Chiapas Champion of Poor Troubles Water, Church

By Ross, John | National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 1993 | Go to article overview

Chiapas Champion of Poor Troubles Water, Church


Ross, John, National Catholic Reporter


SAN FRANCISCO -- The anonymous accusation -- "The Bishop Is An Accomplice to Murder!" -- was daubed onto the walls of the San Cristobal Chiapas cathedral where Samuel Ruiz, Mexico's most embattled bishop, lives and preaches.

Ruiz's latest run in with temporal authorities occurred after his diocesan human rights organization accused Mexican army troops of torturing Tzotzil Indians in the village of San Isidro Ocotal, 25 kilometers from the colonial city.

Four hundred troops allegedly staged simulated executions, threw villagers on anthills and beat suspects for several days after the dismembered remains of two officers were found near a clandestine sawmill. The officers were killed March 20 after wood poachers apparently confused their uniforms with those of the federal forest guards who patrol the region to prevent illicit tree-cutting.

When 13 villagers were brought to San Cristobal five days later to be charged with the crime, priests and nuns from the Fray Bartoleme De las Casa Human Rights Center intervened on behalf of the Tzotziles. Under recent reforms of the Mexican legal system, a translator must be present when indigenous suspects are interrogated, and confessions obtained by torture, a long-standing police practice, are no longer admissible in court.

While hundreds of Tzotziles demonstrated outside the Public Ministry, the church-based activists won the temporary release of the villagers because no judicial order had been issued for their arrests.

The freeing of the Indians infuriated military and civilian officials. The military commander of the region has accused Ruiz and his human rights workers of "impeding justice" and insulting the army, and the state's interim governor has accused the bishop of "disturbing the social peace."

During his 33 years as the head of the San Cristobal diocese, Ruiz often has gone head-to-head with military and civilian authorities over abusive treatment of the highland's indigenous peoples.

Activity priests have been beaten and shot at by the "White Guards" of local landowners and several have been jailed. One Belgium priest, accused of leading land invasions, was deported three years ago, and Spanish nuns have been threatened with rape and death by the local ruling elite. …

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