Acteal, Mexico: Building Autonomy in the Shadow of Repression
by Andalusia Knoll
Article written with help from Koman Ilel.

Fernando Luna was six years old playing in a mountain side cave with his brother in the beautiful indigenous village of Acteal, Chiapas when they heard the thunderous footsteps and shouts of paramilitaries running by on the land above their heads.  Minutes later they heard the gunshots as the paramilitaries opened fire on a church full of people praying for peace in the region at a religious ceremony.    The paramilitaries left 45 people dead, the majority whom were women and children, 5 of whom were pregnant, and 22 who were younger than 16.  Of these 45 people, 7 were members of Fernando's family including his mother and brother.  Fernando said it made his childhood very difficult as he “had no one to care for him, make tortillas, and maintain the household” but also that it inspired him to spend his life fighting for justice.

Thirteen years later, Fernando is standing on stage at the annual commemoration of the massacre speaking about their struggle for autonomy.  He is a member of Las Abejas, a pacifist indigenous organization with members in 48 indigenous communities in Chenalho, Chiapas. From December 20th to 22th the Abejas hosted an encuentro entitled “Weaving Resistance and Autonomy  against Counterinsurgency and Dependency.”  Hundreds of people from across Mexico participated in this gathering, including residents of surrounding indigenous communities, and others from human rights organizations and social movements across the country.
Setting the soundtrack for the encuentro was the Acteal Chorus, who have kept the history of the massacre alive with their songs and have demanded an end to the impunity with  songs like “no vamos a callar”, which translates into we will not remain silent.  (See video here) The chorus continues,

“ No puedo pasar indiferente,Ante el dolor de tanta gente,
Yo no puedo callar,
No, no puedo callar,
Me van a perdonar amigos míos,
Pero ahora tengo un compromiso,
Y tengo que cantar la realidad”
“I can not keep silent,
I can not  be indifferent
Regarding the pain of so many people,
I can not keep silent,
No, I can not keep silent,
my friends will have to forgive me because
I now have a commitment
And I have to sing the reality”

This chorus was originally a purely religious group but following the massacre the chorus converted into a group singing songs of justice in Spanish and the Mayan indigenous language Tsotsil.   They perform at festivals in Acteal but also in the nearby city of San Cristobal de las Casas and are currently raising funds to record an album. Elena Gómez Santis, one of the indigenous woman who sings in the chorus told the website Global Voices “Our message is that we're looking for peace, justice, and tranquility in our village and the world at large.”

When speaking of justice many point to the fact that many of those who have committed this atrocity are now free, and have returned to live in the very same communities where the survivors of the massacres live.  Susanna Montes of the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Center for Human Rights  (FRAYBA)  says they “signed a document that they wouldnt return to the communities, once release, but they havent respected this because they are still in these communties and they people are living in fear, hearing gunshots in neighboring communities, and still living with the threat of displacement, the burning of their houses, robbing of their harvests, and repression.  Fernando spoke of his fathers cousin, who was involved in the massacre, and just returned to live in the neighboring community after his release from prison because of  a supposive lack of evidence indicting them.

The Mexican government has consistently maintained that this massacre was an internal dispute between indigenous communities, instead of a heinous act that was  carried out in the context of serious repression of indigenous people in Chiapas following the 1995 uprising by the Zapata National Army of Liberation.  The Abejas are pacifists, and therefore separate from the armed struggle of the EZLN, yet they are sympathizers with the Zapatistas and many believe that it was this alliance that played a role in the massacre of 1997.  The paramilitaries who murdered them, were armed with weapons and trained by Mexican Army generals.  The U.S. Government was clearly aware of this arming and training of the Paramilitaries and it is quite likely that they sold the Mexican Military some of these weapons and that many of the Mexican Army generals received training from the U.S. run School of Americas.  Montes, says its not only a travesty of justice that the paramilitaries were recently  released, but moreover that the intellectual architects, namely the Mexican government and Military were never tried for these horrific crimes.  She says the FRAYBA  have always maintained that the government was responsible and is now bringing the case before the InterAmerican court.  Residents of Acteal are quick to point out that the massacre lasted 6 hours, with gunshots sounding throughout the mountains, yet the military who were stationed at a post nearby never came to investigate, till the shots had subsided.

Las Abejas take much pride in their autonomy from the government  and reject aid that would come from the same powers that have massacred them.   In their official communique concerning the Encuentro, Las Abejas say “The government first wanted to destroy us with lead bullets and as our brothers in the Zona Norte say, they now want to destroy us with bullets of candy, promises of support and baskets of food, chickens, and more to divide us and distract us from our central demand which is justice”   Encuentro participants also spoke about government donations such as powdered fish and powdered eggs, that both make the people sick and  make communities dependent on these subsidies, and less likely to work their own land.  These hollow government promises have indeed divided the community, and recently the Abejas split into two organizations, one working with the government and other working autonomously.
In Acteal, the  autonomous Abejas  operate a communal kitchen where community members cook black beans and tortillas harvested from their milpa, a traditional indigenous plot of beans, corn, and squash.  There is a  cooperative where women from 7 different communities sell their artesenias, embroidered blouses, bags, bookmarks and more.  Each year a different community member is elected president of Las Abejas, and they follow the lead of the community in deciding what infrastructure projects they want to pursue, albeit new stairs leading from the highway to the community, or electricity.

A female representative of Las Abejas, spoke before the hundreds gathered about the significance of autonomy for those who construct and defend it against counterinsurgency.  “We understand autonomy as the right to live how we want to, without having  to have ask permission and without others imposing how they want us to live.  The right of every community to make their own decisions about their territories, natural resources, organizations, and education.”
Las Abejas has rejected the Chiapan Governments latest development plans to build “Ciudades Rurales”  which Governor Juan Sabines is claiming is a sustainable solution with three objectives “alleviate poverty, mitigate the risk that the population faces from floods, and to combat climate change with sustainable practices.”   The government wants people from small villages to move to these rural cities, which at first glance resemble housing projects in the United States.  Two of these “rural cities” have already been constructed and the government is planning five more, two of which would be located close to Acteal.   Throughout the Encuentro folks spoke of their rejection of this project as yet another attempt to rob them of their culture and displace them from their lands.

Just as the name of the encuentro states, Las Abejas are actively building relationships with other communities in resistance.  Eight members of the Peoples Front for the Defense of Land of San  of Atenco travlled to Acteal to share the stories of their struggle to preserve ejidos, community farm land near Mexico City.   Ignacio Valle, a leader with the People's front, who was jailed as a political prisoner for the past three years, spoke about the importance of solidarity between movements.   “To be here joining with other organizations that are our brothers and sisters lets us know that we are never alone.  When we were in jail, they made our freedom possible, or should I say together we made it possible.  Now we we have to strengthen, and grow our networks of the people who think and dream of a different world of justice and freedom.” said Valle.

As the three day encuentro concluded, all vowed that they would continue to support Las Abejas and the people of Acteal in their fight against impunity and their struggle for autonomy.   In their official declaration that came out of many hours of discussions between participants Las Abejas stated “Autonomy starts in the heart of every person. Its not only a goal, but the path that we walk on and are already taking.  Autonomy means to weave alliances as we want to globalize our struggle from below just as our ancestors did.”

Andalusia Knoll is a multimedia journalist, popular educator and organizer who lives in Brooklyn, NY.  She is a producer with the national Criminal Justice Dialogue Project Thousand Kites, a reporter for the worker collective Free Speech Radio News and an organizer with the NYC Community/Farmworker Alliance who work in alliance with The Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

Acteal; Ten years of impunity. An how many more?

Acteal; Ten years of impunity from Koman Ilel on Vimeo.