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1998 NCC News Archives


    NEW YORK, Jan. 5, 1998 ---- Church World Service (CWS) is responding to the needs of survivors and refugees following the Dec. 22, 1997, massacre in Acteal, Mexico, in which 45 unarmed civilians were killed. CWS has already sent $10,000 to partners in the area for the purchase of blankets, food and medicines and is seeking $30,000 for additional supplies and longer-term material assistance for survivors and refugees.

    (Persons wishing to help may contact CHURCH WORLD SERVICE, Attn. Chiapas Massacre, #76349, P.O. Box 968, Elkhart, IN 46515. Phone pledges or credit card donations: 1-800-762-0968.)

    "The news is grim," said the Rev. Johnny Wray, chairman of the Church World Service Emergency Response Executive Committee. "It is a modern day 'massacre of the innocents.'"

    On December 22, masked gunmen wearing uniforms methodically gunned down Acteal villagers, many of them women and children, with weapons ranging from .22-caliber rifles to AK-47s. 45 people were killed and at least 31 more were injured.

    Because of the massacre, thousands of Indian refugees from the southern Mexican state of Chiapas continue to flee villages in the rugged, coffee-growing region that borders Guatemala. Making their way through heavy rains and carrying their possessions in coffee sacks, at least 4,000 refugees have now fled the area in and around Acteal. Many of the refugees are now staying in the village of Polho, living in schools or in makeshift tents of plastic sheeting. They have told authorities and relief officials that they fear returning to their homes because paramilitary groups are still in their villages and planning additional attacks.


    The Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas and the San Cristobal office of Caritas, both CWS partners in Chiapas, have issued an extremely urgent appeal for international assistance to help those affected by the massacre and who have fled the area.

    Bishop Samuel Ruiz of the Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas has specifically requested that CWS help provide assistance for the purchase of clothing, diapers for infants, blankets, tents and food, including beans, corn and sugar.

    CWS has sent $5,000 from its Executive Director's Advance Fund and $5,000 from its Blanket Fund to the Diocese of San Cristobal for the purchase of blankets, food and medicines to assist massacre survivors and for the 4,000 who have relocated in Polho.

    CWS has also issued a humanitarian appeal for $30,000, needed for the purchase of additional supplies and for longer-term material assistance for the refugees in Chiapas who are likely to remain in Polho and other communities for some time.

    In the last four years, in conjunction with local partners, CWS has worked on a range of issues in Chiapas, including offering assistance to displaced persons, providing medical aid to hospitals and supporting human rights monitoring.

    Well-armed paramilitary groups have become more prominent in Chiapas this past year as talks between the Mexican authorities and the four-year-old Zapatista National Liberation Army have collapsed. The Zapatistas, who enjoy support among a large segment of the indigenous population of Chiapas, say President Zedillo and the Mexican government are responsible for the massacre. Survivors of the attack also say the gunmen are aligned with local PRI officials. National PRI officials have denied that party affiliation had anything to do with the massacre.

    But on December 27, 1997, Jacinto Arias Cruz, the mayor of the Chanalho municipality, which includes Acteal, and 23 other members of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) were arrested for supplying the weapons used in the massacre.

    The Rev. Gonzalo Ituarte, vicar of the Diocese of San Cristobal de las Casas, told the New York Times that the mayor's arrest was "a very important step." He added, "But it has to go further, until all of those who permitted this atrocious act are apprehended, because it was known this was going to happen." Rev. Ituarte reportedly called the governor's office twice with news of the massacre. Local officials assured the governor's office that nothing was amiss in the region.

    "May those who did this find peace with their souls and with God, and may they rid themselves of not only their murderous weapons but also their attitude of hatred," Bishop Ruiz said at a Christmas mass for the victims and their families.

    CWS works in more than 70 countries, including the U.S., in disaster relief, human development and refugee assistance. It is a ministry of the National Council of Churches, the nation's preeminent ecumenical organization which includes 34 Protestant and Orthodox member communions.


Writer: Wendy S. McDowell

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