The Massacre in Chiapas


The December 22, 1997 massacre of 45 civilians in Acteal in the state of Chiapas, Mexico is a stark reminder the government still hopes to crush the Zapatista National Liberation Army.

     In the 1960s and 70s, indigenous people began to organize and assert their rights, partly as a result of the development work of the Catholic church under Bishop Samuel Ruiz. Yet by the 1990s, the disparity of wealth in Chiapas and elsewhere was detestable. The number of Mexican billionaires listed in Forbes jumped from six to twenty-four in one year. A select few were winning in the new economy, but most were losers.

     Not unexpectedly, a rebellion erupted on Jan. 1, 1994, the day NAFTA went into effect, as the Zapatistas in surprise attacks occupied the city of San Cristobal de las Casas and several towns. The campaign was initiated as a message to-the government and the business elites, who would profit from "free trade," that those who wouldn't--the indigenous, small farmers, the unemployed-will rise up.

     The Mexican army launched an offensive mainly against the civilian population, but within two weeks the two sides agreed to a truce. The ZNLA has many supporters and sympathizers, as it embodies many of the hopes of the indigenous people. This support was important in forcing the government quickly to the negotiating table.

     In Feb. 1996, the government of President Carlos Salinas and the Zapatistas signed the San Andres Accords on "Indigenous Culture and Rights." Other issues to discuss were democracy and justice, economic development and welfare and women's rights.

     However, talks between the two forces were suspended in Sept. 1996, as the government of President Ernesto Zedillo is resisting the San Andres accords. Implementation would threaten the power of established elites and the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), whose stranglehold on Mexico is now seriously challenged for the first time since the 1930s.

     Zedillo and the growing Mexican army is instead resorting to "low intensity conflict," which includes arming paramilitary groups to "defend" themselves against "subversives." The Dec. 22 attack of refugees, fasting and praying in a small chapel, was a five-hour killing spree ignored by the police and the military. Throughout 1997, but especially after the mid-September Zapatista demonstration in Mexico City, the paramilitary groups engaged in acts of extreme violence. On Nov. 4, for example, one group attempted to ambush Bishop Ruiz and his assistant, Bishop Raul Vera. Later Ruiz's sister, who works with the church, was severely injured in an attack.

     Protests condemning the Acteal massacre took place in various U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C., in January and questions were raised as to U.S. involvement in the repression. The Mexican army in recent years became a major recipient of U.S. military aid, which is believed to be about $11 million a year. Many of the military officers involved in human rights abuses were trained in the U.S.

     Col. Julian Guerrero Barrios, a 1981 School of the Americas (SOA) graduate, and 27 officers and soldiers were charged with torture for activities in Jalisco. Besides the SOA connection, those arrested were members of the Mexican Special Forces Unit that receives training at the JFK Special Warfare School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

     Gen. Jose Ruben Rivas Pena, a 1980 SOA graduate, helped design the counter-insurgency strategy in Chiapas. Another 1980 SOA graduate, Gen. Juan Lopez Ortiz was the commander of a 1994 operation in Ocosingo where suspected Zapatista sympathizers were rounded up and shot in the marketplace. He is still involved in Chiapas.

     I have a list of five other SOA graduates who were active recently in Chiapas. It is assumed the CIA is also assisting Mexican authorities in countering the Zapatistas.

     The current situation in Chiapas is intimately related to the growing commercial links between Mexico and the U. S. This was highlighted in the infamous Jan. 13, 1995 memo written by Riordan Roett of Chase Manhattan's Emerging Markets Group-"While Chiapas, in our opinion, does not pose a fundamental threat to Mexican political stability, it is perceived to be so by many in the investment community. The government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and of security policy."

     President Bill Clinton, by a 1995 executive order, expedited a $50 billion bailout package to stave off the collapse of the Mexican economy and to protect U.S. financial interests. It is debatable how long this confluence of forces from the U.S.-the military, the intelligence community, investment bankers and the government-can prop up a corrupt government.

     The National Commission for Democracy in Mexico, which can be reached toll free at 800-405-7770 or via the internet at, issued a call for action on Feb. 9 in the financial district of individual cities. Local activists are urged to investigate local banking institutions to ascertain investment in Mexican stocks and debt instruments. For example, it is believed NationsBank is heavily involved in Mexico's financial market.

     Action must be taken to bring to justice those responsible for Acteal, to demilitarize Chiapas, and to return to the peace process as agreed in the San Andres Accords. This will not be easy, but a key to the struggle might be to highlight and challenge U.S. investments in Mexico. The disinvestment struggle was successful in eliminating white minority rule in South Africa. Can a similar campaign be generated against an entrenched Mexican government, whose policies doom a majority of its citizens to a life of economic apartheid?

Copyright © 2003 The Baltimore Chronicle and The Sentinel. All rights reserved. We invite your comments, criticisms and suggestions.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on February 4, 1998.