BY BARRY FATLAND
LOS ANGELES - On the morning of December 22, several dozen hooded gunmen opened fire on Tzotzil Indian refugees who were praying in a church in Acteal, a hamlet in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. At least 45 men, women, and children were killed and dozens more were wounded in the attack.
Those targeted were among a group of about 300 working people who had formed an organization called Las Abejas (The Bees) organizing support for land reform and other basic rights for rural toilers.
María Vázquez Gómez, who lost all nine members of her family in the massacre, said: "They accuse us of being Zapatistas, but we don't belong to any party or political organization. We were never able to convince them of that and they warned us that if we didn't join the PRI, they were going to kill all of us." She was referring to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.
According to witnesses, the massacre lasted for nearly 6 hours, with local "public safety" police stationed about 500 meters from where the crime was taking place.
Pedro Vásquez Ruiz, among 200 people from Acteal who took refuge in a school in the adjacent village of Polhó after the slaughter, said he had fled from another village to settle in Acteal in October "because the PRI supporters were demanding 400 pesos from each of us so they could buy guns and attack the sympathizers of the Zapatistas. They said they would kill us if we didn't pay, so I left."
The Jan. 1, 1994, armed revolt by indigenous peoples in Chiapas, led by the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN), brought the intolerable conditions of oppression and exploitation in that region to the attention of the world.
Zapatista rebels eventually agreed to negotiate a cease- fire with the federal government. Negotiations broke down in September 1996.
Outrage over the Christmas-time massacre throughout Mexico and the world pressured the Zedillo government to arrest Jacinto Arias Cruz, the PRI mayor of Chenalhó, a municipality that includes Acteal, charging him with providing the AK-47s and other heavy weapons to the thugs and organizing them to carry out the assault. Some 40 people have been formally charged in relation to the crime so far.
In a December 26 communiqué, EZLN Subcommander Marcos stated that "the direct responsibility for these bloody deeds lies with Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León and the Interior Minister, who have for the past two years given the green light to the counterinsurgency plan of the federal army."
The massacre and subsequent anger over it in Mexico sparked the resignation of Interior Minister Emilio Chuayffet. Zedillo replaced him with Francisco Labastida Ochoa, who calls Chuayffet his "personal friend."
Several hundred people protested the massacre in front of the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles January 2, demanding the end of the army occupation of the indigenous communities in Mexico and calling for an independent investigation of the killing. The sponsoring group, the National Committee for Democracy in Mexico, also called for an end to government funding, training, and equipping of the rightist paramilitary groups in Chiapas.
Barry Fatland is a member of the United Transportation
Union in Los Angeles.
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