home ||| current issue ||| past stories
about The Prism ||| volunteers ||| other sites

Zapatista Communities Uphold Traditions Despite Christmas Massacre

Government Implicated in Slaughter

Prism correspondent Maria Darlington reports from Chiapas


I attended the burial of the 45 victims of the worse act of genocide in modern Mexican history. The burial took place on Christmas Day 1997 in Acteal, Chiapas, in southeastern Mexico.

When the procession arrived at the small hamlet of Acteal in the highlands of Chiapas at 8:00 Christmas morning, the Maya men were digging the first of two 50 foot long graves.

They had cleared away coffee bushes and cut down banana trees and constructed shelters of branches and banana leaves, to shade the women and children and visitors and Bishop Samuel Ruiz from the growing heat of the morning sun.

The men dug as Bishop Ruiz and his assistants prepared for a Mass of burial.

The men dug as other Mayas carried the coffins on their backs from the trucks on the road down the steep, rough, mountain path, through coffee trees to the area that was cleared and carefully smoothed to receive the dead with dignity. They dug as the 15 small, white coffins were carefully placed side-by-side before Don Samuel. They dug as 21 more coffins were carried down and placed beside those of the children, then 9 more coffins were carried down holding the remains of the men and placed beside the remains of the women. Each coffin was identified with a strip of masking tape on which was written simply, "#1 niño (boy)," "# 2 niña (girl)," "#16 adulto fem.," "#39 adulto masc."

The men dug while the survivors chanted ancient, Maya lamentations. They dug while Don Samuel, or "Tatic" as he is affectionately called by the indigenous, said Mass and blessed the bodies. They dug while the families put a white chrysanthemum on each coffin and sprinkled yellow, chrysanthemum petals on the children's coffins.

They dug while government employees typed the death certificates on ancient type-writers under the morning sun. They dug while the coffins were opened one by one for the families to identify the remains. I watched from a distance as some foreign journalists and photographers staggered away from the open coffin overcome by the stench of a body in its third day of decay. (Embalming is not a custom among the very poor. In normal circumstances the body is buried within 24 hours.)

It was not possible to identify the bodies torn by machetes. The Red Cross found many of the bodies hacked in pieces and thrown in the underbrush in an attempt to hide the immensity of the crime. The assassins cut open the stomach of a young, pregnant woman, tore her unborn baby out and cut it up. A baby of less than one year survived because her mother covered her with her own body and received all the bullets. One baby was shot in the head at close range.

A survivor, who witnessed some of the genocide said that as women and children fled down the steep mountain path toward the valley, armed men shot them from behind. Forensic reports from Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas, where the remains were taken for examination, concur that some women and children were shot in the back, and the back of the head.

Some who reached the underbrush by the river below were discovered by the assassins when the babies cries gave them away. The massacre went on for almost five hours on that black Monday, Dec. 22, 1997, while dozens of armed Civil Guards stood on the road above and did nothing.

A physician in one hospital in San Cristobal de las Casas, who calls himself Dr. Gomez, said that he had never seen such large bullet wounds. "They look as though something had exploded inside the body." "Anti-personnel" bullets were found at the scene that do explode on impact. The arms have been identified as M-16s, used exclusively by the Mexican Army.

Twenty-five victims are hospitalized, some in serious condition. The youngest survivor is a baby less than one year old. Many children have been left orphaned. Two little boys were found on Dec. 24, alive in a nearby cave near the scene of the slaughter, but there are still three people missing from the group of 300 refugees that were attacked by men in black, with red masks, who call themselves "red masks". There are uncounted walking wounded who have returned to Acteal.

The small Maya men dug as they began to disappear into the depths of the grave they were digging, and behind the mound of dirt they made as they shoveled.

The men dug as the bishop left. They were digging at 12:30 when I climbed the steep, mountain path to my truck filled with Mexican and foreign friends and supporters of the Maya struggle for Peace and Justice with Dignity, for all the poor of the world.

We left the men digging. We left the survivors to their grief. We left the "People of Corn" to bury their dead according to the ancient, Maya traditions. We left them to return their dead to the sacred ground, the same ground that soaked up their blood three days earlier.

  Maria Darlington lives part of the year in Efland, NC. She is raising funds for a Mayan community hiding from the Mexican army in the jungle through the sale of hand made tapestries. For information, write: M. Darlington, P.O. Box 16025, Chapel Hill, NC 27516.  

home ||| current issue ||| past stories
about The Prism ||| volunteers ||| other sites

Send comments to prism@sunsite.unc.edu.