Last week I suggested that there are two reasons why I have been reflecting here on acts of violence that happened in the coffeelands more than a decade ago. The first is that brutal violence in the coffeelands as much a part of everyday life now as it was during the revolutionary uprisings of the 1980s and 1990s. The second is that the identities of many smallholder coffee cooperatives are tied inextricably to that violence. Maya Vinic — “Mayan Man” in Tzotzil — a cooperative in the Chiapas highlands, is one of them. When I first visited Maya Vinic, the group’s advisor Luis Álvarez explained the historical circumstances that led to Maya Vinic’s creation in a way that was so powerful, I copied it into my notebook verbatim then later went back to highlight it in bold: “Maya Vinic cannot be understood outside the context of Bishop Samuel Ruiz, the Zapatista uprising and the Acteal massacre.”
Former Chiapas Bishop Don Samuel Ruiz was an outspoken advocate of the social agenda of the Latin American Catholic Church generally referred to las Liberation Theology. Together with the catechists under his authority who spread the Social Gospel in the highland communities of Chiapas, Bishop Ruiz supported the emergence of Las Abejas — a non-violent social justice movement that shared the many of the social and economic goals of the Zapatista uprising, but not its option for armed struggle.
By the late 1990s, Las Abejas was caught in the struggle between those loyal to the ruling party and those aligned with the Zapatistas — a struggle that was increasingly violent during the final months of 1997, accelerated by competition for scarce economic resources in the area.
On 22 December of that year, members of Las Abejas had gathered early to pray in the community’s dirt-floor parish in the community of Acteal, when masked paramilitaries descended on the area and opened fire. This was not a burst of horrible violence, but a period of sustained execution of 45 men, women (seven of them pregnant) and children (victims included babies under one year old) that lasted by some accounts as long as six hours. The courage of the nonviolent resistance of Las Abejas made them powerful; their refusal to take up arms made them vulnerable; their martyrdom continues to inspire work for justice.
Maya Vinic emerged as part of the process through which members of Las Abejas reclaimed their communities and restarted their livelihoods. The organization is not Catholic, but it embodies the principles of social justice that Las Abejas embraces, and applies them to the specific context of coffee farming, including hard work in the context of a collective structure, shared responsibilities, justly distributed rewards and farming in harmony with the environment. The unspeakable horror of the Acteal massacre deepened the bonds between Maya Vinic’s members, sharpened the organization’s identity, redoubled its commitment to live out the principles of nonviolence and reinforced its strongly autonomous instincts. The organization has developed structures of mutual support and technical assistance that draw on indigenous traditions of shared labor and spurn official support from the state structures, which have failed to bring the case of Acteal to a close or to effectively promote equitable and sustainable development in Chiapas.