The Lessons of Acteal

September 25, 2007

The Zapatistas have touched a raw nerve
in a political system that once seemed
unshakable, prompting a military and
paramilitary escalation of unprecedented
proportions in southeastern Mexico.
The residents of San Crist6bal de Las Casas were
preparing their Christmas festivities on December
22, 1997 when reports of a massacre of 45 Tzotzil
indigenous people in the highland community of Acteal,
some 12 miles north, reached the town. Survivors of the
massacre told horrific tales of heavily armed paramilitaries
in black uniforms surrounding the chapel where the pro-
Zapatista civilians were gathered. Family members
The paramilitaries opened fire and mourn the deaths of
then pursued the fleeing villagers, 45 Tzotzils killed by paramilitaries in hacking and mutilating them with Acteal on December machetes over the next five hours. 22, 1997.
The assailants cut babies out of the
wombs of pregnant women-a tactic reminiscent of the
feared Guatemalan "Kaibiles," an elite counterinsurgency
unit that has reportedly trained 50 high-ranking Mexican
military officers since the 1994 uprising of the Zapatista
Army of National Liberation (EZLN).1 The 45 killed at
Acteal included 36 women and children, and an additional
25 were seriously wounded. Public security forces were
alerted to the ongoing carnage but refused to intervene.
Over the past two years, paramilitary groups have pro-
liferated in Chiapas, and there is strong evidence linking
these groups to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party
(PRI).2 It has been reported that leaders of the "Anti-
Zapatista Indigenous Resistance Movement" (MIRA), a
paramilitary group that operates in the jungle region,
receive $1,250 a month from the state government, quite
an attractive sum in an area where the going wage is $3 a
day. There are also credible reports that Mexican army and
public-security officers train and arm the paramilitaries. 3
This is "low-intensity warfare," a post-Vietnam strategy
for controlling populations while reducing the visibility-
and political costs-of direct government repression. 4 It
combines a mixture of repression, terror and civic cam-
paigns to win the "hearts and minds" of the civilian popu-
Richard Stahler-Sholk is assistant professor of political science
at Eastern Michigan University. A longer version of this article
will be published in Latin American Perspectives.
lation-a text-book strategy straight out of the army
manuals, implemented with a little help from the School
of the Americas and U.S.-supplied helicopters. Indeed,
the army's "Campaign Plan Chiapas 94," which calls for
"training and support for self-defense forces or other
paramilitary organizations," was written by General Jos6
Ruben Rivas Pefia--one of 13 graduates of the U.S.
Army School of the Americas now playing key roles in
the repression in southern Mexico. 5
Under the pretext of searching for arms and putting
an end to killings like the recent massacre in Acteal, the
army launched a new offensive in Chiapas--despite the
fact that the massacre was carried out by groups linked
to the PRI. Since December, the army has been invad-
ing Zapatista communities in the jungle, reportedly tor-
turing peasants and interrogating them as to the where-
abouts of EZLN leaders. The government has also
stepped up its long-standing policy of harassing and
deporting foreign human rights and religious workers
in Chiapas in an effort to stifle reports of human rights
abuses that might worry foreign investors. A xenopho-
bic campaign in the PRI-controlled press was accom-
panied by a series of immigration sweeps. Three U.S.
citizens were expelled in February, including former
director of Pastors for Peace Tom Hansen and French
priest Michel Chanteau, who worked for 32 years in the
municipality of Chenalh6.
The Zapatista challenge has touched a raw nerve in a
political system that once seemed unshakable. The 69-
year rule of the PRI has traditionally depended less on
repression than on a vast system of Zapatistas supporters
patronage, in which party bosses pur- detain a sniper affili-
chased loyalties through organiza- ated with the ruling party on September tions that claimed monopolistic rep- 25, 1997. The
resentation of labor, peasant and sniper was sent to "popular" sectors. But neoliberal attack the group as
policies aimed at trimming the state it accompanied
have undercut the resource base of refugees back to
the old party bosses, splitting the PRI
into the "dinosaur" wing, representing the old patronage
brokers, and the new "technocrats," represented by
President Ernesto Zedillo. While the liberalization of the
economy has cemented alliances between Mexican and
foreign capitalists, it has had a devastating impact on
Mexican workers, peasants and the debt-ridden middle
class as wages have been cut, price supports slashed and
landholding rights eliminated. 6 The PRI's claims to the
revolutionary legacy of elections, nationalism, social jus-
tice and agrarian reform have come under severe strain
since the post-1982 neoliberal transformation. The
Zapatista rebellion partly reflects these contradictions, but
a broader nationwide opposition to the government's
neoliberal agenda has also emerged throughout Mexico. 7
few months appears calculated to sabotage negoti-
ations between the government and the EZLN,
which have continued sporadically since the National
Mediation Commission (CONAI) headed by Bishop
Samuel Ruiz brokered a cease-fire shortly after the New
Year's 1994 rebellion. The government broke the truce
in February 1995 with an army offensive that unsuc-
cessfully attempted to capture Zapatista leaders.
Following the offensive, the Mexican Congress estab-
lished the multi-party Mediation and Pacification
Commission (COCOPA) and passed a "Law of
Dialogue," freezing troop deployment while peace talks
continued. Finally, in February 1996, the government
and the EZLN signed accords on the rights of indige-
nous communities in the highland town of San Andr6s.
The San Andr6s accords incorporated two key
Zapatista demands--the official recognition of the right
of indigenous communities to choose their own leader-
ship and to control the natural resources in their territo-
ries. In practice, however, these rights have not been
respected. PRI leaders in many local communities have
refused to recognize the Zapatista autonomous munici-
palities that have been created since 1994, and many
towns have divided into pro-PRI and pro-EZLN fac-
tions. Powerful logging and oil interests have also
opposed the San Andr6s concession regarding natural
resources in Chiapas-a state rich in hardwood, hydro-
electric, and oil resources. 8
In the end, the government refused to implement the
accords, leading to a breakdown in negotiations and rising
tensions.9 Since then, the conflict zone has spread from the
eastern jungle region to the north, and most recently to the
central highlands, where pro-government paramilitaries
have been killing and terrorizing EZLN sympathizers. The
escalation of violence has been steady, particularly since
last November, when a caravan carrying Bishop Ruiz was
ambushed near Tila in northern Chiapas. In the last quarter
of 1997 alone, over 7,000 people fled their homes due to
military and paramilitary violence.
In the face of mounting international outrage over the
Acteal massacre, the government moved quickly to
counter the bad press. Some local officials were arrested,
including the municipal mayor who was directly impli-
cated in aiding the paramilitary unit responsible for the
bloodbath in Acteal. Zedillo also forced out Minister of the
Interior Emilio Chuayffet, a PRI hardliner, in mid-January.
A PRI congressman linked to COCOPA leaked reports that
Chuayffet had sabotaged the secret negotiations between
President Zedillo and Subcomandante Marcos in late
1996, which nearly culminated in the signing of a peace
agreement in March 1997.10
But days later, on January 12, 1998, state police fired on
demonstrators who were protesting the Acteal massacre in
the town of Ocosingo, killing an indigenous woman and
wounding two children. Again, the government ordered
some low-level arrests, but this did not deter the violence.
In late January, two peasant leaders who had received
death threats from paramilitaries were assassinated in the
state capital of Tuxtla Gutidrrez.
The government
is actively
seeking to
foment divisions
communities in
Chiapas by
lavishing PRI
supporters with
handouts and
special subsidies.
The fact that it is unclear
whether President Zedillo
ordered the latest offensive
reflects the growing auton-
omy of the Mexican army.
In fact, Subcomandante
Marcos called the offensive
a "coup d'etat." Given the
PRI's inability to devise a
coherent response to grow-
ing instability, Washington
seems to favor this
strengthening of the mili-
tary, insisting that NAFTA
ties with the Mexican gov-
ernment should be
extended into the military
arena. In the words of
Defense Secretary William
Perry during an unprece-
dented October 1996 visit
to Mexico, since "there are already two strong bases in
our political and economic ties," such a "third link"
would help to cement U.S.-Mexico relations." Yet the
further militarization of the situation which some hardlin-
ers propose is quite risky, especially given Mexico's sta-
tus as an "emerging market" and the need to maintain the
appearance of stability for international investors.
n the autonomous municipalities-parallel local
governments established by pro-Zapatista support-
ers in dozens of towns throughout Chiapas-vil-
lagers no longer recognize the official judicial system,
and have established alternative methods of conflict
resolution. They have also set about organizing collec-
tive development projects, such as community corn
and coffee fields, vegetable gardens, and raising rab-
bits and chickens. These projects, coupled with the
Zapatista ban on alcohol in their villages, have created
strong community bonds that contrast sharply with
government efforts to stir up conflict between PRI and
EZLN supporters.
Such conflicts were evident during my January visit
to Ibarra, a community that, like many in the jungle, is
divided into pro-Zapatista and pro-PRI families. A
group of PRIistas brought their animals to graze in a
Zapatista-tended pasture, setting off a dispute between
the two groups. Pro-Zapatista villagers explained to
me that since the PRI supporters had accepted govern-
ment handouts and had not participated in any of the
local projects implemented since the rebellion, "they
sold their rights."
The government is actively seeking to foment such
divisions within local communities by lavishing PRI
supporters with government assistance. According to
Zapatista villagers in Ibarra, the PRlistas cast their lot
with the government and fled for Ocosingo on the eve of
the 1994 rebellion, returning only in 1995 after the army
installed a base by the local airstrip. The government
gave the PRIistas the huge sum of $1,125 per family as
compensation payments in addition to a subsidy of $55
per hectare of corn and coffee through the PROCAMPO
program, which was designed to alleviate the impact of
neoliberal reforms. Army helicopters fly in handouts of
rice, beans, sugar and cooking oil for the PRIistas. A new
government program offers $2,000 in credit incentives to
pro-government villagers for growing chili peppers to be
sold to a processing plant in the city.
Elsewhere in the region, government engineers provide
drinking water taps and solar panels to PRIista families,
while army civic-action programs offer free haircuts and
dental exams. Yet villagers are wary of the government's
generosity, of the "medical consultations" that are thinly
disguised intelligence gathering, and of public works like
building roads that facilitate army penetration into the
jungle. The PRI supporters, meanwhile, have seen social
and economic fabric of their communities torn apart by
army-introduced alcohol and prostitution, and by grow-
ing dependence on government provisions.
The government's attempts to win over Zapatista sup-
porters are regularly rebuffed. Government offers of aid,
for example, to refugees from Acteal and other displaced
Tzotzils who resettled in the town of Polh6 last January
were refused. The refugees said that they could not accept
assistance from the same government that organizes the
paramilitaries who attack them.
This mistrust of the government in Chiapas is deeply
rooted, as I learned in 1996 during a visit to the com-
munity of Mois6s Gandhi, now seat of the Che Guevara
Autonomous Municipality. A Tzeltal villager was chat-
ting to me in Spanish when a government health inspec-
tor burst out of the cornfield in an outlandish safari out-
fit with clipboard in hand and began inquiring about
cases of malaria. Suddenly nobody in the village spoke
a word of Spanish, and the health official finally left in
frustration. Villagers told me that they suspected that a
government vaccination team had sterilized women
from the community without their consent.
apatista communities like the Che Guevara
Autonomous Municipality are not seeking isola-
tion from the world or secession from Mexico.
What they do want is a say in the terms that govern those
relations. This struggle for autonomy is the essence of the
indigenous rebellion. There is no denying that the incipi-
ent structures of autonomous local government are partly
symbolic. But villagers proudly contrast their own
administration of justice with the official mal gobierno--
bad government-in which laws have always been
applied according to "who gives more money." The real
challenge to PRI hegemony lies in the Zapatistas' devel-
opment projects, including collective agriculture, build-
ing local infrastructure, piping water from streams, train-
ing health promoters, and starting up small enterprises.
The lesson of Acteal is clear. The old powerbrokers
of the "dinosaur" wing of the PRI still loom large at
Thousands of the local level in places like Zapatistas demonstrate Chiapas, and they are willing to in San Cristdbal de las use any means possible to hold Casas ro aemana com- pliance with the San Andrbs accords on November 29, 1997.
onto power-even arming para-
military groups to kill and terror-
ize those who challenge them.
Once unleashed, however, these
fratricidal paramilitary groups
spin out of control, destroying
communities faster than govern-
ment "aid." President Zedillo
and the technocratic wing of the
PRI-apostles of neoliberalism
who lack a political base of their
own-are ambivalent about
whether the party hardliners
like those in Chiapas are more
useful than damaging. The
answer will depend in part on
whether the PRI technocrats suc-
ceed in their international pub-
licity campaign to portray the
latest upheaval as Indian-on-
Indian violence that requires the
firm hand of an "impartial"
modernizing state.
he Lessons of Acteal
1. El Financiero (Mexico City), January 25, 1998.
2. Human Rights Watch/Americas, Implausible Deniability: State
Responsibility for Rural Violence in Mexico (New York: Human
Rights Watch, April 1997).
3. Jes0s Ramirez Cuevas, "Apoyarian soldados y policies a paramili-
tares de Chenalh6" and "En Canolal existe una base de opera-
ciones prilstas armados," La Jornada (Mexico City), January 2
and 3, 1998.
4. Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Bartolom6 de Las Casas, Ni
paz nijusticia: Informe general y amplio acerca de la guerra
civil que sufren los Cho'les en la Zona Norte de Chiapas
(Chiapas: CDHFBC, October 1996); and Camino a la masacre:
Informe especial sobre Chenalh6 (Chiapas: CDHFBC, January
5. Carlos Marin, "Plan del Ej6rcito en Chiapas desde 1994: Crear
bandas paramilitares, desplazar a la poblaci6n, destruir las bases
de apoyo del EZLN," Proceso (Mexico City), No. 1005, January
4, 1998, pp. 6-11; and "SOA Graduates' Fingerprints on
Mexico's Chiapas Policy," Open letter to members of U.S. House
of Representatives from Rep. Joseph RP. Kennedy, sponsor of H.R.
611 to close the School of the Americas.
6. See David Barkin, Irene Ortiz, & Fred Rosen, "Globalization and
Resistance: The Remaking of Mexico," NACLA Report on the
Americas, Vol. 30, No. 4, January/February 1997, pp. 14-27.
7. On the politics of neoliberalism in Mexico and the origins of the
Zapatista movement, see Gerardo Otero, ed., Neoliberalism
Revisited: Economic Restructuring and Mexico's Political Future
(Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996).
8. Shannan L. Mattiace, "'Zapata Vive!': The EZLN, Indigenous
Politics and the Autonomy Movement in Mexico," Journal of
Latin American Anthropology, Vol. 3., No. 1, 1997, pp. 32-71.
9. See La Jornada (Mexico City), January 12-13, 1997; and Luis
Hernandez Navarro, "Entre la memoria y el olvido: Guerrillas,
movimiento indlgena y reformas legales en la hora del EZLN," in
Neus Espresate, ed., Chiapas, Vol. 4, (Mexico: Ediciones Era,
1997), pp. 69-92.
10. Proceso (Mexico City), No. 1105, January 4, 1998, pp. 12-17.
11. Carlos Fazio, El tercer vinculo: De la teoria del caos a la teoria
de la militarizaci6n (Mexico City: Planeta, 1996).

Tags: Mexico, Chiapas, Zapatistas, Acteal massacre, violence, paramilitaries

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