, but it is never too late to do justice,” he said. “Today is the time to act against marginalisation, addressing the causes and not only the consequences.”

AMLO said that the main problems of the planet are political, economic, legal and financial forms of corruption, and that these lead to inequality, poverty, frustration, violence, migration and grave social conflicts. Using the pandemic as an example, he noted that pharmaceutical companies have sold 94 per cent of their vaccines, but only six per cent has been distributed to the COVAX facility for use in the developing world—a painful and “complete failure of inclusion.”

It was the second international development plan proposed by AMLO this year. At the end of April, he proposed extending a Mexican government agricultural support program to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—with U.S. financial support—as a way to address root causes of migration.

The program, Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life), has been running in Mexico for over two years and is intended to generate jobs in the small-farming sector, reactivate the economy in areas affected by out-migration, and overcome deforestation. “The plan seeks to overcome social exclusion and the poverty that afflicts 61 per cent of the rural population.” It includes focus on community-controlled farms overlooked or attacked by successive neoliberal governments in power in Mexico between 1988 and 2018.

Critics warn, however, that Sembrando Vida is not sufficient. “It won’t but the brakes on deforestation or other degradation, because it’s not having a direct impact on the causes of these problems,” said Danae Azuara of the Mexican Climate Initiative. Additional programs are needed to end deforestation.

Canada, Mexico and the United States are heavily dependent on fossil fuels for their development and, official pronouncements aside, their governments are likely happier in a phase-down world than in an phase-out one. 

But none is exempt from extreme weather events—heat domes and drought, hurricanes and floods—related to climate change.

Climate change—unpredictable cycles of rainy and dry seasons—is a driver of migration from Central America and Mexico to the north. In talks with Biden, Mexico wants the United States to regularize the status of 11 million Mexicans living in the United States, and to negotiate a temporary foreign worker program not unlike the one that Canada already has with Mexico.