Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 344 | Marzo 2010



Acteal Twelve Years On

Twelve years ago the massacre at Acteal, Chiapas, alerted the world that the Mexican government had unleashed a counterinsurgency war against the indigenous Zapatista communities. The system is now trying to cover up the crime with a judicial ruling that only reveals the reigning impunity. The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience included Acteal among the 17 historic sites of gross injustice that remind the world of a history we cannot forget.

Jorge Alonso

After a term and a half of National Action Party (PAN) governments, Mexico is a nation in ruins. According to the National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy, only 18% of Mexicans earn a living wage. The rest are living in some form of poverty. A study by the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean shows Mexico is a leader in poverty and inequality.

International organizations consider Mexico to have been severely affected by the global financial crisis, mainly due to the ineptitude of those governing. In this respect, Latinobarometer’s report for 2009 revealed that only 28% of Mexicans were satisfied with the country’s democracy.

An internal war with
guaranteed impunity

The Calderón government has declared an internal war, which analysts have dubbed “a failed war” because comparing the reasons for conducting it to the official data only reveals the unsustainable nature of all of the government’s arguments. The worrying thing is that the federal government’s 2009-2012 National Security Program emphasizes the use of force against grassroots rebel groups.

The last six months of 2009 showed an increase in this counterinsurgency war in the southeast of the country, while the Supreme Court’s participation in the counterinsurgency strategy encouraged the paramilitary groups. Rejecting the evidence of survivors of the 1997 Acteal massacre arguing formal points, the Court freed 29 of those accused of perpetrating the massacre and ordered the retrial of 22 others. As a result, it ensured complete impunity for that crime against humanity. Freeing the accused members of paramilitary groups was another step in covering up a state crime.

The brutal Acteal massacre

The target of the massacre was a group called Las Abejas, formed in 1992 to confront the government repression against indigenous communities in Chiapas. A peaceful organization that did not agree with the armed approach, they nonetheless recognized that the Zapatista demands following the Zapatista uprising in 1994 were similar to their own.

Members of the Las Abejas organization participated with many other Mexicans in demanding an end to the government’s war in Chiapas. There was an increase in paramilitary groups in 1997 and they demanded that Las Abejas collaborate in the attack on the Zapatistas. But Las Abejas had never taken up arms against the government and was certainly not going to do so against indigenous brothers and sisters. In a context in which the paramilitaries had the full support of the army, local police and the government, members of Las Abejas fell victim to the paramilitary groups, which first began to steal their crops and burn their homes and finally forced them off their lands. On December 22, 1997, they were attacked by government-backed paramilitary members in Acteal while praying and fasting against these abuses.

A total of 45 people and 4 unborn babies were massacred, including 19 women, 14 girls, 8 men, and 4 boys. Later on the same day of the massacre, Las Abejas group members detained the assassins when they passed in front of the relatives of the slain in a municipal government truck. Around 80 perpetrators were taken prisoner.

When the Supreme Court ordered many of those same people to be freed twelve years later, the Las Abejas group dubbed it the Supreme Court of Injustice.

Evidence and accomplices

Although most of the official media wanted to make this legal atrocity look like a step towards justice, all it really ensured was impunity. Las Abejas insisted that the alleged lack of evidence was false, citing the survivors who saw those responsible for the assassinations and who have testified on many occasions. The Court alleged that its ruling was correcting the work of the Attorney General’s Office, when in reality it was completing its work in order to free the government’s accomplices.

The survivors of the massacre and their families have now been put in danger, as those freed from jail have threatened revenge many times. In this respect, the Commission of Indigenous Affairs of the Mexican Congress’ House of Representatives warned that freeing indigenous people accused of the slaughter at Acteal could rekindle the violence.

The Las Abejas group named the intellectual authors of the crime, including former President Zedillo and top local military and civilian authorities, undermining efforts to portray this as either an inter-community or an inter-religious conflict. When the release of the prisoners was announced, it was revealed that one of those working on their defense has been an advisor to Zedillo. In 2006, a promise had been made to review the case of these prisoners in exchange for presidential votes for Calderón.

It was a state crime

On learning about the sad ending to this story, the Network Against Repression and for Solidarity reminded people that the Supreme Court had become a “guarantee of impunity” for those responsible for the repression in Oaxaca and Atenco, not touching those who make “horror into a business and a state policy.” Many independent columnists again pointed out that the Acteal massacre was a State crime and that, in addition to an attempt to rewrite the history of the massacre, freeing the perpetrators, was “the continuation of the war by other means.” Adolfo Gilly proposed establishing a kind of Russell Tribunal for Acteal and many human rights organizations demanded the reopening of reliable investigations into this terrible case.

The representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Mexico expressed his disappointment and anthropologist Aída Hernández, who wrote a powerful book on the testimonies of the women of Acteal, said she felt impotent and incensed by the Supreme Court action, which sent a message to those who did the dirty work that they would be defended in the same way by the government.

Evidence from the United States

Official US documents, declassified in 2009, refuted the official version and showed that from mid-1994 the US Defense Intelligence Agency had information that the Mexican army was giving direct support to the paramilitary groups in Chiapas and that the paramilitary groups were under government military supervision when the Acteal massacre occurred. The army had presidential authorization to organize military teams responsible for promoting armed groups in Chiapas, which were provided with training and protection. The documents showed a counterinsurgency strategy that had been carefully planned by the government.

Academics from the United States, Latin America and Europe also expressed their indignation at the Supreme Court ruling and their support for the massacre survivors. Marcos Roitman stated that the infamy was growing “exponentially” and condemned the rigged rulings, while indigenous people and different grassroots groups marched in condemnation of the freeing of the Acteal assassins. All of these critical voices have highlighted that this action has only increased the disrepute of the political and legal institutions.

The Church speaks out

The Conference of Mexican Bishops stated their disagreement and pointed out that the intellectual authors of the crime would not be able to live in peace even though they were not incarcerated. Meanwhile, the bishops of the diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas said that the unjust Court decision would only increase insecurity in the communities of the Acteal area. Bishop of Saltillol, Raul Vera, who spent several years in Chiapas, gave the harshest assessment: the justices that had voted in favor of the accused should be brought to political trial for defending the paramilitary, silencing the truth of what happened and covering up the trail leading to the real instigators of the massacre. He warned of “a new Acteal,” fearing things were heading in that direction.

Ricardo Robles, a Jesuit of the Tarahumara Mission, suggested that by issuing carte blanche impunity and freeing the present and past authorities from the weight of justice, the Supreme Court had welded the next link in the chain of twelve years of injustice. This had been done to open up spaces for the free trade of “what the Indians are and have” by terrorizing, threatening and humiliating them.

Acteal was the result of State policy

The Las Abejas group could only view the Supreme Court as a court of “the rich and criminals,” denouncing the justices for taking orders from the intellectual authors of the Acteal massacre. In the region where the crime was committed, the sentence was met with indignation, anguish and pain. They didn’t let the governor of Chiapas into the community when he went, hoping to silence them with gifts, including a statue of the Virgin. Then the government tried to implicate them in alleged armed groups that were supposedly going to invade the area on the bicentennial anniversary of Mexican Independence and the centennial anniversary of the Mexican Revolution.

In the presentation of the book Acteal, crimen de Estado [Acteal: State Crime] at the Guadalajara International Book Fair in November, journalist Herman Bellinghausen accused Zedillo of planning the massacres of Acteal, El Charco and Aguas Blancas and also the murders of many indigenous people as a result of state policy. He recalled that although he had been writing before the Acteal massacre about all the signs pointing to such a terrible outcome, the genocide had not been stopped.

And it’s still not stopping. Counter-insurgency actions and inciting paramilitary groups against Zapatista sympathizers increased in the second half of 2009, in a scenario reminiscent of events before the Acteal massacre. A synthetic review of the events reveals how the release of those accused of the Acteal massacre was just one incident in a sequence of events that adds up to an aggressive anti-grassroots counterinsurgency policy.

Ongoing counterinsurgency actions

In August 2009, several cooperatives in Chiapas demanded a halt to the repression against them for defending their territory and freedom for people who had been imprisoned for fighting for social justice. They also demanded justice for the murderer of one of their comrades. They stressed that the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) government of Chiapas, closely allied to President Calderon, preferred war to dialogue.

In September the Zapatista Board of Good Government of La Garrucha spoke out against the violence unleashed against the autonomous municipality of San Manuel. Paramilitary groups had decided to take a piece of land being worked by Zapatista support groups causing serious damage to the livestock and wounding, capturing and torturing people.

Throughout 2009 the autonomous Zapatista authorities disseminated reports detailing their grievances, while denying having negotiated the commercialization of their land. In a climate of aggression and attempted evictions in different communities, the paramilitary groups’ incursions increased.

Years of impunity for
the paramilitary groups

In 1997, paramilitarization was already proliferating in the ranks of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). In 2009 members of the PRI, PAN and PRD parties were attacking Zapatista communities. The Board of Good Government of La Realidad made it clear that they would continue to defend their land and would not allow the threats, intimidation and humiliation to continue. The paramilitaries wanted to take away their water as well as their land. And no longer content to constantly attack indigenous Zapatistas, the paramilitary groups upped the ante in September by ambushing and attacking a lawyer from the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center. Without any proof, peasants who sympathized with the Zapatistas were arrested. The International Civil Observation Commission issued an alert on the worsening situation of violent and armed paramilitary actions and warned that the authorities and media in Chiapas were keeping up a campaign against human rights workers. Other groups noted the absolute impunity paramilitary group members enjoyed since they were formed by both the federal and state governments, which protected them to use them in the counterinsurgency war.

While paramilitaries were breaking the law without anyone bothering them, indigenous people and the peasants who sympathized with the Zapatistas were arrested without evidence. Human rights defense groups hit the nail on the head: the persecution and harassment of local peasant communities in resistance was due to neoliberal projects that wanted to take control of the communities’ natural resources.

The government kept troublingly silent in response to accusations of paramilitary attacks, continuing the tried and tested recipe of Acteal: let time pass so the paramilitary attacks against the communities become routine.

One important element of this counter-insurgency war is that the attackers and the local media present distorted versions of the facts, making it look like the victims are the victimizers.

Silence, threats, attacks…

The escalation of violent events endangered the physical well being of human rights defenders. The Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center made a call for national and international denunciations against this piece in the counterinsurgency strategy: neutralizing civil human rights organizations so the paramilitary could act with impunity, enjoying police and military complicity. However, the federal and state governments have taken no action to investigate or disarm the paramilitary groups in response to these denunciations.

Besides the dismantling of the paramilitary groups, the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center has demanded a stop to the censorship and instrumentalization of the media; arrest of both the perpetrators and the brains behind the attacks against the cooperative farmers of San Sebastian Bachajón and Jotolá, who are followers of the “Other Campaign”; and a halt to the actions by state officials that polarize and stigmatize human rights groups.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, made up of the World Organization Against Torture and the International Federation of Human Rights, travelled through Oaxaca and Chiapas, documenting how disappearances and murders weren’t being punished while rights defenders were subjected to deadly attacks, threats, forced disappearances and smear campaigns, all aimed at preventing them from doing their work.

Academic groups and grassroots collectives in California issued a communiqué in response to information they received from the Zapatista Good Government Boards. Having been informed of various attacks and threats of eviction against communities supporting the Zapatistas, they named President Calderón and the governor of the state of Chiapas as responsible.

Warnings of terror on January 1

In spite of all these denunciations, at the beginning of October 2009 the paramilitary actions were increasing. In San Cristóbal de las Casas, for example, an attempt was made to burn down a women’s training center. By the middle of the month, independent observers and journalists shared the hypothesis that the government was preparing the stage for what later happened: the freeing of the paramilitary members accused in the Acteal case.

The campaign against grassroots organizations and Zapatista communities was official. There were irregular arrests and attempts to discredit clergy working with the communities, and “leaks” were arranged to point to catechists as the promoters of violent actions.

Government operators wanted to impose on reporters the idea that the grassroots organizations were preparing armed attacks. But as a number of journalists did not accept these versions, the government spread them as paid information in the daily papers. This misinformation warned that on January 1, priests would instigate violent acts throughout the country, with buildings taken over, roads blocked and banks and stores looted.

The governor of Chiapas went even further than the official version by declaring he would remove Chiapas from this nationally orchestrated military offensive.

Denunciations increase in November

Parallel to the official media offensive came denunciations by collective farmers who sympathize with the Zapatistas, stating that the paramilitaries were preparing to throw them off their land. In November, the Network against Repression made an urgent appeal concerning the incursion of paramilitaries who threatened to burn down the houses of indigenous people close to the Zapatistas. In mid-November, the Roberto Barrios Good Government Board reported paramilitary attacks in the northern area of Chiapas, the La Garrucha Good Government Board denounced an attempt by several people supported by “the bad government” to take possession of the peasants’ market in Ocosingo, and Caracol V protested the constant threats suffered by students of a Zapatista autonomous school.

In the second half of November priests in the Diocese of San Cristóbal strongly protested state persecution against them. Pastoral care workers stated that the Church and the people of Chiapas were being persecuted in response to their opposition to mining concessions for foreign companies in which the government had given permission to explore over a million hectares of Chiapas’ subsoil.

The government blamed the Church for the fact that Acteal’s residents refused to receive the governor, but it was actually a community decision. People considered it a mockery that government officials wanted to enter their community given that the government was an accomplice to the massacre by freeing and protecting the accused and that the original judicial decision held the government responsible for the crime.

A government “professional at lying”

In mid-November the Chiapas Coast Regional Autonomous Council demanded an end to the harassment, repression and threats against people involved in the Other Campaign in that state. The army continued its raids and patrols and Zapatista grassroots supporters in the Zinacantán municipality received death threats from the PRD municipal authorities. Using the pretext that they had not done community work they had never even been informed about, the authorities locked up some of these supporters for 16 hours without food.

Oventic’s Good Government Board announced that PRI members from San Cristóbal had attacked the Zapatista grassroots base and kidnapped one supporter—threatening to kill him—when members of the Zapatista grassroots had gone to clean the spring that supplies their water. The PRI members even went to the media to spread the lie that the Zapatistas were provoking the confrontation. In all of their statements, the Good Government Boards have been very careful to present a detailed account of the events and their context.

Another episode in the counterinsurgency plan was a point of agreement approved by the Chiapas Congress in which the governor was asked to deal with an alleged petition of the Zapatista Good Government Boards requesting legal recognition, although all boards promptly denied having made any such petition. They announced that they had never asked for recognition from “bad governments” and were already recognized by their people, who had elected them, and by many other people both nationally and internationally.

The lies spread by the bad government, its elected officials and their accomplices are part of a counterinsurgency plan to confuse public opinion and batter the people’s resistance in their struggle to build autonomy. The Boards declared that they had a power called dignity, which was their best tool for showing the world they would never give up their struggle. They accused the government of being “professional at lying.”

The municipal, state and federal governments ruled by neoliberalism feel empowered by the money of neoliberal foreign investors. But they have run up against the dignity of the Zapatistas. The Good Government Boards recalled that all the political parties had betrayed the San Andrés Accords, warning that the bad governments would not achieve their goals as the Zapatistas wouldn’t sell out or give in.

Building another justice

On International Human Rights Defenders Day, the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center declared that during 2009 the work of human rights defenders had been criminalized in Chiapas by the authorities. With the pretext of a social explosion that would allegedly break out in 2010, the army continued to conduct illegal body searches in many communities with the help of police officers and agents from the state and federal public ministries, putting the population at risk. The grassroots movements demonstrated the existence of a plan of selective and systematic repression against leaders and groups opposing the privatization policies of the State and big business.

On December 21st, the twelfth anniversary of the Acteal crime, the community of Las Abejas held the “Supreme Impunity” Forum of Conscience and Hope to Build Another Justice. It was an arena to generate ideas and analysis around the issue of impunity provoked by the National Supreme Court’s resolutions and by the Mexican judicial system. It was stressed during the forum that building true justice by and for the people implies working to recover historic memory, not hiding the truth and respecting the people’s own normative systems. One point that stood out was the charge of military and paramilitary violence against women.

A national design
implemented in Chiapas

Journalist Luis Hernández has summarized this counterinsurgency tactic as “inscribed in the arena of the war of networks,” with the aim of changing what a population knows or thinks. Hernández compiled a long list of provocations, including arrests, the murder of social opponents, promoting a campaign of rumors of a new armed uprising, attempting to malign Zapatismo by publicizing a false request of support from the Zapatista Good Government Boards to the local Congress, freeing paramilitaries responsible for the mass killing at Acteal, increased military presence and activity, and a media campaign to cover up the facts. These daily counterinsurgency actions in the communities are combined with an informational counterinsurgency campaign.

While all of this is happening locally in Chiapas, it has been designed in the federal government. Those at the top cannot tolerate the fact that those at the bottom are not submissively accepting their plans. The people who have proved incapable of resolving the urgent national economic and social problems are determined to exacerbate the situation
in Chiapas with an irresponsible and dangerous offensive against grassroots autonomous expressions.

So we don’t degrade ourselves

The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience included Acteal among the 17 historic world sites that remind humanity of the most serious injustices to humanity. Declaring Acteal a “Site of Conscience” reaffirms a history that some want to deny. Some crimes must not be left in impunity and what happened at Acteal is one of them. As Nobel literature laureate José Saramago has written, “Beneath honor there are interests, clearly identifiable crimes perpetrated by concrete people and groups that cannot be ignored. We have to understand the importance of not degrading ourselves so as not to be always despicable.

Those affected by the unjust Supreme Court ruling are holding the Mexican state responsible and have taken their case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. As long as the intellectual and material authors of this brutal crime remain unpunished, Acteal will continue to be a constant call against impunity.

Jorge Alonso is a researcher for CIESAS West and envío correspondent in Mexico.

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