PARAMILITARIES RE-EMERGE NEAR SITE OF ACTEAL MASSACRE
by: Mary Ann Tenuto-Sánchez
“We fear another massacre; we know that the police can again train the paramilitaries, who are active, and can extend the violence to other communities,” Las Abejas representatives from Yaxgemel told La Jornada, in reference to the recent violence in the Puebla ejido.
On Monday, August 26, 2013, the civil society organization Las Abejas welcomed 95 newly and forcibly displaced persons to a camp in Acteal community, located in San Pedro Chenalhó County, in the Mexican state of Chiapas. This occasion and the events leading up to it have special significance to those familiar with the recent history of Acteal and Chenalhó.
On December 22, 1997, paramilitaries attacked unarmed refugees who were praying for peace in an Acteal chapel and massacred 45 women, children and men. Others were injured and the paramilitaries also cut 5 fetuses from the wombs of their murdered mothers. The dead and injured were all members of Las Abejas (The Bees), a Catholic pacifist campesino organization. In the six months preceding the massacre, the paramilitaries drove anyone they didn’t like from their homes at gunpoint, burning homes and crops, making death threats, robbing cash, food and belongings. Those they didn’t like included Zapatistas, non-Zapatistas sympathetic to the goals of the EZLN (like Las Abejas) and even their fellow PRI members who didn’t agree with the paramilitaries’ use of violence.
Mexico’s progressive daily, La Jornada, quoted Las Abejas members from Yaxgemel [another community in Chenalhó] as follows: “To those of us that suffered the forced displacement of 1997 in the flesh, the displacement that our brothers and relatives from Puebla suffer angers and psychologically represses us, because the way this conflict is developing and the violence there have been identical to the process that led to the dirty war.” Referring to Colonia Puebla, they say: “it is where the first paramilitaries emerged, those who extended the conflict and incited para-militarism in various Chenalhó communities in 1997.”
San Pedro Chenalhó County (a municipio in Spanish) is the official name of the county in which the community of Acteal is located, in the Highlands (los Altos) of Chiapas. The name of the Zapatista autonomous county covering the same geographic area is San Pedro Polhó. Ever since the Acteal Massacre, Acteal has remained the headquarters for Las Abejas and the Polhó ejido has been the county seat for San Pedro Polhó. Both Acteal and Polhó housed refugees that fled both before and on December 22, 1997. Many of the displaced Zapatistas continue to live in Polhó and other communities, rather than returning to their home communities containing paramilitaries that were never arrested or disarmed.
The international outcry over the massacre prompted the arrest and eventual conviction of some of the paramilitaries, 75 of them to be exact. In August 2009, however, Mexico’s Supreme Court began to review those convictions, and has gradually overturned almost all of the cases, thereby releasing 69 paramilitaries back into Chiapas society. The last group released was in April of this year. Jacinto Arias Cruz, the only paramilitary from Puebla that went to prison, was in that group. According to Las Abejas, the problems in the Colonia Puebla began a few days after his release. The Chiapas state government made efforts to keep the released paramilitaries from returning to their home communities and even offered them money and housing elsewhere. Nevertheless, Las Abejas maintains that many of them come back to visit friends and relatives in Chenalhó communities.
Approximately four months ago a dispute arose in the Puebla ejido, also referred to in some news articles as the Colonia Puebla, over the re-construction of a Catholic chapel. Evangelical and Presbyterian members of the community claimed that the land did not belong to the chapel, the Catholics claiming that it did. Building materials disappeared. Then, suddenly, on July 20, 2 Zapatistas and one non-Zapatista were detained in the Puebla ejido in Chenalhó. The 2 Zapatistas were beaten and tied to posts on the basketball court and threatened with having gasoline poured on them and being set on fire. They were accused of poisoning a water tank in the community. The 3rd man was arrested and beaten for protesting the treatment of the Zapatistas. All three were taken to the prosecutor in San Cristóbal and placed in jail, where they were held for 3 days. They were not fed and did not receive medical treatment for their injuries. All 3 were released on July 23 due to a complete lack of evidence. That wasn’t too surprising since the aggressors cleaned the water tank before police investigators could test it for poison, thereby casting suspicion on the charges. Notwithstanding the release of the three from jail, the question of those displaced by the July 20 violence remained pending.
Throughout July and August, Las Abejas continued to warn about the renewal of paramilitary activity in the Puebla ejido and in Chenalhó County in general. Meanwhile, the state government mediated an agreement between Catholics, ejido authorities and the state government that provided for free movement within the ejido and a stop to the attacks.
Despite the agreement, the renewed paramilitary activity that started in July continued into August, and when the families displaced in July attempted to return in a caravan to Puebla on August 20, they were prohibited from entering the ejido by some 100 young people that were urged on by 6 men with military haircuts. The youths yelled words of hate, insulting caravan members and throwing stones at their vehicles.
Then, on August 21, the Catholic parish priest of Chenalhó, Manuel Perez Gomez, was in Puebla to sign the official agreement. A state government official and a municipal representative were with him. At approximately 1:30 in the afternoon, Perez Gomez was grabbed and beaten by a group of people from the Presbyterian and Evangelical churches. The state and municipal officials were also detained. Perez Gomez was taken to the school and tied up. The group threatened to pour gasoline on him and burn him alive. Families that were gathered in the Catholic chapel said by telephone that they were all in the church and were surrounded by the aggressors and were threatened with being burned alive. Later it was learned that the community kitchen used by the Catholics had been burned by the aggressor group.
Perez Gomez was released shortly before midnight, but not before being forced to sign away the land for the chapel and an agreeing not to tell the media about what happened and not to give a statement to the Indigenous Prosecutor. The three government officials were also released and Perez Gomez made his statement to the Indigenous Prosecutor. The following day another 14 families left Puebla, fearing for their safety and are now in Acteal with the original 5 families as displaced persons.
The Las Abejas representatives from Yaxgemel believe that the violence in Puebla: “established that what began as a religious problem is a strategy and disguise of the bad governments and essentially a direct attack on our compañeros.” And they go on to state that the problem: “is of a counterinsurgent character, which we have already experienced and (therefore) know how to identify…” They accuse the governments of complicity and reveal that the police are now in Puebla “accompanying the those who generate the violence.”
The Catholic, Baptist and Pentecostal families that remain in Puebla are considered in grave danger. As Las Abejas stated in their August 22 pronouncement: “The reactivation of paramilitaries in the Puebla ejido and a possible massacre of the Catholic families is established in Mexico and in the world.