Less than a week after I visited the site of the Santiago massacre in Guatemala, I found myself in the bed of a pickup truck, rolling out of San Cristobal through some stunning Chiapas landscapes toward the highland town of Chenhaló. We slowed at the entrance to Polhó under the watchful gaze of the Zapatista sentries in their iconic balaclavas, and admired the mural of the Zapatista Guadalupe on the side of the tiny chapel there. Further along, between Polho and Acteal, we slowed again under a menacing presence — a Mexican Army base that has kept close watch of the Zapatista communities from the commanding views of its barracks atop the highest point in the area. We then pulled to a stop in the coffee-growing community of Acteal and reflected in reverent silence on the murder of 45 people there just days before Christmas in 1997.
The victims of this crime were men, women and children who belonged to Las Abejas — a non-violent Catholic social justice movement that shares many of the Zapatistas’ social and economic goals, but not its option for armed struggle. Former Chiapas Bishop Don Samuel Ruiz, an outspoken advocate of the social agenda of the Latin American Catholic Church generally referred to las Liberation Theology, and the catechists under his authority who preached the Social Gospel in the highland communities of Chiapas, supported the emergence of Las Abejas as a leading current in local society. In Acteal, however, Las Abejas was the most vulnerable of the three currents in the town at the time of the massacre, 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 the day of the massacre, members of the community were gathered early in the morning in the local dirt-floor parish praying 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 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.