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News > Mexico

Acteal Massacre: Indigenous Tzotzil Keeps Their Memory Alive

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    Members of "Las Abejas" hold portraits of their relatives on the seventh anniversary of the Acteal Massacre. Dec. 22, 2004. Acteal, Chiapas, Mexico. | Photo: EFE

Published 22 December 2018

In 1997, paramilitary forces killed 45 members of the Christian, pacifist indigenous organization known as Las Abejas in southern Mexico.

On Dec. 22, 1997, 45 Indigenous Tzotzil and four unborn babies were murdered by paramilitary forces in Acteal, Chiapas, south Mexico, while they were praying. Twenty one years later, survivors and human rights groups remain alert for possible aggressions and demand actions from the federal government.


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The victims were members of a Christian, pacifist group known as “Las Abejas,” formed in the context violent land disputes in the Chenalho municipality in 1992. After the uprising of the National Liberation Zapatista Army (EZLN) in 1994, Las Abejas declared their support for the insurgency, but decided not to arm themselves due to their pacifist nature and historical process.

The Zapatista uprising led to a worsening of the government’s policy in the region. Under President Ernesto Zedillo’s rule, the Mexican army fostered the creation of paramilitary groups with the aim of controlling dissident communities and prevent a domino effect. As a result, violence intensified and almost a million have been displaced out of their homes.

In 1997, about 60 members of one of these paramilitary groups attacked Las Abejas while they were praying. The government described the massacre as an “ethnic conflict” between communities, but Las Abejas and human rights groups claim it was a deliberate attack and part of a national strategy to deter dissident groups.

On Dec. 6, a group of survivors from Acteal sent a letter to President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador demanding justice and a meeting with him, as he had previously agreed with relatives of the 43 missing students from Ayotzinapa.

“We ask you Mr. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador what we ask ourselves everyday: how many more survivors must die to find justice?” says the letter.

Lopez Obrador didn’t answer.

Pedro Faro Navarro, director of the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center (Frayba), said the case of Acteal has been shut down in the national narrative and that the federal government has not only ignored it, but released almost all of the confessed authors of the massacre.

A vigil organized by Las Abejas in memory of the Acteal Massacre victims. Dec. 22, 2007. Acteal, Chiapas, Mexico. Photo | EFE

In interview with La Jornada, Faro Navarro said the Frayba and Las Abejas will pressure the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for a resolution, as the international commission has delayed the investigation for years.

When asked if he trusted the new government would carry out justice for the victims, the rights defender said Lopez Obrador has not shown “any interest” for it.

“They speak about truth commissions without a clear idea about how to combat the existing impunity. The new government operates hierarchically and doesn’t consult the victims.”

Instead, he spoke about the struggle of Las Abejas and their internal political organization. He warned that there’s another group that calls themselves Las Abejas and uses their logo, but the founding organization continues in their original steps, strengthening their autonomy and keeping memory live.

Las Abejas also participates in the EZLN-backed National Indigenous Congress (CNI), an autonomous and anti-capitalist platform founded by Indigenous people from across Mexico. Guadalupe Vazquez, a young survivor of the massacre, was appointed by her community and the CNI to be a member of the Indigenous Council of Government (CIG), which aims to be an alternative form of politics with the Indigenous and the working class of Mexico, and since then features prominently in media, raising the voice for her people.


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“The survivors and their relatives are not asking anything from the State, but there’s an imposter group asking for attention over the massacre,” said Faro Navarro.

In a separate statement, Fraby declared that Las Abejas didn’t send a “recognition letter for the Federal Government and doesn’t negotiate an economic compensation, as another group is doing by following the way of dependence on the Mexican State, damaging the origin and struggle of a pacifist, autonomous organization in resistance.”

The Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center (Frayba) denounced that the “militarization logic” remains in the Chiapas highlands behind new faces and demanded justice for the victims.

“The current Mexican government is not different to the previous ones in their actions and lack of answers to a historical demand for justice in Mexico,” said the center in a statement.

To commemorate the massacre and keep memory alive, Las Abejas organized a cultural festival (Yak'el xkuxetel o'ontonal) on Dec. 21 and 22 at Acteal.

“Since Dec. 22, 1997, until today, political parties, bad rulers, judges and public servants, have contributed to the fatigue of the victims and survivors of Actal, revictimizing them,” Las Abejas said in a public statement Saturday. “That’s why they must be pointed out as responsible for the massacre, by covering up the material and intellectual authors. They’re also responsible, due to negligence, for the list of murders, forced disappearances and massacres in Atenco, Ayotzinapa, Tlatlaya, femicides and others.”

The organization asked the new government to not confuse “truth and justice with vengeance,” as Lopez Obrador has promised to forgive certain causes and an amnesty whose conditions have not been detailed. They also explained they will not reach any agreement with the government before the IACHR issues a ruling over the case.

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