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By RANDY GLEASON
When Marc Becker and his wife, Cheryl Musch, planned to go to southern Mexico during winter break, they thought they were volunteering to build a school.
But that all changed after the Dec. 22 massacre of 45 Indians in the town of Acteal, one of many areas affected by the fighting between the government and the Zapatista Army of the National Liberation, which launched a rebellion against the government in 1994 to demand more rights for the Mayan Indians of Chiapas.
So Becker, an Illinois State University professor who teaches Mexican history, and Musch instead found themselves taking testimony from people who survived the attack by paramilitary forces many believe are supported by the Mexican government.
More than 8,000 displaced people are living in refugee camps of tents made with sticks and pieces of plastic, which are inadequate against the mountain cold. Infants are dying because of the bad conditions and lack of medicine.
300 to 600 killed since 1994
"Unfortunately, what happened Dec. 22 is not an isolated incident," said Musch. "About 300 to 600 people have been killed since the uprising in 1994. But it's been one at a time, five at a time, so it doesn't make international news."
The testimony is being used to convey the plight of the Zapatistas to the international community, as well as the Mexican government. But according to Becker, the United Nations does not have a role in the mediations, largely because of political and economic reasons.
"The uprising began in 1994, just as Canada, the United States and Mexico signed the NAFTA agreement," said Becker. "This is all very embarrassing to Mexico, which wants to portray itself as a first-world country, so it's working overtime to control the situation."
A cease-fire is in effect but peace negotiations have been bogged down since 1996.
Becker and Musch spent several days living in Zapatista-controlled areas. At times they were forced to flee into the mountains because the Zapatistas feared that the same paramilitary forces responsible for the Acteal attack were moving against the settlements.
Face to face with Mexican army
At one point, Becker, Musch and others came face to face with Mexican army soldiers stationed outside the refugee camp where the group was gathering testimony from massacre survivors. Many of the refugees were concerned about the army's presence and asked the volunteers to intervene.
"Group members asked the soldiers to withdraw and after several tense moments, the soldiers got into their truck and moved on," Musch said.
For Becker and Musch, the trip was a deeply politicizing experience. Many people have interpreted the massacre at Acteal as an attempt to force the Zapatistas to fight back so the government would appear justified in crushing their resistance, Becker said. He added that the presence of people from the United States and other countries probably helps keep the violence from escalating too much.
"We believe that an international presence in Chiapas makes it more difficult for either side to respond with force."
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