The men milled about on the shoulder of the mountain road, their faces hooded and masked. Christmas was just three days away but first they had some killing to do. When the signal was given, they picked up their weapons–at least five AK-47s were included in their arsenal–and began firing downhill into the trees. A detachment of 40 state police officers posted at a school 200 meters down the road seemed to take no notice.
After an hour, the shooters advanced downhill, firing their weapons as they pushed forward through the wounded trees. At the bottom of the hill, the dead were spread around a wood plank chapel where they had been fasting and praying for several days. Most were women, their dead children still clinging to them. The shooters continued down the ravine, taking their time, killing their victims slowly, slicing them open with machetes. Four of the women were pregnant. Marcela Capote, the wife of the catechist, was nearly at full term and they hacked open her womb and yanked out the baby inside and dashed its skull against the rocks. They told each other that they had come to kill “la Semilla”–the seed.
Although the press regularly reports that the number of those massacred at Acteal was 45, “Las Abejas” (“The Bees”) have always said 46 of their comrades died December 22nd, 1997, including Marcela Capote’s baby. Last year, on the ninth anniversary of the massacre, they upped the count to 49 to honor the three other pregnant women murdered by the paramilitaries–21 women, 15 children, nine men, and four unborn babies.
The Abejas are a devoutly Catholic association of Highland Maya–Tzotziles, “the people of the bat”–based in rural Chenalho county where they have acquired a well-deserved reputation as excellent coffee growers and honey gatherers. Their formation during a bitter land battle in the early 1990s was mid-wived by San Cristobal de las Casas Bishop Emeritus Samuel Ruiz Garcia and they have always shared Don Samuel’s liberationist leanings.
Although the Abejas backed the demands of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EXLN) when they rose in armed rebellion in the highlands in 1994, they did not support the rebels’ use of violence. Nonetheless, by the 1997 coffee harvest with paramilitary gunsills from surrounding communities–mostly affiliated with the then-ruling PRI party–stealing their crops and their farm animals and burning Abeja families out of their homes, they appealed to the pro-Zapatista village of Acteal for protection and were given a piece of land down below the highway, “Los Naranjos”, where they would be massacred December 22nd, 1997 by their persecutors.
In the ten years since the killings shocked a shaken nation, the Abejas have become a moral touchstone reaching far beyond the Chiapas highlands. Liberationist Catholics make pilgrimages to Acteal where a chapel covering the graves of the martyrs has become a shrine. Each year on the anniversary of their sacrifice, a memorial Mass presided over by Bishop Ruiz or his former coadjutor Raul Vera or the current bishop of San Cristobal, Felipe Arizmendi, draws thousands to this anonymous bend in the ill-paved highway that connects up the county seats of Chenalho and Pantelho. Nobelist Jose Saramago mourned here, as did former U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson and the late U.S. author Susan Sontag. In their grief and dignity, the Abejas have come to symbolize for many the cruel suffering of Latin America’s indigenous peoples.
Horrendous as it was, the Acteal massacre was not the most lethal in a history that is stained with such mass killings–the Conquistadores and the Revolution saw to that. Under the governance of President Ernesto Zedillo, four massacres occurred between June 1995 and June 1998 that took a total of 87 lives. Acteal was not even the bloodiest mass killing in recent Chiapas memory–that dubious honor goes to the massacre by the Mexican military of at least 60 Indian farmers at Golonchan in 1979 during the regime of PRI governor Juan Sabines, whose son, also named Juan, is the current governor of the state.
But because the Zapatistas have a national and international network and the horror of the killings at Christmastime attracted the glare of Big Media, Acteal became synonymous with human rights abuses in Mexico. Bill Clinton, former French premiere Lionel Jospin, and the late Pope John Paul condemned the murders, so agitating Zedillo that he accused the world leaders of intervening in Mexico’s affairs and subsequently deported 400 non-Mexican human rights observers from Chiapas in a xenophobic rage.
Now as the tenth anniversary of the Acteal massacre approaches, the martyrdom of the Abejas is being called into question by an orchestrated chorus of revisionist voices bent on altering the narrative and absolving then-president Zedillo, the PRI, and the Mexican military of any culpability for the notorious mass killings, and, instead, shift the blame to the victims–the Abejas and their Zapatista allies.
Last spring, the national committee of right-wing president Felipe Calderon’s PAN party called for the reopening of judicial proceedings against more than 80 persons convicted of participating in the slaughter. Most are evangelicals whose release is being demanded by their churches and the PAN is accused of an opportunistic ploy to attract this fast-growing constituency by Luis Hernandez Navarro, op ed editor at the left daily La Jornada and a former Zapatista advisor.
To compliment the PAN gesture, Hugo Eric Flores, a spokesperson for those convicted, will soon publish “The Other Injustice” to coincide with the anniversary of the killings–the book posits that the prisoners were railroaded by federal and state prosecutors to tamp down the visibility of the scandal and that rather than a massacre, the Abejas were caught in a deadly crossfire between Zapatistas and anti-Zapatista “self-defense” fighters, the “pojwanejetic” in Tzotzil.
Perhaps the lead voice in this revisionist choir is a high profile journalist and author, Hector Aguilar Camin (he has his own late night show on Televisa) whose three-part series “Return to Acteal” published in Nexos, the glossy highbrow monthly he co-edits, seeks to debunk the Zapatista “legend” that the “mal gobierno” (bad government) was responsible for the murders of the Abejas. Aguilar Camin was the house intellectual during the reigns of Carlos Salinas (1988-94) and Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) and has had a continued presence under PANista Vicente Fox (2000-2006) and his successor Felipe Calderon. “Aguilar Camin always serves the princes,” sneers Hernandez Navarro.
Aguilar Camin’s lengthy chronicle not only redeems Zedillo, who now heads Yale’s Institute for Globalization Studies, but also neglects overwhelming evidence of his government’s involvement in the events of December 22nd, 1997, instead ascribing the cause of the massacre to long latent “inter-communal” and religious disputes that he suggests are inherent in Highland Maya culture and which were exacerbated by the Zapatista uprising.
Not unsurprisingly, Aguilar’s version invokes the Zedillo government’s much-discredited “White Book of Acteal” issued weeks after the massacre that pinned the onus on “disputes inherent in highland Maya culture” and traced the route to Acteal from a family conflict back in the 1930s. The White Book was compiled by Zedillo’s attorney general to provide a more “anthropological” assessment of the murders.
Anthropologist Aida Hernandez Castillo, then director of the CIESAS research institute in San Cristobal, recalls being offered funds by Zedillo government investigators to study “the manner in which the cultural practices of Chenalho can help us to understand the rituals of war utilized in the Acteal massacre” (sic.) Sensing that the investigators were trying to whitewash the government’s role in the killings, CIESAS refused to participate in the study.
Aguilar Camin’s sources for his revisionist chronicle are instructive: the aforementioned White Book and bulletins from the Attorney General’s office where the White Book was concocted. The writer also borrows liberally from Gustavo Hirales, an ex-Marxist guerrillero in the 1970s who was tortured and defected to the “mal gobierno” where he fingered former comrades and prepared scenarios for intelligence agencies. Hirales’ “Road to Acteal”, based on his dispatches from Chiapas for a government-run newspaper and published on the heels of the massacre, endorsed the White Book’s “inter-communal” skew and accused the Zapatistas of inciting homicide in Chenalho.
Also cited by Aguilar: an unpublished manuscript by Hirales’s ex-guerrilla crony Manuel Anzaldo, whose political faction had been given a franchise to exploit a sand and gravel bank that the EZLN claimed belonged to a nearby Zapatista village. Anzaldo’s Internet page, “The Farmers Information Service” (SIC by its Spanish initials) spread anti-Zapatista venom throughout the highlands during the hostilities in Chenalho.
But the vertebrae of Aguilar Camin’s narrative is Flores’s “The Other Injustice” which argues the Abejas were killed in a gun battle between the EZLN and its enemies and that the 83 prisoners being held for the killings are as innocent as the driven snow.
In assembling “Return to Acteal”, Hector Aguilar Camin disregards in-depth reports on the situation in the Chiapas highlands regularly issued between 1995 and 1997 by the San Cristobal-based Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center of which Bishop Ruiz remains the guiding spirit, maintaining that the information is “loaded” in favor of the Abejas and the EZLN.
The “FRAYBA” negotiated disputes between Zapatista autonomias and official municipalities during that period and meticulously documented the skein of killings that gripped Chenalho between May and December 1997 in which 35 Indians were gunned down (18 associated with the PRI, 17 with the EZLN and/or Las Abejas.) Despite the wholesale mayhem, no local, state, or federal government raised a hand to stop the bloodshed. “They just let Acteal happen,” concludes Hermann Bellinghausen, a veteran correspondent who covered the killings day by day for the left tabloid La Jornada.
Responses to the Nexos pieces were sharp and swift. The Abejas accused Aguilar Camin of being “the voice of the killers.” La Jornada assigned Bellinghausen to write a 21-part series exposing the gross distortions in “Return to Acteal.” The Jornada reporter recalled that in the days following Acteal, Aguilar Camin had written a front-page letter to the leftist daily accusing it of “black and white journalism.” “No one in his right mind can accuse Zedillo of engineering this crime,” Aguilar avowed.
Despite the writer’s exculpation of Zedillo, there is overwhelming evidence that his government committed crimes of omission and commission at every level before, during, and after the Acteal massacre and that the killings of the 49 Indians constitute a crime of state.
Acteal was, indeed, the bitter fruit of the Chiapas Strategy Plan, a counter-insurgency plan cooked up at the Seventh Military Region in the Chiapas state capital of Tuxtla to combat the uprising in the 37 municipalities where the EZLN had influence by arming and training “patriotic” paramilitary units. The Chiapas Strategy Plan was implemented by General Mario Renon Castillo, a graduate of the Center for Special Forces at Fort Bragg North Carolina in counter-insurgency warfare.
Least there be any question, the “pojwanejetics” who attacked the Abejas were themselves trained by an Mexican Army corporal, officially placed “on leave” who had been ordered to show the paramilitaries how to use their newly-acquired weapons. Mario Perez Ruiz told the court he thought he would be killed if he refused to carry out the orders of his superiors.
Aguilar Camin, on the other hand, denies military involvement in the attack on the Abejas and describes the “pojwanejetic” as a “self-defense” squad that developed “spontaneously” in reaction to the Zapatista uprising.
Evidence that the “mal gobierno” and its state and local affiliates were up to their necks in the Acteal massacre abounds. The PRI municipal president of Chenalho bought the weapons that would be used against the Abejas. The weapons were transported by police through military checkpoints and distributed to the killers–the police even donated their uniforms to the “pojwanejetic.”
On the day of the lethal assault, a detachment of state police witnessed the killing and did nothing to stop it. A noontime phone call from the San Cristobal diocese to Governor Julio Ruiz Ferro’s office advising his Secretary of Government (Ruiz Ferro was on vacation in California) of the on-going massacre at Acteal elicited a promise to investigate. But there was no investigation.
When the wounded began to arrive in San Cristobal on the night of the 22nd, Chiapas state security chief Jorge Enriquez Hernandez and the under-Secretary of Government Uriel Jarquin drove to Acteal where they ordered the bodies of the Abejas stacked and burnt before the press appeared the next morning but the police took too long and daylight forced them to load the corpses in dump trucks and drive them to the state capital for “autopsies.”
Forced to resign as governor, Ruiz Ferro, who had full knowledge of the dangerous standoff in Chenalho and refused to intervene, was promoted by Zedillo to agricultural attaché at Mexico’s Washington embassy and is now reportedly a functionary of the Calderon regime.
Putting Indians on Indians–there are more than a million indigenous peoples in Chiapas, a third of the population–has always been the fulcrum of PRI control of the state.
As noted, 83 people have been processed and convicted for the Acteal massacre. All of them are Indians. No state or federal official has ever been indicted for the killings. Two generals, who served as police commanders and were charged with dereliction of duty, fled the state and have never been brought to justice. Zedillo is at Yale. The Indians are in jail.
Are they the real killers? All 83 are charged with murder and using prohibited firearms which seems a stretch–no more than 40 “pojwanejetics” took part in the massacre (Aguilar Camin insists it was only nine.) Two key leaders of the paramilitaries have been freed. Antonio Santis Lopez who organized the death squad is alive and free in Chenalho. Antonio Vazquez Secum, who contracted the killers after his son was murdered, either by his own comrades because he refused to kick in to the paramilitaries’ gun fund or by Zapatista sharpshooters because he was driving a pick-up filled with the Abejas’ stolen coffee, was sentenced to 25 years in prison but was released when he fell ill and died shortly before the tenth anniversary of the massacre.
In 1999, United Nations rapateur Asma Jahngar, now under house arrest in her native Pakistan, visited Chiapas to take testimony from witnesses. The U.N. official interviewed some of the prisoners and concluded that many of the Indians had been rounded up and framed to get Zedillo off the international human rights hook. “At least that’s they way they do it in my country” she observed to this reporter.
Ten years after Acteal, the paramilitary scourge is still a malignant feature of the Chiapas landscape. Groups like “Red Mask” (the name the pojwanejetics took in Chenalho) and the incongruously named “Peace & Justice”, responsible for over 100 murders in the north of the state, have just changed their initials. The Popular Organization for the Defense of the Rights of Indian Farmers (OPDDIC) is the latest avatar of the Chiapas Strategy Plan, staging intermittent attacks on Zapatista autonomous communities in the lowlands.
Three times in November, the OPDDIC invaded the tiny rebel hamlet of Bolom Ajaw, firing long guns and slashing the villagers with their machetes in an effort to drive 70 families off land they have reclaimed from the hacienda where they once slaved. “If you don’t leave here, we will cut your bodies to pieces and throw the pieces in the river,” one paramilitary threatened. The violent attacks in Bolom Ajaw spark fears that they are prelude to another Acteal. Just as it did ten years ago, the mal gobierno does nothing.