Massacre post-mortem

International | For evangelicals in tiny Acteal, the rebel message is no balm to divisions from 1997 massacre

Issue: "School vouchers debate," May 15, 1999

in Chiapas, Mexico - Obscure regional conflicts-with the notable exception of Kosovo-tend to have a limited shelf life in American newsrooms, even when the battle is just south of the border. Chiapas fell off the newswires not long after a December 1997 massacre of 45 supposed rebel sympathizers. But if the world moved on, the sleepy coffee hamlet of Acteal, where the killing took place, is slow to recover. In the brutal assault on church grounds thought to be neutral territory, 21 women, 15 children, and nine men were hacked to death with machetes or shot at point-blank range. One woman was eight months pregnant. The killing took eight hours. Local authorities believe the killers were ad-hoc paramilitaries who organized themselves against the Zapatistas. Discovering just who those paramilitary killers are, however, is the bigger puzzle. Of over 100 people arrested, 80 remain in jail more than a year later. Among those are 18 evangelicals. Fellow church members say they have been falsely accused. Tensions between the Marxist Zapatistas, who want independence from Mexico, and residents who won't support them remain high. Not long ago, everyone knew everyone else in Acteal, a Tzotzil Indian enclave that clings to a mountainside in the rugged heart of Chiapas, Mexico's poor, southernmost state. Most of its 500 villagers shared a handful of surnames, and like their ancestors, they dwelled peacefully. That was before Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) rebels introduced their Marxist ideology to Acteal in September 1997. The armed militants arrived in the village, claiming to champion Indian rights. "The Zapatistas promised land, riches, and cars to those who joined their movement," said Antonio Luna, an elder at Nazareth Presbyterian Church who is now Acteal's mayor. He ignored the movement until Zapatistas began ambushing villagers in their fields and on trails. From September to December, rebels killed18 in Acteal and injured 23 others. Many who did not side with the rebels sought protection by joining the Mexican government's ruling party, called PRI. The PRIistas reported threats and killings to town officials and to municipal and state authorities. But authorities were slow to take action. "The governor of Chiapas said they couldn't start jailing the Zapatistas until more people were killed," Mr. Luna said. He did not want to join PRI, the party that for 70 years has ruled Mexico with corruption and inefficiency; he tried to remain politically neutral. When Zapatistas murdered PRI leader Agustín Vásquez in December, PRIistas and people who lost family members in the ambushes started planning revenge, according to Mr. Luna. Gunfire became so commonplace in the weeks prior to the massacre that he and others quit tending to their crops. They hid in the church sanctuary and in their homes, where he said most of them fled for safety when violence erupted December 22. The killers targeted local families who met with Zapatistas. The massacre of 45 tilted international opinion toward the Zapatistas and away from the rebel-incited tension that preceded it. Afterwards, the Zapatistas took revenge by naming to authorities Acteal's PRIistas as the murderers. The names included the dozen or so who allegedly carried out the massacre, plus 74 others whose only crime was to oppose the Zapatistas. One of those was Agustín Vásquez Méndez, who lived with his wife near a Catholic chapel where Zapatistas and their sympathizers had been meeting. Mr. Méndez, who attended the Presbyterian church, disputed the Zapatistas' claims of being unarmed and pacifistic. "They were building trenches around the church and planning an attack," his wife, Marcela Perez Santis, said. Now she visits her husband monthly in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas, where he is in prison. She takes medicine but says that his health is failing. State authorities promised to free the suspects within 72 hours if no evidence linked them to the crimes. That was in March 1998. If those prisoners' legal status is ambiguous, their political status is worse. Political pressure right now runs in favor of the rebels. Mr. Luna and others believe that the evangelicals who were arrested are victims of a government backed into a corner. Although the story no longer figures in nightly newscasts, the cause behind it has a loyal following of Western liberals who share the Zapatista fondness for socialism and liberation theology. Since many of those elites (who catch the propaganda from Zapatista Web sites and academic listservs) hold that all the imprisoned men are guilty, to release some of them would invoke international outrage that Mexico is freeing murderers-outrage that translates to protest, renewed violence, diplomatic strain, or even loss of foreign aid. Detention of evangelicals also appeases a power base for some local officials, the Roman Catholic hierarchy. It is overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Zapatista revolutionary movement. The rebel cause originated in Chiapas diocese of San Cristobal with Bishop Samuel Ruiz, accentuating Protestant-Catholic differences. But Acteal evangelicals are ground between government and rebels. Four of Mr. Luna's nephews and nieces disappeared after the massacre and are believed to have been killed. Also murdered: his wife's brother and her father and his sister-in-law. Yet, Mr. Luna's own father and a brother are among the evangelicals held by authorities, who suspect them of involvement in the crime. More than 40 years ago, Protestant missionaries began translating the Bible into the Tzotzil, Tzeltzal, and other Indian languages. These indigenous groups were among the poorest of Mexico's poor, to whom Mexico City's Catholics had given little attention. When missionary labors began bearing fruit in the 1970s, Chiapas became the first region in traditionally Catholic Latin America to have an evangelical majority. From the outset, the evangelical church met resistance from the Catholic hierarchy. Anyone who converted could expect to be banished from his community, to have his house burned and his crops destroyed, and to have his children denied an education, tactics also used by Zapatistas. Expelled evangelicals founded their own communities where they could live in relative peace and worship freely with little fear of reprisals. One such community is on the outskirts of San Cristobal de las Casas, the largest city in Chiapas, and numbers some 30,000. Evangelicals such as San Cristobal-based Presbyterian pastor Abdias Tovilla organized human-rights groups to draw attention to the evangelicals' plight. Those activities have heightened tension with Zapatistas. Tzotzil cultural values of humility and timidity stood at odds with telling their stories to reporters who swarmed Acteal in the weeks following the massacre and intermittently since. Mr. Luna says the evangelicals feared talking to the press because of potential Zapatista reprisals. "The thing I feel sad about is that the Zapatistas have so many reporters," Mr. Luna said. "They report that the Zapatistas have done nothing wrong, but we all know they started this conflict. Before Zapatismo, we all got along, without factions or feuds. When pressured, some joined the Zapatistas, and that's what caused the division." Mr. Luna's plans of maintaining political neutrality evaporated in the weeks following the massacre. His village voted him mayor by acclamation. Now he heads Acteal's PRI. Many evangelicals are bitter, Mr. Luna said. "We have been falsely accused, and the feelings are increasing the longer they stay in jail, especially since they're struggling to support and feed their families because of the lists the Zapatistas made," he said. He wants to see all the guilty brought to justice, the massacre perpetrators who killed his relatives as well as the Zapatistas who killed villagers during the months before the December 1997 massacre. No arrests have been made in connection with those ambushes. Now Acteal's evangelicals welcome the Mexican army's presence. Mr. Luna's Nazareth Presbyterian Church invited the army to set up camp on its land. "The killings and violent interchange have stopped," Mr. Luna said. "If the soldiers hadn't come, we would have continued to have our people murdered." He adds, "We're less afraid to go to our fields now, but last Monday we heard a lot of gunfire. Sometimes, the Zapatistas come from the distance, firing, just to make us afraid." Mr. Luna's faith is not in the Mexican army, which he knows cannot stay indefinitely. "If God wants us to live in peace without the soldiers, he can make that happen," Mr. Luna said. "He could protect us so we can have peace. As long as we're right here at this base, I'm not afraid." Mr. Luna fears Acteal will see more violence. "The Zapatistas are saying this isn't the end, that they'll spill more blood before it's over," he said. "If God wants it to stop, it will stop. If God wills that the conflict continues, pray we will be strong and not run away."

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