Mexico: Militias Stalk the Killing Fields of Chiapas

Jan 15, 2014 at 8:26 AM ET

ACTEAL, MEXICO—There is no escaping the past here in this remote village in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. It hangs in the air like a terrible fog. It’s etched in stone in a small concrete area lined with crosses: a tomb for dozens of people who were murdered by a local militia some 16 years ago. The event, known as the Acteal Massacre, was among the most gruesome in modern Mexican history. The dead included pregnant women, their unborn babies ripped straight from their wombs.

Máscara Roja, the group involved in the killings, was one of many militias that the Mexican government at least tacitly supported in Chiapas during the 1990s. The goal: to combat a leftist uprising by the Zapatistas, an armed group fighting for autonomy and indigenous rights in Mexico’s poorest region. Some two decades ago, the militias committed a campaign of murder, rape and terror across the state. In the 2000s, their presence waned as the Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI), which long dominated Mexico, fell from power.

Now, however, the PRI is back. And the militias are, too, reportedly beating, threatening and displacing indigenous people across Chiapas—all allegedly with a wink and a nod from Governor Manuel Velasco, a prominent member of President Enrique Peña Nieto’s party. The government denies any involvement with the militias, but local human rights workers say otherwise. “There is a very clear climate of impunity,” says Victor Hugo López Rodriguez, the director of the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center in San Cristobal de las Casas, a major regional city in Chiapas.

The latest incidents occurred last August in the town of Colonia Puebla, some 50 miles west of Acteal. That’s where a paramilitary leader allegedly led an angry mob to chase nearly 100 people out of town as part of a conflict that started over the renovation of a local church, but soon spiraled. “They would have killed us if we had stayed,” says Macario Arias Gómez, 35, who acts as the spokesman of the refugees. “They had already burned down several houses and set fire to a dog. If we did not leave, they would have massacred us all.”

The authorities often claim that conflicts like the one in Puebla are fought between locals over land. But critics say there’s more going on. “That’s just an excuse to not act,” says Victor Hugo López Rodriguez. “Paramilitaries use these conflicts to chase away people they consider sympathetic to the Zapatistas, or groups that report human rights abuses.”

Violence has always been common in Chiapas, but the events in Puebla are not your run-of-the-mill murders and robberies. In 2012, armed groups reportedly set up roadblocks on the outskirts San Cristobal de las Casas to look for opponents after a religious conflict got out of hand. There have also been reports that the militias are threatening, kidnapping, displacing and murdering indigenous people in other municipalities such as Chenalhó, to which Acteal belongs. “We see the same pattern now as we saw in the months preceding the Acteal massacre,” says López Rodriguez. “The authorities, they have all the information to act, but do nothing. We could be seeing developments that lead to new massacres.”

For years, indigenous Mayans in Chiapas have struggled against poverty and discrimination in the region. Many want further autonomy from the Mexican government. They received worldwide attention in 1994, when the Zapatistas fought a short, but intense guerrilla war with the Mexican army. They marched into six cities, demanding self-rule and the recognition of their Mayan identity.

After a ceasefire, the Mexican government started negotiations with the Zapatistas. To keep the peace, the army no longer directly confronted the guerrillas. Instead, according to human rights observers, it provided weapons and training to indigenous groups who opposed the leftist insurgents. These militias often disguised themselves as farmers organizations, taking names such as Paz y Justicia (Peace and Justice). They started actively fighting anyone they suspected of supporting the Zapatista cause, allegedly killing and disappearing more than 100 people and displacing thousands. Human rights observers link these groups to the PRI, the leader of which, then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, sent the army into Chiapas in 1994.

Both the Mexican government and the army have always denied ties to paramilitaries, and have repeatedly refused to talk about a counter-insurgency campaign in the region. Instead, military commanders and politicians generally attribute the violence in Chiapas to internal strife among the indigenous. In the past, they’ve also blamed the Zapatistas for stirring up violence, though human rights observers say the group hasn’t been actively involved in any fighting since signing the ceasefire agreement in January of 1994.

The group that’s felt the brunt of the wrath from the militias is Las Abejas (The Bees), a pacifist, Catholic civil rights organization based in Acteal. Founded in the early 1990s, Las Abejas reports on human rights and organizes farmers in Chiapas. The paramilitaries branded them as sympathizers of the Zapatistas, even though they always opposed an armed struggle.

In fact, on Dec. 22, 1997, it was a group of Las Abejas who were at the center of the Acteal Massacre. Many were praying in front of a church in the center of town, when suddenly, members of the Máscara Roja militia attacked. The massacre lasted several hours and the paramilitary group killed 45 people. Local police were present, but didn’t stop the killing.

Years later, the government sent dozens of militia members to prison for their role in the killings, but most served relatively short sentences. In the last four years, almost all of them have been freed. “The government doesn’t care at all,” says Maria Vázquez Gómez, 45, a survivor who lost her mother, older sister and seven other family members. “We have never had justice.”

Not only have the militias acted with almost complete impunity in Chiapas, human rights observers say, but now they’ve seen a resurgence. “In the early 2000s they were far less active,” says López Rodriguez, the human rights analyst. “The problem is that they never really went away. They never handed over their weapons, and many members of paramilitary groups returned to the communities where the families of their victims still lived, and where some them became officials of local governments.”

Such is the case in Puebla, says Arias Gómez, who accuses local leaders of both involvement in the Acteal massacre and once again stirring up violence in the village. “These weren’t just kids with machetes and guns,” he says. “They were coordinated by paramilitaries who were involved the massacre. And we weren’t chased out because of some disagreement over a church. They wanted anyone belonging to Las Abjeas out of the community, because we report violations of human rights and speak out against the government.”

Las Abejas, along with the Fray Bartolomé Center and local journalists agreed with Gómez’s claims. According to Las Abejas, roughly 70 people who live in Puebla are members of or have ties to paramilitary groups that were active in Chiapas in the late 1990s. Both organizations warn that the recent events in Colonia Puebla are an ominous sign.

“The government tries to play our communities off against each other,” says António Gutierrez, one of the leaders of Las Abejas in Acteal. “They don’t want anyone in Chiapas to denounce them. They give money and weapons to paramilitary groups to root us out.”

As he speaks, he sits on a bench overlooking the square. In front of him is the small concrete area lined with 45 crosses, the monument to the victims buried beneath the ground.