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Indians march to massacre site, demand punishment for politicians

December 31, 1997

POLHO, Mexico (AP) _ Hundreds of Indians marched Wednesday toward the southern hamlet where gunmen massacred 45 villagers last week, many demanding punishment for government officials they accuse of complicity in the attack.

``The governor must be asked why this is happening. He wants to solve problems with guns. Let’s hope the investigation reaches those politically responsible,″ said the Rev. Felipe Toussaint of the local Roman Catholic diocese.

After celebrating Mass in Acteal, site of the Dec. 22 slaughter, 21 refugee families planned to spend the night there, Toussaint said. Then they’d decide whether they felt safe enough to remain.

Authorities have arrested 40 people, including the county’s top political official, Jacinto Arias Cruz, for alleged roles in the massacre in the poor southern state of Chiapas.

But survivors believe other higher-ranking members of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party must have been involved, and opposition leaders have called for the ouster of state Gov. Julio Cesar Ruiz Ferro and Interior Secretary Emilio Chuayffet.

The victims of the massacre in Acteal were members of a group that sympathizes with leftist Zapatista rebels, whose political influence has grown in the mostly indigenous region since peace talks with the government broke down in 1996.

Women, some carrying babies, protected their heads from the sun with embroidered white shawls Wednesday as the procession left Polho, where 6,000 refugees are camped out. Men in white tunics set out with them along the winding mountain road overlooking lush, rolling hills for the 1 1/2-mile trek.

All are Tzotzil Indians and many do not speak Spanish.

``We want the killers to go away,″ said Jose Arias Guzman, a nephew of the arrested county leader and a day laborer in coffee and corn fields. ``We want the political leaders to leave so that life can be better.″

Arias Guzman, who helped returning refugees load sacks of clothing into a truck, was among the few Acteal residents who remained in the town after the massacre, which he said he survived by running into the hills.

Accusations that the killers were linked to local ruling party officials gained credibility with Tuesday’s arrest of the county government’s representative in the neighboring hamlet of Los Chorros, home to many of the alleged killers.

Chiapas state spokesman Fermin Rodriguez confirmed the arrest of the official, Antonio Santiz Encin.

One of the suspects, whose name was not released, told investigators that Santiz organized and supplied arms for the paramilitary gang believed responsible, Mexican media reported.

Santiz purchased 18 AK-47s in preparation for the attack and the killers met daily at his house at 4 p.m. in the days leading up to the slayings, according to the reports, which the federal attorney general’s office said they were investigating.

The unidentified suspect was quoted as saying the massacre was to avenge intimidation and harassment by Acteal residents against supporters of the ruling party, known as the PRI.

Both Santiz and Arias Cruz have denied detailed knowledge of PRI-affiliated paramilitary groups that have terrorized many villages in the region since March.

Survivors say the Dec. 22 attack was carried out by PRI supporters, and many of the detainees have said they are PRI members.

On Wednesday, the attorney general’s office said the second-ranking Catholic official in the diocese, Bishop Raul Vera, had been summoned to explain remarks he recently made linking local and state-PRI officials to armed gangs of vigilantes in the region.

State officials either have denied the existence of the paramilitary groups, or said they were justified in the wake of the January 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, in which 145 people died.

The federal government has said it didn’t know about the problems.

Supporters of the Zapatista rebels have set up a parallel local government in Polho, where refugees terrified of further paramilitary killings have gathered since last weekend.

The refugees come from communities where they said paramilitary groups levied ``war taxes″ and harassed anyone who refused to back the PRI.

Before Wednesday’s march, hundreds sat in and around Polho’s schoolhouse, children wrapped in light blue blankets and coughing in the morning damp, girls braiding their mothers’ hair.

Pots of beans cooked on wood fires, but people said they didn’t have enough to eat.

``We’re not doing very well,″ said Rafael Gomez Perez, a 23-year-old subsistence farmer from Acteal. ``We don’t have anything to eat. People are sick, there’s fever.

Gomez, his wife and four children fled Acteal the day of the massacre.

``We want to go home, but we don’t know if the killers will come again. We don’t want to die.″