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 


Supreme Court rules their rights were violated; violence threatened in Chiapas.

MEXICO CITY, Aug. 13 (Compass Direct News) – At least 20 men accused of participating in a massacre in Chiapas state in December 1997 left prison early this morning – amid concerns over threats of violence at their home communities near San Cristobal de las Casas – following a Supreme Court ruling yesterday that their convictions violated fundamental norms of justice.

The release of the 20 men, most of them evangelical Christians, came after Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled in a 4-1 decision that they had been convicted in unfair trials in which prosecutors fabricated testimony and illegally obtained evidence. Area evangelicals view the imprisoned Christians as caught between survivors clamoring for convictions and government police and military forces eager to shift blame away from their minions following the Dec. 22, 1997 killing of 45 civilians in Acteal village.

“Acteal is a double tragedy,” attorney Javier Cruz Angulo reportedly said after the ruling. “On the one hand you have an abominable massacre, and on the other more than 50 human beings imprisoned without proofs.”

The court will review the cases of another 31 men convicted in connection with the massacre, and six more will be given new trials, according to news reports.

The identities of those released were not immediately known. As 32 of those imprisoned for the crime were Christians and another 15 received Christ while in prison, most of the previous total of 57 prisoners are Christians.

“In prison, the majority of us converted to the Presbyterian faith,” Tomas Perez Mendez, 60, told El Universal before the Supreme Court decision; at press time it was not known if he was among those released.

He told the Mexican newspaper that he bears no resentment even though his imprisonment led to illnesses that contributed to the deaths of family members. “My wife is ill, my father and one brother died from sorrow at seeing us here in prison . . . I no longer feel anger or resentment against those who accused me, and I plan to preach.”

Authorities had told a total of 57 prisoners that they would be freed after their paperwork was reviewed, a source in Chiapas told Compass.

“Naturally, those prisoners who had been informed of their impending release last week are extremely disappointed, as well wondering if they will ever be released,” said the source, who requested anonymity.

Two brothers, Pablo and Juan Hernandez Perez, reportedly said that they have no home to return to; their house was burned to the ground while they were in prison. Another hoping for release, Javier Vazquez Luna, told El Universal he played no part in the crime, and that indeed his father was one of the victims of the massacre.

The Supreme Court justices stated that they were not ruling on the guilt or innocence of the men, only on the violation of due process.

“During the investigation, their constitutional rights were violated,” the court said in a statement. “The majority of cases … were based on the use of illegally obtained evidence.”

In recent months relatives of the imprisoned men ratcheted up citizen campaigns seeking their freedom, backed by many others. For several years Presbyterian churches have carried banners outside their buildings requesting justice for those wrongly convicted in the Acteal violence. The Chiapas government had said it could do nothing because the case was under federal jurisdiction.

Pressure to reopen the case has intensified each December with remembrances of the massacre. In spite of intense political pressure to the contrary, the Supreme Court finally agreed to review the facts.

Threats of Violence

Amid statements by survivors of the Acteal crime that tensions could heighten in the area – and a grim warning from a former leader of Las Abejas, a supposedly non-violent group sympathetic to rebel militants whose members were killed in the massacre – defense attorneys and family members of the released men appealed to authorities to provide security and guarantee social peace.

“A former leader of the Abejas made a public declaration that if the men returned to their homes, the Abejas would be waiting for them, and the released prisoners would be repaid for the pain they caused 12 years ago,” the Chiapas source told Compass. “Tensions exist, and with statements like he made, the government is nervous about letting the men return to their homes due to possible violence. At this point, there are still no violent actions, but the threat of an outbreak is real.”

At press time authorities had prevented the released men from returning to the Acteal area, keeping them in a hotel in Berriozabal after loading them onto a truck through a back door of the El Amate prison at 3:35 a.m., El Universal reported.

Initially the prison director refused to see the men’s lawyers when they arrived at El Amate prison in Chiapas near midnight with orders for their release, the Compass source said.

“When he finally relented and met with the lawyers, it was only under extreme pressure from the Mexico City lawyers who refused to be dissuaded,” the source said. “There was an extended time of wrangling before the warden eventually released the prisoners, only under threat of returning to the Supreme Court and the Human Rights Commission about his intransigence.”

The released men had been promised there would be a government-paid bus waiting to take them to San Cristobal de las Casas, he said, but instead they were taken to the hotel in Berriozabal.

“The men were to meet with government officials today in Tuxtla, and we are still awaiting word on their arrival in San Cristobal after some five hours of waiting,” the source said. “It appears there are delaying tactics, hindrances and lack of cooperation in the entire release process.”

Some of the released men were able to meet with family members, and most expressed desire to return to the Acteal area, but the prison director said that authorities had determined that it was not safe for them to go back to their communities, according to El Universal. Authorities have reportedly proposed the possibility of providing them land parcels to avoid their returning to the area of the original conflict.

The evangelical Christians convicted were serving 25- or 36-year sentences and had exhausted all appeals. Some of them say they were arrested because rebel sympathizers with whom they had been embroiled in years of land disputes named them. Others said they were simply nearby when authorities made random round-ups.

Of the 34 men originally convicted, one died in prison and another had been released as a minor.

The family of one prisoner, Agustin Gomez Perez, tried to visit him in 2005. He told El Universal that they had an accident on the way, killing one small child and putting his wife in the hospital for 20 days – leaving their other five children without parents during that period.

Controversy over who killed the 45 people has revolved around whether there was a “massacre” by numerous “paramilitary” villagers or a “confrontation” between a handful of neighboring peasants and Zapatista National Liberation Army rebels. Historian Héctor Aguilar Camín has argued that there was both a confrontation and a massacre, with some overlap between each, but that they were largely separate incidents.

Five confessed killers have testified that they and four others engaged only Zapatista militia to avenge the death of a relative, while the federal attorney general’s office charged that at least 50 pro-government “paramilitaries” descended on a relief camp hermitage full of displaced peasants bent on killing and robbing them. The testimonies of the five confessed killers – four others remain at large – agree that the nine avengers were the only ones involved in the firefights, and that the decision to attack the Zapatistas was a private family decision made with no involvement from government authorities.

They also agree that the sole motive was to avenge the assassination of a relative – the latest of 18 unprosecuted murders by Zapatistas over the previous three months, according to Aguilar Camín.

Government prosecutors unduly dismissed much of the testimony of the five confessed avengers, Aguilar Camín wrote in a 2007 article for Nexos, noting that the killers testified that state security forces were nearby and did nothing. He highlights the judicial irregularities of the round-up and conviction of the peasants – apprehensions without evidence or warrant, charging 83 people with homicide when only 45 people were killed and lack of translators and attorneys for the suspects, Tzotzil Mayans who did not know Spanish.

The Supreme Court pointed out those violations in its ruling. Arturo Farela Gutierrez, head of the National Association of Evangelical Christian Churches, praised the court decision.

“We are in the presence of a court different from that of 12 years ago,” he said, according to El Universal. “The court is strengthened without fear of anything or anyone, and it’s the court that democratic Mexico needs.”

Report from Compass Direct News 


Suspecting family of witchcraft, neighbor’s gang takes machetes to adults, children.

MEXICO CITY, September 3 (Compass Direct News) – When the 11-year-old daughter of Antonio Gomez became ill of a stomach ailment, her father decided that it was due to witchcraft committed by his evangelical neighbor.

Gomez, of the Jolitontic community of Chalchihuitan municipality in Chiapas state, gathered seven friends to kill the family of the supposed culprit. After midnight on August 23, they allegedly killed three adults – the parents and their eldest son – and wounded six children with machetes.

Mariano Lopez Perez, public prosecutor of Indian Justice, reportedly said neighbors regarded the father in the attacked family, Pedro Gomez Diaz, as “an evangelical who prayed a great deal.” The neighbors reportedly denied that the family believed in or practiced any kind of witchcraft as far as they knew.

According to Tuxtla Gutierrez-based Cuarto Poder newspaper in Chiapas, all eight of the men who participated in the massacre of three Indians in Jolitontic are now in jail in San Cristobal de las Casas, awaiting justice.

The attackers burst into the hut of the family to kill first the eldest son, Rene, 32. They then slashed the mother, Marcela Hernandez Giron Gomez, and the father, Gomez Diaz.

Before he died Gomez Diaz’s cries alerted the rest of the family, but the murderers managed to seriously wound six other children: Esteban, 4; Ernesto, 6; Anita, 7; Maria, 14; Petrona, 16; and Martin, 18. They were all taken to the public health hospital of San Cristobal de las Casas.

Petrona Diaz was reported to be in the most serious condition; two of the children required surgery. The hospital refused to give further information to Compass, but reports regarding the children indicate that Petrona Diaz suffered the amputation of one thumb and an exposed broken bone.

Maria Diaz was reportedly gravely ill, and her siblings Ernesto and Anita were discharged from the hospital on Aug. 25. The next day they went to be with their grandmother in another town.

Authorities reportedly found three machetes that had been used in the attack, hidden in the brush.

Police reportedly buried the bodies of the three murder victims in a common grave behind their house, as “because they had no relatives in the community.”  

Report from Compass Direct News