Grieving is not new to Chiapas. The sight of women weeping over rows of coffins, as they did at a Christmas Day funeral in Acteal, is all too familiar. Poorest among Mexico's states, Chiapas has boiled over in violence since Zapatista rebels mounted an armed uprising in 1993. That one ended with 150 dead and an uneasy ceasefire four years ago. But now, even for Mexicans accustomed to bloody reports issuing from their most southern state, the new massacre grips attention.
The tragedy has proved wrenching both in major statistics 45 dead, more than 30 wounded, and in minor details. Seven men, 20 women, 17 children, and a one-month-old baby were killed in the attack. Four pregnant women were among the dead, and there were claims the attackers extracted their unborn babies with machetes. Most of the victims, believed to be Zapatista sympathizers, were gunned down by high-powered weapons aimed at their backs. Another mother delivered her baby shortly after she was wounded in the attack. More children were numbered among the wounded, including 4-year-old Zenaida Luna Perez, who lost her eyesight when a hooded gunman pumped a bullet into the back of her head. Her entire family was killed in the spree.
Small white coffins lined the front row at the open-air funeral Dec. 25. They were later lowered alongside black and blue coffins of the adults into trenches prepared at dawn Christmas morning.
"It's atrocious by any kind of rules, even the wildest rules," said Carlos Monsivais, a leading leftist intellectual who came to Acteal for the burial. "It's a transgression of everything," he told The New York Times.
The killers are believed to be part of paramilitary gangs with connections to Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Hoping to distance his administration from the horror, President Ernesto Zedillo launched an immediate federal investigation of the Chiapas incident. By last week 16 people were arrested on specific murder charges, and nearly 30 others were being held in connection with the killings. A number of local PRI officials were among those detained. Federal prosecutors even charged Mayor Jacinto Arias Cruz, a PRI member, with arming the murderers with automatic weapons. But government officials, including Chiapas Governor Julio Cesar Ruiz Ferro and Zedillo cabinet members, deny that the connections extend higher up.
To outsiders the scenario looks plain: Hitmen for local party bosses strike at Tzotzil Indians who side with the Zapatistas. Insiders say the lines are not so plainly drawn. Contrary to most media portrayals, more residents are caught in the middle than aligned with one side or another. Farmers report extortion by local government officials, even seizure of coffee crops, while others say they are coerced into granting favors to the fugitive rebels.
Evangelicals know this middle ground well. They are the fastest-growing group in Chiapas, now comprising 40 percent of the state population. Of the persecuted Indians who have been driven from their homes, 80 percent belong to the Presbyterian Church, says Presbyterian pastor and attorney Abdias Tovilla. They reject the pagan religious practices that dominate the mostly Indian population and the liberation theology of the area's Catholic bishop, Samuel Ruiz. On the other hand, they disavow the violence and Marxist philosophy of the Zapatistas.
The evangelicals turn against cultural norms, too. The Chiapas economy is dependent on the sale of poch, a locally brewed hard liquor. It is consumed at self-perpetuating religious festivals that mix elements of Catholicism with animism and tribal rites. Evangelical converts have turned en masse from the liquor trade and the festivals, denying local authorities, called caciques, their accustomed kickbacks. Caciques have enjoyed long-standing autonomy in Chiapas including the extraction of regular "religious commissions" from poor families because they could deliver votes to the PRI in national elections.
Systemic persecution of evangelicals has been overshadowed by the December massacre, which mainly involved Catholics. In November alone, six evangelicals were murdered by hooded assassins.
Four Presbyterians, three teenagers and a middle-aged woman, were murdered in Chenalho, the same municipality where the December massacre took place. The four were also killed in much the same manner. Hooded men using high-powered weapons shot the four victims in the back, then "finished them off with machete blows, causing the separation of their arms and legs," according to an account in the newspaper Novedades. Reports at the time alternately blamed government-supported groups and the Zapatistas.
Two others, Salvador Collazo and Ricardo Perez, were shot in Cruz Chot in the municipality of San Juan Chamula. The two young men were involved in October with settling a dispute between evangelicals and local authorities after caciques blocked the children of evangelicals from local schools. Mr. Collazo was treasurer and co-founder of a 2-year-old organization, called OPEACH, that works to protect the rights of evangelicals.
Outside groups have helped as well, including the Charlottesville, Va.Ðbased Rutherford Institute. The Christian legal advocacy group in 1993 filed a petition on behalf of the persecuted Indians in Chiapas with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a hemispheric court affiliated with the Organization of American States (OAS). It demanded that the Mexican government explain the lack of enforcement in Chiapas of Mexico's constitutional religious freedom clause and requested punishment for perpetrators.
Once ignoring Chiapas almost as a matter of state policy, the Mexican government is taking a more constructive role in solutions there, according to Rutherford's international coordinator, Pedro Moreno. Still, Mr. Moreno told WORLD, Mexican officials have dragged their feet. The government did not respond to the initial complaint until 1995. "The Mexican government does not establish any clear parameters toward a solution of the ongoing persecution and does not commit itself to the prosecution of the perpetrators," Mr. Moreno complained to a congressional panel in 1996. Since that time, Mexican officials, together with members of the OAS, the human-rights commission, and Mr. Moreno, have made visits to Chiapas, and seen progress.
At a meeting of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, prior to the massacre, Attorney General Jorge Madrazo submitted a report on the region that detailed the governmentÕs failings, "point by point," according to Mr. Moreno, to deal with unrest and poverty. "There has been much progress in accepting responsibility for the situation, and it is a great part of the process of solving it," he said.
Since late last year Mexico City and OAS officials in Washington have been handing back and forth a draft agreement on Chiapas. Mr. Moreno said the Mexican government missed a Nov. 6 deadline but is expected to sign off on a final agreement by mid-January. Mr. Moreno says the agreement will reassert the right of children of evangelicals to attend local schools, will provide legal mechanisms for the return of evangelicals and some Catholics displaced by violence and persecution, and will reinstruct local officials on constitutional rights to freedom of worship.
The PRI is responding to changing political winds as well as to the Chiapas tragedy. The party lost control of Congress in 1997 amid mounting scandals involving top party officials. It also recognizes the growing clout of evangelicals in Chiapas. "The government is worried because many indigenous evangelicals, who for years have not received support from the official party, are choosing to vote for opposition parties," Mr. Tovilla told Compass Direct. "I think we are finally going to have political plurality."
Growing support for Chiapas was in evidence in Mexico City streets last week, where protesters continued to jam downtown and control the Angel of Independence monument, as they have since the massacre. Largely organized by leftists like Mr. Monsivais, the protests are as much about the frustration of liberal parties that have been locked out of government by seven decades of PRI victories. "Part of those protesting the massacre are sincere, and part are just looking for protagonists to further their own causes," said Baltazar Gonzalez, a Presbyterian pastor in Juarez affiliated with the evangelical churches in Chiapas.
Authorities braced for trouble from Zapatistas coinciding with the four-year anniversary of the ceasefire agreement Jan. 1. Already they face more immediate trouble from Chiapas. With more to fear from staying than going, over 5,000 Chiapas residents left the region last week, leaving behind a ramshackle existence and carrying their possessions in coffee sacks.