Christmas in The Municipality of Chenalho, Chiapas
In an abhorrently brutal act, at least 45 persons
were massacred in the rural community of Acteal, Chenalho
December 22. According to inicial community
reports, a group of approximately 60 local Institutional
Revolutionary Party (PRI) members entered into the
community on December 22, shooting randomly into the air.
Men, women and children dispersed in terror, seeking
refuge. Unfortunately, no space was found safe, nor
The Most Recent Chapter in Mexico's Undeclared Civil War
9 Men, 21 women, 15
children (1 baby) dead in and around a small church
at the edge of Acteal. All had been killed by gunshot
wounds of high-calibre arms and exploding bullets,
generally of exclusive military use.
This is not the first time that Acteal has been
targeted with institutional violence. On Monday, November
24, two truckloads of uniformed and fully armed military
personnel (60-75 soldiers) entered into Acteal.
According to reports by community members at the scene,
the soldiers came into the community supposedly looking
for weapons. They immediately began to strangle one
community member, and threatened to kill him if he did
not tell them where arms were being stored. After
throwing him to the ground, a group of women stepped
forward demanding to know what right the soldiers have to
treat their compañero in that manner. The women were then
also beaten; one suffered a broken arm and a 12-year-old
girl was badly hurt. After searching a number of houses,
ransacking them as they went, the soldiers retreated from
the community. No weapons were found.
Nor is Acteal an isolated incident. Today the
entire municipality of Chenalho appears to be falling
under the gun of a systematic plan to terrorize and
destroy organized groups not belonging to the PRI. The
opposition, and even the politically "unaligned" civil
society now finds its leaders threatened, their community
shops and their homes targetted for being ransacked or
destroyed, their popular base uprooted and in search of
A Little bit of Background
The municipality of Chenalho is located in the
region known as "Los Altos" or the Highlands of Chiapas,
some 70 kilometers from the vastly turisted colonial town
of San Cristobal de Las Casas. But until these recent
"explosions of violence" most foreign visitors and
Mexicans alike had never heard of Chenalho.
Chenalho is an area rich in high-altitude coffee,
timber, sheep and cattle, corn, bean and other vegetable
crop production -- and yet, poor in health, education,
minimal sanitary conditions, food, clean water, basic
respect for human rights, and justice. Like so many
indigenous regions in Mexico, the local population's
misery had been conveniently hidden from the public eye.
Some of the more obvious indicators include:
||- 51 %
|Inhabitants without drainage or sewage systems
|Inhabitants without electricity
|Inhabitants without access to running water
|Inhabitants living in homes with dirt floors
But today the suffering of the people of Chenalho is
no longer kept a secret. It has become the focus in the
most recent chapter in Mexico's "Undeclared Civil War".
Since May of this year, there have existed rumors of
war. One school teacher was mysteriously killed, and
people were beginning to complain of increased political
tensions in the communities. Since that time, there have
appeared signs of paramilitary groups forming in the
communities Los Chorros and Colonia Puebla. Violent
confrontations, on September 1, 7resulted in at least 30
persons killed and 17 houses the Civil Society Las Abejas
were burnt to the ground in the community of Los Chorros
- -- with the inhabitants losing all of their personal
belongings. That same day some 60 members of Las Abejas
fled their community in fear for their lives.
But for a time, there appeared the fleeting hope
that the conflict could be resolved peacefully. There was
agreement amongst the Civil Organization - Las Abejas, by
community representatives of the PRD and Zapatista
sympathizers, and the politically-plural coffee
producer's organization Union Majomut, that there must be
a dialog and a peaceful resolution to the on-going
violence and political turmoil. The PRI municipal
government even made some gestures that they might attend
such a meeting. After two aborted sessions for dialog
(because the PRI government representatives refused to
sit down and talk), the first "peace dialog" was actually
held on December 5 in the community of Las Limas.
However, it appears that the government was simply
using the "peace-keepping gesture" as another tactic
within a strategy of "counter-insurgency" warfare. Just
as peaceful resolution began to appear a possiblity (and
opposition groups thought they might be able to put down
their guard), government-backed groups were already
violating the agreements they had signed.
Representatives of the Autonomous Council for the
Municipality of San Pedro Chenalho denounced the
following acts as the first signs of the government's
lack of political will to respect any negotiated
-December 11, the house of Zapatista sympathizer Pedro
Perez Cuchlo was burnt to the ground by members of the
governing PRI party in the community of Chimix.
-December 13, another two houses of Zapatista
sympathizers are burnt to the ground by members of the
PRI; and another house of Zapatista supporter is riddled
with bullets in the community of Polho, barrio Majomut.
-On the 14th of December a truck recognized as belonging
to Sebastian Epech was seen bringing Celestino Perez
Jimenez and Lorenzo Perez Vazquez -- accused by
opposition community members of belonging to paramilitary
groups trained by Public Security forces -- with weapons
wrapped in gunny sacks to the crossroads of the
communities Los Chorros and Acteal.
Domingo Perez Paciencia, the president of the
Autonomous Council, accuses the local PRI members -- with
the complacent approval of the state and federal
governments -- of provoking the on-going violence in the
region, of firing arms in the communities and of burning
down houses and destroying the belongings of Zapatista
sympathizers. The Autonomous Council admits that their
followers may be supportive of the Zapatista struggle,
but that they are civilians, they are not Zapatista
militia, nor are they armed.
Given the current circumstances, the Autonomous
Council recognizes that true dialog for a negotiated
peace will be impossible. They say that there is no way
of guaranteeing that what is signed in a dialog will be
respected in the communities. They called for the
creation of a Verification Comission; to establish
"Observation Camps" housing representatives of Human
Rights organizations, governmental and non-governmental
organizations; that the state government recall the
Public Security Forces now roaming freely in the region;
and that the Paramilitary Groups be disarmed.
As a first step, a "Verifying Comission" was created
comprised of: three local PRI representatives; three
representatives of the Autonomos Council; two
representatives from the Fray Bartolome Human Rights
Center; two representatives from the State and National
Human Rights Commissions; two representatives of the
government Secretaria for the Atencion of Indigenas
Peoples; and two representatives of the civilian
association "Las Abejas".
The comission's first task was to conduct a two-day tour
of the affected communities in order to verify the
accusations being made by both groups regarding the
noncompliance of the peace pact. Following the tour, the
conflicting parties were to meet again on December 19.
But even those modest aspirations appear to be
sabotaged from the start.
AMBUSH in QUEXTIC Result in one person DEAD and 7
The Fray Bartolome Human Rights Center (CDHFBC)
informs that a group of some 100 PRI members blocked the
15 members of the Verification Comission as they were
attempting to carry out their visits to the communities
as agreed upon in the last "peace talks." The Comission
denounced that a group of PRI members ambushed a group of
their own PRI party members (who were not in compliance
with the PRI strategy of a military control of the
region), leaving one person dead and 7 wounded near the
community of Quextic. The PRI members also detained
hostage representatives of the Autonomous Council, of the
Civil Organization Las Abejas, and of the Fray Bartolome
Human Rights Center for aproximately two hours.
Meanwhile, the Government General Secretary, Homero
Tovilla Cristiani, has stated publically that in Chiapas
there are no paramilitary groups. Especifically in
regards to Chenalho, Tovilla Cristiani says that "there
can not exist the armed White Guards, because in this
municipality the land holdings are communal and there are
no large land-holders to pay for paramilitary groups."
But nevertheless, the National Comision of
Intermediacion (Conai) and the Fray Bartolome Human
Rights Center (CDHFBC) say that the paramilitary violence
in Chenalho is, in fact, nothing new to Los Altos and is
part of the government's counter-insurgency strategy.
And, they claim, that the victims of this government
strategy are all of the Indigenas people of the zone: the
PRI, Zapatista sympathizers, civilians without a
political party, and even the very integrants of the
paramilitary groups. In the end, the death and
destruction that the current policy sows in the
communities of Chenalho will eventually affect all people
living in the region.
Conai and CDHFBC spokespersons also reiterate their
concerns regarding the serious violations of the "cease-
fire" agreements between the Autonomous Council and the
Constitutional Municipal Government of Chenalho.
Addicionally, they say that after the harassment that the
Verification Comission suffered last week, they must
suspend activities for the utter lack of security in the
As a result, their spokespersons have made an urgent
call to the Mexican Civil Society and to International
Solidarity to demand that the Mexican government be
pressured to act responsably in its efforts to quell the
violence in Chenalho. To date, the government response
has been one of apathy and of turning a blind eye to the
violence. According to CDHFBC declarations, the state is
either incapable of controlling the violence, or is
And in the meantime, the toll of victims continues
to rise. Estimates of as many as 6,000 persons are now in
local "campamentos" seeking refuge from the violence
directed against them in their own communites; the death
count (of reported cases) has surpassed 100, including
the most recent masacre in Acteal, and more than 150
houses have been burnt to the ground with the inhabitants
losing all of their belongings in the blaze. In the
communities people are terrified, many fled from their
homes at the sight of armed Public Security Forces
approaching with nothing more than the clothes on their
backs. They are now in provisional "security camps," but
lack even the most minimal amounts of food and clean
water, and lack dry clothing, blankets and any kind of
real shelter from the rains and cold.
The message that the Mexican government sends is a
signal for pending disaster. The act of openly sending in
the Public Security and uniformed Military Forces to
flush out Zapatista sympathizers in the region represents
a new and very dangerous attitude amongst PRI decision-
makers. For the past two years of a very tenuous "peace
process" in Chiapas and then with the stalled Peace Talks
in San Andres Larrainzar, the Zedillo administration has
been very careful with its public image. Counter-
insurgency and paramilitary activities have been on-going
in many remote parts of the state, but the PRI was
careful to try and keep its public profile clean.
But the recent incidents of violence in Chenalho
appear to be the clearest signs in more than a year that
the government is again looking for a military solution
to its social problems in Chiapas. Again, the government
is sending out an open invitation to war.
But all of this is still just describing the
immediate problem. It is difficult to calculate the long-
term damage to the communities that this kind of violence
brings. PRI leaders have been repeatedly accused of
channeling arms and of training local paramilitary
groups. How does one calculate the time necesary to heal
the wounds of seeing family members ruthlessly gunned
down, or watching on while in one violent act all of
one's belongings go up in flames. In addition, December
is the peak season for the coffee harvest in Chenalho.
Yet, because of the violence -- many farmers are afraid
to go out to their fields and a complete loss of this
year's harvest is at risk. This, of course, will mean
absolute economic disaster for the coffee farmers and
their families, and adding up the losses represents
milliones of dollars lost throughout the region.
What to Do?
It is obvious that one person alone is not going to
be able to resolve the urgent long term needs for food
and shelter and safety of the people of Chenalho and of
Chiapas. We are each individually just like a drop of
water in the desert. But then again, as recalled in a
recent EZLN comunicado...
there is a place for even the smallest drop of water:
translated from "El cuento del rabito de la nube."
EZLN Comunicado - November 1997
"And then the little cloud began to make a great effort
in order to rain and finally a single drop came of it.
And the little cloud disappeared, it was transformed into
a drop of rain. Little by little the cloud that was now
a single drop of rain went falling to the ground. Alone
it was falling and with nothing below to catch it. And
alone the drop finally landed in the desert. But with so
much silence in the desert, that little drop make a
raging noise as it hit upon a stone."
The point is that one can never know what will be
the results of his or her even small action. The
important thing is that we make the effort. On this end,
there are several actions that we are trying to support.
First of all, on behalf of the Diocesis of San Cristobal,
there is a coordinated effort to send material aid, and
in particular corn to the people located in refugee camps
If anyone able to make a monetary contribution to
that effort, direct deposits can be made to the following
in the name of:
Caritas de San Cristobal de Las Casas, A.C.
||0386 San Cristobal de Las Casas
||055249-2 (master account)
Don't let the authors of
these criminal acts get away with robbing the Indigenous
people of their hope and of their vision for a life with
dignity and justice for all. These cowardly acts
commited by government-backed groups must not be allowed
to pass without further incident. Although we are small,
we are many... and we must try to make a difference.
"A drop of rain? Then the rock awakened the desert
with the news:
'Rapido! Get ready because it is going to rain!'
It notified the plants that had been hiding below
the soil from the brutal rays of burning sun. And the
plants woke up suddenly and leaned out into the light of
day, and for a moment everything in that desert was
covered in green. And then the big clouds noticed the
green from afar, and they said:
'Over there is great green expanse where we didn't
realize plants were growing; we are going to go there and
rain in that place.....'
And they went to rain in that place that before was
only desert, and suddenly the sand became full with
Together we can search for the means to pressure for
changing this terrifying situation that the people of
Chenalho now live under. Now, with all of this said and
done, i would ask of you.... as friends who believe in
the respect of basic human rights and justice, and as
friends to the cause of the independent campesino farmer,
to PLEASE TRY AND MANIFEST SOME FORM OF PROTEST. Whether
that be a visit or a phone call to your local Mexican
consulate, or a call or letter sent directly to the
Mexican heads of state.
It is of UTMOST IMPORTANCE that the Mexican government
know that these indigenous communities standing up for
dignity and respect for their rights are not alone in
Questions and comments? BOES.ORG can send you the e-address to whom it concern.
Subject: "Mexico Forward"