On Acteal and on the Oblivion

Rodolfo Hernández

More than a decade ago, my academic mentor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Graciela Uribe, a Chilean political geographer exiled in Mexico as a result of the dictatorship of Pinochet, urged me to write my Bachelor’s thesis about the uprising of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), an indigenous group in the Mexican state of Chiapas. On January 1, 1994, the Zapatistas including the now world famous Sub-Commandante Marcos on January 1, 1994 declared war on the Mexican state to obtain eleven basic rights, among them education, housing, health care, liberty, peace and democracy. I never finished the thesis on the indigenous rebellion; rather I wrote a completely different piece. Even on the day I defended my thesis Graciela insisted me that a work about the Zapatistas should still be written.

In Mexico, racism shapes every day social life, and is one of the principal sources of political and economic injustice. Mexican people often not only normalize and accept racism, but sometimes they also justify it, defend it, or simply forget about it. The latter is especially true when racism and oppression are directed against indigenous peoples. Why do Mexicans accept this? About six decades ago, the Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti wrote his celebrated poem Un padre nuestro latinoamericano (A Latin American Lord’s Prayer): “No nos dejes caer en la tentación/ de olvidar o vender este pasado/ o arrendar una sola hectárea de su olvido/ ahora que es la hora de saber quiénes somos” or “Lord do not leave us to fall into the temptation/ of forgetting or selling our past/ or even to lease a single hectare of its oblivion/ now that is the moment to know who we are.” (my translation)

When Benedetti wrote his poem, Latin America was moving between the nightmares of the state violence and the attempts toward the end of the fifties to create peoples’ utopias. Sadly, more nightmares were still waiting hidden along the twisted path of the Latin America history. And with them, more attempts were made to plant the enchanting temptations of living with oblivion ⎯ our individual and collective oblivion.

On the morning of December 22 of 1997, in the community of Acteal, a town located in Chiapas, 325 indigenous members of Las Abejas (The Bees), a pacifist group founded in 1992, were attacked by approximately 60 paramilitaries linked to the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), the party that ruled Mexico for more than seven decades. 15 children, 21 women and nine men were killed in the massacre. None of them was armed, and many couldn’t even see their assassins as they were shot from behind while praying and resting on their knees.

The massacre of Acteal was the outcome of the “Low Intensity Warfare” (LIW) strategy launched by the Mexican state. Actually LIW is of United States’ origin. Confronted with revolutionary insurgency throughout Latin and Central America, as well as in Southeast Asia, the American military had supported low-intensity tactics such as torture, assassination, and terrorizing civilian populations through the deployment of paramilitary groups as steps useful to the survival of its client states. The low intensity warfare strategy begun in the Chiapas state during 1995 consisted of the financing, training and arming of paramilitaries. As historian and anthropologist, Andrés Aubry (1997) pointed out that even before the massacre in Acteal, indigenous communities of Chiapas suffered sustained attacks by paramilitaries recruited by the Mexican government that included Chiapas young people who had no access to land and were socially detached from their communities. In 1998, Mexican journalist Carlos Marin documented the role of the Mexican Army in the development of groups such as Paz y Justicia, Los Chinchulines, and Mascara Roja.

Along with the paramilitary strategy, the Mexican government attempted to stir up internal conflicts and hostility among indigenous peoples in their communities, actions that led to the displacement of more than ten thousand people. Most of the displaced were Zapatista supporters, and their flight from the low intensity warfare zones created one of the worst humanitarian crises in Mexico’s recent history. People experienced the destruction of their houses and the confiscation of their agricultural lands. The peasant plots were used by paramilitaries to produce illegal drugs.

Today as in 1997, historians such as Aguilar Camín (1998, 2007) insist that the Acteal massacre was ignited by communal and family disputes, and religious intolerance. Their dismissal of massacre claims covers over the degree to which the state sponsored violence against Acteal’s people, the vast majority of whom were treated not as Zapatista sympathizers but as domestic enemies. The Interamerican Court of Human Rights is currently hearing arguments about whether the low intensity warfare prosecuted against the peoples of Chiapas constitutes a crime against humanity, and whether then President Ernesto Zedillo approved and directed the war efforts that included the Acteal massacre.

I was 25 years old when the massacre of Acteal occurred, and I never wrote my thesis on the Zapatista movement as my mentor so urgently recommended. Instead, my wife wrote her thesis on Chiapas, from which I have benefited greatly. But I have come to believe, as did my professor, that the fight for justice in Chiapas is part of the Latin American struggle against the oblivion and the silence still imposed by many states in Central and Latin America (including Mexico).

The urgency of events represented by the Acteal massacre 10 years ago has not abated. I hope that this column, in large part first inspired by my Professor Graciela Uribe, is a testimony to her belief, and those of other Latin America progressives, that our continent from the Rio Grande to Patagonia is deserving of our enduring love and attention. Given the long history of state oppression throughout Latin America punctuated by a persistent racism toward indigenous peoples, it is sometimes hard to sustain the struggle for justice by everyone who cares, including me. As Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo wrote: “Hoy me gusta la vida mucho menos, pero siempre me gusta vivir,” or “today I like life less, but I do always like to live.”

Perhaps by sustaining the common struggle, oblivion can be avoided.

I hope readers will feel free to ask for references on the subjects raised in the column. In the meantime, best wishes for the holidays!