Authorities on Saturday night charged the mayor of this mountain community with murder and said he provided the weapons used to slaughter 45 villagers, then tried to cover up the killings.
Jacinto Arias Cruz and 23 supporters from villages near the Maya hamlet of Acteal were formally charged with homicide, causing injuries and illegal association. They were taken to a prison in the state capital, Tuxtla Gutierrez.
Arias Cruz is mayor of Chenalho municipality, which includes both Acteal and Los Chorros, where many of those arrested live.
An official with the federal attorney general’s office, Jose Luis Ramos Rivera, said Arias Cruz lied to investigators about his knowledge of the massacre. He said Arias Cruz claimed to have learned of the massacre only on Tuesday, but an entry in a notebook dated Monday recorded the killing of the villagers.
Ramos Rivera, at a news conference in Tuxtla Gutierrez, also said Arias Cruz tried to cover up the massacre, bringing together the participants and briefing them on what to tell authorities.
“The participation of the municipal president consisted of instigating (the massacre) and providing the weapons and later trying to make some kind of agreement with those involved to get them together on their version, using his own words, about the problem that was happening,” he said.
Sixteen other people were formally charged with murders on Friday night, bringing to 40 the number of villagers from the Chenalho area now under arrest for the massacre. In addition, three minors have been remanded to juvenile custody.
Masked gunmen wearing uniforms showed up in Acteal on Monday, methodically gunning down villagers - mostly women and children - with weapons ranging from .22-caliber rifles to AK-47s. Thirty-one people were injured in the attack.
The massacre has outraged Mexicans and brought calls for the resignation of the governor, the interior secretary - even President Ernesto Zedillo.
Rebels of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, who rose up in January 1994 to demand rights for Chiapas state’s poor Indians, issued a statement Saturday night blaming the federal government for condoning the massacre.
The men charged in the massacre are all Indians from communities in Chenalho. Like their victims, they spoke the Maya language Tzotzil. Like their victims, they farmed subsistence plots of land.
That has left many Mexicans struggling to understand how political differences among them could have led the attackers to form a death squad and gun down their neighbors with chilling brutality.
Human rights activists say the killings were probably carried out to strengthen the ruling party’s political control in a region split between government supporters and sympathizers of the Zapatista rebels.
Arias Cruz and his supporters are members of Mexico’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Most of the victims were members of the peasant group Las Abejas - The Bees - who support the goals of Zapatista rebels but not their armed struggle.
Since March, residents say, PRI supporters in the nearby town of Los Chorros - where most of those charged in the massacre live - began receiving automatic weapons from a mysterious source, mounting nighttime patrols and harassing residents they accused of supporting Zapatistas.
“They said, ‘We are going to do away with the Zapatistas,”’ said Roman Catholic lay worker Alonso Lopez Mendez, who fled Los Chorros in September after one of the armed patrols fired shots at his house.
On Saturday, about 200 soldiers moved into Los Chorros for the first time in years and evacuated 320 terrified residents to nearby Polho. The residents said armed men linked to the PRI have dominated the town for years and harassed people not connected to the party.
But the question remains: What did the attackers 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.
And an ongoing dispute between residents of Acteal and Los Chorros came to a head last year when squatters seized a gravel pit that lies near the site of the massacre.
Chiapas Gov. Julio Cesar Ruiz Ferro blamed the massacre on a combination of “Chiapas’ history of conflicts between ethnic and community groups, land disputes, political and religious differences.”