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Members of Las Abejas pray outside the chapel in Acteal where the 1997 massacre took place (2013).

Three Open Wounds

The Unfinished Story of Mexico’s Pacifist Mayan Martyrs

Pedro H. Arriaga Alarcón


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Nineteen years ago this December, the world’s attention was briefly drawn to the mountainous highlands of Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest and southernmost state. Centuries of injustice had led to a brief armed uprising by the indigenous population in 1994. The ski-masked and bandoleered Zapatistas grabbed headlines and eventually negotiated a peace treaty, but paramilitary death squads continued to operate with impunity, sowing terror in villages suspected of being Zapatista support bases.

Then, three days before Christmas 1997, paramilitary fighters slaughtered forty-five internally displaced Tzotzil Mayan peasants, mostly women and children, as they prayed for peace in a chapel in the village of Acteal. The victims were members of Las Abejas (“The Bees”), a Christian group committed to nonviolence. At the time, Plough expressed hope that the massacre would mark a turning point, quoting the words of a local priest, Oscar Salinas, at a memorial service held in Acteal:

These brothers and sisters of ours decided to suffocate with their own blood the growing vortex of violence that is unleashed in our state. To offer one’s life as they offered theirs is the most decent act anyone has been able to do in this time and place, in which the unending chain of offenses and misunderstandings have the word of truth caught in a blind alley. The innocent martyrs of Acteal are saving us from our confusion and cowardice. Praying they died. Fasting they died. This was the death they chose, praying and fasting for all of us. We can see it. With them has been planted the seed of peace.

Our coverage also included a heartrending personal reflection by Las Abejas’ own priest, Pedro Arriaga:

Cursed are the poor, those who hunger, those who weep? Cursed are those who are hated, driven out, and deemed criminals for the sake of the Son of Man? Where, in all this darkness, is God’s promised justice? ... The reaction within my bowels turns demoniac: I reject the cross of suffering and death. What am I here for? Have I come to die also? I resist having my life taken unjustly. I cannot understand the murder of the peaceful, those who refuse to take up weapons. ...

We recently asked Father Arriaga how his community has fared in the two decades since. He wrote in response:

Members of Las Abejas speak Members of Las Abejas issue a demand to the Mexican army to stop occupying their communities (2013).
Photograph from espoirchiapas:
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A few weeks after the massacre of forty-five Tzotzil indigenous in Chiapas, a memorial entitled An Open Wound was published. It included photos of each of the victims: babies in their mother’s arms, adolescents, adults, and elderly. There are twenty women, four of them pregnant; sixteen children; and nine men.

Those of us who were close to them, living with the survivors in the following days, wept and prayed, left helpless by this genocide.

We had been living in this violent atmosphere long before December 22, 1997, when the paramilitary forces attacked a prayer meeting beginning a three-day fast for peace in a Ca­tholic church in Acteal. For three months there had been organized violence: house burnings and sporadic assassinations had forced ten thousand to flee their commun­ities. Fifteen days before, a dialogue had been opened in an effort to stop the escalating violence, but to no avail.

So as not to sully its own image, the Mexican army had created eleven paramilitary groups in different areas of Chiapas. The one in Los Altos de Chiapas was called The Red Mask. Its strategy was to enlist unemployed men by offering them a clandestine training. It succeeded in recruiting both Protestants and Catholics.

The Red Mask had already chosen to target Las Abejas, a pacifist civil society that had formed in 1992 in response to the ideal of social commitment preached by Samuel Ruíz García, bishop of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas, and guided by the light of the Word of God. While rejecting the violence of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), Las Abejas did stand in solidarity with EZLN’s demands for justice in the uprising on January 1, 1994. Likewise, they participated in the peace talks with the federal government at San Andres. Although the Mexican government signed agreements at the peace talks, they never actually acted on their promises. All this has left the community with three open wounds.

The first wound against the pacifist indigenous – the 1997 massacre – remains open because the perpetrators still live in impunity. There has been no reconciliation between the victims and the perpetrators. Around eighty of the accused have been released because of a revision in the legal process, leaving no determination as to their guilt. Their release was like rubbing salt into the wound.

The second wound, division, has lacerated the heart of the community. It is a living wound that divides the members of Las Abejas to this day. Some of these members betrayed the cause by aligning themselves with the state government, which took advantage of the poverty of the population. The government tried to take control of the coffee cooperative, offering subsidies in exchange for abandonment of the cause. This government policy persists to this day.

Members of Las Abejas pray outside the chapel in Acteal where the 1997 massacre took place (2013).

Members of Las Abejas pray outside the chapel in Acteal where the 1997 massacre took place (2013).
Photograph from

Another division was recently caused by those who felt entitled to hand-outs because of their victimization. In their weakness, some of these people verbally attacked those non-indigenous who had supported them.

The third wound was unconsciously caused by those of us who supported the Chiapas indigenous. After the massacre and through these two decades, innumerable groups have come in solidarity from both inside and outside Mexico to visit the site of these terrible happen­ings. They not only offered material help, but also built relationships with Las Abejas. They considered themselves a “human shield” against aggressions in the “low intensity war.” Human rights defenders, church groups, and non-government organizations all wished for peace in the region, and in some situations influenced indigenous behavior.

Unfortunately, many indigenous developed an attitude of dependence. They had never imagined that as poor peasants they could be maintained at others’ expense. Lacking resources to care for their health, their habitat, and their studies, and trapped in the unending race to fulfill their immediate needs, they did not become self-sustaining. Only the coffee cooperative managed to consolidate. Other projects never got off the ground. The education initiative has made the most progress because of the perseverance of the non-indigenous couple that supports it.

 A child from Acteal marches in support of the forty-three Mexican students kidnapped from Ayotzinapa, Mexico (2014). A child from Acteal marches in support of the forty-three Mexican students kidnapped from Ayotzinapa, Mexico (2014).

Over the years Las Abejas has received thousands of people who have drawn near to drink from the fount of inspiration at their “sacred ground” of Acteal. Their handmade crafts have been distributed around the world. The dignity of these men and women belonging to the ancient Mayan culture rests in their deeply-rooted Christian faith, never failing in hope. They live their faith in community, sharing and giving themselves selflessly to continue achieving their pacifist ideal.

Even with their open wounds they continue to cry out for justice. They pray and fast, working for peace by issuing communiqués from the tomb of the martyrs. Their struggle is echoed in many other places in Mexico, where we continue to see people disappear and aggressions against groups of workers and peasants. Las Abejas stands in solidarity with these just social causes. They have not accepted a monetary settlement for the victimization they suffered, but stand firmly by their faith and political vision. They continue to demand justice from the Mexican authorities in the face of the impunity and cover-up that have been allowed in the eighteen years since the massacre of Acteal.

Translated from Spanish by Susan Arnold.

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Contributed By Pedro H. Arriaga Alarcón, SJ

The author serves as a parish priest and episcopal vicar in the Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico.