Evangelical Pastor Assassinated in Chiapas, Mexico

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Indigenous Leader Dies in Ambush near San Juan Chamula

by David Miller

MIAMI, October 28 (Compass) -- An evangelical Christian pastor was assassinated last Friday near the town of San Juan Chamula in Mexico’s troubled southern state of Chiapas, while on his way to a prayer service.

Mariano Díaz Méndez, 38, a minister of the indigenous Tzotzil Evangelical Church, was traveling near the village of Botatulán around 3 p.m. on October 24 when heavily armed assailants stopped his automobile. Witnesses said it appeared that Diaz got out of the car and attempted to evade his attackers before they shot him to death.

Police investigating the murder discovered spent cartridges from AK-47 assault rifles at the scene.

Díaz is the second evangelical pastor to die in the space of two weeks. According to sources in Chiapas, Jairo Solís López was killed in the municipality of Mapastepec on October 17.

The circumstances of Solís’s death were not clear, but sources in Chiapas believe the murders are the most recent chapter in a 30-year saga of severe persecution of evangelical Christians by local caciques, or powerful community chieftains. Caciques practice “traditionalist” religion, a semi-pagan mix of Roman Catholic beliefs and ancient Mayan religion.

Since the advent of evangelical Christianity in the Chiapas Highlands in the 1960s, caciques have used violent tactics to discourage its spread in indigenous regions. Scores of evangelicals have died and hundreds more have suffered injury. About 35,000 evangelical Christians live in ghettos surrounding the district capital of San Cristóbal de las Casas, having been driven from their ancestral homes by caciques and their henchmen.

Caciques have enjoyed near impunity while carrying out the anti-Christian campaign. In three decades, only six caciques and their accomplices have been punished for these crimes.

The Chiapas newspaper Cuarto Poder reported that Diaz’s funeral procession, in which about 500 evangelical Tzotzils participated, turned into a march calling upon authorities to put an end to the aggression.

Leaders of the Regional Organization for the Welfare of Evangelicals of the State of Chiapas (ORBECH in Spanish), a non-governmental organization that defends the rights of evangelical Christians, issued calls to Mexican officials to capture and punish Diaz’s murderers.

ORBECH director Agustín Gómez Patishtán told mourners that the state’s justice attorney should conduct an exhaustive investigation to solve the case, else, “I think we are going to take other action.”

“But we trust in God and the authorities, that they will get to the bottom of this,” Gómez said. “I believe they have the power to do justice according to the law.”

At the same time, Gomez lamented official failure to protect evangelicals against continuing attacks. He reminded officials that caciques had issued threats in San Juan Chamula.

“(They said) that our leaders are going to fall one by one. I think they are carrying out those threats; I think we are seeing that with clarity.”

Veteran human rights attorney Esdras Alonso expressed fears that the caciques are stepping up attacks against evangelical Christians.

According to the report in Cuarto Poder, Alonso told mourners, “These are messages that they (caciques) are sending to the evangelical community in Chiapas. The conflict is radicalizing, and violence is seeking to resurface.”

Alonso called upon the justice attorney’s office to renew investigations into recent cases of aggression against evangelicals in the communities of Mitzitón and Flores Magon (see Compass Direct, “Arsonists Strike Evangelicals in Chiapas,” March 2003.)

“This aggression must not go unpunished,” Alonso said. “Years ago, (Chiapas governor) Pablo Salazar was one of the first to witness, as a lawyer, these assaults in Chiapas and become acquainted with the background of this situation.

“As leaders of social organizations, we are awaiting official action. We want to see results.”

Mariano Díaz is survived by his wife, the former María Pérez Gómez, and a daughter, Rosa.