ACTEAL, Mexico—Acteal, like many of the hamlets inhabited by Chiapas's indigenous peoples, is not visible from the main road. Its dozen pine board and corrugated metal shacks sit in the shadow of a steep wooded slope out of view.

“Invisible from the road”—is not a bad metaphor for Chiapas itself and its troubled history at the southern end of Mexico. Here in the Altos, or highlands, of the country's poorest state, the problems of rural poverty, human rights, violence, and the clash of rival religious, ethnic, and economic interests have long been “invisible” from the “main road” of Mexico's rush to modernity.

But no more. In today's Acteal, reporters and camera crews mill about looking for locals. Human rights activists and politicians come and go. Health officials pull up in vans offering aid.

The cause of such “visibility” is, by now, well known: the Dec. 22 slaughter of 45 Tzotzil Indians here by local gunmen—perhaps Mexico's worst single case of political violence in a generation. By mid January, the Acteal massacre had already forced far-reaching changes in the country's state and federal government, emboldened calls for a negotiated solution to the four-year-long Zapatista rebellion in the Altos, and united the Catholic Church behind the peace efforts of Bishop Samuel Ruiz, the controversial leader of the diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas, the state's second-largest city.


When we arrived here on a sunny afternoon a few weeks after the tragedy, the multiple anxieties were palpable. With our driver, Adan, a lawyer from the municipal seat of Chenalho, and a Tzotzil-speaker, we had passed through several army checkpoints without much difficulty. Nevertheless, frequent army patrols with guns drawn passed by Acteal every few minutes, and soldiers had taken over the village school below the settlement. While the army's stated purpose was to disarm local villagers in the wake of the massacre, the inhabitants said that they created an atmosphere of intimidation—a continuation of what some Catholic human rights advocates in San Cristobal have long called “the [army's] war of low intensity” against the area's perceived Zapatista supporters.

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation, or EZLN, is an armed indigenous uprising led by a charismatic mestizo, or non-indigenous, calling himself subcomandante Marcos. The guerrilla movement, which arose in the 1980s, is headquartered in the hills above Acteal and in 1994 launched an armed insurrection to secure indigenous autonomy in the Altos. Bishop Ruiz, while sympathetic with some of EZLN's political aims, has taken a solidly nonviolent line in the conflict—a stance shared by many of the indigenous communities allied with the bishop.

Media were met on the road by the village's presidente, a young Indian named Lorenzo, who checked press credentials and arranged access to the villagers. Wire service correspondents were on hand, as were several reporters for European bureaus. As our driver was to tell us later, the presidente, shell-shocked from the commercial press blitz of his village, was especially unsure of what to do with a group of Catholic journalists. Finally, a colleague, who had been clever enough to bring along a copy of the Register showed it to Lorenzo, who, spotting a photo of Pope John Paul II, promptly ushered us to the footpath that leads to Acteal.

Acteal is a deeply religious indigenous Catholic community attached to the San Cristobal diocese, a community reflecting the ideals and paradoxes of Bishop Ruiz's controversial trail-blazing pastoral program among the area's indigenous poor. Many if not most, of the village's current inhabitants are refugees from the political violence and counter-violence that has afflicted the highlands in the decades since the bishop began a political movement pressing for indigenous rights and the EZLN, attempting to co-opt the bishop's efforts, launched its armed uprising. At the core of the refugee community is a Bishop Ruiz-supported group called Las Abejas (The Bees), headed by a local diocesan-trained Tzotzil catechist.

According to diocesan sources, the group is committed to pacifism and advocates a nonviolent, negotiated solution to the region's political conflicts. While the motives for the Dec. 22 attack remain murky, the unarmed Las Abejas were clearly the target.

Mariano, the village spokesman, met us in a clearing near Acteal's one-room church dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Benches were arranged outside the makeshift shrine, since the structure now doubles as a dormitory for refugees. He gently fended off several reporters who had found an alternate route to the village, sending them back up the slope to haggle with Lorenzo.

One of the diocese's more than 7,000 volunteer lay catechists, Mariano in his native Tzotzil calmly described the landscape of a massacre that had claimed his wife, one-year-old son, and seven other members of his family.

“It began at 11:20 in the morning,” he said.

They had heard the echo of gunfire earlier that day and had managed to contact diocesan staffers in San Cristobal to warn of their plight. (Diocesan sources said they had telephoned the police station located about a mile from the village, but were told by state police there that Acteal was peaceful.)

Fearing attack, villagers had assembled in the church to “pray for their enemies,” Mariano claimed, confident that God would not let anything bad happen to them. They were in the midst of their pre-Christmas fast, a traditional custom made famous by Bishop Ruiz as a prayer for peace in Chiapas.

“We were inside praying,” he said. “We are a peaceful people.”


Suddenly, automatic weapon fire rang out in the village from several directions at once. Sensing that they were trapped, villagers ran out of the church and fled down a hillside, seeking protection in nearby coffee fields.

The catechist had time only to grab three of his sons and scurry into a burrow in the slope, hoping to evade the gunmen.

The planks of the church entrance bore grim witness to the hail of bullets that had greeted Acteal's faithful that morning. On the church door was a bullet-nicked sticker in Spanish from a recent Church campaign that read “In favor of life and against abortion.” More dramatic still were the signs of struggle in the wet slopes of the hillside where the attackers had pursued the fleeing Indians.

The gunmen had been nothing if not thorough. According to witnesses, the shooting went on for more than an hour. Some of the bodies of the victims were disfigured by machetes. There was even an unconfirmed report that a pregnant woman among the victims had had her stomach slashed open.

The state police, easily within earshot of the violence, never appeared.

“They were afraid,” said Mariano, simply.

Who were Acteal's attackers?

That much, too, is clear. The gunmen were fellow indigenous from neighboring villages like Esperanza and Los Chorros, well known to Acteal's inhabitants, armed vigilantes who called themselves Mascara Roja, or “The Red Mask,” attached to the entrenched political power structure in the state, particularly to Mexico's long-dominant Insitutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. According to human rights activists, the savagery of the killings was probably due to the fact that the gunmen had been drinking heavily before the siege. They may also have been on drugs. At this writing, more than 40 local indigenous have been charged in the Acteal killings, along with a PRI-allied mayor in the municipality of Chenalho who is accused of organizing the gunmen and supplying them with weapons.

Chiapas state officials may also have known that Acteal was a probable candidate for vigilante violence, according to the federal government's own human rights commission, and did nothing to prevent the tragedy.

Beyond the state itself, the national and international outcry over the massacre forced the government to appoint a new Chiapas governor, Roberto Albores Guillen, a national PRI legislator, in January, and, even more significantly, a new Mexican Interior Minister, the country's second-in-command, Francisco Labastida. Pressure has also mounted on the government to renew the stalled negotiations on the future of Chiapas.


More than a month after the attack, the motive behind the killings remained unclear. Acteal villagers are also reluctant to talk about it.

Speculations are not in short supply, though. One Mexico City-based commentator even advanced the theory that the Acteal event may have had something to do with murky U.S. machinations to build a new “Panama Canal” across the southern state when the lease on the real one expires in the year 2000. But most observers place the origins of the massacre much closer to home.

While it represents the most savage attack against civilians in recent years, the Acteal massacre is hardly unique. A destabilizing climate of inter-communal violence has been growing in Chiapas over the past few years, indeed, decades—and, increasingly, much of it has been directed at Church-sponsored indigenous communities. Two years ago, a local indigenous paramilitary group, the Chinchulines, which grew out of a PRI-sponsored youth club, went on a rampage in nearby Bachajon, leaving six dead. The group also targeted the town's priests and firebombed church buildings. Last November, six weeks before the Acteal tragedy, gunmen attacked Bishop Ruiz and his coadjutor, Bishop Raul Vera Lopez, along with a convoy of 60 peasants, as they attempted to enter the highland town of Tila. The bishops were unhurt, but several Indians were injured in the melee.

As many commentators point out, economic issues play a role in the violence. Conflicts are typically rooted in decades of tension over control of communal land. In Bachajon, for example, local indigenous political “bosses,” allied with state interests, had seized control of quarries on ejido, or community land, and were selling gravel from the quarry to state companies building roads through nearby jungles. Required by law to share the proceeds with the community, the Chinchulines had pocketed the profits and persecuted anyone who challenged them. Church activists become a target for these groups because they routinely take the side of poor indigenous farmers defrauded by local state-supported elites.

A similar scenario presents itself in Acteal. It's probably not a coincidence that the shooting began on the day that the village's coffee fields, its chief source of income, were to be harvested.


Along with struggles over communal land, religious rifts have opened up in indigenous communities during the past 20 years, particularly between traditionally Catholic Indios, with their blend of ancient Mayan and Catholic beliefs, and the new evangelicos, indigenous Protestant and Jehovah Witness converts. Since the mid-1970s, more than 15,000 highland evangelicos have been violently expelled from their villages. Some have been murdered.

The rise in such intercommunal violence also reflects the political transformations taking place in the country as a whole. Long ruled by the PRI, Mexico is gradually turning itself into a modern multi-party democracy. Local Chiapas authorities, both mestizo and indigenous, allied with the old establishment, find their interests threatened by the new order and the inevitable rise of economic and political competitors.

Few would argue that perhaps the most significant result stemming from the Acteal tragedy involves the growing role of the Catholic Church in Mexico as the crisis' honest broker.

That development, most Church observers say, has to do with the current consensus among Mexico's bishops to back the efforts of Bishop Ruiz to negotiate a political solution to the region's problems.

As Manuel Gomez Granados, director of the Insituto Mexicano de Doctrina Social Cristiana, a Catholic think tank based in Mexico City, told the Register, “The bishops are [now] in complete solidarity with Ruiz. He has their full backing.”

That's a far cry from the situation only two years ago when San Cristobal's controversial leader was publicly criticized by other bishops for some of his theological views, namely his occasional forays into liberation theology, and his experimental lay-based pastoral strategies in the indigenous communities. Expectations were high then that the elderly Bishop Ruiz would step down, especially when the Vatican appointed Bishop Raul Vera to be the coadjutor of the diocese in 1996 and transferred some of Bishop Ruiz's functions to his coadjutors.

Now, however, according to Gomez Granados, with the threat of regional violence increasing, Bishop Ruiz is widely viewed, in both government and Church circles (with the exception of the evangelical community), as an “indispensable element at this moment on the path to peace.”

This is not to say, Church observers are quick to point out, that the Mexican episcopate necessarily approves of everything Bishop Ruiz does, or, still less, has adopted his theological views. (In fact, some observers speculate that the bishops, through rallying behind Bishop Ruiz, hope to exert a greater influence on him.) But Bishop Ruiz's high profile in the Chiapas crisis symbolizes for many the promise of a dynamic public role for the Catholic Church in shaping Mexico's future—caught now, many fear, between a collapsing power structure and the “new technocrats.”


In San Cristobal de las Casas, the diocese's vicar general Father Felipe Toussaint, said as much in a recent interview when he stated that the task post-Acteal, is to “insist on the Church's vocation in [Mexican] society,” and to “continue to develop a culture of peace.”

In Acteal, in a large muddy clearing, freshly dug graves adorned with flowers hold the remains of the town's dead: nine men, 21 women, 15 children. A large wooden cross with an inscription in Spanish dominated the scene. It read: Tiempo de cosechar, tiempo de construir (A time to reap, a time to build).

Mariano, our guide, said that the inscription expressed the community's faith in the resurrection. His face was still marked by a grief that made it almost expressionless as he stroked the hair of his youngest surviving son.

Earlier we had spotted what appeared to be a government medical van on the main road and asked Mariano whether government aid had been forthcoming.

“They've come,” said the young catechist, “but we haven't accepted their help. We want justice first, then we'll accept help.”

The soft-spoken Indian was quick to add that he still believes in the government, and was willing to give Chiapas's new governor a chance.

We asked him what he meant by “justice.”

“We want a full investigation of what happened here. That's justice.” “And,” he paused, “this is important. We want the people who did this to be locked up permanently.” A flicker of the terror that had gripped this mountain hamlet only weeks before shot across the survivor's face.

“We don't want them ever to come back.”

Next week: Religious differences mark Chiapas conflict.

Gabriel Meyer writes from Los Angeles, Calif.