MEXICO: STUDY ON ACTEAL MASSACRE SAYS MANY PRISONERS INNOCENT
New evidence, analysis lead historian to call for fresh investigation by Supreme Court.
LOS ANGELES, December 21 (Compass Direct News) – On the 10th anniversary of the massacre of 45 civilians in Mexico’s Chiapas state, a new study on the December 22, 1997 killings in Acteal village points toward the innocence of 32 evangelicals and other peasants serving prison terms.
The detailed study by historian Héctor Aguilar Camín, based partially on primary sources and published in the last three monthly issues of Mexico’s Nexos magazine, concludes that “there are tens of innocent people in prison who had nothing directly to do with the fact” of the massacre in the village north of San Cristóbal de las Casas.
For the past decade, the debate about how 21 women (four pregnant), 18 children and six elderly men were killed has revolved around whether the tragedy was a “massacre” carried out by numerous “paramilitary” villagers or a “confrontation” between a handful of neighboring peasants and Zapatista National Liberation Army rebels.
Five confessed killers have testified that they and four others engaged only Zapatista militia to avenge the death of a relative, while the federal attorney general’s office charged that at least 50 pro-government “paramilitaries” descended on a relief camp hermitage full of the displaced peasants bent on killing and robbing them.
In this month’s Nexos, Aguilar Camín argues that there was both a confrontation and a massacre. New evidence, he suggests, shows there was some overlap between the two but that they were largely separate incidents.
The confrontation, Aguilar Camín says, amounted to a series of firefights between a Zapatista column and the nine neighboring villagers seeking blood revenge – shoot-outs that initially caught some civilians in the crossfire but preceded the actual massacre by several hours.
“Time has added testimony and evidence that requires adding pieces to the portrait,” Aguilar Camín writes. “One of these is that the Acteal massacre was not just a massacre but a battle. Or, better said: a massacre that was committed during and after the battle.”
A doctor reviewing corpses between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. on December 23 found that some of the victims had died within the previous five to seven hours, Aguilar Camín found – seven to 10 hours after the avengers left the area. Blood had not coagulated, the eyes of one boy’s body still shone with moistness, and on several corpses rigor mortis had not set in as it does after 10-12 hours.
The firefights took place between 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. the previous day, according to the avengers’ testimony. To Aguilar Camín’s disbelief, prosecutors assert that the same allegedly numerous attackers went on killing for more than seven hours, until after 5 p.m. Aguilar Camín determined that the testimony of the killers and others that the avengers retreated from the area at 2:30 p.m. was convincing.
Shells found at the site of the shooting do not match the firearms of the nine avengers, Aguilar Camín notes, and they are far too few to support the prosecution’s contention that 50 or more paramilitaries attacked.
Raising more questions for Aguilar Camín was the discovery that 12 of the victims had died from blows by machete and blunt instruments.
“None of the prosecution witnesses nor the confessed aggressors speak of this,” he notes. “One after another speaks only of firearms. No one describes anyone using a machete or striking blows to a cranium.”
Raising questions to urge the Mexican Supreme Court to undertake an entirely new investigation, the study does not speculate on who killed the indigenous peasants, who belonged to a non-violent but rebel-sympathetic group called Las Abejas (The Bees). The displaced peasants were gathering donated food and clothing at the hermitage.
Recalling that the attorney general’s office asserts that there were at least 50 attacking paramilitaries, and that the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center claims there were more than 90, Aguilar Camín questions how only 45 civilians could have been killed.
“How could any of the 300 defenseless people praying in the hermitage survive an attack of 90 armed people shooting high-caliber arms?” he asks. “How could there have been so many survivors in an attack of so many killers, with so many arms, and so many hours to kill?”
The attorney general’s office collected testimony from 120 witnesses who identified 266 different people as those responsible for the massacre, Aguilar Camín notes.
“Almost one attacker for each of the 300 people praying in the hermitage,” he writes. “Far from clarifying the facts, these witnesses multiply the number of attackers to a farfetched amount, making even more unlikely the number of deaths.”
Aguilar Camín’s study acknowledges its debt to the research of Hugo E. Flores, author of the forthcoming Acteal: The Other Injustice. In an article in Nexos in June 2006, Flores and co-author Alejandro Posadas point out the wildly varying testimony of the survivors.
For example, one said there were six attackers, another said there were about 100. Another survivor testified that there were 30 assailants dressed in the dark blue uniforms of the state police. The same witness later said the uniforms were the marine blue of government soldiers.
“Why the confusion?” Flores and Posadas ask. “All concur that they were in the church when the attack began, however, there is not a single bullet mark inside the church. Is it believable that, fleeing from a massacre, when what one intends is to save one’s life, hide, make oneself invisible, any human being can recognize one, two, five or even more than 15 people, as the various witnesses did?”
Of the 266 people the survivors and their friends and relatives accused of the massacre, the attorney general’s office charged 124 with homicide: 113 civilians and 11 members of the local public security, of which 83 were convicted.
Among those convicted were 34 evangelicals; some of them say they were arrested because Zapatista sympathizers with whom they had been embroiled in years of land disputes named them. Others said they were simply nearby when authorities made random round-ups.
The evangelicals originally convicted are serving 25- or 36-year sentences and have exhausted all appeals. One has died in prison and another has been released as a minor.
Along with these remaining 32 evangelicals, about 15 other Tzotzil peasants convicted in the Acteal slaughter have become Christians since their imprisonment.
The testimonies of the five confessed killers (four others remain at large) agree that the nine avengers were the only ones involved in the firefights and that the decision to attack the Zapatistas was a private family decision made with no involvement from government authorities. They also agree that the sole motive was to avenge the assassination of a relative – the latest of 18 unprosecuted murders by Zapatistas over the previous three months.
Government prosecutors unduly dismissed much of the testimony of the five confessed avengers, Aguilar Camín says, noting that the killers testified that state security forces were nearby and did nothing. Approaching what they thought would be entrenchments of Zapatistas at a school in Acteal Centro, the avengers instead found state security forces and changed course – to the Los Naranjos camp for indigenous peasants displaced by the military conflict, with its hermitage.
Aguilar Camín highlights the judicial irregularities of the round-up and conviction of the peasants – apprehensions without evidence or warrant, charging 83 people with homicide when only 45 people were killed, lack of translators and attorneys for the Tzotzil Mayans – and notes that many of the accused traveled to Tuxtla Gutierrez at the authorities’ request to cooperate with the investigation, only to be surprised with arrest.
Among those told he would be put up in a hotel in the state capital was Pablo Perez Perez, an evangelical who has said he was working at home weaving cloth on a hand loom the day of the massacre. Three months after the massacre, authorities summoned him and several of his neighbors to Tuxtla Gutierrez, saying that they wanted to “clear up the matter of Acteal” and promising that he and his neighbors would return home within 72 hours.
Instead, they summarily jailed the father of three along with the other evangelicals. Incarcerated with him was now-73-year-old Hilario Luna Perez, who has said he was in bed with a fever the day of the massacre. Also jailed then was Alonso Vazquez Ramirez, a father of six who told area Christians he was hoeing corn and only heard of the killings on the radio the next day.
The avengers have acknowledged that some fleeing civilians were killed in the crossfire of the skirmishes with the Zapatista rebels, testifying that they do not how many were shot or by which side. The avengers also have admitted that, although they did not enter or shoot into the hermitage, it did come between them and the Zapatistas when the rebels took up positions in trenches around it.
Fray Bartolomé Center’s Retort
The Fray Bartolomé center, a prime source of legal funding for the accusing survivors, remains unmoved by Aguilar Camín’s report.
Blanca I. Martínez Bustos, director of the center, insists in a letter to Nexos that the testimony of the survivors is accurate: That there were more than 80 paramilitary attackers, that the onslaught lasted at least seven hours and that the survivors properly identified the guilty parties within three days of the massacre.
For the 10th anniversary of the massacre, the Fray Bartolomé center is turning up the volume on its primary charge that unprosecuted government and security officials either supplied arms to the alleged paramilitaries or joined into the onslaught. Ironically, the center’s version of events, with its extended time frame, may fill in some of Aguilar Camín’s blanks about what happened after the nine avengers left.
“Multiple testimonies of the victims have indicated the tight ties between those armed groups and the police,” Martínez Bustos writes in her letter to Nexos, adding that the terrain of the Los Naranjos relief camp left no escape from the attackers other than a path leading to a nest of police 200 meters away.
“The paramilitaries played the part of hammer, while the police played the part of the anvil to obtain what finally happened – cutting off the path of possible escape,” Martínez Bustos concludes.
The Fray Bartolomé center director, who now acknowledges that machetes were used in the attack, says Aguilar Camín’s complaint that the attorney general’s investigation was imprecise and inconclusive, and that defendants did not receive due process, is not new.
“The investigation has been manipulated over and again,” she writes. “The PGR [attorney general’s office] made sure to cut the line of command that pointed toward the police and the Army, and even more to [then-President] Ernesto Zedillo, in concluding that the massacre was the product of inter-community problems. If the evidence against some of the defendants is weak, it’s precisely because of the lack of due investigation so as not to delve further, not because they were not guilty.”
Through the Mist Dimly
The fog and layers of gauzy clouds ringing the area’s cold mountain villages reflect the haziness over what happened the afternoon and evening of December 22, 1997. Aguilar Camín asserts that virtually nothing is reliably known about that time frame but notes that there were reports of “shots being heard” after 3 p.m.
He concurs with the Fray Bartolomé center that some former security and government officials remain at large who should have been arrested, or were arrested and freed.
In the same vein, area evangelicals view the imprisoned Christians as victims of a pincer machination, squeezed between survivors clamoring for convictions and government police and military forces eager to shift blame away from their minions.
Aguilar Camín’s report also agrees with the Fray Bartolomé center that local, state and federal authorities, including police within earshot of the gunfire, were slow to respond to morning reports of violence to say the least.
Mexico’s Supreme Court is reviewing the cases of the convicted peasants, and Chiapas officials have re-opened the investigation into the slayings promising objective, unbiased efforts.
But local Christians are not encouraged, fearing that the same Zapatista sympathizers who put the evangelicals in prison have re-opened the case only to prosecute more pro-government peasants they are fighting in land disputes. The area Christians fear that innocent evangelicals again will be rounded up along with the guilty.
Their concerns follow from the Fray Bartolomé center having predicated its call to prosecute the “intellectual authors,” or government and security officials, on the assumption of guilt of the “material authors” now in prison.
With groups like the Fray Bartolomé center, backed by the Catholic Church, supplying legal funds and pressure to keep the convicted behind bars, area evangelicals hold out little hope that an objective evaluation of the facts will emerge. They remember the Second District Judge in Chiapas acquitting six of the unduly convicted Tzotzil peasants in 2005 – and how, within days, the judge was mysteriously removed from the bench.