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Third Anniversary Acteal Commemoration 

December 2000

From December 18-23, 2000, we traveled to Chiapas, Mexico on an Acteal Commemoration Delegation organized by Cloudforest Initiatives and Michigan Peace Teams. Acteal, a small Tzotzil-Maya village in the municipality of Chenalhó in the highlands of Mexico's southern state of Chiapas, was the site of a December 22, 1997, massacre of 45 people, mostly women and children, by paramilitaries affiliated with the ruling PRI government. This massacre was particularly insidious because the massacred were members of Las Abejas, The Bees, a Christian pacifist group who had been praying for peace in the region when they were assassinated with high-power automatic weapons originating in the United States.

Three years ago we traveled to the neighboring community of Oventic Aguascalientes II shortly after the massacre to help build an autonomous Maya secondary school. During that trip we interviewed survivors from Acteal and other PRI-sponsored attacks in the refugee camp of Polhó. In a very small way we also experienced during that trip a sense of the terror under which the Maya live as a threat from a paramilitary band to attack our camp caused us to evacuate under cover of night and seek refuge in the mountains.

This trip allowed us to witness changes in Mexico since the December 1 inauguration of Vicente Fox, the first president to take power in over 70 years not affiliated with the PRI, and to observe the current situation facing the Maya Indians in Chiapas. Reports in the United States indicate that Fox is making positive improvements to the situation in Chiapas, but people told us that these changes are superficial and insignificant unless they are accompanied by deeper structural changes. Specifically, we observed the following:

  • Under the new Fox administration things have not changed significantly in Chiapas. Fox dismantled 53 military checkpoints in the state, but this superficial change primarily benefits foreigners traveling in the region and is designed to increase his popularity in the north. Security forces continue to employ intimidation tactics such as taking pictures of activists. The army presence in the Indian communities remains the same, and the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN) will not be convinced of his commitment to peace until the Mexican military is completely withdrawn from Indian communities.
  • The paramilitary forces are still a very real threat in the Maya communities. These paramilitary forces, such as the one which massacred the people at Acteal, receive training, arms, and support from military and police forces and act in coordination with them to defend elite political and economic interests through intimidation and repression of the civilian population. Fox has done nothing to control these forces.
  • Fox was elected as the presidential candidate of the conservative PAN party which supports a neo-liberal agenda that runs counter to local Maya interests. For example, he wants Maya Indians to shift from their traditional dependence on subsistence corn production to providing cheap labor in maquiladora plants. Already a flood of cheap corn imports from the United States since the passage of NAFTA in 1994 has threatened the Mayas' livelihood since corn, which was originally domesticated in this part of the world, is a critical central element of their culture. Furthermore, human rights activists have already observed abusive labor practices in maquiladoras on Mexico's northern border and the situation probably would be much worse on its southern border, a region with historically less government regulation. Some in the United States have welcomed Fox because of his concerted efforts to end institutionalized corruption in Mexico. One expert observed to us that this will create a more favorable environment for foreign investment in Mexico which, ultimately, will mean increased poverty and dependency on a local level. Fox's policies are designed to benefit the rich and the powerful and will mean increased poverty and repression for Indians and other poor people in Mexico.

On December 22, Fox began the first military withdrawal by dismantling a base in the community of Amador Hernandez and on December 30 seventeen accused Zapatistas were released from prison. While some may see these as hopeful signs that Fox will comply with the San Andrés peace accords, it is clear that we need to remain ever vigilant if true peace with justice is to come to Chiapas.

Here are some pictures from this trip and a talk "In the Footsteps of Martin Luther King: The Bees and Non-Violent Resistance in Chiapas, Mexico." Please let us know if you have comments or questions.

Marc Becker
Cheryl Musch

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