by Raúl Zibechi in Desinformémonos
“We are living something similar to the time of Jesus. The Romans had no mercy. The narco has no mercy,” says Father Marcelo Perez, seated in the dining room of the parish of Our Lady of Guadalupe, in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas.
The church is perched atop a knoll, which is reached by wheezing up the 79 steps uphill. The reward is a stupendous panoramic view of wooded mountains over the white colonial city. In the middle, as if linking the natural surroundings and the urban stones, the church is encircled by a garden square where we find Father Marcelo, always surrounded by people who consult him and ask for his advice.
Marcelo was educated in the diocese of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, which he defines as “very conservative,” but he was sent to Chenalhó in 2001, where his life took a turn. “Acteal showed me the light,” he says firmly. The Acteal massacre of December 22, 1997, with its toll of 45 Tsotsil killed while they were praying at the hands of paramilitaries trained to combat the EZLN, continues to have a brutal presence in the municipality and throughout Chiapas.
“I was afraid but I could see that in Acteal people are free. I am a shepherd, but the sheep are very brave. I joined them to denounce impunity and to fight against the Rural Cities project of the government of Juan Sabines,” the father continues in a story that takes him from his formative years to his commitment to his people.
He denies being inspired by Liberation Theology, and recites the four pillars of his thinking and way of doing things: the reality we face, the word of God in the face of it, the position of the church, and the commitments that must be undertaken.” To talk about liberation theology is to get into conflicts,” he says pragmatically.
Then he returns to his theme: “Acteal converted me.” The pain that is born when he listens to the survivors, to Maria, to Zenaida, to women and men who lost their whole family. “How can I tell them that God loves them,” the father exclaims. That is why he does not draw his inspiration from the biblical word, from the theory born of the sacred text, but takes another direction, “to weep with those who weep, to suffer with those who suffer” and, above all, “to walk with them.”
The path is not about changing parties
The words roll across the table laid with a simple lunch. We are enveloped by his enthusiasm and the sincerity of his pain. “Survivors know how to read, there is the light.” Impossible not to forget very similar words pronounced decades ago by the assassinated Monsignor Oscar Romero, who expressed himself in a very similar way to the father of Chenalhó: “The blood of Rutilio Grande converted me”, he said in reference to the martyr of the Salvadoran peasant movement.
Father Marcelo’s conversion led him to walk with the peasant people. He not only accompanied the victims, but also denounced the material and intellectual authors of the violence, which led to persecution by the government of Chiapas. “In 2008 they set fire to the parish house, then they damaged the spark plugs and tires of my car, and on December 12, 2010 two young men beat me in the street,” he calmly recounts.
He was close to death when they connected a cable to the vehicle’s gas tank, which made him accept his transfer to Simojovel, where he arrived on August 5, 2011. “People started coming to tell of their sorrows, of the deaths. There I discovered that the criminals have agreements with the authorities and the reports provoked threats.”
On March 8, he organized a women’s pilgrimage against the sale of drugs next to the municipal presidency. He was accused of being a guerrilla and even a Zapatista, they put a price on his life until 2014 when the municipality and the PRI tried to mobilize the population against him, with very little popular support.
A turning point was the pilgrimage of 15 thousand people in October denouncing the Gómez Domínguez family, who came on the scene through hired assassins who carried out attacks and a media campaign against Father Marcelo, which led them to offer one million pesos for the head of the priest from Simojovel (https://bit.ly/3DIAWbp).
In the aforementioned communiqué, the Pueblo Creyente (Believing People)concludes that the changes do not come from a party “but from civil society, the originary peoples, the poor and middle class,” and denounces that Chiapas “is approaching a social explosion.”
His form of action is the call for pilgrimages, attended by tens of thousands of believers, and the denunciations against authorities and politicians. He succeeded in preventing the Gómez Domínguez family from winning the municipal elections but was sued for defamation before the PGR, although he recognizes that “the path is not about changing parties.”
In the following years there were sit-ins by the population and murders by organized crime, always protected by the authorities. “On December 12, 2017 I had the saddest mass of my life, for the death by cold and hunger of two elderly people.” Forced displacement of entire communities, more violence and deaths, bombs and shootings continue. But the population continued to resist.
In May 2017 the Indigenous Movement of the Zoque Believing People in Defense of Life and Territory (ZODEVITE) was created, and in June a massive pilgrimage to Tuxtla Gutierrez against mining and hydrocarbon concessions took place, since the Mexican government intended to concession more than 80 thousand hectares to foreign companies, affecting more than 40 ejidos and communities.
The mobilization was a new defeat for the scheme from above, but the violence continues. By 2021, more than 200 deaths were registered in Pantelhó due to state-organized crime, in a municipality of only 8,600 inhabitants in the highlands of Chiapas.
On July 3, Mario Santiz López was assassinated. On July 5, 2021, Simón Pedro Pérez López, catechist and former president of the board of directors of the Civil Society Las Abejas de Acteal, which promoted non-violence, was murdered for the crime of accompanying the Tsotsil communities of Pantellhó. At the wake Marcelo accused the “narco-city hall,” that is, the alliance between the State and organized crime.
Although he asked the communities “not to fall into the temptation of revenge,” on July 10 a communiqué was issued by the armed group “El Machete” created by the communities as self-defense in the face of violence. On July 26, 2021 thousands of hooded people took over the municipal seat, 19 men were shown in the central square with their hands handcuffed for having links to organized crime.
Although it was a collective community action (an uprising from below), apparently not called by El Machete, the Chiapas Attorney General’s Office issued an arrest warrant against Father Marcelo for the disappearance of 19 people in Pantelhó. It did not matter to them that the priest was in another place that day, in Simojovel, that he always called for peace, and that he arrived the day after to calm things down.
It’s the people’s life, not mine
The arrest warrant is still in effect. In October he was transferred to the Guadalupe church, where he now explains who is causing violence and death. “The authorities are accomplices of the narco. They have sought ways to silence us, through death threats and defamation on social networks. You feel afraid, but that doesn’t stop me.”
In his analysis of the situation, this Tsotsil indigenous man who has been a priest in Chiapas for 20 years maintains that it is not possible to stop the violence because the police are hired killers, because “we have a narco-State.” He is convinced that the violence will worsen and that a certain calm will follow, but at the cost of much blood. “Hopefully it will be the blood of priests and bishops, and not of the people.”
He maintains that we are in the midst of the storm, which is not solved with more storm but by seeking other paths. He distrusts the powers and the powerful: “If they kill me, it is a scandal, but if they kill a peasant, nothing happens. If it helps to give my life, here I am,” he concludes.
Before saying goodbye, he appeals to a biblical phrase, assuring us that the pains we go through are “the groans of childbirth.” He puts his principles and values before his own life: “I do not accept bodyguards. It is against the Gospel for someone to die so that I may live. It is not my life but that of the people.” In the haunch of the final greeting, he confesses: “I do not trust the police.”
This article was published in Desinformémonos on October 26th, 2022. https://desinformemonos.org/mexico-iii-padre-marcelo-la-tierra-gime-dolores-de-parto/ English translation by Schools for Chiapas.