Chiapas peace awaits fundamental change

December 22, 2000

by Peter Brown

Mexico has a new administration, but peace remains as elusive as justice in the Mexican southeast.

Three years ago on the morning of Dec. 22, a paramilitary group associated with Mexicoís ruling party massacred 45 Maya villagers huddled inside a humble chapel in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico. The anniversary of the massacre at Acteal affords an excellent opportunity to reflect on the roots of an Indian insurrection that wonít seem to fade away.

In his Dec. 1, 2000 inaugural speech Vincent Fox acknowledged that the war quietly raging in Chiapas is at the top of Mexicoís national agenda. He promised to introduce legislation to finally implement the Peace Accords of San Andres and open dialogue for peace. Adopting the words of the Indian rebels known as Zapatistas, Fox pledged a ìnew dawnî for the indigenous peoples in Mexico.

President Clinton quickly moved to publicly support Foxís statements regarding Chiapas.† Perhaps Clinton, who counts the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as a major foreign policy victory, is particularly uncomfortable with a rebellion that insists his ìfree tradeî schemes offer nothing but death for indigenous peoples.

In fact, the Maya of Chiapas believe that the massacre at Acteal demonstrates the lengths to which globalization will go to crush any opposition to corporate control of their economic and social lives. They contend that the Mexican government cooperated in the training and arming of numerous terrorist groups in order to crush their rebellion against NAFTA. Most significantly, despite horrific repression tens of thousands of Maya people remain steadfastly committed to the Zapatista resistance.

I am familiar with this Maya view because over the last five years I have worked directly with Maya communities of Chiapas in their efforts to build community controlled schools in the highlands of Chiapas. On Dec. 22, 1997 I was preparing to lead a team of volunteers into Chiapas to build help build schools. Two weeks later, after reports of the massacre published by the San Diego Union prompted donations of several thousand dollars in humanitarian aid, I found myself surrounded by weeping survivors of the massacre in a mountainous refugee camp.

In front of a sixth grade classroom housing survivors of the massacre at Actael and other less publicized murders, I presented the humanitarian donations from San Diego to the municipal president. Dozens of women and a few men spent hours describing horrific scenes of rape and pillage as they were driven from their traditional villages. All had lost homes and family members; many were obviously still in shock. (Verbatim transcripts of these interviews from the first days of 1998 are available in both English and Spanish at

However unlike other regions of Mexico where repression results in emigration, most of the refugees did not plan to leave for the big cities or the long trip north. One woman whose young child had died of exposure that very morning said, ìI donít want my other children to grow up cleaning toilets in San Diego. We are indigenous people who have lived in these mountains forever. Our ancestors are buried here. We are resisting and we will never surrender.

îSeveral weeks later Father Michel Chanteau, a French born priest who had ministered to the villagers in and around Acteal for 32 years, was permanently expelled from Mexico because he spoke out against the massacre of his parishioners. Seven months after my experience with the refugees, I too was captured, sequestered, and finally expelled from Mexico because of my support for community controlled Maya schools. Nevertheless the vision of the Zapatistas have become a source of hope and inspiration for people throughout Chiapas and the world.

Today over 20,000 Maya people in Chiapas are still living as refugees; Father Chanteau, and hundreds of other international supporters of† ìglobalization from belowî still cannot visit our friends in Chiapas though I was given tentative approval this week to return.

And, despite government promises to the contrary, tens of thousands of heavily armed Mexican troops still surround indigenous communities throughout Chiapas.

As people of conscience everywhere mark the winter solstice with remembrances of the massacre at Acteal, we must all understand that the Indians of Chiapas continue resisting and continue refusing to surrender. The roots of todayís Maya resistance run far deeper that any election season or public relations coup.

Peace will only arrive when a new social contract based on dignity, democracy and justice is forged with all the indigenous peoples of Mexico.

Conflict in Chiapas: Understanding the Modern Mayan World
by Worth H. Weller, Ben Weller (Photographer), Julia Weller (Photographer)
$16.95, Paperback, March 1, 2000
Rebellion in Chiapas : An Historical Reader
by John Womack (Editor)
$14.36, Paperback , March 1999
Voices from Exile : Violence and Survival in Modern Maya History
by Victor Montejo
$18.17, Hardcover, October 1999
©Copyright 1997-2000 Jeeni Criscenzo