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The law of Chiapas

International | December paramilitary massacre breaks all the rules, overshadows persecution of evangelicals in the state

Issue: "Day scare," Jan. 10, 1998

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.

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"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.

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