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Ten Years Later, It’s Time to Recognize the U.S. Government’s Responsibility for Acteal

For Survivors, Bitter Memories Worsened by Lingering Impunity and Continued Oversight of U.S. Role in Massacre


By Andrew Kennis
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

December 30, 2007

Last week, a commemoration ceremony in Acteal marked the tenth anniversary of a brutal massacre in Chiapas, Mexico that took the lives of 45 indigenous civilians, most of whom were women and children. The ceremony was a bitter reminder of the fact that many of those responsible for the crime have not been brought to justice, an impunity that has been roundly criticized and condemned by both domestic and international human rights organizations. In spite of such widely leveled condemnations, responsibility for the crime with top-level Mexican planners of the massacre and crucial military support and diplomatic oversight generously given by the U.S. have also been systematically overlooked by U.S.-based news media. Meanwhile, Mexican mainstream media have reluctantly covered the massacre with scores of articles in recent weeks, but with coverage that has been replete with apologetics and parroted official aversions.

The moving religious ceremony in remembrance of the massacre was coupled by the “National Encuentro Against Impunity,” which continues long-waged efforts at holding the intellectual authors of the massacre accountable for their actions. Survivors of the massacre have consistently released scathing critiques of the Mexican government, including the most recent one, which was given before this year’s commemoration: “The massacre plan was designed by ex-president Ernesto Zedillo, by the ex-general [of the Seventh Military Region in Chiapas] Enrique Cervantes, ex-secretary of National Defense, [and] by Julio César Ruiz Ferro, ex-governor of Chiapas,” the survivors charged. More recently, Diego Pérez Jiménez, a spokesperson for the organization Las Abejas (“The Bees”), which the murdered Acteal townspeople belonged to, proclaimed at a press conference that, “We will not rest until we get justice and all of the material and intellectual authors are detained.”

What happened on the horrible day of December 22, 1997, is perhaps best recounted by one of Acteal’s most grief stricken residents: 13 year old Guadalupe Vázquez Luna, whose mother, father and five sisters all were killed in the massacre. Guadalupe described what she witnessed to Maryknoll magazine (in the April 2000 issue):

. . . we were in the chapel praying for peace when about 90 men burst in and started shooting at everybody, even babies. Then they went through the village shooting. The assassins ran after me and my father. When my father was hit by a bullet, he shouted, “Run, Lupita, run,” but I couldn’t. Again he told me, “Run, run,” and I ran faster than the bullets until I couldn’t run anymore.

As has long been documented by a plethora of human rights groups, including Amnesty International, the massacre was committed by members of the paramilitary groups, Paz y Justicia (“Peace and Justice”) and Mascara Roja (“Red Mask”), who went on a torturous 12-hour killing spree that took the lives of 45 indigenous resident civilians of Acteal, the majority of whom were women and children (21 women, 15 children and 9 men, with most of the later being elders). The sorrow of the survivors is multiplied by the fact, as Guadalupe duly noted, that “54 children were left orphans by the massacre” – including, of course, Guadalupe herself.

Adding salt to the wounds of the many orphans and survivors of Acteal is the fact that the whole massacre could have easily been avoided. Days before the massacre occurred, local human rights groups in the Chiapas city of San Cristobal desperately tried to contact local Mexican government officials to no avail, as they had received numerous tips and warnings about the imminent massacre. Further, Paz y Justicia was the recipient of crucial aid and military training from the Mexican and U.S. governments (albeit indirectly), and more specifically from the party that was then ruling Mexico. The iron-fisted and dictatorial Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was renowned for having held continuous power for 70 years at the executive level and almost completely at the legislative level as well, an unparalleled world record in terms of modern representative democracy.

While survivors of the massacre and supporting non-governmental organizations have tried put bring responsibility and focus on high-ranking Mexican government officials, the Mexican government itself has continuously cast the massacre as one of a “family feud” between rival indigenous groups (which is a position that continues to be parroted by pliant dailies, such as the New York Times – see article here.

In an extensive review of the case by journalist John Ross published earlier this month in Counterpunch, Mexican officials’ participation is made abundantly clear:

Least there be any question, the “pojwanejetics” who attacked the Abejas were themselves trained by an Mexican Army corporal, officially placed “on leave” who had been ordered to show the paramilitaries how to use their newly-acquired weapons. Mario Perez Ruiz told the court he thought he would be killed if he refused to carry out the orders of his superiors…

Evidence that the “mal gobierno” and its state and local affiliates were up to their necks in the Acteal massacre abounds. The PRI municipal president of Chenalho bought the weapons that would be used against the Abejas. The weapons were transported by police through military checkpoints and distributed to the killers—the police even donated their uniforms to the “pojwanejetic.”

No one thus far, however, has traced U.S. responsibility for the massacre despite many signs pointing to it.

U.S. – Mexican Military Relationship Intensified

U.S. responsibility for the massacre in Acteal was indirect and mostly a result of tighter military relations with Mexico following the Zapatista rebellion in 1994. Before that time, U.S. training and military relations with Mexico was something that “Mexico viewed with great skepticism,” according to the Washington Office on Latin America researcher Laurie Freeman. [1] Lieutenant Colonel Bill Darley of the Pentagon Press Corps echoed such sentiments, and explained to the Mexican magazine Proceso that, “there are historic sensibilities between the U.S. and Mexico, and the two armies have had very little contact.” However, after the Zapatista rebellion took place and the Mexican government reacted with a massive military occupation and counter-insurgency campaign, the relationship greatly intensified.

A watershed moment in U.S. – Mexican military relations occurred on October 23, 1995, when then U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry visited Mexico. The visit was the first time that a U.S. Defense Secretary had gone to Mexico in modern times and was marked in a grandiose fashion, complete with an impressive ceremony at the 1st Military camp by almost 10,000 Mexican staff officers, soldiers and cadets. Perry’s Mexican counterpart, the aforementioned General Enrique Cervantes Aguirre, made a visit of his own to the U.S. in April 1996 which more than paid its dividends. During the visit, a major agreement valued at $50 million was signed involving extensive military training and arms sales between the neighboring countries.[2]

The effects of the agreement were immediately evident in terms of the subsequent increase of Mexican graduates from U.S. military training schools. Most military training of Mexican soldiers and commanders has occurred at one of two main sites in the U.S.: the first being the well-known School of the Americas located in Fort Benning, Georgia. First started in Panama in 1946 and later moved to Georgia, the school recently changed its name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) after its name became associated with revelations of manuals used to instruct students on torture methods amongst other “counterinsurgency tactics.” The web site Just the Facts: A civilian’s guide to U.S. defense and security assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean,” reports that while the SOA “legally closed in 2001, the WHINSEC is located in the same building, and offers many of the same courses, as the school it replaces.” “Just the Facts” also states that in comparison to all other U.S. military training sites, the SOA “attracts the largest number of Latin American military students.”[3]

The SOA has long been a site for the training of the Mexican military. Researcher S. Brian Wilson writes that the SOA, “trained 600 Mexican military officers from 1946-1994.” That number, however, was virtually matched in the following year alone, when 500 military and police from Mexico took “drug training” studies at the SOA. Wilson further notes that, “Since the 1994 uprising in Chiapas, Mexico has contributed more military personnel for training at the SOA than any other Latin American country,” and “furnishes a number of instructors at the SOA.”[4]

Another important source of U.S. training of the Mexican military is the JFK Special Warfare Center, located in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In 1998, 157 of the 172 students that were trained there were from Mexico. Also, high ranking military officials have graduated from Fort Bragg courses and gone on to serve in Mexico.[5]

U.S. Connections to Acteal

Given the intensification the U.S.-Mexican military relations, a question is begged, even though it has scarcely been addressed (much less answered) in much of the scant U.S. news media coverage on Acteal. What is the U.S. responsibility for the massacre in Acteal? The answer is complex, as responsibility has an A to B to C type of connection. The first level of responsibility had to do with the fact that key Chiapas-based generals received training in the U.S. The second level is that the forces these Generals led have had documented connections to the paramilitaries that carried out the massacre in Acteal. The last connection is that despite Mexico being a key ally of the United States, the U.S. has not objected to the impunity that has loomed large with the case of Acteal in any meaningful way.

General Mario Renan Castillo Fernandez is an alumnus of Fort Bragg. Darrin Wood, a specialist in U.S. – Mexico military relations, called General Castillo the “mastermind behind Mexico’s counterinsurgency strategy in Chiapas,” a reference to what Wilson identified above as “the October 1994 defense ministry document, ‘Chiapas 94,’ [which] outlined a comprehensive counterinsurgency plan.” Wood informs us that Castillo was “the ex-commander of the Mexican Army’s 7th Military Region in Chiapas.” The 7th Military Region in Chiapas includes Acteal.

Wood also writes that Castillo was an “‘Honorary Witness’ at a ceremony where the state government of Chiapas handed over half a million dollars to the paramilitary group Paz y Justicia.” Paz y Justicia is the same paramilitary group that was implicated in the massacre at Acteal, along with the so-called Mascara Roja.[6]

General Jose Ruben Rivas Peña is another product of U.S. military training, a graduate of the School of the Americas who also was involved in the implementation of the low-intensity warfare that comprised the climate during the massacre of Acteal.[7] He headed up several military zones in Southern Mexico during his career, including the 31st military zone in Chiapas. Wood dubbed the latter zone as “infamous” for its history, as it was the zone where

a group of mercenaries from Argentina were sent . . . in July of 1994 to help the Mexican Army perfect its counterinsurgency tactics. These same Argentines have worked for the CIA in the past in training US-backed death squads in Honduras led by SOA graduate Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez.[8]

The headquarters of the 31st Military Zone is located at Rancho Nuevo near San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the second largest city in Chiapas and the closest major city to Acteal.

SOA graduate General Peña has not only been connected to counterinsurgency training and paramilitary activities, but he has also verbally attacked the very social movement that victims of the Acteal massacre were and continue to be a part of. While justifying the military occupation strategy of the Mexican army since “Chiapas ‘94”, Peña wrote the following in 1999:

. . . it has been since the arrival of the Bishop of the diocese of San Cristobal de Las Casas, Samuel Ruiz Garcia, that the traditional values had begun to be disturbed, for the purpose, at first, of dignifying them, taking them out of their ignorance, poverty and marginalization. Regrettably, this change in indigenous values was seen to be directly influenced by the theologians of liberation.[9]

The specialist on this issue, Darrin Wood, attempts to present the twisted logic by Peña behind this line of reasoning, which Wood deemed as far from unusual for an SOA graduate:

The Vatican is the primary indirect cause of the conflict in Chiapas, directly sponsoring the corrupt trend of liberation theology in Mexico, supported by their counterparts in Latin America, and by the majority of the national Catholic clergy, using socialist and political organizations, gangsters and groups against the government to carry it out…As one can see, it is not surprising that an SOA graduate would have such reactionary ideas concerning liberation theology.[10]

“Drug Training”

Returning to the article in the Mexican magazine Proceso, this stated that, “According to [Lt. Col.] Darley, all the instruction that Mexican soldiers receive in the US is focused on the fight against drugs.” Even the Washington Post reported that “U.S. officials” had acknowledged the anti-drug tactics that the Pentagon teaches “are similar to counterinsurgency methods imparted in training of Latin American officers during the Cold War.”[11] As the other sources cited above have already indicated, there is little doubt that the training has been geared towards counterinsurgency operations just as much as “anti-drug” tactics (if not more). Such doubts are lessened further when one checks the history of what the graduates of the SOA and Fort Bragg have done after graduating.[12]

Given the increasingly close relationship between the U.S. and Mexican militaries at the time, it is completely plausible (and arguably probable) that the arms that were used by Paz y Justicia were made by the U.S. and subsequently sold to Mexico. The U.S. has long been and continues to be the largest arms dealer in the world.

Interestingly enough, there has been no known in-depth study on this possibility and one wouldn’t expect there to be. In terms of not only news coverage, but also in mainstream academic scholarship, crimes committed by states friendly to the U.S. are rarely investigated with the vigor and zeal that is undertaken for enemy states such as North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela and/or a growing number of independent Latin American governments. The same is true even for readily available information, such as the connections just mentioned between the Mexican and U.S. militaries, which garner only a rare, back-page mention in the news media and next to no scholarly investigation.

All of these connections and facts point to a strong, albeit indirect responsibility by the U.S. for the massacre in Acteal.

Diplomatic Indifference and an Obedient Corporate Press

Diplomatic indifference to massacres committed by client states of the U.S. is a common occurrence in U.S. history. The most extreme case is the genocide of East Timor, whereby a major U.S. client state, Indonesia, was given explicit permission by then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to carry out the invasion. During the height of the onslaught, Indonesia received increased ammunitions by the “human rights” President, Jimmy Carter, as the Indonesian military ran out of bullets because of the rampant killing. Throughout the duration of the genocide, the CIA-installed military dictator, Suharto, led Indonesia. Governmental statements by the U.S. mimicked the Indonesian point-of-view on the affair and official comments on the invasion were few and far between. An obedient press, as thoroughly documented by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their book Manufacturing Consent and other subsequent works, was essential in keeping the affair from public view and scrutiny.

Acteal was no exception in these regards. It sparked next to no governmental statements and press coverage. Especially in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, news reports were scant and feature articles next to non-existent. When asked about the massacre shortly after it occurred, a State department spokesperson claimed to have forgotten that the massacre had taken place at a press conference in January 1998.

It took four years for a U.S. government official to even step foot on the scene of Acteal, a fact known to me personally because I was present in Acteal on January 21, 2002 when U.S. State department officials first came to the scene of the crime.

Bitter Outlook

As is the case in most other incidents of responsibility and U.S. ties to crimes committed by its client states, such responsibility is highly unlikely to result in any legal ramifications. Already noted is how the higher-ranking Mexican governmental and military planners have not been brought to justice, a failure amply criticized by the survivors of the massacre and supporting human rights organizations. Until such justice is brought to bear, the memory that will forever linger on in the hearts and minds of the residents and survivors of the massacre of Acteal will continue to be bitter in light of the impunity that surrounds one of the worst massacres in recent Mexican history.


Andrew Kennis is a freelance journalist, a PhD candidate in Political Communication and an adjunct professor. He has written from many locations, including Chiapas, Guatemala, Israel, Taiwan, Mexico City, Quebec and Palestine. Andrew taught in and reported from Mexico City from 2002 to 2005; his reporting from on-the-scene in Acteal during this time was the basis of his master’s thesis. Originally from New York City, Andrew returns in the summers to manage a Spanish-speaking high school baseball team in the Bronx. Last year, Andrew took a research appointment and reported from Venezuela, where he traveled to five cities and interviewed dozens of people about how the political changes in Venezuela have impacted their lives.

Notes:

[1]Phone interview with Laurie Freeman, Associate for Mexico and Drug Policy, conducted on November 30, 2003; see for the web site of her organization. Pascal Beltran del Rio, “U.S. Trains Thousands of Mexican Soldiers: In Just Two Years, Some 3000 Mexican Soldiers Will Have Been Trained at 17 U.S. Military Bases,” Proceso (No. 1122, May 3, 1998); translation available online at: http://www.globalexchange.org/countries/mexico/mil/TrainingInUS.html.

[2] Information on the historic Perry visit was first found in Carlos Fazio’s book, The Third Link, referenced in Triunfo Elizalde, “Mexico is Now the Country Which Sends the Greatest Number of Forces to United States Military Schools,” La Jornada (August 16, 1998):

The words of Carlos Fazio in his book, The Third Link, do not escape Wood’s work, in respect to statements by Retired Colonel Jack Cope, concerning William Perry’s visit to Mexico, on October 23, 1995, which, in his opinion, signified a landmark in the US strategy of convincing Mexican armed forces that, in the era following the Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA], their country had ceased to be an interventionist “adversary,” and was now an “ally,” worthy of confidence and with shared national security interests. It is recalled that [former U.S. Defense Secretary William] Perry, who was accompanied to Mexico by General Barry McCaffrey, then Chief of the Southern Command, and now anti-drug czar, was received at the 1st Military camp in an impressive ceremony, by the staff officers of the Mexican armed forces, and in front of almost 10,000 soldiers and cadets.

Also see Michael Steinberg, “Savage Repression: The North Carolina Connection,” The Prism (March 1998) http://www.ibiblio.org/prism/mar98/savage.html.

[3] See the web site, “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (Former School of the Americas) Fort Benning, Georgia,” Just the Facts (last updated October 28, 2003): http://www.ciponline.org/facts/soa.htm. Just the Facts stated the following in summarizing the SOA’s troubled history:

The School of the Americas had been questioned for years, as it trained many military personnel before and during the years of the “national security doctrine”—the dirty war years in the Southern Cone and the civil war years in Central America—in which Latin American militaries ruled or had disproportionate government influence and committed serious human rights violations. Training manuals used at the SOA and elsewhere from the early 1980s through 1991 promoted techniques that violated human rights and democratic standards. SOA graduates continue to surface in news reports regarding both current human rights cases and new reports on past cases.

SOA is costing taxpayers millions of dollars, thus leading to the discomforting fact that U.S. citizens are funding schools that train foreign soldiers to go on to commit human rights abuses. Just the Facts reveals the following finances of the SOA:

The cost of keeping the WHINSEC’s [SOA’s] doors open is currently $5.6 million. According to an August 2002 WHINSEC document, $1.2 million comes from security assistance funds (mainly IMET and INC) and Foreign Military Sales (FMS).[9] The document does not specify the origin of the remaining $4.4 million, though much is probably Defense Department operations and maintenance funding.

Again, the full summary is available online, at: http://www.ciponline.org/facts/soa.htm.

[4] Wilson, The Slippery Slope; quotes taken from Section I: United States Militarization of Mexico: Military Training, Especially Counterinsurgency; available online at: http://www.globalexchange.org/countries/mexico/slope/section1.html#training.

[5] “United States Department of Defense, Department of State, Foreign Military Training and DoD Engagement Activities of Interest in Fiscal Years 1998 and 1999: A Report to Congress” (Washington: March 1999).

[6]
Darrin Wood, “Clinton’s “Interference” in Mexico: From Wounded Knee to Chiapas,” Nuevo Amanecer Press – Europa http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/mexico/comment/wounded_knee_dec.html (Dec. 28, 1997). The article is available online at: http://www.officeoftheamericas.org/docs/1997/971229_nap_clinton_interference.html.

[7] I found out about General Jose Ruben Rivas Peña through a telephone interview with Hendrick Voss, one of the researchers at the School of the Americas Watch http://www.soaw.org. This could have been done by any of the major papers and/or broadcast networks under investigation in this study, but unsurprisingly, Voss never heard from any of them. In the interview, Voss stated the following:

Before the Zapatista rebellion, there were very few SOA grads coming from Mexico. But after the rebellion, it skyrocketed. One-third of graduating class came from Mexico in 1997. One SOA graduate, was Jose Ruben Peña. He took the staff and commander course. He is also the principal author of “Campaign Plan Chiapas 94.” It was an internal document in the Mexican army that openly calls for the buildup of paramilitary and other defense forces in southern Mexico.

Peña also ranted against Bishop Luiz, liberation theology and the church.

There were 18 graduates who were involved with civilian targeted warfare, otherwise known as “low intensity conflict.”

Covert Action Quarterly came up with a list of at least 13 military officials.

The weapons used in the massacre at Acteal were supplied by the PRI Mayor of the municipality that Acteal was located in.

[8] Darrin Wood, “Mexico Practices What School of the Americas Teaches,” Covert Action Quarterly, (Winter 1996-97). Available online: http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/SOA/Mexico_SOA.html.

[9]Quoted in Carlos Marin, Proceso, January 3, 1998.

[10] Triunfo Elizalde, “Mexico is Now the Country Which Sends the Greatest Number of Forces to United States Military Schools,” La Jornada (August 16, 1998); translation done by “irlandesa” and available online at: http://flag.blackened.net/revolt/mexico/usa/greatest_num_aug98.html. Original article in Spanish, “México es ya el país que más efectivos envía a escuelas militares estadunidenses, afirma,” also available online at: http://www.jornada.unam.mx/1998/ago98/980816/mexico.html.

[11] Douglas Farah and Dana Priest, “Mexican Drug Force Is U.S.-Bred,” The Washington Post (February 26, 1998).

[12] Pascal Beltran del Rio, “U.S. Trains Thousands of Mexican Soldiers: In Just Two Years, Some 3000 Mexican Soldiers Will Have Been Trained at 17 U.S. Military Bases,” Proceso (No. 1122, May 3, 1998); translation available online at: http://www.globalexchange.org/countries/mexico/mil/TrainingInUS.html.

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