Mystery Surrounds Chiapas Massacre

From Times Wire Services

The men arrested in the massacre of 45 people in the village of Acteal look much like their victims. They speak the same Maya Indian language. They live in the same highlands municipality. They farm the same subsistence plots.

That has left many Mexicans struggling to understand how political differences among them could have led those men to form a death squad and gun down their neighbors with chilling brutality.

Human rights activists say the killings in Chiapas state were probably carried out to strengthen the ruling party’s political control in a country split between government supporters and sympathizers of the Zapatista rebels.

Federal officials have launched an investigation to get to the heart of how much state officials knew of the growing bloodshed and how indigenous villagers acquired AK-47 assault weapons, only issued to the army.

On Friday, the attorney general’s office jailed 16 suspects in the killings, some of whom were local delegates of President Ernesto Zedillo’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.


Authorities said the killers were seeking revenge in a generations-old family rivalry. The attorney general’s office chronicled a struggle for power between families.


But local observers said the explanation left many questions unanswered.

“This whole story of a family feud is a supposition they are using to hide what is happening here,” said human rights worker Hugo Trujillo.

Local accounts said PRI bosses were unhappy at the influx of refugee Indians who, they said, supported the Zapatista National Liberation Army, which rose up against the government on Jan. 1, 1994, capturing towns and bursting onto the national stage.

Residents said that, in March, farmers in Los Chorros--where survivors say many of the killers come from--began receiving automatic weapons from a mysterious source, mounting nighttime patrols and harassing residents they accused of supporting Zapatistas.

But the question remains: What did the killers hope to gain by killing 45 people, most of them women and children?

One answer may be land. In this largely agricultural state, thousands of people of different political affiliations have been run off their farms by gunshots in the night.

But even if the massacre had local motives, it appears that state officials were at the very least negligent in failing to stop it.

Some witnesses say local police knew of the hours-long massacre as it started and refused to enter the town. State government officials said local police told them halfway into the massacre that the town was peaceful.