Part Two

“Caciques” rule the highlands of Chiapas

The region of San Juan Chamula, in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, has been a major source of hostilities against evangelical Christians for more than thirty years. Besides the very small town that bears the same name, which is nestled in a bowl-shaped depression in the mountains, Chamula also represents the largest municipality in the highlands region. It encompasses 87 other, separate villages or communities, each with its own heirarchy of “caciques” (or gangster-style, political bosses). These traditional, rural leaders usually control most, if not all, of the local businesses, governments and land.
The power of the caciques often keeps the rest of the community in a “state of virtual servitude,” stated Pedro C. Moreno, International Coordinator of The Rutherford Institute, during a U.S. Congressional hearing on worldwide persecution of Christians. This cultural legacy spans centuries. For instance, during the colonial Spanish era, the natives who failed to attend Catholic mass were whipped, and the caciques did the whipping. “For hundreds of years, they have exploited their own people of race and language,” says Abdías Tovilla Jaime, director and legal consultant of CEDECH, the State Committee of Chiapas for Evangelical Defense. “(Modern) caciques are not interested in maintaining cultural values, but in their businesses, and their economic and political interests. They have imposed customs and festivals that are very expensive to celebrate.”
For example, everyone in each community is expected to participate in and contribute to the local, syncretistic festivals, which involves buying candles, fireworks and posh, a locally-made, hard liquor — all enterprises that caciques control. “In the state of Chiapas, the economy is dependent on the sale of ‘posh,’” according to Moreno. In this way, Tovilla says, the caciques “cause families to be indebted, even those without food or houses.”
Consequently, many of the indigenous people became seasonal workers in the coffee plantations on the Pacific coast of Chiapas, hoping to earn enough money to pay their debts. While there, they were exposed to evangelical Christians. A large number of them were converted, and they brought the gospel back to their communities in the highlands. “Thus, the Protestant faith is a new form of religion that upsets the interests of the caciques,” explains Tovilla. A substantial economic loss for the caciques is represented by the large number of people who no longer buy the candles, fireworks or posh.
As a result, Moreno said, “caciques resort to persecution,” which began to be documented in January, 1966, over thirty years ago. This persecution primarily has taken the form of forcefully expelling the evangelicals from their native communities, including the destruction of their homes and belongings. Evangelical believers also have been beaten, raped, kidnapped, threatened, jailed, ridiculed and forbidden to practice their religious beliefs. Many, too, have been murdered (see Part 1 of this series).
But the fundamental motivation behind the expulsions, according to Tovilla, is really not religious at all. Instead, he says, it is “economic, political, and agrarian, because Chamula has little arable land; so when (the evangelicals) are expelled, their land remains for the caciques.”
Between thirty- and thirty-three thousand evangelicals have been expelled from their own lands since 1966. The majority of them have resettled along the outskirts of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, due to its close proximity to Chamula. Now they live in neighborhoods with names like Paraíso (Paradise), Getsemaní (Gethsemane), and Nueva Esperanza (New Hope).
Yet expulsions have been officially prohibited since 1993, according to Tovilla. For this reason, the caciques have begun to use other tactics. “The face of the problem has changed. Now the caciques are terrorizing the people so that they leave,” says Tracey King, a short-term missionary with the Reconciliation and Mission Program of the Presbyterian Church USA, who is assisting CEDECH in San Cristóbal. Tovilla explains that the caciques have adopted “the armed method,” and that a large portion of the money that goes to Chamula ostensibly for public works is actually used to buy arms. “They can’t expel, but they can kill,” says Tovilla. However, he points out that the Acteal massacre in December was not directed against evangelicals.
Another aspect of their new tactics, which is a “useful means of control for the caciques,” declares CEDECH, is “withholding education (from) the children of the evangelicals. In some cases, this practice has been allowed to go on for more than four years.” Government authorities have not responded, and the schools in several villages remain closed.
And even though expulsions were officially “prohibited,” they still continue. As recently as December 12, 1997, ten evangelicals, including one pastor, were forced to sign a document stating that “by their own will they abandon the community in order to not generate more problems,” and that “having changed religion they violated an internal agreement.” Furthermore, the document states that “the assembly (of local leaders) declares that if anyone of the community changes his religion, he must abandon (the community) voluntarily to prevent generating problems of this type.” The document permits the evangelicals to visit their families in the village once a month, provided they do so “in a peaceful manner and without religious proselytism.”
This latest episode had begun on October 18, when 23 Presbyterians in the village of Saltillo (in the municipality of Las Margaritas) began to receive threats. Later that month, as they fled from the community, one of the men was detained and beaten. On December 8, the group returned to Saltillo for the purpose of reaching an “agreement with the rural authorities (caciques),” according to CEDECH. “But instead, they were imprisoned. On the fifth day of their imprisonment, December 12,” they signed the document “to officially guarantee their expulsion. ...They are now living in the city of Las Margaritas, trying to survive with what little they have left.” A church there is helping support them, King says.
“It is especially grave,” states a report from CEDECH, “because there had been signs of growing tolerance and less violence. ...One can only hope that it is an isolated incident...and not a renewal of the horrible religious persecution.” However, it was not an ‘isolated incident.’ Another evangelical family was likewise expelled from the village of Jolbón in San Juan Chamula. According to CEDECH, this expulsion “broke the existing peace agreements between the municipality’s caciques and the evangelical Christians.”
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Copyright © 1998, by Lee Cuesta

Part One | Part Three