Acteal: apology and impunity

Photo: Desinformémonos

By Carlos Fazio

On September 3rd, the Undersecretary of Governance, Alejandro Encinas, apologized on behalf of the Mexican state for the massacre committed on the 22nd of December 1997, in Acteal. On that day, 45  tzotzil people were murdered as they prayed in the chapel of the community of Acteal, in the municipality of Chenalhó, Chiapas. Of the victims, 34 were women, 16 of them girls, and 11 males, among them 4 infants; 26 more people were wounded, mostly children who were left with permanent injuries.

The victims belonged to the civil society organization, Las Abejas, and were brutally massacred by 80 heavily-armed men, among whom were personnel of the Military Police Brigades, and logistical services of the Secretary of National Defense from various military zones of the country, dressed as civilians and with histories of military misconduct. In an operation that lasted over 7 hours, the victims were killed by shots from  FAL and G3 rifles, which are used by Military Police and the Army. Officially, the paramilitary group the Red Mask, affiliated with the PRI, prepared and trained by the Mexican Army to operate in the Highlands region of Chiapas, was directly responsible for the massacre. According to eyewitnesses, the group of armed civilians acted with the support of a mixed operations brigade(BOM), composed of military, judicial and state security police, located less than 200 meters from the community. 

In the face of President Ernesto Zedillo’s disregard for the Accords of San Andrés, autonomous town councils from the civilian bases of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, with a focus in the exercise of indigenous uses and customs, had derived a parallel power that exercised a de facto government, and in which the traditional PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) bosse were assimilated into the paramilitary violence in order to thwart that process.

The multiple homicide of Acteal was an exemplary punishment directed at weakening civil resistance through terror. The massacre corresponded to a counter-insurgency logic of diffuse warfare against the EZLN, its support bases and the civil and ecclesiastial organizations in solidarity, but it was also a racist, authoritarian and pathological reaction of the Zedillo government and the soldiers against the exercise of indigenous autonomies. Testimony of surviving victims gave accounts of unprecedented acts of violence in Chenalhó, in the Highlands region there was no history of the extermination techniques such as the ones realized by the executioners. Women and Children had not been involved in inter-community conflicts; nor had victims been mutilated with machetes after being killed with firearms, as happened with four pregnant women whose wombs were desecrated, and whose fetuse were extracted, as a means of repression to finish off the enemy, typical of the counterinsurgency, dirty war and state terrorism. 

The revealing of the 94 Chiapas Campaign Plan twelve days after the massacre demonstrated that the paramilitary action was an operation of irregular warfare. And as such, a crime of the State. Drafted by someone with the code name S-3 — presumably general Mario Renán Castillo, said plan had as its strategic operational objective of destroying the will of the EZLN to fight, or isolating the civilian population and gaining their support in order to benefit Mexican Army operations. Tactical objectives included destroying or disrupting the political and military structure of the EZLN, for which purposes, together with intelligence, psychological, civilian population control and logistical operations, the self -defense and other paramilitary organizations were instructed in organization, training, advice and support. It added, in the event that no self-defense forces exist, it is necessary to create them. It literally ordered “the secret organization of certain sectors of the civilian population — among others, cattle ranchers, small landowners and individuals characterized by a high sense of patriotism — who will be employed under orders in support of our operations.”

In Acteal, the guidelines of the Manual of Irregular Warfare, Counter-Guerrilla Operations and Restoration of Order, of Sedena (the Department of Defense), were also applied, where it is stated, quoting Mao, that the people are to the guerrillas as water to fish. But for the fish, it adds, life in the water can be made impossible, by agitating, introducing harmful elements to their livelihoods, or more aggressive fish to attack them, chase them and force them to disappear. This paramilitary strategy was aimed at setting up a cordon around the EZLN, to hold it in a previously gridded terrain and, once isolated from its social base, to try to destroy it and/or annihilate it.The Amicable Settlement Agreement between the State and one group of families that split from Las Abejas, and the public apology from Undersecretary of Government Encinas does not extinguish the demands for truth, trial of the perpetrators, and that those belonging to that indigenous organization do not repeat these acts of violence. Zedillo and the chain of command under Seden continue unpunished, as does former-governor Julio César Ruiz Ferro. The paramilitary violence continues in force in Aldama, Tila, and Chenalhó against the support bases of the EZLN.

This article was originally published in Spanish in La Jornada, on September 7, 2020. This English interpretation has been re-published by Schools for Chiapas.

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