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Oaxaca and Chiapas 

Monday, July 23, 2007

Acteal and Las Abejas

Ten years ago I taught Mexican history for the first time at Illinois State University and wanted to travel to Mexico to learn a bit more about the country so that I could better teach the subject. We arrived with a Schools for Chiapas delegation to Oventic barely a week after a brutal massacre of 45 pacifist Abejas (Bees) at Acteal. That was a powerful and troubling experience, leading us to return in 2000 with Tomás on a Cloudforest delegation for the third-year anniversary of the December 22 massacre. That experience was also so powerful, that I thought I would return every couple years for the anniversary. It is hard to believe that it has been almost seven years since I was in the community. It was good to be back.

Whereas Zapatistas talked about “compañeras y compañeros,” Abeja leaders welcomed us as “hermanas y hermanos” to the “tierra sagrada de los martires de Acteal. Diego Pérez Jímenez, the president of the board of directors of the Bees, gave us a brief history of the organization since its founding in 1992. The organization has its roots in a land conflict with PRIistas and grew into ambushes between the two sides that left one of their leaders dead. Without an investigation, the government took five of them into custody. They began to organize to gain their freedom, and marched on San Cristóbal to demand their freedom. The march did not have a name, and they began to look for one: ant, butterfly, but finally they settled on the Bees because bees have a Queen, produce honey, look for flowers and water, and always come back to the hive. We also work like this, Diego said. Through the march, pilgrimage, and prayer, they were able to gain their freedom. The civil society organization Las Abejas was born.

Vice president Miguel Hernando Vasquez explained how Las Abejas were founded as a result of injustice and the violation of human rights. The organization was not created without reason, and given the lingering conflict the organization still has a role to play. Not all of the paramilitaries from the December 22, 1997 massacre have been captured, and more importantly the intellectual authors of the crime have not been identified. They face continued rumors that the paramilitary group will return, and that they still have arms hidden in caves to kill us. Miguel called for justice for the community and the world, but declared their determination to continue in a peaceful struggle. We won’t lose our road, he emphasized. We won’t use arms. We will continue the struggle through the word of god, prayer, and fasting. We are not alone; we draw on the strength of god..

Diego continued that they were always living with threats from paramilitary groups and the military. They have asked the government to demilitarize the area, but they have not done so. Both the military and paramilitary come through here on a daily basis. They continue the struggle so as not to lose force. They gain strength from the thousands of visitors to the community. Even though they suffer, they will continue the struggle and continue to ask for peace and justice–not just here but throughout the entire world. Diego concluded by inviting us to return in December for the tenth anniversary of the massacre and the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of the Bees. They are planning a huge celebration, and indeed it is very tempting to return.

After the meeting with the Abeja board, we visited the community of El Nueva Paraiso who had been displaced from their home community of San Clemente where 27 families lived on 147 hectares of land. Almost eight years ago they had left San Clemente for Pantelhó before finally buying 8.5 hectares of land this April at their current site. Community representative Manuel directed the conversation, and translated other community members’ comments from their native Tzotzil into Spanish. At first the men dressed in western clothes and wearing rubber boots common in the campo spoke, and when they were done barefoot women in traditional-style dress took their turn. It was one of the rare times in Chiapas that women addressed us, though the entire conversation was mediated through Manuel. It was unclear whether he was the only one with strong Spanish skills, or whether he preferred it this way so as to control and direct the discussion. Typical of Indigenous narratives, the stories were often less than linear or chronological and somewhat repetitive but also often painful as community members recalled their difficult history.

Antonio began with telling us how the community joined Las Abejas when they faced arrest warrants. They were not guilty, but were afraid. Lucas told us how Juan Jimenez arrived in San Clemente to escape a murder charge in Pantelhó and began to extort payment from community members. His thugs could not properly be termed a paramilitary group because they did not have visible contact with the police, but they did work together. Mariano explained how in 1999, Juan Jimenez had demanded 850 pesos from each family that they paid, but when he began to demand yet more money they could not afford it and were forced to leave for Pantelhó where 17 families lived in 10 small houses. Sebastian told how they had borrowed the money against their coffee harvest, and that Juan Jimenez wanted the money to buy two of his brothers out of prison. Miguel said that when community members said they did not have the money Juan Jimenez’s henchmen grabbed and beat Diego. Antonio Luna “el viejo” said that he talked to the mayor who said he would talk to Juan Jimenez to stop the abuse, but when the mayor did nothing the community was left without any legal recourse.

Now it was the women’s turn to speak, and Juana said that although they struggled for justice they received no help from the government. María and Rosa explained that they could not get justice because of Juan Jimenez’s links with the government. Finally, the group left San Clemente with support from the Zapatistas. As refugees in Pantelhó, the men could not get jobs and the entire group suffered. Women went to work as servants in the houses of mestizos where they faced long days with low pay. Katarina said that a French parish priest in Chenalhó helped them out. María said that with the arrival of observers they brought money to help buy the current plot of land on which they live. Margarita said that now that they have wood to cook, and they are happy to be here. Manuel explained the year-long process of finding the land and pulling together the funds to buy it, and the support of Dr. Raimundo at CEDECI to survey the plot. Now they have the title for the land. But they still hear gunfire at night, which makes them uneasy. They like having observers in the community because they feel safer. Juan Jimenez wants to come kill the Abejas, but it is harder when observers are present. It is important to show that we have contact with others, Manuel emphasized. They do not receive help from the Zapatistas because they are engaged in different struggles. “We are pacifists,” he emphasized. “We ask for justice only with words.”

I had forgotten how beautiful the mountains in Chiapas were, and I found the rock outcroppings above the aptly named El Nuevo Paraiso particularly stunning. As the van wound its way on the dusty gravel road up the hill I struggled to get a picture of the rocks out of the window. Below we could see the clear outline of the community. After only 3 months the high population density on the small plot was already denuding the land compared to the lush surrounding mountains. I handed my camera to Walt who promptly took a picture of a tree instead. While the Zapatista communities with which we met maintained their proud determination to break bonds of dependency and remain autonomous from the government, those at El Nuevo Paraiso openly welcomed donations and external assistance–and in fact seemed to be dependent on such aid. Delegation members responded in kind. A proud but broken people? For me, it was one of the most disheartening meetings.

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