CIDE and the Acteal Massacre

by Luís Hernández Navarro

Repeating it is inevitable. One more anniversary of the Acteal massacre approaches, in which 45 indigenous people from the municipality of Chenalhó, Chiapas, were savagely murdered by paramilitaries. The massacre is a wound that cannot heal. The murderers were released and the intelectual authors were never tried.

Protected by soldiers and authorities, the perpetrators of the slaughter went to great lengths with their victims. Embarking on an action of purification, they proposed eliminating the pukuj (a kind of demon in Tsotsil), and the worms that contaminated the village. To give themselves courage and not fail in their work, they prepared with liquor, drugs, prayer and ceremony. They said, “blood purifies,” and made ready to celebrate the extermination.

That December 22nd of 1997, some 350 people were praying on the terrace of a coffee field that served as their refuge, next to the local Catholic chapel. It was their third day without a single bite to eat. They believed that fasting and praying served peace. They were mostly elderly, women and children. They were part of Las Abejas.

Ceremony in Acteal in October 2020 to commemorate the 1997 massacre.
Photo: Changiz M. Varzi.

At almost 11 in the morning, they began to hear shots. The bullets of the AK-47 went through the planks of the wall and hit the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe; also the bodies of many of her believers. The children cried. The worshippers tried to flee and hide. It was a frightening hail of bullets, told one survivor. 

At around 6 in the afternoon, the assassins returned to celebrate their feat. That day there was a party. During those hours, police and their bosses remained scarcely 200 meters away, while several government agencies denied that anything had happened. Already in jail, Pedro, a young Tseltal paramilitary, with tears in his eyes for so many dead children, said to his boss Tomás Pérez, “But I did not fail you, sir, I did my job.”

An initial investigation revealed the direct participation of military and ex-military personnel in the crime. Among others, 105 elements intervened: the retired Brigadier General, Julio César Santiago Díaz; Mariano Arias Pérez, a private from the 38th Infantry Batallion; Pablo Hernández Perez, a former soldier that lead the massacre, and sargeant Mariano Pérez Ruiz. The Public Security police protected and delivered uniforms to the paramilitaries. Jacinto Arias Cruz, municipal president of Chenalhó and leader of the PRI, handed out the weapons. Some of the direct participants were jailed. They never turned in their weapons.

After years of the massacre being in political and legal lethargy, interrupted only by the living  memory of the victims, the case returned to the national political agenda as of the 2006 presidential elections. An ambitious official operation set in motion the rewriting of the history of the State crimes to exonerate the intellectual authors in the eyes of public opinion.

One day before the 9th anniversary of the massacre, the political association Alternative Citizen 21 and the Center for Economics Research and Teaching  (CIDE) reported that they had assumed the defense of 75  of the Acteal detainee and were calling upon the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation (SCJN) to establish new parameters of action in the case. The Division of Legal Studies of the center justified its involvement in the case as an example of the abysmal state of the administration of justice.

Curiously, in a country in which the prisons are full of innocent indigenous people, victims of power, the educational institution was involved in the defense of paramilitaries of Acteal that killed off the members of Las Abejas. The initiative was accompanied by a noisy media campaign, the central role of which was carried out by a professor of CIDE, a defender of paramilitaries, electoral ally at that time of Felipe Calderón, years later superdelegate of the 4T in Morelos, and author of the exculpatory story of the assassins: Hugo Eric Flores Cervantes.

Hugo Eric Flores Cervantes, prominent politician in the 4T and defender of paramilitary murderers. Photo: Facebook

August 12, 2009, arguing that the murderers did not receive due process, the SCJN decided to release 20, who were plainly identified by the families of the victims, under the claim that the Attorney General of the Republic’s Office fabricated evidence to incriminate the prisoners. On February 2, 2012 it ordered the release of seven more. It never resolved whether the paramilitaries were innocent or guilty, because the court did not impart criminal justice, that is, it never got into the merits of the case, but rather only resolved an injunction on second hearing. At least 4 of the 11 ministers that were part of the (including the current Senator Olga Sánchez Cordero) owe their post to the former president, Ernesto Zedillo, the head-of-state when the massacre took place. 

Today there is unrelenting violence in Aldama and Chalchihuítan, with deaths and displaced people, as a consequence of the release of the material assassins of Acteal. The paramilitaries of Chenalhó that over the years have attacked the residents of these municipalities are the same ones that killed the members of Las Abejas de Acteal 24 years ago, or family members of the murderers. Rosa Pérez, former municipal president of Chenalhó, a key figure in the reactivation of the civilian armed groups, is family of those who perpetrated the massacre. Abraham Cruz, until recently the municipal treasurer, is the son of the pastor who blessed the guns of the murderers. (

At CIDE, there are excellent teachers and brilliant and committed students. But, as the case of Acteal demonstrates, that does not obviate the fact that the center has been used for what it was used for. 

This article was published in La Jornada on December 21, 2021. English translation by Schools for Chiapas.

Want to receive our weekly blog digest in your inbox?

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top