Debate Intensifies over Fate of Acteal Prisoners in Mexico

Friday, April 2, 2004

Catholics dispute innocence of evangelical Tzotzils accused of murder.

by David Miller

MIAMI, April 2 (Compass) -- Sectors of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches in Mexico are engaged in a tug-of-war over the fate of 74 Tzotzil peasant farmers imprisoned for perpetrating the “Acteal massacre” in December 1997. Among them are 34 evangelical Christians from Presbyterian, Assemblies of God and Pentecostal churches in Chiapas.

In mid March, about 500 Tzotzil Christians from the provinces of Chenalho, Zinacantan and San Juan Chamula in the southern state of Chiapas staged a peaceful march in Mexico City urging government officials to complete a judicial review of the case against the Acteal defendants. According to a March 20 report in the Chiapas newspaper Cuarto Poder, the marchers sang Christian hymns and choruses during their procession along Central Avenue from the Palace of State to the offices of the Federal Judiciary.

Following similar evangelical demonstrations last December, the Ministry of Interior launched a task force to examine the prisoners’ convictions on charges of murder and illegal weapons possession. (See Compass Direct report, “Interior Ministry Orders Judicial Review for Acteal Prisoners in Mexico,” January 12.)

Manuel Perez Arias, a pastor of the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico, told the demonstrators that solid evidence exists proving the innocence of most of the Acteal prisoners. (Five prisoners have confessed to participating in the gunfight at Acteal, along with four accomplices who remain at large.) However, Perez said, due to violations of due process during their trial, the Acteal prisoners remain incarcerated in Cerro Hueco penitentiary in Tuxtla Gutierrez more than six years after their arrests.

In response, Samuel Ruiz Garcia, bishop emeritus of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas, criticized the evangelicals for insinuating that innocent people have been unjustly imprisoned in connection with the crime. He asserted that those who are asking that the Acteal case be reopened are converting the case into a religious issue and “indirectly feeding complicity” in the multiple homicide.

“They feed, in an indirect manner, complicity (by saying) that it is necessary to resolve this issue and not bring to justice those who are responsible,” the retired prelate told Cuarto Poder.

Ruiz, known for his commitment to Liberation Theology, inspired several grass roots peasant movements during his tenure as bishop. The Catholic community group known as Las Abejas was involved in land disputes with evangelical Christians and members of Mexico’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party in the Acteal area during the months prior to the 1997 massacre.

According to official charges, the 74 peasant farmers now in jail allegedly participated in a “paramilitary” attack against Las Abejas members at the Catholic hermitage in the village of Acteal on December 22, 1997. Six men, 21 women and 18 children died in the onslaught.

Acting primarily on accusations from Las Abejas informants, police arrested more than 90 suspects between December 1997 and March 1998. The defendants were summarily tried, convicted and sentenced to long prison terms.

Perez, who serves as director of the Bible Society of Mexico, says that police investigators produced no reliable evidence to convict the defendants.

For example, guns supposedly used in the attack did not bear the fingerprints of the accused; nor did bullet casings found at the scene match the weapons police later produced as evidence. Eye witnesses testified that several of the condemned men spent the entire day of the shooting miles away from Acteal.

At a press conference in early March, Perez said that “diverse irregularities in the statements of witnesses as well as in physical evidence” should lead to freedom for most of the Acteal prisoners, once the task force completes its review.

He then issued a “fraternal call” to Las Abejas to cooperate fully with the judicial task force in order to “search for the complete elucidation of the facts.”

Chances are slim that Las Abejas will accept Perez’s offer. The group issued a statement following the Mexico City march that said, in part, “It is sad that our Presbyterian brothers of Chenalho and other parts of the Mexican Republic permit their Christian dignity to be stained with that lie.”

Las Abejas hinted that evangelical activists were attempting to “manipulate religion” in order to “cover up the real ones responsible” for the Acteal massacre.

“We are not asking for vengeance,” the statement said, “we are asking for justice, so that a massacre like the one in Acteal will never again repeat itself.”

Evangelical spokesman Rev. Adoniram Gaxiola regretted Las Abejas refusal to cooperate with the judicial review, and questioned the implication that justice “in favor of the dead of Acteal translates into the imprisonment of innocent people.”

“This would constitute the triumph of the corruption of those who not only perpetrated the confrontation of December 22, 1997, but who also evaded responsibility for it by creating scapegoats,” Gaxiola said.