Part 1

The murders of evangelical leaders

Confusion and many misconceptions have relegated the true plight of the evangelicals in Chiapas, Mexico, to a shadowy place away from accurate media coverage. The Zapatistas and the recent massacre in the village of Acteal have jumped to center stage, but neither is directly related to the persecution against Christians that spans the last thirty years. In an effort to focus on the evangelicals’ predicament and separate it from the other, complex issues that are churning that region, I travelled with a retired Mexican gentleman as my companion to Mexico’s southernmost state, bordering on Guatemala.
We drove toward San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, on a gray, rainy morning. As we ascended the mountain on a winding, two-lane road, it was shrouded in fog. A centuries-old, stone church sits in ruins at the entrance to the town, amid a crowded cemetery where all the graves are marked with black crosses. The taxi driver informed us that we were prohibited from taking photos once we entered the town. He also mentioned that he wouldn’t be allowed to pick up passengers in Chamula for his return trip to the city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas.
We were traveling in a taxi because the Christian leader whom I’d just interviewed, Abdías Tovilla Jaime, is not permitted to enter Chamula. So he took us in his yellow Volkswagen only as far as the intersection where the road to Chamula begins. The “caciques,” or political, gangster-style bosses in that area, keep a careful watch on Tovilla, and on other evangelical leaders like him. If he tried to enter the town of Chamula, the caciques could kill him. Such killings in Chiapas occurred three times last year alone.
On October 9, 1997, at a meeting with the evangelical leaders and their opponents in the community of Cruz Ch’ot, designed to achieve a harmonious solution between the two sides, five caciques refused to recognize the declaration of unity and tolerance that was drawn up. Upon hearing of this disagreement, the State Committee of Chiapas for Evangelical Defense (CEDECH), of which Tovilla is the director and legal consultant, sent a document to the state government as notification of the potential conflict represented by the five caciques.
However, the government secretary did not respond, and on November 12, Salvador Collazo Gomez was ambushed by the caciques from Cruz Ch’ot. Collazo’s body was riddled with fifteen bullets, and he died in the presence of his mother. His assistant, Marcelino Perez Lopez, was also killed in the attack.
Collazo was the treasurer of the Organization of the Evangelical Peoples of the Highlands of Chiapas (OPEACH). OPEACH, among other objectives, helps provide employment for the indigenous population of the highlands of Chiapas. When evangelicals are forcefully expelled from their native communities, they typically forfeit their belongings as well as their land. Without land, which is the livelihood of an indigenous family, they have no food or any way to make a living. Yet OPEACH assists not only evangelicals, but also all the indigenous people in that region, regardless of religious affiliation.
The secretary of OPEACH, Manuel Hernandez, was likewise attacked at the end of October, 1997, in the Terraplen Marketplace in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. (Both he and Collazo had previously been ambushed and injured in July.) The assailants were natives of Chamula who oppose the work of OPEACH. Due to the severity of his injuries, Hernandez was taken to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the state capital, in an attempt to save his life. But his injuries were so grave that after two months of hospitalization, Hernandez died on December 29.
In January, CEDECH issued a statement that declares: “The worst thing in all of this is that the municipal authorities of Chamula knew of the planned attack, but nonetheless, the president (of Chamula) washes his hands of all this, saying he knows nothing, when in fact he himself backed these men.”
“CEDECH sent documents to the governor, but got no response,” says Tracey King, a short-term missionary from California who is working at the CEDECH office in San Cristóbal. She adds: “Justice is not being done. Our objective is that they don’t turn a blind eye (to these murders).”
Tovilla refers to Hernandez, who died December 29, as “the most recent martyr” among those who have been killed in Chiapas during recent years. The region’s “first Protestant martyr,” Miguel (“Cashlan”) Gomez Hernandez, has now become legendary, and the interdenominational seminary in Nueva Esperanza, on the outskirts of San Cristóbal, bears his name. He was kidnapped and brutally murdered on July 24, 1981. Before being hanged, he was tortured; his nose, ear, lips and scalp were cut off, his feet were burned from being forced to walk through fire, and his eyes were gouged out.
Miguel Cashlan was the first evangelical preacher in San Juan Chamula. Tovilla explains that sometimes he preached until one o’clock in the morning. He also preached at the market in San Cristóbal; it’s estimated that approximately 2,000 people were converted through his testimony. “That’s why the Chamulans thought that by killing him, they could prevent further conversions,” Tovilla says. But, of course, the outcome was just the opposite.
“The caciques don’t want the evangelicals, and they might kill us,” expresses a quote attributed to Miguel Cashlan; “so perhaps it is our fate to suffer as Jesus Christ did. They will burn us, but we will not be afraid.” Currently, according to Tovilla, CEDECH is aware of 35 orphans and five widows as a result of similar attacks. “Yet the gospel has grown; we are a suffering church, but victorious. The blood of the brothers has not been shed in vain,” Tovilla declares.
“Some advise me to buy a pistol (to protect myself),” he continues, “but if God wants us to die in this way, we know it’s not in the hands of the caciques, but in the hands of God.”
- end -

Copyright © 1998, by Lee Cuesta

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