December 24, 1997 in Nation/World

Gunmen Massacre 45 Praying Inside Church Victims Mostly Women, Children In Worst Chiapas Attack Since ‘94

James F. Smith Los Angeles Times

Dozens of gunmen fired on churchgoers who were praying for peace in a remote Mexican village, killing 45 people, including 21 women, 14 children and a baby. It was a brutal escalation of the 4-year-old conflict in the southern state of Chiapas, officials confirmed Tuesday.

President Ernesto Zedillo, in a nationally televised address, described the attack as a “cruel, absurd, unacceptable criminal act” and ordered the national attorney general to take jurisdiction of the investigation from state authorities - an unusual federal intervention signaling his anger over the unceasing violence in Chiapas.

The attack, which occurred at midday Monday in the village of Acteal, was the worst outbreak of violence in Chiapas since a guerrilla uprising there claimed more than 130 lives in January 1994. After days of fighting, the government and Zapatista rebels agreed then to discuss their differences, resulting in a precarious, oft-violated cease-fire.

This pre-Christmas massacre heightens tensions in Chiapas at a time of growing frustration over a yearlong deadlock in the talks, which involve such emotional issues as land reform and local autonomy.

Initial accounts from the village Tuesday described the attackers as followers of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, although the PRI has denied any support for the many armed groups that have skirmished repeatedly in recent weeks with supporters of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.

The victims were said to be sympathizers of the Zapatistas, who had established an unofficial, rival government in the district. The village, in the Chenalho district north of the Zapatista stronghold of San Cristobal de las Casas, is one of several contested areas where pro-government and pro-guerrilla groups have waged fierce struggles for influence, often over such hometown issues as control of soft-drink franchises.

But the viciousness of Monday’s violence stunned Mexicans, forcing them to focus their attention once again on the festering Chiapas conflict.

Witnesses were quoted as saying they were praying in the wood-sided Acteal church when gunfire ripped through the village.

Radio reports said the attackers wiped out whole families in the apparently random shooting.

Zedillo said the incident demonstrated that the Chiapas state government “has insufficient resources to achieve the security conditions that the people require.” He said the federal government, instead, would provide all necessary means to halt the violence.

He added that the national government “reaffirms its willingness to arrive at agreements that, within the framework of the constitution, establish the conditions to allow Chiapas to have peace and resolve its social problems and the old injustices that are at the root of many of the acts of violence that the people of Chiapas have suffered.”

A presidential aide said Zedillo’s decision to assign the investigation to the federal government showed his anger at the inability of all sides to find long-term solutions, as well as his determination to push the talks forward. Mexico’s central government rarely intervenes in a matter where a state has jurisdiction.

But human rights organizations had long pressed for just such a federal role, given the Chiapas government’s tacit support for anti-Zapatista violence, said Joel Solomon, a researcher with the independent group Human Rights Watch/Americas.

“In many places in Chiapas, the government turns a blind eye to violent acts committed by its supporters but throws the weight of the state against those opposition members who do or are accused of having committed violent acts,” Solomon said in a telephone interview from Washington.

Zedillo concluded his address by saying: “The tragedy which we mourn today with all our pain, far from sowing more hatred and division among the Chiapans, should push all of us toward the path of rejecting violence, of understanding and of agreements for peace and social justice in the entire state of Chiapas.”

The conflict in northern Chiapas took a new turn in November. Bishop Samuel Ruiz of Chiapas, Mexico’s best-known bishop and a prominent advocate of Indian rights, escaped unhurt but two companions were wounded when gunmen fired at his convoy as he traveled through a pro-government stronghold. The bishop’s office blamed that attack on Peace and Justice, one of the loose-knit armed groups associated with the PRI.

More than 100 people have been killed in such tit-for-tat violence since the cease-fire took effect after the 1994 uprising. In recent weeks, an estimated 6,000 people have fled the region to seek refuge from violence.

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