Acteal infamy, 25 years in memory

Ceremony in Acteal when Las Abejas of Acteal received the 2021 Mariano Abarca environmental award. Photo: Otros Mundos Chiapas

By: Hermann Bellinghausen*

San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas

A quarter of a century ago, on December 22, 1997, the direst of omens were fulfilled for the communities of Las Abejas and the support bases of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in the Chiapas Highlands: 45 people from the pacifist civil organization Las Abejas [The Bees] were brutally murdered in a few hours by a paramilitary group that had already been fully identified.

The massacre was never forgotten. Not only for the survivors, who for 25 years have taught the country what it is to resist peacefully and demand with dignity. Nor for the indigenous people of all Mexico nor for millions of people in the world. Acteal occupies an important place in the universal calendar of infamy, paraphrasing Borges.

Chiapas had two years of increasing paramilitary violence in response to the Zapatista uprising, officially disguised as “intra or inter-communal” or because of “religious differences.” In 1995, the Development, Peace and Justice group was unleashed, an allegedly civilian organization, soon paramilitary, related to the Mexican Army, widely deployed in the northern zone of the Choles, and greatly benefited by government programs.

Women of Las Abejas (The Bees).

In 1997, the paramilitary activity was unleashed in Chenalhó, And, starting in May of that year, the story was one of murders, houses and plots looted and burned. The people involved had been denounced for bringing firearms into certain communities tolerated by police forces and military checkpoints. Soon, thousands were displaced, completely dispossessed, in the rainy winter of 1997. Las Abejas and Zapatista bases established camps in Acteal and Polhó. Murders and executions paved the way for the massacre.

You didn’t have to be too suspicious to “smell” what was coming. Which by early December of that year, seemed imminent. However, the facts were beyond imagination. When Gonzalo Ituarte, of the diocese of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, communicated to the Secretary of Government of Chiapas, Homero Tovilla Cristiani and his undersecretary Uriel Jarquín, the reports of shootings in the camp for displaced persons of Acteal, they promised to “investigate.”

It was 2 p.m. on Monday, December 22. At 6 p.m., Tovilla Cristiani notified Ituarte that the situation was under control and only “a few shots” were heard.

Las Abejas members protest against the continuing violence in front of Chenalhó government offices.

Attacked from behind

At the same time the first Red Cross ambulances arrived with the wounded survivors of those “few shots.” The State’s responsibility in the crime was enormous. “Its” people attacked from behind and shot indigenous people who were praying or crying. Bullets and machetes courtesy of the government of Ernesto Zedillo, through the obedient path of Governor Julio César Ruiz Ferro and the counterinsurgency cunning of General Mario Renán Castillo, in command of all federal troops in the so-called “conflict zone.”

It took 23 years for the federal government to recognize the responsibility of the State in the massacre, in the voice of the undersecretaries of the Interior Alejandro Encinas and Martha Delgado Peralta. Today, the demands for justice of the historical organization of Las Abejas still stand; they have decided to wait for the verdict of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which accepted the case in 2005.

*Hermann Bellinghausen wrote the book that exposed the facts about the Acteal Massacre.

Originally Published in Spanish by La Jornada, Thursday, December 22, 2022, and Re-Published with English interpretation by the Chiapas Support Committee

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