Shooting Incident in Southern Mexico Signals Rising Tension

Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Seven Wounded, 27 Driven from Homes in Chiapas
by David Miller

CHIAPAS, Mexico, November 26 (Compass) -- Traditionalist Catholic "caciques"(village leaders) in Chiapas, Mexico, accused evangelical Christians of provoking a violent confrontation that left seven people wounded by high powered rifles. However, the 27 evangelical Christian families left homeless for two weeks following the shooting say they are not at fault.

Initial accounts reported on national TV and in front-page newspaper accounts indicated that the evangelicals, residents of the rural community of Los Pinos, opened fire on traditionalist caciques meeting inside a public school house in neighboring Tzelteltón. The villages are located in the municipality of San Juan Chamula, an area notorious for religious persecution.

The caciques claimed the attack was unprovoked and warned Chiapas governor Pablo Salazar, himself an evangelical Christian, that "the time has come to apply the law" to the alleged offenders. Otherwise, they hinted, more violence would follow.

However, eyewitnesses to the November 14 incident describe a much different version of events. Their testimony suggests that it was the caciques themselves who did the shooting, inadvertently wounding accomplices they sent to harass the evangelicals.

Juan Lopez Patishtán of Los Pinos told Compass that he had returned home from his cornfields at 4:30 that afternoon when a group of 25 traditionalist Catholics, many of them intoxicated, dragged him from his house and forced him to accompany them to the school house in Tzelteltón. When neighbors heard Lopez's two children screaming that their father was being taken away, they ran to intercept the group and asked what they were doing.

The assailants replied that the caciques were going to put Lopez on trial in the school house, which lay about 100 yards away. When his evangelical neighbors asked what charges were being brought against Lopez, the group attacked them with sticks. A tear gas canister exploded; suddenly shots rang out from the school house.

"We immediately fell on the ground to keep from being shot," Lopez said. "But the caciques' men kept standing and beating us with the sticks. That's how they got hit."

In the smoke and confusion, the evangelicals managed to crawl into the surrounding woods, where they spent the night with their families in order to avoid cacique search parties. The next day, the men of Los Pinos walked to the district capital of San Cristobal de las Casas to seek help, leaving their wives and children in the care of friends in another village.

Pastor Salvador Lopez was meeting with fellow Presbyterian ministers in San Cristobal when the men arrived from Los Pinos and told what had happened. Salvador Lopez helped them file reports of the episode with the offices of the Attorney for Indigenous Affairs and the Commission for Peace and Reconciliation. He also arranged for shelter and food for the 27 families -- the women and children joined the men in San Cristobal a week after the shooting -- at a local Presbyterian church.

According to Salvador Lopez, the families were afraid to return to Los Pinos until the Chiapas state authorities provided special police protection for the area. Local police in Chamula, the evangelicals said, would not protect them from the caciques and sometimes even participated in attacks.

At present, the families have returned to Los Pinos and no further violence has been reported. However, Salvador Lopez, who was expelled along with his entire family more than 30 years ago from their ancestral community in San Juan Chamula, thinks violence could flare again soon.

"There is no security for us," he said. "We can only trust in help from above."

Some veteran observers believe the Tzelteltón attack signals a renewed round of religious violence in the Chiapas highlands, which for the past two years has enjoyed a reprieve from decades of harsh persecution. (See related stories in Compass Direct, November 15, 2002.) Traditionalist Catholic caciques there practice a bizarre blend of ancient Mayan religion and unorthodox Christianity, and loathe evangelicals for their refusal to honor pagan deities or participate in drunken festivals.

Governor Salazar, however, has worked to keep religious persecution in check since assuming office two years ago. In this he has received a measure of cooperation from Jose Gomez Gomez, the current president of the cacique council of San Juan Chamula, who evangelicals say is tolerant of their religious rights.

However, evangelical Christians noticed a sharp increase in attacks against them earlier this year, soon after Domingo Patishtán Patishtán joined the Chamula cacique council. Originally from Tzelteltón, Patishtán forced evangelicals out of that community in 1995 by refusing to allow their children to enroll in the local public school.

Like Patishtán, another member of the powerful cacique council, Vice President Juan Lopez Heredia, has made no secret of his resentment toward evangelicals. Lopez Heredia, among the first to blame the evangelicals for the Tzelteltón attack, acted as the cacique's public spokesman to warn Governor Salazar to take action against the evangelicals or face reprisals.

According to San Cristobal attorney Abdías Tovilla, a veteran defender of religious rights in Chiapas, this kind of posturing is really geared to provoke more attacks against evangelical Christians. Caciques can justify aggression by insinuating that evangelicals deserve punishment for alleged crimes.

"These people are very good at lying," Tovilla said.

"In a case like this, where you have caciques wounded by their own caciques, who turn around and cast blame on the brethren, it is very, very dangerous," he warned. "Very dangerous because vengeance among Chamulas is cruel indeed. Entire families have been wiped out."