Prisoners Freed in Acteal, Mexico Case Yet to Return Home


Christians bear no grudges, fear no threats from accusers.

TUXTLA GUTIERREZ, Mexico, October 12 (CDN) — Alonso Lopez Entzin, a Tzotzil-speaking Christian in Chiapas state, Mexico, spent 11 years and eight months in prison for a crime he did not commit. Accused of participating in the tragic “Acteal massacre” in December 1997 in which 45 persons died near San Cristobal de las Casas, he and more than 80 of his neighbors were summarily arrested and charged with the murders.On Aug. 12, the Federal Supreme Court of Mexico ordered that Lopez Entzin and 19 other indigenous men accused in the Acteal killings – 18 are Christian, including Lopez Entzin – be freed from El Amate Penal facility in Chiapas. Their release came as a surprise to him and his fellow prisoners, as well as to thousands of people in Mexico and around the world advocating their release.

Of the 18 Christians released, only five were Christians when they were arrested; the rest came to trust in Christ while in prison. At least 27 innocent men who were Christians at the time of their arrest remain in prison, according to advocacy organizations.

“I thank God that I have been granted freedom,” Lopez Entzin told Compass. “We are no longer imprisoned thanks to the power of God. There is no other person that has this kind of power, only God.”

The court is reviewing the cases of another 31 men convicted in connection with the massacre. Six more defendants will be granted new trials.

“Right now we see the first fruits of our prayers,” said Tomas Perez Mendez, another of the 20 freed prisoners. “We are confident in the Lord that the rest of the brothers are going to obtain their freedom as well.”

Lopez Entzin added that winning their freedom will not be easy.

“When we were inside El Amate, we began to pray, fast and glorify our Lord Jesus Christ. There are thousands and thousands of brothers who prayed for us inside the jail – thank God He answered those prayers,” he said through tears. “That’s why those brothers who remain behind in El Amate believe that if God’s will is done, they will soon be free.”

Most of the remaining Acteal inmates are evangelical Protestant Christians sentenced to 25- and 36-year prison terms. For years, human rights advocates and legal experts have presented legal arguments showing that the men were convicted on dubious evidence. The district court of the state of Chiapas, however, has consistently ruled against the defendants in appeals.

Attorneys for the defendants finally succeeded in bringing the case before the Federal Supreme Court in Mexico City. The justices who reviewed the case found clear violations of due process and on Aug. 12 overturned the convictions in a 4-1 decision.

The court ruling stated that the decision was not a determination of the guilt or innocence of the men, only that their constitutional rights had been violated during their arrest and conviction.

Though grateful to be free at last, Agustin Gomez Perez admitted that prison was “very difficult, very difficult indeed.”

“There inside the jail, everybody loses,” Gomez Perez said. “I saw it. Many lost their wives, their families, their homes. In the years I was in jail I lost my son. It was May 7, 2005. Twelve families were traveling in a truck to visit us in El Amate. They had an accident, and my 3-year-old son Juan Carlos was killed.”

Inmates expressed gratitude for church groups and international organizations that lent support to their families during their incarceration. Some groups supplied chicks, piglets and coffee plants for wives and children to raise on family plots. A volunteer team of doctors and nurses from Veracruz provides free treatment to prisoners and their dependents.

The prisoners said that one of the greatest helps was regular visits from their families. International Christian organizations raised money for bus fares and chartered vehicles to ensure that the prisoners’ families, who could not otherwise afford the travel, saw their husbands and fathers as often as possible.

Normalcy Not Returned

Despite being freed, the 20 men have yet to resume normal life with their families.

“When I left jail, I didn’t think I would be stuck half-way home,” Gomez Perez said. “I was thinking I would come home and see my wife and children. But we haven’t got there. We are left here half-way home.”

“Half-way home” for the released men is the market district in hot, bustling Tuxtla Gutierrez. They are living in makeshift half-way houses provided by the federal government, awaiting resettlement on land that state authorities have promised them.

Compass met with seven of the former inmates in a rented building they occupy with their wives, children and, in some cases, grandchildren. The families share windowless, sparsely furnished rooms with bare cement floors. Government food rations sustain them. While the half-way house is better than prison, it is nothing like the lush, green Chiapas mountains to which they long to return.

The men agreed to the relocation scheme because the farms they worked before going to prison have long since reverted to their heirs or, in some cases, neighbors. They welcome the assistance to get back on their feet financially.

Government officials, however, insist that the Acteal prisoners must relocate to new communities because they fear violent clashes will flare between them and their old rivals.

The seven freed men were unanimous in their opinion that such confrontations would not happen.

“In the first place, we do not agree with what the government is saying,” Gomez Perez said. “We hold no grudges against those who accused us. What happened, happened. We are not thinking vengeance.”

Perez Mendez agreed with Gomez Perez that the men feel no ill will against those who accused them and no resentment for what they suffered in jail.

“God does not want that we hold grudges or take vengeance against anyone,” he said. “There is not really much danger out there in our communities either. When people saw the news on television on Aug. 12 that we were getting out, they were happy. Well, now we hear that they found out we are not coming home, that we are here in Tuxtla, and some are saying, ‘Why don’t they come home? Tell them to come.’”

The Acteal prisoners have reason to hold grudges. Their attorneys say many of them were arrested in random police sweeps in the days following the massacre simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Public indignation over the brutal slayings, fueled by numerous inflammatory press releases from Las Abejas, a civic group whose members were primary targets in the massacre, as well as by the left-leaning human rights organization Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, swelled to fever pitch in December 1997.

Authorities responded by arresting dozens of “suspects,” without evidence or warrants, to quell the outcry.

Some Acteal defendants found themselves accused of the crime by allies of the rebel Zapatista guerrilla army. A land dispute between Zapatista sympathizers and opponents of the rebels intensified during the waning months of 1997, claiming the lives of 18 indigenous men, the majority of them Protestant Christians. Attorneys say indifferent law enforcement officers failed even to investigate the murders, let alone arrest the perpetrators.

Frustrated with the authorities’ foot-dragging and desperate to defend themselves against further aggression, nine indigenous young men armed themselves and confronted their enemies on Dec. 22, 1997. The ensuing firefight and subsequent massacre at the Catholic hermitage in Acteal ended with 45 dead, many of them women and children who were participating in an Abejas-sponsored program that day.

Five of the nine armed men have confessed to participating in the Acteal shootings and insist they acted alone. Those five are serving prison terms in El Amate. Two others were arrested and released because they were minors at the time of the crime. Two more remain at large and, ironically, have reportedly come under the protection of the Zapatistas.

Las Abejas and its allies continue to assert that that the Acteal killings were carried out by “paramilitary” units equipped and assisted by the Mexican army. With the passage of time, many of those who hold this thesis have admitted that most of the Acteal prisoners did not, in fact, participate in the shooting. Nevertheless, they insist that until the “intellectual authors” of the atrocity come forward and confess, not one prisoner – even though innocent of the crime – should be released.

That strange logic has helped to keep more than 50 innocent men in prison for nearly 12 years.

“It is certain that we suffered an injustice for nearly 12 years,” Perez Mendez said. “A lot of people tell us that we are guilty. But as far as we are concerned, God knows all. We did not commit that crime.

He implored Christians to pray for the innocent men who have yet to be released.

Pray as well for we who are not at home in our communities,” he said. “I ask that you not forget us.”Report from Compass Direct News 


Funeral incident leads to disproportionate response from Muslim mobs, police.

ISTANBUL, November 21 (Compass Direct News) – Authorities in an Egyptian village arrested 50 Coptic Christians, whose shops were then looted, to pacify Muslims following violence that erupted on Nov. 4 over a Christian boy’s unwitting break with custom.

Muslim villagers attacked the homes and shops of Coptic Christians in violence-prone Tayyiba, a town with 35,000 Christians and 10,000 Muslims, after 14-year-old Copt Mina William failed to dismount his donkey as a funeral procession passed.

William was watching the procession in Tayibba, 220 kilometers (137 miles) south of Cairo, with Nathan Yaccoub, also 14. William’s failure to dismount violated a local custom of showing respect, Copts United reported, and members of the procession reportedly beat him before completing the procession. William suffered minor injuries.

After the funeral procession, the processional members began throwing stones at the homes of local Copts and attacking their shops before police broke up the crowd with tear gas.

A priest said members of the procession did not attack the youths for showing disrespect but as an excuse to lash out against the community’s Christians for a previous episode of sectarian violence.

“These two children with the donkey didn’t know about the traditions,” said Father Metias Nasr, a Cairo-based priest with connections in areas south of the capital. “The Muslims there were angry about the last case of violence and wanted to create a new problem with these two children there.”

When the violence began, police presence increased significantly in the city. But rather than quell the unrest, police reportedly made matters worse for the Christians. After breaking up the crowd, officers detained 50 Copts and 10 Muslims.

A source told Compass that police arrested a disproportionate amount of Christians to create a false sense of equanimity and to pressure the Christians into “reconciliation” with the attackers so the Copts would not prosecute them. The arrested Christians have since been released.

In the two weeks since the attacks and looting, the increased police force in the village has harassed Copts through intimidation, “fines” and racketeering. Police have taken an estimated $50,000 from village Copts, the source said.

Once police lifted the curfew, Coptic shopkeepers returned to their stores to discover that they had been looted. Sources said the perpetrators were “supply inspectors,” local government inspectors who do quality control checks on goods. They gained access by smashing locks and doors of the shops.

The sources said supply inspectors plundered grocery stores, a poultry shop, an electronics store and a pharmacy.

According to Coptic weekly Watani, looters stole nearly $2,000 worth of goods from grocer Bishara Gayed. Another victim of the looting, an owner of a poultry shop who declined to give his name, blamed supply inspectors for running off with his stock.

A local clergyman condemned the violence.

“It is unreasonable that a mistake by some 14-year-old should lead to all that rampage,” a village Coptic priest known as Father Augustinus told Watani. “Something ought to be done to halt all this.”


Orphanage Bulldozed

Numerous instances of sectarian violence have struck Tayyiba in the last few months.

Last month a Coptic Christian was killed over a dispute with a Muslim who wanted to buy his house. Violence escalated, resulting in damaged storefronts, 48 arrests and injuries sustained by three Christians and a Muslim.

Such quarrels typically arise from land ownership issues. A Coptic source told Compass that Christians in Tayyiba are generally wealthier than their Muslim counterparts, often leading to resentment.

Tayyiba was stable at press time, though the town is considered to be continually in danger of religious violence flaring. This situation is common throughout Egypt, Fr. Nasr told Compass.

“The village is like anywhere in Egypt,” he said. “In every place in Egypt we can say that in one minute everyone can be destroyed by fanatics, sometimes through the encouragement of security [forces].”

The Coptic Church has faced recent difficulties in other Egyptian cities, with government officials attempting to obstruct their religious activities. On Wednesday (Nov. 19), city officials in Lumbroso, Alexandria destroyed an unfinished but recently furnished Coptic orphanage owned by Abu-Seifein Church and worth 6 million Egyptian pounds (US$1 million).

Officials claimed the building did not have a license, although church leaders said the demolition came on orders from the religiously zealous Islamic mayor. Ali Labib, former head of police and state security in Alexandria, in his two-year tenure as mayor has refused license applications for new church construction or rebuilding, said a Cairo-based Coptic priest who requested anonymity.

The priest said the orphanage was only able to obtain a license because it was issued before Labib’s tenure.

Islam is a growing presence in Egypt’s public sphere. While the government has attempted to crack down on extremists, Islamic civil groups that have drawn widespread support by offering cheap medical assistance and private lessons to school children include the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organization with jihad in its credo that has been accused of violence.

The Muslim Brotherhood is well regarded by the average Egyptian, who equates the government with autocracy, corruption and repression, author and intellectual Tarek Heggy reportedly said. Over the last four decades, the Muslim Brotherhood has introduced its brand of fundamentalist Islam into Egyptian schools, mosques and media, he added.

Egypt’s ethnic Christians, known as Copts, belong to the Orthodox Church and number 12 million among the country’s 79 million inhabitants. There are smaller groups of Catholics and Protestants.  

Report from Compass Direct News