Massacre in Chiapas
The Government’s double headed game unfolds to
disclose a strategy of violence and military solutions to the 4 year conflict
"They, our fathers, our mothers will ensure that we reach the dream of justice.
Their blood will water our earth, our cornfields, our houses so that peace may awaken and
On Christmas Day, a catechist from the Tzotzil indigenous community of Acteal in the
state of Chiapas, Mexico buried her neighbors with these words in earth that three days
before had witnessed the cold-blooded murder of 45 un-armed Tzotziles.
The horror began on December 22, 1997, shortly before 11 am, when 70 heavily armed men,
all wearing dark blue police type uniforms, entered in to the pine covered highland
community of Acteal. They stormed into the church where village members along with
refugees from nearby communities who had recently fled mounting paramilitary violence were
kneeling in prayers of peace. As the shooting began, men, women, and children desperately
ran to supposed hiding places- the river, the cornfields, and the mountains. A five-hour
killing spree ensued, resulting in the deaths of 45 innocent people, mostly women and
children. Survivors recounted the terror as the paramilitary group ruthlessly searched for
victims, killing them at close range, often in the back. Women hid with their children in
caves lining the nearby river. When a baby cried out in terror, armed men followed the
screams in order to find those hiding and assassinate them. Special police forces observed
from 200 meters away as the bloody events unfolded. They never once intervened. Instead,
to cover up the magnitude of the event, they attempted to hide the bodies in a cave and in
The massacre in Acteal, located about an hour from the colonial town of San Cristobal
de las Casas, is Mexico’s single act of political violence since the 1968 massacre of
hundreds of student protesters in Mexico City. It has caused scathing worldwide criticism
of the government’s violation of human rights and has brought into the limelight the
atrocities of the so called "low intensity warfare" strategies applied by the
Mexican military since the stunning January 1, 1994 uprising by the Ejercito Zapatista de
Liberacion Nacional (EZLN). After nearly a year of apparent silence from Mexico’s
southeast corner, this new wave of violence has left many wondering what events unfolded
prior to the killing spree, who are the actors, and what are the implications for the
future stability of the region.
The Invisible War
The massacre threw into national and international view the
undeclared war waged in the past 4 years against the Tzotzil, Tzeltal, Tojalobal, Chole,
and Mame indigenous people of Chiapas. Apart from the tireless efforts of human rights
non-governmental organizations (NGOs), sympathetic groups of civil society, and the
progressive media, few sources have recently covered the potentially deadly situation
lived by the inhabitants of the so called "conflict zone".
In the past 3 years alone, over 1,500 people, mainly from the Northern zone of Chiapas
and the region of Chenalho, the region where the pre-Chrismas Day massacre took place,
have been murdered for political reasons, according to Mexican human rights NGOs and
Mexican federal deputy, Gilberto Lopez y Rivas.
The presence of 1/3 of the total Mexican military forces in Chiapas’ indigenous
communities, the reign of terror created by trained paramilitary groups, and the
escalating violence in 2 of the most conflictive zones have left a total of 11,500 people
displaced and living as refugees in politically sympathetic communities or under bare
minimum survival conditions in the mountains. Of these, over 7,000 are concentrated in the
municipality of Chenalho. In fact, the town of Polho, the regional center for EZLN
sympathetic groups, has now swelled to triple its size, as it now houses men, women, and
children from dozens of the rebel army’s support base communities.
For these refugees daily survival has been a struggle as food and basic resources are
extremely scarce in the already desperately poor communities housing them. Although
extremely rich in natural resources, Chiapas is considered to be one of the country’s most
impoverished states. The region of Chenalho is no exception. Here, only 20% of the
population has electricity, 12% has sewage systems, and only 56% have access to running
water. It is not uncommon for children to die of curable diseases, like diarreah and
chronic cough. And only about half of the adult population can read or write. Now with the
wave of political instability caused by government backed paramilitary groups, thousands
of men, women, and children are literally on the brink of starvation, and several children
have already died.
Human rights delegations sent to bring emergency food aid and document the situation
have reported alarming living conditions. In December, in a highland community much like
Acteal, 600 people were hiding from constant wet downpour with torn plastic sheets held up
by thin poles. They were unable to make a fire to cook or warm themselves because the
firewood was damp and were eating nothing except 3 tortillas a day. Worse yet, they had
and still don’t have any hope of returning to their villages.
Although delegations such as these have attempted to shed light on the effects Mexican
military strategies have had on civilian populations, the government has continued to use
the same logic it has always used- maintain power through force, cover up evidence, and
fabricate lies to justify actions when necessary.
Mexican Government Attempts to Hide the Causes
Statements issued by Mexican government officials in recent weeks
have denounced the massacre by stating that, "the PRI [the dominant political party]
has always supported peace and has never advocated the use of violence". From the
President to local Priista leaders, governmental forces have attempted to distance
themselves from the massacre, have refused to take any responsibility for the violence,
and have downplayed the political implications of the event by minimizing its causes.
In an official statement issued two days after the massacre, Jorge Madrazo, head of the
Ministry of Justice explained it as an "inter-community conflict among three families
that dates back to the 1930’s". Agustin Jimenez Perez, a local Priista leader in the
paramilitary stronghold community of Pechiquil argued to visiting legislators days after
the massacre that the "violent confrontation was caused by a dispute over a sand pit
in the village of Majomut." Few Mexicans anywhere believed these absurd statements
and in fact the Mexican newspapers in general ridiculed the government for attempting to
cover-up the events with such obviously false declarations.
Secretary of State, Emilio Chauyfett (since replaced) blamed the violence on the EZLN
by declaring that the rebel army backs autonomous municipalities headed by
"authorities in rebellion that obviously are illegitimate and only serve to promote
violent confrontations among communities." With these declarations, he forgot that on
February 16, 1996 the government signed the San Andres Peace Accords with the EZLN, on
indigenous rights and culture. These accords grant indigenous communities the right to
self-government and the use of cultural norms as a means for self-determination.
According to the San Andres Accords the EZLN support base communities, as well as all
indigenous villages, have the right to create self-governing structures, which the
populations have constructed in the form of autonomous municipalities headed by
parlimentary systems. Although the indigenous communities have already put into practice
the rights they are demanding, the government has entirely ignored the peace accords,
never followed through on their responsibilities, and instead have tried to destroy what
groups have been slowly building locally.
The region of Chenalho has now been geographically reconfigured into an autonomous
municipality, with its center in the community of Polho. Because the Tzotzil indigenous
people supporting these efforts have been so successful in creating structures that enable
them to decide their own future, the government has targeted the area. Partly for that
reason, Chenalho became a focal point of paramilitary counter-insurgency operations as
early as August of 1996. Since then, a series of violent events took place that spiralled
in September of 1997, when a school teacher was murdered, thus causing a violent cycle to
escalate until it exploded in the pre-Christmas Day massacre.
The massacre was foreseen and the bloodshed could have been avoided. A week before the
murders, members of the Diocese notified federal authorities about an impending violent
attack by PRI aligned armed forces. Governmental response, as has always been the case,
denied the existence of paramilitary groups. Shortly after the shooting began on December
22, the Diocese again called state and federal authorities and once again received no
response. At 7 pm the information was transmitted for the third time, to which the
response was, "everything is under control". The fact that state and federal
officials failed to respond to the warnings and special police forces attempted to
cover-up the evidence implicates the government as those responsible.
A Mexican military document leaked to the Mexican magazine Proceso and printed on
January 4th, outlines the army’s counter-insurgency strategies since 1994, and predicts an
event such as that occurred in Acteal. The then National Defense Secretary, General
Antonio Riviello Bazan wrote that the military intelligence services must "secretly
organize certain sectors of the civilian population, among them cattle ranchers, small
land -owners, and individuals characterized by their patriotic sentiment. These will be
employed in our operations." The army was to remain in charge of "advising and
supporting self-defense forces, and other paramilitary organizations."
Zedillo’s Double Game
To the national and international public, the Mexican government
has demonstrated a willingness to solve the problems resulting in the violence by creating
a full investigation, and arresting as well as punishing those responsible. On the ground
however, its response has been the escalation of war machinery. Before the massacre, 1/3
of the entire Mexican army was present in the state but the day after 5,000 additional
troops joined the 60,000 already existing soldiers. Two thousand of these troops now
occupy the 4 newly installed military camps in the area surrounding Acteal. The remaining
3,000 soldiers are now stationed in other areas of the so called "conflict
zone". Currently in the region of Chenalho, 1 federal army soldier exists for every
Recent reports by the Mexican newspaper, La Jornada declare that there have been heavy
troop movements throughout the conflict zone. On January 1 – 3 the military and local
Priistas entered into several communities in the region of Altamirano, including the EZLN
Center of Resistance of Morelia where people were thrown out of their homes, their
belongings searched for weapons, their farm animals killed, and several people tortured.
In the Center of Resistance of La Realidad, the military surrounded the community for 15
hours, in an act of intimidation and provocation. Other regions within the EZLN territory
have also been encircled by the army creating a tension unfelt since the February, 1995
Mexican military offensive.
All arrows currently point to the government and its military wings executing a well
coordinated political-military maneuver, in light of the Acteal massacre, to finally due
away with the EZLN. As Mexican historian Antonio Garcia de Leon stated in a recent
article, "The objective [of the recent Mexican army entrances into EZLN support base
communities in clear violation of laws and cease fire agreements] is to humiliate the
rebels by occupying strategic spaces and drain the water from their social pools in order
to demoralize the support base and prepare the territory for a final offensive. Now it is
clearer than ever that the massacre of Acteal, perpetrated by paramilitary groups
protected by the state and federal government, was part of an offensive programmed before
December 22. "
During the year ending with the ruthless killing spree, the main government strategy
has been acts of violence to provoke the EZLN into taking a military offensive. The last
series of events are part of the same outline which is why the EZLN has refused to take
military action. Throughout the conflict zone, the Mexican military, through local
paramilitary groups such as "Paz y Justicia" (Peace and Justice",
"Mascara Roja" (Red Masks), and the Movimiento Revolucionario Anti-Zapatista
(the Revolutionary Anti-Zapatista Movement), has created a reign of terror producing
murder, political refugees, and an overall state of seige. The goal has been to put enough
pressure on the EZLN through the assassination and human rights violations of their
support base communities that the rebel army will take an offensive stance. Thus the
Mexican government would finally be able to do away with the rebel army that for 4 years
has helped create enormous cracks in the PRI dominated government power structure and
forced the Mexican nation to deal with its huge social and economic disparities,
especially as they relate to the desperate living conditions of Mexico’s previously
forgotten 52 indigenous groups.
The Role of the United States
According to the preliminary results of an EZLN-headed
investigation, the 6 pregnant women murdered in Acteal had their bellies split open and
the contents exhibited as war trophies. This is a trademark ritual of the
"Kaibiles", the Guatemalan military responsible for 40 years of counter
insurgency war that left at least 100,000 civilians dead. It’s communique issued by the
CCRI, the Indigenous Revolutionary Clandestine Committee (the political decision making
body of the rebel forces) said that after January 1994, a selected group of Mexican army
officials accepted the Guatemalan army’s offer to train Mexican forces in
counterinsurgency warfare. Since then additional groups have been trained.
Guatemalan army officials have in turn been and continue to be trained in the U.S. This
is not the only US connection to the warfare strategies used by the Mexican military. In
the past decade, over 700 Mexican military officials have been trained in the US, more
than from any other Latin American country. From 1996 to 1997, approximately 3,200 Mexican
soldiers received training in Fort Bragg, North Dakota, by the Green Berets’ Special
Forces Group, the same group that trained those responsible for horrendous human rights
abuses in El Salvador and Honduras. General Mario Renan Castillo Fernandez, the brain
behind the counterinsurgency strategies in Chipas has been trained in Fort Bragg as well.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in US military aid have been sent since 1994, primarily
under the auspices of the war on drugs. As hundreds of thousands of EZLN sympathizers, as
well as indigenous people throughout the republic can attest, the US sold Mexican
helicopters that daily fly over their villages, are not used to combat narcotrafficking
but rather for intimidation in Mexicos’ undeclared war on its people.
Signs posted in the entrance of many EZLN support base communities simply and clearly
state the connection, "Soldiers and War, NO. Corn and peace, YES."
May the Voice of Memory Strengthen the Roots of
The rebel army, largely made up of Mayan descendents, are experts
in resistance and have at least 500 years of experience in transforming their bloodshed
into the strength needed to continue struggling. Today, the phantom village of Acteal,
with its dirt-floored shacks and dried cornfields, is home to hundreds of Mexican soldiers
as they finish building their new military encampment, centered in the local schoolhouse.
A few meters away, rest 45 inhabitants of the earth. "Our dead aren’t dumped in an
anonymous mass grave," said a community member during a television interview,
"Our dead are buried together, it’s a collective burial site."
As their Mayan tradition explains, with the death of their loved ones are sown the
seeds of memory and with it grow the roots of resistance. One of the principales, the
elders, explained during the Christmas Day funeral that the dead have the power to mediate
with other forces. For that reason, "ellos y ellas haran que la palabra hable."
They will ensure that the voice speaks so that justice may reign.
Byline: Mariana Mora is a member of the Oakland, California based Chiapas support
group, the Comite Emiliano Zapata. She is originally from Mexico City and is currently
living in San Cristobol de las Casas.