7-14 March 1998

from Gregory Heille, O.P.,

Following upon the December 22nd massacre of forty-five unarmed Indians in Acteal in the Chiapas state of southernmost Mexico, the North American Dominican Promoters for Justice and Peace gathered a delegation of nine Dominican sisters and brothers who traveled to Chiapas March 7th to 14th to gather information and extend solidarity to the Dominican family in Chiapas. On Sunday, March 8th, in the colonial city of San Cristóbal de las Casas in the mountains of central Chiapas, we began our learning with excellent briefings and analyses of the social, economic, political, and religious situation in Chiapas by Gonzalo Ituarte and Pablo Romo of the Mexican Dominican Province and Miguel Rolland of the Western United States Province. We also spent a delightful evening with Dominican coadjutor bishop Raúl Vera, whose heart is close to that of the indigenous people and who in his brief tenure in San Cristóbal has become a close ally in the peacemaking efforts of Bishop Samuel Ruíz. Bishop Ruíz--"Don Sam" to many Mexicans and tatik or "our Father" to the Indians of Chiapas--has been bishop of the diocese since 1960 and is the chairperson of the National Mediation Commission (CONAI) facilitating the San Andrés talks between the Mexican government and the indigenous Zapatista army.

Monday we traveled by car and then several kilometers on foot into the highlands north of San Cristóbal and in a thick fog bypassed an army camp set up the month before to "protect" the displaced indigenous people living in the small hamlet of X'oyep (shoi-ép) below. In this mountainside village thirteen families have welcomed fifteen hundred Indians displaced from their villages by pro-government paramilitary groups acting with impunity to "cleanse" the area. In unforgettable and moving ceremonies we were first welcomed with incense and handmade stringed instruments and pipes. Then, accompanied by beautiful peaceful songs reminiscent of The Mission, we celebrated the eucharist together in a misty, cold fog. In emotional words spoken by catechists and leaders of the several communities in the Mayan dialect of Tzotzil and then translated into Spanish, we recognized the suffering and anguish caused by the violence and the terror of low-intensity war, but we also recognized in the same words and people living signs of courage and faith. We heard one catechist say on behalf of these people, "If we die, at least we will die clean, not drawn into the violence surrounding us." We were moved, humbled, and enriched by these people's living expressions of faith, hope, and courage and by pleas for help to return to their homes, fields, and villages.

Early that afternoon, we visited the site of the Acteal massacre. Acteal is another pacifist village on a steep, rocky mountainside, hosting some six hundred displaced persons. On December 22nd, fifteen children, twenty-one women, and nine men--having prayed and fasted for peace for three days--were brutally murdered by a paramilitary gang with known connections to the army and the governing PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party). We saw the holes made by explosive bullets in the wooden walls of the shed-like temple where the village had been at prayer. Overlooking the cemetery, we then gathered under a plastic tarpaulin to pray in a light rain with numerous loved ones and survivors. Then, during a generous lunch of eggs and tortillas prepared by the survivors, we had the opportunity to talk with three PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution) national congresspersons organizing aid to Acteal. We learned that the most immediate response of the Mexican government to the Acteal massacre was to send an additional five thousand troops to Chiapas--bringing the number of soldiers to over 50,000 and the number of displaced persons to at least 15,000.

Tuesday we went to the festively decorated mud home of a catechist in an oppressed Catholic community outside the politically divided village of San Juan Chamula. This community of perhaps 150 persons took considerable risks to welcome us under one small roof to celebrate a clandestine eucharist featuring a wedding, several first communions, and a baptism.

This essential direct contact with indigenous Mayan communities was complemented on Wednesday by meetings with the dedicated and courageous women and men staffing crucial human rights and advocacy agencies. In San Cristóbal, we visited the Dominican-sponsored Melel Xojoval--a ministry team disseminating news and analysis in Tzotzil. We also visited staff members at the International Service for Peace (SIPAZ), and the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Diocesan Human Rights Center.

Later Wednesday at a healing service in which we participated, Serapio--a catechist in a San Cristóbal barrio of displaced Chamulans--told us with tears in his eyes, "We live here in a system of oppression like slaves, like the people of Israel in Egypt. We thank you for coming here to let people in your land know about us." This barrio is the San Cristóbal home of three Dominican sisters from congregations in Lima, Peru, and San Rafael, California. We ended our long day by visiting the ministry of these sisters and having supper as a Dominican family in their home.

Thursday, we traveled eighty-five kilometers to Ocosingo. While on the main road into the Lacondon jungle and into Zapatista territory, our passports were studied at length by military police at a checkpoint close to the Tonina Mayan ruins. After climbing the ruins, we visited a Dominican community of four Mexican friars and three Peruvian sisters in Ocosingo serving 347 communities in a jungle parish larger than El Salvador. We also talked with staff members of the Dominican sponsored Comité de Derechos Humanos "Fray Pedro Lorenzo de la Nada" about efforts to form local indigenous promoters for human rights and about the emotional challenges and sociological implications of ministering under the increasingly trying conditions of low intensity warfare.

Returning that evening to San Cristóbal, we joined a well-attended conference on religion and violence hosted by the Dominicans in the refectory of the old Santo Domingo convent, now a regional history museum. The speakers were Dominican Regent of Studies, Dr. Carlos Mendoza, who contextualized the theory of Stanford scholar René Girard about the relation of violence to culture, and Mexican historian, Dr. Lorenzo Meyer, who recounted Mexico's violent history and issued a call for resistance.

We were especially honored to talk at length Friday morning with Mr. Amado Avendaño, the seventy-two year old Governor in Rebellion of the State of Chiapas. This mestizo son of coastal campesinos came as a boy to San Cristóbal to learn to read and then stayed on as a young lawyer assisting the Dominicans in Indian advocacy and as a journalist publishing a small alternative newspaper, Tiempo. In January 1994, Avendaño was drawn into the vortex of the Zapatista rebellion as a journalist, bringing Tiempo international attention. In August 1994, after nomination for governor by the EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army) and an extended hospitalization following an assassination attempt, Avendaño was decisively elected Governor of Chiapas--an office the PRI-dominated state legislature did not allow him to assume, inaugurating instead the defeated PRI candidate.

In a thought-provoking aftermath to this conversation, we talked with an official of the government's National Human Rights Commission--appointed by President Zedillo. Governor Avendaño had confirmed the perception we received in conversations with others that President Zedillo is a weak president, catapulted into elective office at a time of extensive PRI corruption and following the March 1995 assassination of popular PRI candidate Luis Colosio. Avendaño could not venture to say who is currently running Mexico--the PRI old-guard "dinosaurs," the military, or the international bankers to whom Mexico is so extensively indebted.

When asked whether Mexico is a nation on the way to democracy, Avendaño was cautiously optimistic and showed us bound copies of a new Chiapas constitution and federal constitutional reforms--both of which include indigenous autonomy and are ready for debate. A young analyst at the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center also said with cautious optimism that democracy is in the balance in Mexico, with Mexico City and Chiapas counterbalancing each other. The fact that Chiapas is now a military state at war with its people has led others with whom we talked to be pessimistic about Mexico's future. All agreed that Chiapas is charting Mexico's future.

Throughout these days we discovered, recognized and began to understand the connection that exists among some of the various local, national, and global realities pertaining to Chiapas:

On Friday evening before our Saturday departure from Chiapas, we joyfully were interrupted by the entry into our restaurant of Don Samuel Ruíz and Gonzalo Ituarte--with three military police body guards. As Don Samuel talked quietly with us over a cup of hot milk at the end of what was a long week for all of us, we knew profound appreciation for the work of the Church in the Diocese of San Cristóbal de las Casas--its bishops, its 10,000 catechists, its human rights workers, its priests and religious. We were proud especially of the Dominican family in Chiapas and their deep love, respect, and nonviolent commitment to the people--which now reaches back over 500 years to Chiapas' first bishop, Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas.

We thank these Dominican sisters and brothers who journey with their people as they suffer the unjust violation of their basic human rights. We pray that the spirit of Dominic and Bartolomé de las Casas continue to guide and inspire them.

We call on our sisters and brothers in the Order and our friends and colleagues to pray and fast for the coming of God's reign of justice and peace in Chiapas and in similar regions of our world. We encourage our sisters and brothers to preach and teach the word of God's justice and peace so that the people of North America may be more aware of the grave injustices being suffered by God's people. We encourage our sisters and brothers to give moral and financial support to Dominican and diocesan relief and advocacy efforts in Chiapas.

We, too, are resolved to do our part in promoting awareness about Chiapas. "We will not forget."

Linda Berlanga, O.P., San Rafael Dominicans, California

Pat DeMarco, O.P., Amityville Dominicans, New York

Alice Fairchild, O.P., Amityville Dominicans, New York

Rolf Hasenack, O.P., Regional Co-Promoter for Justice and Peace in North-America, Vicar Provincial of the Vicariate of Western Canada

Gregory Heille, O.P., Central Province

Lilly Heveroh, Richmond, California

Philippe LeBlanc, O.P., Canadian Province; Dominican Representative to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Geneva

Olanda Leyba, O.P., Grand Rapids Dominicans, Michigan

Miguel Bartolomé de Las Casas Rolland, O.P., Western Province