Mexico: Witnesses at Risk (5/98)

It’s hot already, as the early morning sun beats down on the crooked tin roof of the new church in Acteal. Just behind the makeshift bench where I’m sitting in the open air is a mass grave. It holds the bodies of 45 victims of a massacre that claimed the lives of mostly women and children here last December.

On either side of me are two young women, survivors of that massacre who lost most of their families. In front sits Maria Santiz Lopez, a leader of the Abeja, a religious group committed to nonviolence. Maria is talking about her traditional dress, and her fears that when it’s worn out, there won’t be another to take its place – that she’ll lose her identity in hand-me-down, non-traditional dresses from well-wishers who don’t understand what her clothes mean to her.

Unavoidably, we eventually talk about what happened here. One of the young women beside me saw seven members of her family butchered by armed paramilitaries. Maria lost her father-in-law and her sister-in-law. We don’t discuss the details. It’s too painful, and, by now, we all know the story too well.

But according to Maria, many of the assassins identified by survivors of the massacre are still at large. In fact, she says they frequently drive by the community, and all the women can do is watch and pray. Threatening to return, the paramilitaries have fired shots in the air from the road. Maria begins to cry. First the tears slip out, then her voice loses volume until it’s only a whisper that fades into a deep sob. She covers her face, flipping up the shawl which until now concealed her nursing baby, born just after the massacre.

She goes on talking, about missing her father-in-law, and how it’s easier to work or be with the other women than remain home, left alone with her thoughts. She talks about the sorrow that haunts them all. The other women are crying now, and soon, I’m crying, too.

When the interview is over, I shake hands with the women. They smile and return to the communal kitchen where they take solace in each other’s company, and even laugh and gossip when they can forget the sorrow that rests just over the hill.

I wonder if I’ve done the right thing, coming to hear their stories, reopening wounds that need to heal. But they say they want to talk about it. Even more, they want the world to hear their voices. Sometimes it seems like such outside attention, and the international human rights observers who maintain a presence in peace camps here are all that stand between the women and another bloody raid.

In early 1994, the Zapatistas began inviting outside human rights observers to maintain a presence in communities at risk of aggression by the federal military. Today, Civilian Camps for Peace exist in most troubled communities in Chiapas. The peace campers stay for a week or two, get to know people, and bear witness to any confrontations that take place. Most arrive on tourist visas and are given credentials in San Cristobal de las Casas by the Fray Bartolomey Human Rights Center and Enlace Civil, a civilian support wing of the Zapatistas. From there they go to a community that needs observers. The peace camp in Acteal is new, and has only existed since shortly after the massacre.

Dangerous Questions

I drive away from Acteal in my spiffy rental car, feeling heavy. I’m lost in thoughts of those women, and what this dirty, low intensity war has done to people all over Chiapas. Not far from there I come upon a pickup truck by the side of the road. As a uniformed man waves me down, I realize that the gamble I took in coming here may have been lost.

All foreigners who work in the conflict zone run the same risk. If we don’t have work or journalist visas, we’re not allowed in these areas. Getting a work visa is next to impossible, and I don’t have one.

In recent months, the Mexican government has mounted an anti-foreigner campaign of unprecedented proportions, launching a media blitz designed to convince the Mexican public that outsiders are behind the conflict in Chiapas, that they’re exacerbating a political situation which has nothing to do with them. Citizens have been asked to inform on their foreign neighbors; tourists have been stopped downtown and asked for papers. Some foreigners have reportedly been followed, and phone conversations take on a ridiculous tone as visitors attempt to disguise what they’re doing.

The immigration officer asks where I’m from and wants my papers. I pretend not to understand. Then he speaks in English. Another man appears and takes my passport. They pore over it for a few minutes, then ask me to step out of the car.

They ask questions about what I’m doing here. Going to see the church in Pantehlo, I reply. But they say they’ve just come from Pantehlo and didn’t see me there – though they did see my car in Acteal. What was I doing there? Well, I hesitate, trying to look embarrassed, I had to, you see, uh … well, actually, I had to pee.

They don’t seem to believe me. They ask me more questions and I continue to pretend I don’t understand. They also make derogatory remarks about me in Spanish. I work hard at not responding. For about 15 minutes, which seems an eternity, they labor over some forms, repeatedly asking what I was doing in Acteal.

I want to stand in the road and shout, "Look, damn it! Look at what’s in front of you. Look at the beauty of this place, look at the sorrow and the pain. Look at those sons of bitches driving up and down this road – they murder innocent women and children and go free. Question them, don’t look at me. All I did was listen to some women’s stories, and I will not apologize."

But I don’t say this. Instead, I smile and say thank you when they tell me to appear at the immigration office in San Cristobal within 48 hours. They keep my visa, but say not to worry, it’s no problem. No problem for them. They haven’t spent the last two months watching people get deported left and right, wondering why the government is so eager to be rid of potential witnesses. They haven’t spent days shut up in their homes because the migra was patrolling the zocalo, or worried about friends out in communities, wondering which one will get picked off next. There were eight expulsions in early March, and more before that, including Tom Hansen and Padre Michel, the French priest who worked in and around Acteal for 32 years.

A Close Call

A mestiza woman, born and raised in San Cristobal, accompanies me to my interrogation. She makes the offer because it isn’t safe for any of my gringo friends, and also because she believes that what her government is doing is wrong.

The immigration officer is polite, and seems somewhat convinced by my story: I’m a tourist traveling in Mexico, who just wanted to go for a drive, saw the military and got scared. I decided to go home, but had to pee.

Am I familiar with Mexican immigration law? No. Did I bring any kind of humanitarian aid? Have I taught classes? Have I visited any villages in the conflict zone? No. Have I talked with any people involved in this struggle. No, I say again.

Not that bringing aid to the poor is against Mexican law. But often the insurgents who commit crimes against the government are those very same poor. So, if you help them, you’re aiding and abetting crimes against the state. As a foreigner, it’s also against the law to provide humanitarian aid unless you have government permission. However, in the case of Tom Hansen, even credentials provided by the government agency Cocopa, and a legal stay of deportation, weren’t enough to stop the immigration authorities from holding him incommunicado for 24 hours before deporting him to Miami.

The officer doesn’t waste much energy questioning me. He explains that Acteal is a sensitive area and that foreigners have been interfering where they don’t belong. The Mexican government is just trying to protect its people. I nod as if I understand this perfectly, though I don’t and never will. He gives me a temporary visa which states in no uncertain terms that I’m to leave the country in 18 days, from the Mexico City International Airport. There are no restrictions on my return.

It’s better than I could have hoped for. Most others brought in for questioning are given less than five days to leave, or taken directly to the airport, put on the next plane to the US, and told they can never return.

Recently, three women, two Europeans and one US citizen, were stopped on their way to a peace camp. They showed their credentials as human rights observers from Fray Bartolomey. Peace campers don’t work while they are in communities, except as ad hoc volunteers. They aren’t paid. Yet, it’s difficult to fit acting as a human rights observer into the classification of tourism. The women were given notice to appear in San Cristobal, which they did. From the immigration office, however, they were taken to Tuxtla Gutierrez and put on a plane to Mexico City, where they were abandoned when the US embassy intervened on behalf of the US woman.

So, I’m lucky. But that doesn’t mean I’m not angry. It’s hard to be a foreigner here now, hard to justify – in legal terms – what I’m doing. But it would be harder to turn my back. Armed men who kill innocent women and children roam free to kill again. Even though the situation of women here is intolerable, they fight back anyway, counting on outsiders to bear witness. But precisely because we want to be witnesses, the government and their accomplices would like to be rid of us.

Well, I’m going. But I’ll be back.

Robin Kelsey is a freelance writer working in Chiapas, Mexico