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.

20 years: Digna Ochoa, ¡Presente!

“I learned that due to the rampant corruption and impunity in Mexico, it was not sufficient to be innocent, to be right, and to have the law on your side, but it was necessary to fight against an entire government structure that defends very specific political and economic interests.”

Digna Ochoa, speaking in September 2000 to the Enduring Spirit awards dinner in Los Angeles
Digna was remembered at an Amnesty International event in Toronto, 2011; Linda Diebel’s Betrayed: The Assassination of Digna Ochoa. The quote cited above is from p.445 of Diebel’s book.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the murder of Digna Ochoa, a lawyer who defended the human rights of ecologists in Guerrero state and whose death remains a muddle of sloppy investigation, useless gossip, and high-level cover-ups.

While there are still a handful of officials who stick by their suicide-by-two-bullets version of events, the Mexican government this year admitted at least partial responsibility for her death. The admission came May 27 during a hearing of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), and included a commitment to re-open the case. The new investigation will proceed with a human rights perspective and a gender approach under international standards, in addition to the participation of the family and their legal representation.

I met Digna on Nov. 25, 1999, a little less than two years before her death. Earlier that year, she had left the convent of Dominican nuns before taking her vows, and engaged herself fully in her original passion: the law. We were together in a fairly large group of representatives of Mexican non-governmental organizations who spent the day preparing a presentation delivered by a smaller group later that evening to Mary Robinson, the former Irish president who was then the head of the United Nations’ human rights commission. 

Digna’s legal defence of imprisoned and tortured rural ecologists who challenged logging companies in Guerrero—the Pacific coast state south of Mexico City that includes the resort cities of Acapulco and Ixtapa—brought her into conflict not just with the companies but the political establishment in Guerrero, and quite likely with the Mexican army and its allies in the national government and that of Mexico City. In the months before the meeting with Robinson, Digna had already been kidnapped twice and threatened countless times.

Our 40-page message (reduced to nine paragraphs for the oral presentation) to Robinson addressed these points:

  1. Obtaining and imparting justice: impunity, legalized repression, inefficiency in investigations, lack of independence, manipulation of the law, military justice, lack of knowledge of international protection.
  2. Militarization of public security and military presence in Indigenous and rural areas.
  3. The general situation of Indigenous people in Mexico: internal legislation, state institutions and public policies with regards to Indigenous women, Indigenous rights and the environment, land and territory.
  4. Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: globalization, labour rights, freedom of association, land rights and the situation of small farmers.
  5. Political rights in Mexico: institutional reform, electoral rights, and political rights in general.
  6. Harassment and aggression against defenders of human rights and journalists. (In the evening meeting with Robinson, Digna Ochoa read this section.) 

At that time, there was a lot of hope in Mexico that the long run of the PRI party was nearing its end. Indeed, the following July, Vicente Fox of the conservative PAN party won the election. But 21 years later—after two PAN governments, one more by the PRI, and now three years of the popular left administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador—few would argue that things have improved for most Mexicans. 

Today, a new civil society report to Robinson’s successor, Michelle Bachelet, might add a focus on the extremely high numbers of forced disappearances—about 91,000 between 2006 and 2021—and all of the issues related to migration from and through Mexico toward the United States. As it happens, Bachelet is collaborating with the Mexican government in ongoing investigation of the case of the 43 Ayotzinapa normal school students who were disappeared in Guerrero in 2014. 

It may be hard to find signs of improvement yet, but every step toward truth-telling and investigation of crimes old and new lays the foundation for a better future that is still being imagined.