During the pope’s recent five-day visit to Mexico, indigenous and community groups from throughout Latin America gathered to discuss land rights issues.
Green wooden crosses line the edges of the open air auditorium overlooking the highlands of Chiapas, in southern Mexico. Below the cement floor lies the tomb where 45 Maya Tzotzil children, women and men are buried after having been massacred in Acteal by a paramilitary group in 1997. Killed while they were praying in the local chapel, the Acteal massacre victims belonged to Las Abejas Civil Society, a grassroots faith-based pacifist organization formed five years earlier.
“We’re still here, taking care of the survivors and of the blood of the martyrs,” Las Abejas president Sebastián Pérez Vásquez told Mongabay and a handful of other publications during a visit to Acteal last week, a few days before Pope Francis’ February 15 visit to Chiapas.
The December 22, 1997 massacre took place in the context of the Mexican government’s counterinsurgency campaign in Chiapas following the Zapatista uprising of 1994, when a guerrilla army of thousands of Mayans descended on cities and towns in the state, demanding land, autonomy, and democracy. Las Abejas supports the Zapatistas’ vision and demands, but does not support armed struggle. However, that did not stop the pacifist group from becoming a target in the ongoing low-intensity conflict.
Justice for the massacre of unarmed villagers continues to be a central focus for Las Abejas, but the group also defends land rights and speaks out against government reforms, natural resource exploitation, and other threats to indigenous territories, forests, and organizations. Indigenous communities in Chiapas face the imposition of hydro-electric dams, mining, infrastructure, and other projects in their lands, and community leaders organizing against such projects in the state have been threatened, jailed, and killed.