Rebellion and Repression in Chiapas

October 31, 2008

A Massacre Foretold (DVD, 2007, 58 minutes), directed by Nick Higgins, Lansdowne Productions (

In the first scene of A Massacre Foretold, we are shown a quiet country lane, gently winding its way uphill through the forested countryside of southeastern Mexico. We see a small boy climbing purposefully up the road, and moments later a small procession of indigenous men and women- appears, carrying a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe and singing her praises. The peaceful image belies the brutal violence that this community suffered a decade earlier at the hands of local paramilitary thugs.

In the mid-1990s, the Mexican state of Chiapas became a focus of international attention when the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) launched an armed uprising against Mexico’s federal government. Fearing they would lose their lands and livelihood under the recently signed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Chiapas-based Zapatistas demanded land rights and political autonomy for the state’s indigenous peoples. The rebellion was suppressed and the repression that followed, often directed at civilians, was brutal.

Nick Higgins’s powerful documentary tells the story of the political murder of 45 people in the village of Acteal, home to a small Tzotzil Maya community thought to be sympathetic to the Zapatistas. The community had earlier formed a pacifist group called Las Abejas (the Bees), a religious organization founded to defend its interests. “It was best to remain organized,” Abejas member Antonio says in the film, “because we saw that there was strength in our unity, in our politics, in our faith, in our prayer.”

While the group shared many of the Zapatistas’ goals, Las Abejas rejected the armed struggle advocated by the EZLN. As Chiapas became increasingly militarized, and EZLN influence spread, many farmers left their homes and fled to hide in caves in the hills, fearing violence from state and paramilitary forces. Perhaps emboldened by their organizational success, members of Las Abejas chose to remain on their land because, as one member tells the camera, “The land belongs to us, and God gave it to us so that we could live and work.” The group struggled to continue its way of life in the midst of growing tensions, wary of violence but unwilling to leave.

Higgins locates the Acteal massacre within the political climate of mid-1990s Mexico, laying out a brief explanation of the Zapatista uprising of 1994 and focusing on the San Andrés peace talks, which brought the Zapatistas and government officials to the negotiating table after the military swiftly pushed back the rebellion in 1995. Through interviews with the bishop of Chiapas, Samuel Ruiz, a key mediator in the conflict, and Blanca Martínez, a Chiapas human rights activist, the film suggests that the demands of the militant Zapatistas, the real grievances of indigenous Chiapas civilians, and the unwillingness of the government to negotiate doomed the peace talks from the outset.

The negotiations, initiated in the year following the government crackdown, sought to bring various actors of civil society, not solely the militarized factions, into dialogue. Initially, Ruiz explains, the involved parties felt hopeful that a solution could be found, although the government pushed for a quick resolution to reassure foreign investors of the nation’s stability. An early product in the process was a document that recognized the existence of etnias (ethnic groups), rather than indios (Indians), a term that lumps together Mexico’s varied indigenous groups into one historically disparaged category.

Yet the Zapatistas’ platform included more extensive demands, principally a reworking of Mexico’s very model of statehood. While talks continued, Chiapas residents began to arrive in San Andrés to denounce the disappearances, church burnings, and forced displacements experienced throughout the region at the hands of paramilitaries. Andrés Aubrey, an anthropologist who has written extensively on Chiapas, comments that in irregular warfare, “all the dirty work is done by paramilitaries,” who, in this case, attacked the nonviolent Zapatista sympathizers in an effort to terrorize the group’s “key allies” into submission.

In the face of this repression, the government refused to act and blamed the violence on inter-communal problems, effectively sanctioning the persecution and intimidation of Chiapas civil society. The film shows how the peace talks became a kind of theater, with the Zapatistas dressed in traditional garb with masked faces, and government officials wearing jeans and dark sunglasses, dressed down and looking themselves like stereotypical Hollywood depictions of paramilitaries. Meanwhile, real danger was growing for the civilians of Acteal.

The film is most effective in its coverage of the events surrounding the massacre. While many documentaries rely on interviews and news clips to reconstruct events, A Massacre Foretold contains critical scenes captured over a period of weeks by a film crew already in the region during the town’s moment of crisis in late 1997. In one such scene, a campesino tells the camera that the plumes of smoke rising from the opposite side of the once quiet green valley are the homes of Las Abejas in Acteal, set fire by paramilitaries who live in the area. Even more startling is footage of Acteal refugees fleeing persecution with what possessions they could carry strapped to their backs. Children shiver in the foggy cold; a worried mother cradles her newborn; a man sheds tears as he leads neighbors through the forest. When the refugees gather in a sheltered clearing off the road, another man explains how they had to leave the land, and with it, their livelihoods, fearing death at the hands of paramilitaries who have terrorized the town. As the film’s narration explains, almost all of the villagers gathered in the clearing were murdered in the impending massacre.

The scope and brutality of the Acteal massacre, carried out in December 1997, is horrifying. The actual massacre is not filmed, but the intensity of scenes shot both immediately before and after is enough to convey this horror. Of the 45 murdered residents of Acteal, nine were men, 21 were women, and 15 were children. All were hunted down in the hills by paramilitaries who rampaged through the area, killing everyone they found. Scenes of the mass funeral that followed, with all the caskets buried in a common grave, display the town’s grief and the new challenges it must face with a poignancy and immediacy rarely seen in documentaries.

While Higgins does a good job of reconstructing the political climate surrounding the massacre, he might have spent more time exposing the identities and political connections of the paramilitaries. He relies too heavily on footage of presumed paramilitaries—dressed in black, heavily armed, and traveling the roads of Chiapas—and allows viewers to draw their own conclusions about guilt. In fact, the perpetrators, shown briefly (and somewhat confusedly) through third-party news footage after detention, were townspeople themselves, Chiapas campesinos who were allegedly given arms and persuaded to act on behalf of the actual paramilitaries. On the one hand, Higgins directs us to blame the shadowy paramilitary forces pictured throughout the video as the real masterminds of the massacre. On the other hand, he quotes Ruiz, who earnestly criticizes the government attitude that indigenous people (like those arrested for the massacre) are incapable of such atrocities—that someone else must have been directing their actions. This contradiction remains unexplored. Meanwhile, the video’s editing, while artful and interesting, may leave viewers confused, as the camera jumps through time and across the beautiful green hills of Chiapas. Because the Chiapas conflict has lasted for so long and involves so many different actors and murky interests, it is important to keep viewers grounded as they sort through its bloody timeline.

In one of the more chilling moments of A Massacre Foretold, former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo—now a Yale professor—appears on television in the wake of the massacre to address the nation. In his speech, he states that the tragedy “should move us toward the rejection of violence, toward understanding, and toward the agreements, in order to achieve peace and social justice throughout the state of Chiapas.” The speech sounds like a veiled threat: This is what will happen until the Zapatistas’ influence is eliminated from the region. The message is disgracefully ironic, considering that Las Abejas, a community that explicitly rejected violence, became its tragic victim.

Despite years of government exclusion, intimidation, and persecution, Las Abejas continues to pursue its political resistance through peaceful organization. And in the wake of the massacre, it continues to support the goals of the Zapatistas. As villagers pause to return the Virgin—whose procession opened the video—to her church, they acknowledge the struggle and the community bases of both Las Abejas and the Zapatistas. The group’s refusal to be silenced is testament to its heroic history of activism in defense of basic community rights.

Corinna Zeltsman is a writer and printer living in New York. She is a former NACLA staff assistant.

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