A Residents of a highland village in Chiapas Father Cruz is tall, trim, and secular in appearance. He is also a frequent recipient of death threats. The assassi nation attempt on the bishops of San Cristobal, he says, could have been meant for him. The caravan was sprayed with fifty rounds from an AR-15 and two other highcaliber automatic weapons, and it is possible that the terrorists confused the car carrying the two bishops with his car. Three catechists were wounded; Heriberto came through unscathed. “The authorities say they have no suspects,” Cruz said. “But only Peace and Justice is capable of such an attack.” The priest lists fourteen chapels closed down by the PREstas. “In Limar, they were using the chapel as a police station … they took the host and threw it in the dirt….” The desecrations of the sacrament distressed Papal Nuncio Justo Mullor when he made a rare trip across the region in December. He demanded that local Peace and Justice leader Marcos Albino, a former army officer, explain by what authority he had closed the church in Limar. The chapel was reopened December 20. Mullor’s trip through northern Chiapas was an extraordinary signal of concern from the Vatican. No nuncio had visited Chiapas since Giralamo Prigione \(Mullor’s predecessor and presided over the wedding of the daughter of a hated governor five years ago. Father Cruz, easily the most outspoken Eduardo Vera priest in the region, is, like his bishop, a follower of liberation theology the Catholic doctrine that focuses on Pope John XXIII’ s “preferential option for the poor” and Old Testament accounts of the Jews’ struggle for liberation from enslavers and oppressors. He is a native of Torreon, and came to Chiapas at Don Samuel’s behest during the seventies, when the diocese was recruiting priests in the then highly politicized industrial cities of northern Mexico. Like a fellow northerner, Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente \(believed by the Mexican government to be the EZLN’ s trained by Jesuits. Early in the rebellion, Cruz himself was accused of being the mysterious masked Zapatista leader, and rumors circulate constantly of Cruz’s links to the EZLN. It is said, for example, that he blesses the Zapatistas’ guns, and that he refuses to perform baptisms for PRI members. “I baptized one of the men who made that charge,” Father Heriberto responded. “They close our churches because they say we preach politics there but what we preach is the Word of God, which illuminates the daily reality of suffering here,” the priest said. “The Church is political in the sense that politics mean change. But around here, too often, politics means the parties. The Church is above the parties….” Cruz accuses local cattle ranchers of backing the anti-church campaign. After campesinos who support the Zapatistas and the PRD took over the largest ranch in the municipality, a ranch manager demanded that Heriberto order the Indians to desist. “I did not send them there. I had no influence over them. The ranch administrator grew angry at me,” Cruz said. “The next time we saw him was on television he was part of a mob that was trying to burn down the cathedral in San Cristobal….” Land conflicts in the region led to a federal crackdown in June 1995, when nonMexican priests in Sabanilla, Tumbala, and Yajalon were summarily deported by the Zedillo government for allegedly instigating takeovers of local ranches. Cruz got a glimpse of the indictment: “Every priest in the north of Chiapas was named. They wanted to empty this part of the state of priests. The indictment claimed that we advocated rebellion and distributed guns, that we even raped an old woman….” Although the Mexican priests were not indicted, twenty-three Chol Indians, some of them catechists, are now serving fifteen to twenty years in Cerro Hueco, the state’s maximum security prison. U.S. priest Father Loren Reibe is still barred from returning to the Yajalon parish he served for nineteen years. Is Tila the next Acteal? “We have already had one Acteal here,” Cruz said. “Forty people were killed here in 1997, and we have the same number of displaced persons as in the highlands. We are going at the rhythm and route of Acteal, of Guatemala. They have sown hearts here with the same hatred….” Asked if he is afraid of death, Cruz said, “Fear is natural, but I sleep easy. Each day is a grace from God. Sure, sometimes I hesitate to visit the communities because it puts the catechists at risk, but the catechists urge us to come. In the midst of this persecution, we take their example. Like Don Samuel and Bishop Raul, we have little time to be afraid. There are the cooperatives to tend to. Religious fife is full in the communities. Our mission is to accompany the poor and that is a full-time job. We resist fear with the spirit of the Holy Ghost. To be afraid would be to admit defeat.” John Ross reports regularly from Mexico for the Observer and other publications. His book, The Annexation of Mexico, is available from Common Courage Press. FEBRUARY 13, 1998 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15
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