On 22nd December R and I drove up to Acteal for the village’s annual commemoration. As the crow flies, it’s less than 30 miles from San Cristobal de las Casas. It took us two hours to drive there however as the road is small and winds its way up and down through the Chamula and Chenalho valleys before reaching Acteal. The village itself is divided into two parts. The upper half is occupied by Zapatista supporters, the lower half by Las Abejas, a community of religious pacifists who came together in the early 1990s in response to the political turmoil and violence in Chiapas.
Acteal is perched on the edge of a mountain and has stunning views of the surrounding country, but it’s otherwise a small, non-descript, poverty stricken village, much like hundreds of others in the Chiapas highlands. It would be an obscure place had it not been for the killing of 45 of its inhabitants by paramilitaries on 22nd December 1997. Until the Zetas killed a group of Central American migrants northern Mexico last August, Acteal was the single most violent atrocity in Mexico in recent memory. The massacre has become a cause celebre in Mexico, not least because of the government’s role in orchestrating it.
Each year Las Abejas commemorate the anniversary of the massacre. They buried their dead together in the centre of the village and constructed a small open air auditorium over the top; this provided the venue for speeches and declarations through the day. The event attracts a range of human rights and political groups. The commemoration this year was attended by about 60 or 70 people beyond those from the village itself, most appeared to be Mexicans but there was also a sprinkling of other foreigners.
The liveliest group was a contingent of activists from the town of San Salvador Atenco, just outside Mexico City. Atenco has its own story, but is linked with Acteal for the suffering meted out to it for crossing the powers that be. In May 2006 the government of the State of Mexico responded to an altercation in Atenco’s market by ordering in thousands of riot police to restore order. The people of Atenco were already famous for having successfully prevented the federal government building a new airport on their land, and the events of May 2006 were widely interpreted as the government taking its revenge.
Two teenagers were shot dead. More than two hundred of Atenco’s townspeople were arrested, with many subjected to sexual abuse and other forms of torture. The community leaders who had led the anti-airport campaign were also rounded up. Their leader, Ignacio del Valle, was sentenced to 65 years in gaol. When the prosecution complained that this was too short, the sentence was extended 112 years. Eleven others also got exemplary sentences. After a lengthy appeal and a national and international campaign, launched at the commemoration in Acteal last year, Mexico’s Supreme Court decided last August that there was no case to answer, and freed the Atenco prisoners after four years in prison.
Ignacio del Valle arrived in the early afternoon with seven others from Atenco. His group were armed with machetes and guitars, and walked into the centre of the village with machetes raised, singing songs and shouting slogans. Later in the afternoon he made a passionate speech, thanking those who had campaigned to get him out of prison. He also pointed out that the fact that the government had had to release them showed it could be beaten.
The unexpected highlight of the afternoon was the moment at which, slapping his machete against the floor and followed by his guitarist, he started to dance through the auditorium, pulling the audience behind him. The sight of a middle aged man with a red bandanna and straw hat singing and skipping at the head of a giant conga changed the sombre atmosphere. Until that point the women of Acteal stood had stood impassively at the back, but as Ignacio’s giant conga took shape most of them broke into smiles.
The massacre itself can only be understood in the context of the Zapatista uprising and the counter-insurgency tactics employed by the government in its aftermath. The uprising started on 1st January 1994 and ended 12 days later after a one-sided and bloody confrontation between the rebels and the Mexican army. Following intense pressure from within Mexico and internationally, both sides agreed to a ceasefire and negotiations. These eventually ended with the signing of the San Andres Accords in 1996, which met some of the Zapatistas’ demands.
Although signed by the government’s negotiators, the Accords were never ratified by the government and remain to this day a dead letter. In place of a negotiated settlement the government instead launched a counter-insurgency campaign. On the one hand, it increased spending on social programmes in Chiapas, handing money to communities that opposed the Zapatistas. On the other, it armed paramilitary groups under the auspices of local leaders affiliated to the ruling party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI for short.
The government has always denied that it armed (and continues to arm) any paramilitaries. However, researchers in the US have used Freedom of Information legislation to obtain cables sent by the US’s Mexico City embassy to Washington on the situation in Chiapas. Cables from 1999 describe in detail how the Mexican military responded to the Zapatista rebellion, and how paramilitary groups were organised and armed with approval from the Mexican President’s office. (see for instance www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB283/acteal_02.pdf)
In many communities, the paramilitaries are interchangeable with supporters of the PRI, and are therefore known as priistas. The tragedy of Chiapas is that the paramilitaries and Zapatista rebels come from the same indigenous communities, and in some cases are directly related. The violence therefore had an inter-communal character, stirred by local conflicts over resources. At Acteal, these included attempts by the local priistas to take control over a local gravel pit and the wholesale of coffee, the main local exports.
Through the summer of 1997 the level of violence spiralled as paramilitary groups rampaged through villages in the Chenalho valley, stealing crops and goods, burning houses and on occasion killing those thought to be Zapatista supporters. Thousands fled their homes, and some of Las Abejas from outlying communities gathered for safety in Acteal.
According to survivors, around 60 paramilitaries arrived at Acteal early in the morning of 22nd December. While the Zapatista supporters in the upper village immediately fled, most of the families from Las Abejas gathered in their chapel, hoping that as pacifists they would not be counted as direct parties to the conflict, and praying for deliverance.
As the killing started the villagers scattered. According to survivors accounts, the paramilitaries stayed for several hours, searching out and killing whoever they could find. At the end of the morning 45 people had been murdered. Most of the victims were women and children between the ages of 13 and 22; four of the women were pregnant. 25 others were seriously wounded.
The Mexican army units in the area stood by as the killers went about their work. The nearest army base is less than 2 miles away, located at the top of a ridge and controlling the main road junction in the vicinity. The soldiers did nothing, and must have been aware of a large body of armed men passing along the road. There is also a military radio station directly across the valley from Acteal, with nothing between it and the village to break the sound of echoing gunfire. After the massacre the soldiers blocked the road and muddied the scene of the crime by removing the bodies and cartridge shells.
After commemoration finished we went to have a last look around the village before heading back to San Cristobal. In the small wooden chapel, with sides still punctured with bullet holes, a street performer from Mexico City was rehearsing a performance with a group of village children to be held the following morning. He explained to us that, as with the rest of the commemoration, the aim is to remember the dead but also to look forward, and that the performance had been created with this in mind.
As we left it was hard not to make comparisons between the performance and a Christmas school play. Except that in place of celebrating peace and goodwill, the children instead remember the day the government chose to set an example to anyone tempted to rebel, by slaughtering a village of pacifists.