Raúl Zibechi interviews Father Marcelo
By: Raúl Zibechi
“We are living something similar to the times of Jesus. The Romans had no mercy. The narco has no mercy,” says Father Marcelo Pérez, sitting in the dining room of the parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas.
The church rises atop a mound that is reached snorting down the 79 steps uphill. The reward is a great panoramic view of wooded mountains above the white colonial city. In between, as if articulating the natural mantle and the urban stones, the church is surrounded by a landscaped square where we find Father Marcelo, always surrounded by people who consult him and ask him for advice.
Marcelo was educated in the Diocese of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, which he defines as “very conservative,” but was sent to Chenalhó in 2001, where his life took a turn. “Acteal gave me light,” he says with firmness. The Acteal Massacre, on December 22, 1997, which left 45 Tsotsils murdered while they were praying at the hands of paramilitaries formed to fight the EZLN, continue having a brutal presence in the municipality and in all Chiapas.
“I was afraid but I could see that in Acteal the people are free. I am a pastor but the sheep are very brave. I joined with them to denounce the impunity and to struggle against the Rural Cities project of the Juan Sabines government,” the father continues, in a story that takes him from the years of formation to the commitment to his people.
He rejects being inspired by Liberation Theology and he recites the four pillars of his thinking and way of doing: the reality that we confront; the word of God before it; the position of the Church; and the commitments that must be assumed. “Talking about Liberation Theology is inserting yourself into conflicts,” he assures pragmatically.
Then he returns to his theme: “Acteal converted me.” The pain that is born when he listens to the survivors, to María, to Zenaida, to women and men who lost their whole family. “How to tell them that God loves them,” the priest exclaims. That’s why the biblical word doesn’t inspire him, or in the theory that is born from sacred text, rather he takes another direction, “to cry with those who cry, to suffer with those who suffer” and, especially, “to walk with them.”
The path is not a change of parties
The words roll over the table with a simple lunch. We are enveloped by his enthusiasm and the sincerity of his pain. “Survivors know how to read, there’s the light.” It is impossible not to forget very similar words spoken decades ago by the murdered Monsignor Oscar Romero, who expressed himself in a very similar way to Chenalhó’s father: “The blood of Rutilio Grande converted me,” he said in reference to the martyr of the Salvadoran peasant movement.
The conversion of Father Marcelo led him to walk with the campesino people. Not only did he accompany the victims but he also denounced the material and intellectual authors of the violence, which caused persecution on the part of the Chiapas government. “In 2008, they set fire to the parish house, then damaged the spark plugs and tires of my car, and on December 12, 2010, two young men beat me up in the street,” he says calmly.
He was close to death when they connected a cable to the vehicle’s gasoline tank, which made him accept his transfer to Simojovel, where he arrived on August 5, 2011. “People started coming to tell their pains, the deaths. There I discovered that the criminals have agreements with the authorities and complaints provoked threats.”
On March 8, he organized a women’s march against the sale of drugs that was done at the side of the municipal presidency. They accused him of being a guerrilla and even a Zapatista, they put a price on his life until in 2014 the municipality and the PRI attempted to mobilize the population against him, with very little popular following.
An inflection point was the pilgrimage of 15,000 people in October denouncing the Gómez Domínguez family, who entered on the scene through sicarios who carried out attempts and a media campaign against Father Marcelo, which led them to offer one million pesos for the head of the parish priest of Simojovel (https://bit.ly/3DIAWbp).
In the cited communication, Pueblo Creyente (Believing People, or People of Faith) conclude that change doesn’t come from a party “but rather from civil society, Native peoples, the poor and the middle class,” and it denounces that Chiapas “is approaching a social explosion.”
Pueblo Creyente’s form of action is to convoke marches/processions, which tens of thousands of people of faith attend, as well as denouncing authorities and politicians. It achieved that the Gómez Domínguez brothers didn’t win the municipal elections but it resulted in a defamation complaint to the PGR , although he recognizes that “the path is not changing parties.”
In the years that followed there were sit-ins of the population and assassinations of organized crime, always protected by the authorities. “On December 12, 2017, I had the saddest Mass of my life, for the death by cold and hunger of two elderly people.” The forced displacement of entire communities continues, more violence and deaths, bombs and shootings. But the population continued to resist.
In May 2017, the Indigenous Movement of Zoque People of Faith in Defense of Life and Territory (ZODEVITE, its Spanish acronym) was created and in June it held a mass march/procession to Tuxtla Gutiérrez against concessions for mining and hydrocarbons, since the Mexican government sought to give concessions to foreign companies for more than 80,000 hectares affecting more than 40 ejidos and communities.
The mobilization was a new defeat of the plans of above, but the violence continues. During 2021, more than 200 deaths crime were committed in Pantelhó by organized crime, in a municipality of just 8.600 inhabitants in the Chiapas Highlands.
On July 3, Mario Santiz López was murdered. On July 5, 2021, they murdered Simón Pedro Pérez López, a catechist and former president of the board of directors of Civil Society Las Abejas of Acteal, who promoted non-violence. He was murdered for the crime of accompanying the Tsotsil communities of Pantellhó. At the wake Marcelo accused the “narco-municipal council,” in other words, the alliance between the State and organized crime.
Although he asked the communities “not to fall into the temptation of revenge,” on July 10 a statement came out from the armed group “El Machete” created by the communities as self-defense in the face of violence. On July 26, 2021, thousands of hooded people took the municipal seat, 19 men were shown in the central square with their hands handcuffed for having links to organized crime.
Although it was a collective community action (an outburst from below), which apparently was not called by El Machete, the Chiapas Attorney General’s Office issued an arrest warrant against Father Marcelo for the disappearance of 19 people in Pantelhó. They did not care that the priest was in another place that day, in Simojovel, that he always called for peace and that he arrived the day afterwards to calm the spirits.
It’s the life of the people, not mine
The arrest warrant remains in force. In October  he was transferred to the church of Guadalupe, where he now explains who is provoking violence and death. “The authorities are accomplices of the narco. They have sought a way to silence us, through death threats and defamation on social networks. You feel scared, but that doesn’t stop me. “
In his analysis of the situation, this indigenous Tsotsil who has been a priest for 20 yeas in Chiapas maintains that it’s not possible to stop the violence because the police are sicarios (hit men), because “we have a narco-State.” He is convinced that the violence is going to get worse and that later a certain calm will come, but at the cost of a lot of blood. “May it be the blood of priests and bishops, and not of the people.”
He maintains that we are in the middle of the storm, which is not solved with more storm but by looking for other paths. He distrusts the powers and the powerful: “If they kill me, it’s a scandal; but if they kill a peasant nothing happens. If it helps to give my life, here I am,” he concludes.
Before saying goodbye, he appeals to a biblical phrase, assuring that the pains we go through are “the groans of childbirth”. He puts his principles and values ahead of his own life: “I don’t accept bodyguards. It’s against the Gospel for someone to die in order for me to live. It is not my life but that of the people.” At the end of the final greeting, he confesses: “I don’t trust the police.”
Originally Published in Spanish by Desinformemonos, Monday, September 26, 2022, https://desinformemonos.org/mexico-iii-padre-marcelo-la-tierra-gime-dolores-de-parto/ and Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee