On the Acteal massacre in Chiapas:

Down with the dirty war against

the peasant movement in Mexico!

By Joseph Green
(from Communist Voice #16, Jan. 20, 1998)

. On December 22, in the Mexican state of Chiapas, a paramilitary gang went into the village of Acteal in the municipality of Chenalho and, for over four hours, murdered in cold blood as many people as they could. Using AK-47 assault rifles with dum-dum shells and other weapons, they chased down and killed 45 Tzotzil Indians, mostly women and children, and wounded dozens more. They focused on refugees from other villages who were seeking sanctuary in Acteal. This is an atrocity just as horrendous as the massacres, now in the news, of villages in Algeria. Local Mexican police and government officials, notified of the murders as they took place, refused to go to the aid of the people in Acteal.

. This is not an isolated crime. Ever since the indigenous peasants in Chiapas rose up in the Zapatista rebellion on Jan. 1, 1994, the PRI-led government of Mexico has responded with brutality. The PRI, the so-called Party of the Institutionalized Revolution, has led Mexico with an iron hand for decades on end. Despite its "revolutionary" name, it has aimed at building a bourgeois Mexico and has come down with a heavy hand on worker and peasant militants who have stood up for their own rights. Although the government agreed to a ceasefire with the EZLN and eventually signed the San Andres agreement last year, it has refused to implement it, recoiling from the self-government for indigenous areas which it had promised. One of the government's responses to the peasant rebellion was to foster paramilitary gangs in Chiapas to terrorize and disintegrate the EZLN's peasant base. Indeed, the magazine Proceso has just released the text of a military document from October 1994 describing the strategy of utilizing such gangs to eliminate the EZLN's social base. Even when the government has talked about reforms and sat down to negotiate with the EZLN, it continued to foster the gangs behind the scenes.

. Since the Acteal massacre, the repression in Chiapas has continued. The national PRI government of President Zedillo has increased army activity in Chiapas under the pretext of preserving order. Troops have been sent to harass the villages known as most sympathetic to the EZLN. Sometime they come with hooded informers who are asked to point out village leaders, and they have searched for EZLN supporters and supplies. Instead of disarming the paramilitary gangs and punishing the army and PRI officials who armed the gangs, the government has sought to disarm the peasants threatened by the gangs. 5,000 more troops have been sent to Chiapas, reinforcing the 35,000 troops already there, and there is the danger that the army will go on a full-scale offensive against the peasants.

. At the same time, more and more information is coming out about the involvement of high officials in the Acteal massacre. This is causing a government crisis. The governor of Chiapas and the federal minister of the interior have already resigned. Charges have already been laid against certain policemen and there is the possibility that high officials may also be arrested. No matter how hard Zedillo's government attempts to portray the Acteal massacre as simply a local peasant squabble, the scandal around Acteal is threatening to expose the dirty war in Chiapas.

. Jan. 12 was an the international day of protest against the dirty war in Chiapas, with demonstrations in Spain, Italy, Switzerland, the U. S. , etc. as well as in Mexico City and elsewhere around Mexico. In Chiapas, it was business as usual as the Mexican police leveled their guns and fired at protesters in Ocosingo, killing one women, Guadalupe Mendez Lopez, and wounding her two-year-old daughter and another person. This has widened the scandal and resulted in further investigations of the police. Meanwhile the federal government has also used the occasion to reinforce the military presence in Chiapas, in the name of taking over from the police.

The dirty war in Chiapas

. Both local and national officials of PRI have portrayed the massacre in Acteal as simply internecine feuds among the Tzotzil indians over land, religion, or local grievances. In fact, the Acteal massacre was organized and protected by PRI and government officials.

. Local officials knew what was going on during the massacre and sat on their hands. Even investigators from the Mexican government's own National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) hold that police knew was what going on and did nothing: At police checkpoint only 1. 5 miles from Acteal, the gunfire should have been clearly audible, and escaping villagers told the police what was happening. Within an hour of the start of the massacre, Catholic priests had also notified the state police about gunfire in Acteal and called the office of the PRI governor of the state, Julio Cesar Ruiz Ferro, but neither the state police nor Ruiz Ferro did anything. The PRI mayor of Chenalho, Jacinto Arias Cruz, knew what was going on, but did nothing. In fact, he has been indicted for having supplied the weapons for the massacre and helping organize it. And it is now known that local police actual captured the murderers hours after the massacre, but released them with their weapons after finding out that they were a PRI death squad.

. For that matter, the paramilitary gang had announced the massacre before hand, and the local authorities had been informed. One opposition legislator had called the office of the state governor three times on Dec. 21 to warn him of the imminent massacre, but he refused to take the calls. And no wonder. Ruiz Ferro justifies the paramilitary gangs as a legitimate response to the EZLN, saying that "It is hard to 'sterilize' a situation like this, and say there are arms on one side but there can't be any weapons on the other. " For Ruiz Ferro, it isn't enough that there are 35,000 army troops and innumerable state police swarming over Chiapas, but there must be death squads too or else the conflict isn't fair. To ensure that these squads have weapons, his administration financed them, supposedly for the purpose of "development". The day before the massacre, the newspaper La Jornada had published the text of such an agreement from July 1997, in which the PRI-administration of Chiapas promised 4,600,000 pesos to the paramilitary group "Peace and Justice".

. These groups are organized in order to disrupt the base of the Zapatista movement, and to force peasants to flee. Attacks of various sorts have been carried on for a long time now, not only by "Peace and Justice", which attempted to murder Bishop Samuel Ruiz, but by groups with names like "Red Mask", which is the one that attacked Acteal, "Revolutionary Anti-Zapatista Insurgent Movement", "Armed Forces of the People", and "Throat Slitters". The attack on Acteal was an attempt to further terrorize the peasants and create more refugees. Since then, even more peasants have left their villages to flee the paramilitary gangs or the military.

The Zedillo government and the massacre

. The PRI administration of President Zedillo has taken a hypocritical attitude to the massacre.Zedillo has declared that it was "a cruel, absurd and unacceptable criminal act" and made some conciliatory gestures, while he has stepped up the military repression of Chiapas and tried to shield the dirty war from exposure. Nevertheless, the exposures of government officials have continued, with the CNDH saying that "The sum total of [irregularities] by state officials--in the days leading up to the massacre and the day itself--leads one to presume if not their direct participation, then their knowledge and complicity of the armed group's actions. "(1)

. Zedillo has sought to stop the escalating exposure of PRI by sacrificing some pawns and, perhaps, settling some scores within the PRI, but he refuses to admit the relation of the massacre to government policy. He has taken the investigation out of the hands of the state PRI administration of Chiapas which would simply have covered everything up, and put it in the hands of federal investigators. Arrests were made of the 46 gunmen, the mayor of Chenalho, the commander of a Chiapas state police detachment situated near Chenalho, and a number of other policemen, but the higher officials responsible for organizing and financing the death squads have still been untouched. A local police commander has testified that he was ordered to let PRI members carry illegal weapons, but no state officials have yet been named. Only continued mass pressure will ensure that the investigation proceeds.

. So as of yet, the higher officials at most resign. Governor Ruiz Ferro has been replaced with another PRI politician, Roberto Albores Gullien, who supposedly is more conciliatory towards the peasants. But Ruiz has not been charged with anything. The interior secretary of Mexico (responsible for the government security forces) was Emilio Chuayffet, who had been denounced by many for complicity in the Acteal massacre. He has resigned, supposedly for "family reasons", but he was not charged with anything.

. Most important, Zedillo is not only shielding the higher officials and concealing the dirty war responsible for the Acteal massacre, but is continuing it. When the new interior secretary, Francisco Labastida Ochoa, took office, he immediately repeatedly the tired old lie that the Acteal massacre was just a matter of local disputes. He said that he would have the military seize the weapons on all sides of the conflict. In effect, he announced that, to solve the problem of massacres of pro-Zapatista peasants, he would seek to disarm the Zapatistas. This Labastida called seeking a "decisive peace", by which he apparently understands the decisive elimination of opposition to the Mexican government. Since then, Labastida has issued a "clarification" that he is not attempting to disarm the EZLN, provided it stays in its zones. But apparently the army doesn't hear too well, for it has continued operations in the EZLN areas.

The military squeeze

. Naturally, using the military as a cure for massacres is like having the fox guard the chicken coop. The military was implicated in the Acteal massacre. Moreover, a month before the massacre, the military itself raided Acteal. Two truckloads of soldiers entered, harassed the inhabitants, and said they were searching for arms. After one man was harassed, peasant women confronted the soldiers, who eventually beat them. The soldiers only left after ransacking various peasants' homes.

. Now Labastida and Zedillo claim that extending this military action as far as possible is the cure for massacres. Following this strategy, Zedillo has beefed up the military in Chiapas. While the army has sought to appear as the even-handed supplier of aid to the peasants, it has pushed into various pro-Zapatista villages and sought to seize EZLN leaders and supplies. It has moved provocatively even into villages like La Realidad and Morelia, which are not only EZLN strongholds but were among the villages that hosted the EZLN's first Intercontinental Conference for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism; these villages may well have been special targets for symbolic reasons. The army has seized and displayed, not just arms, but uniforms, books and whatever it could supposedly find in EZLN storage areas, and it has proudly displayed its booty for reporters.

. The military has been met by peasant resistance. Many villagers have indignantly refused to accept aid from the military. In Xoyep, which is located in the municipality of Chenalho, and has the second largest number of refugees of all place in Chiapas, 200 indigenous peasants confronted the soldiers for six hours. In many other villages, indigenous peasant women demanded the soldiers go. Such scenes were repeated in village after village. The military has found little cooperation with its demands

. Thus the army is still waging the dirty war against the peasants. Moreover, the more a military solution is sought in Chiapas, the more the role of the army in Mexican politics is enhanced. Some bourgeois politicians are also looking to the armed forces as a way to fight the high level of crime in Mexico City. This is not due to any sterling record of the military in this matter; in fact, the military has been linked to the torture and disappearance of civilians whom it regards as suspects. Furthermore, the Zedillo administration has given the Mexican army policy-making and policing functions with regard to the anti-drug war, and the U. S. military has stepped up its cooperation with the Mexican military in the name of fighting drugs. The military role is being enhanced, even though the military is just as involved in drug corruption as any other sector of the PRI government: indeed, several Mexican army generals have been arrested for protecting major drug lords. But under the banner of the anti-drug war, the Mexican military has received American helicopters and training, and these special units have found their way into other operations, such as those in Chiapas. The strengthening of the military at a time of political turbulence presents a danger in its own right.

How can this happen during "democratization"?

. How can such things be happening when Mexico is supposed to be in a process of democratization? When the PRI lost its majority in the lower house of the national legislature in the elections of July 6 last year, the media in the U. S. trumpeted that the long dictatorial rule of PRI was over and now things would be fine. But in Communist Voice, it was pointed out that, in fact, these elections "left the PRI with a good deal of power, including the Presidency of Mexico, [the majority in] the Senate, and almost a majority in the lower house. They also left PRI in control of the army and with a gigantic administrative and police network in place. " As well, although the elections were relatively clean in Mexico City and some other areas, this was not the case everywhere. PRI was keeping up "the military pressure on rebellious peasants" in the southern states of Mexico. It was pointed out that "It is unlikely that PRI will exit graciously from power; it's even possible that part of PRI will rebel. .  .  . But in any case, there will be a period of struggle against PRI's repressive apparatus, and even bloody episodes are a possibility." (2) Acteal was one such episode.

. Thus, although the July 6 elections showed that the PRI system was breaking up, this breakup was only just beginning. Moreover, what was taking place was not a revolution, as many on the left had hoped for, but simply a liberalization of the political regime. Unless the masses fight for their own social demands, the bourgeoisie will insist that the masses pull in their belts and sacrifice out of gratitude for seeing a system of one-party bourgeois rule replaced by a system of rule by several bourgeois parties.

. A common misconception is that democratization, or at least true democratization, means the rule of the working people and satisfaction of their demands. But democratization, important as it is, does not overthrow the capitalist system but only provides a broader sphere for the class struggle. This too is revealed by the continuation of the dirty war in Chiapas even after the July 6 elections.

. What does the current liberalization like? As one Mexican group put it:

"And then one speaks of democratic transition. Yes, there is freedom to adjust to extreme hunger, to unemployment, to delinquency, ill health and lack of opportunities for the children and youth. There is freedom to agree with the neoliberal model of underdevelopment and economic exploitation. There is freedom to manifest disagreement but without threatening either the security of the system or the continuation of the neoliberal model in our country. " (3)

. That is precisely what the bourgeoisie has in mind: there will be squabbles in parliament and over government posts, but the workers and peasants will have but one real freedom--to starve for the benefit of the capitalists. So it is the task of militant workers and activists to utilize the political crisis to organize against the crushing exploitation of the bourgeoisie. They must utilize the political freedoms that will come with the increasing cracks in the PRI regime in order to organize a class struggle and build up independent class organization. This is the only way to ensure, on one hand, that PRI's dictatorial apparatus is truly smashed and, on the other hand, to frustrate the bourgeois plans to step up the exploitation of the masses in the name of democracy.

. If the PRI is allowed to crush peasant opposition in Chiapas and other southern states, this will encourage the bourgeoisie to treat any other rebellious working people in the same way. Much of the old PRI apparatus of suppression would then simply be transferred to a more general bourgeois control. Thus it is important to oppose the massacre at Acteal and the dirty war in Chiapas not only as justice for the local peasants, but in the interests of the working people of all Mexico. So long as the blood of the indigenous peasants stains Mexican politics, a precedent will exist for crushing anyone else who rises in the interests of the oppressed.


(1) Quoted in "Chiapas Officials Abetted Mexico Massacre: Report" by David Luhnow, Reuters, 17 Jan. 1998. (Back to text)

(2) "As PRI totters: Mexico in transition", Communist Voice, Oct. 25, 1997, pp. 11,12. (Text)

(3) From the Communique of Dec. 25 denouncing the Acteal massacre by the Popular Revolutionary Army. (Text)

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