Just before Christmas in 1997, 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, on December 22, 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: