Indian-rights activists and relatives of 45 people slain in 1997 in a village just north of this highland Mexican city commemorated the 14th anniversary of the massacre and expressed fears of renewed violence after dozens convicted in the killings had their sentences overturned.
Marchers with the Roman Catholic Tzotzil Maya organization known as Las Abejas (The Bees) carried flowers and religious imagery on their two-day pilgrimage to Acteal, a community in the southeastern state of Chiapas where the murders occurred.
There, the Catholic bishops of San Cristobal de las Casas, Felipe Arizmendi, and of the northern city of Saltillo, Raul Vera, celebrated a Mass Thursday in which the photographs of the 45 victims - 15 children, 21 women and nine men - were displayed on the altar.
Men armed with assault rifles killed those unarmed members of Las Abejas on Dec. 22, 1997, as they were praying inside a chapel in Acteal.
The Indians were fleeing violence from groups who opposed the Zapatista National Liberation Army, whose brief January 1994 uprising brought national and international attention to the impoverished state bordering Guatemala.
After about a week of minor clashes with police and troops, the Zapatistas began their transformation into a grassroots political and civic movement that came to be more or less tolerated by the government in isolated, mostly indigenous areas of the impoverished state bordering Guatemala.
But even as the Zapatistas largely abandoned armed struggle, those who felt threatened by the Indian-rights movement created paramilitary groups, the largest being a faction called Peace and Justice, that drove more than 12,000 indigenous people from their communities in Chiapas between 1995 and 2000.
In fact, Vera recalled that the Acteal victims were internal refugees who took refuge in that town because they were being forced to “join those armed groups the army was organizing to lay waste to the communities; these armed groups were attacking the villages, plundering and setting fire to their homes.”
The paramilitaries, he said, were “armed and paid for by the government and trained by the Mexican army as part of a counterinsurgency strategy.”
He said these actions were aimed at preventing the communities from providing any type of assistance to the Zapatistas, whose leftist, Indian-rights agenda was largely shared by the pacifist Las Abejas.
For his part, Arizmendi said prayers were offered at Thursday’s Mass to the “Lord of truth and justice so he grants us what human institutions refuse to deliver.”
He said demonstrations will continue to prevent the “real killers” from leaving prison through “legal trickery.”
“We cannot remain silent or forget until there is real justice,” Arizmendi said.
The leader of Las Abejas, Mariano Perez, said Thursday’s gathering was not a celebration but rather a “commemoration of a shameful act committed by the Mexican government.”
The Indians also demanded that those who planned the killings be brought to justice and they say one of the masterminds was the man who was Mexico’s president from 1994-2000, Ernesto Zedillo.
Perez said the members of Las Abejas are at risk once again after 30 people convicted of perpetrating the massacres had their sentences overturned two years ago.
The Supreme Court freed the men due to irregularities in their legal proceedings.
“The paramilitaries who burned our houses, stole our belongings and massacred our parents, brothers, sisters and little brothers and sisters want to come back and displace us and massacre us,” Perez said.
Zedillo is the target of a lawsuit in the United States accusing him of complicity with the slaughter in Acteal.
Brought by a Miami law firm on behalf of 10 plaintiffs who asked to remain anonymous, the suit was filed in September in U.S. District Court in Connecticut, where Zedillo, a Yale University faculty member, now lives.
Zedillo said in an e-mail to CNN that the allegations were “not only false but also calumnious.”
The Acteal massacre forced the resignation of Chiapas’ then-governor, Julio Cesar Ruiz Ferro, and the ouster of Mexico’s interior minister, Emilio Chuayfett.
Human rights organizations said the killings resulted from acts of both commission and omission by allies of Ruiz.
Some groups went even further, calling the slaughter a “state crime” and attributing the ultimate responsibility to Zedillo.
The lawsuit filed in Connecticut maintains that Zedillo’s government abandoned talks with the Zapatistas in favor of a violent crackdown after a report from a U.S. bank cited instability in Chiapas as a negative factor for the Mexican economy.