21 days in Acteal

Testimony of a therapist who worked with the survivors
of the Acteal massacre in Chiapas, Mexico

by Cielo Falcón

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As soon as I heard what was happening in Chiapas last December I decided I wanted to go to Acteal. I had followed and supported the Zapatista cause since the beginning of '94, so I went ahead with the task of looking for financial support, which arrived right away. I then suggested to several of my colleagues in EMDR1 training the possibility of traveling there as a team. Unfortunately many of the trainees were out on vacation, so only two therapists were ready to leave the first days in January. I received several letters from EMDR colleagues from the United States and England who were willing to help, but the way things were developing, we all agreed that having people from other countries in the team could be dangerous and not very convenient for the moment. My daughter Mariana, 20, also decided to go with me, although as a "tourist".

We arrived in San Cristóbal de las Casas (the closest city to Acteal) on January 2. Although we were not surprised, it was very impressive to feel the strong military presence in the city and its surroundings: there were army troops and trucks everywhere, as well as a big Army parabolic antenna right in the middle of the town's public square. We were able to find the two places in the city where displaced people from the Chenalhó province were being kept in camps. And although the most critical patients had been taken to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, we found several wounded children still in recovery at the Civil Hospital.

It was almost "Día de Reyes" (Three Kings' Day), an important celebration in Mexico, so we took a census of the children in both camps and the hospital, to bring them some gifts. We were impressed by the way the doors were open for us: even at the hospital, where in spite of having "presidential orders" to the contrary, we were able to see the children.

The next day on my visit to one of the camps I met with Sister Esther, who is the secretary of the Curia and a close collaborator of Bishop Samuel Ruiz. I introduced myself, telling her that I was a psychotherapist and that I had come with the purpose of helping the inhabitants of Acteal with my expertise in Post-traumatic Stress Therapy. I was surprised when she told me that they were leaving for Acteal at that precise moment, inviting me to go with them. I accepted and jumped in the pickup truck with them. Father Beto and 4 other nuns were in the truck, as well as a young Tzeltal woman who was going to Acteal to look for her mother.

After almost two hours of curves, unending green army trucks, several illegal stops by them asking for ID's, and the young Tzeltal who unaccustomed to car rides threw up all the way, we finally arrived. Acteal is a settlement on both sides of a road, divided geographically and ideologically into three well-defined sections:

  1. The School, which was occupied by the army when I first arrived. (A few days later a group of indigenous Zapatista women and children who had fled on December 22, pushed the army away.) The Zapatista Base Camps for displaced people from several towns are located there.

  2. "Las Abejas", a Catholic indigenous community made up mostly of displaced people who formed this association several years ago. This group had organized three days of fasting and prayers for peace, from December 21-23. This is where the massacre occurred. All the dead people belonged to Las Abejas. This section of Acteal used to be called "Los Naranjos" (The Orange Groves), but after the massacre the survivors changed its name to "Tierra de Sangre" (Land of Blood), finally naming it "Tierra Sagrada" (Sacred Land) on January 17, for this was the place where they buried their dead.

  3. The River, where the Priístas2, who accept the Army's presence, live. There is an Army post there, and the soldiers control the river entirely: anyone that does not follow the PRI2 cannot bathe, wash clothes or even get close to the river. (That included me, of course!)

The day I arrived was the 9th day mass. Unfortunately my colleagues had to go back home, so I continued alone. The entrance to Acteal was closed, and people were able to go in only with the permit of the local authorities. But since I had arrived with the priest and the nuns, I had immediate access. It had been raining the day before, so we had to climb down the hill through slippery mud up to our ankles. More than a hundred indigenous people were waiting. Mass started right away; the relatives of the deceased formed a semicircle around the altar, several widowers with their restless small children in their arms. The ceremony lasted three hours, and at a certain moment the priest suggested that we all go down to pray on the graves, covered with candles and wilted flowers, a few feet away from the improvised church. We had a long prayer in a loud voice kneeling on the graves. Most of the participants started crying, and the scene and sounds were so dramatic that it left me breathless for quite a while.

After the ceremony Sister Esther introduced me to the community, telling them that I wanted to stay in Acteal, and that I could heal the pain of the heart. After a few moments of talking among themselves, they asked my name. When Sister Esther told them that it was Cielo3, they burst out laughing and I was accepted.

After the burial, the community did not want to leave their dead behind, but they were very much afraid that someone would come back to kill them, so they asked the Bishop for company from the civil society. The Human Rights Organization Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas sent a group of eight volunteers, mostly foreigners, who arrived on December 31 to live in the community. This allowed the inhabitants to return to their homes, feeling safer and a little better. I was also accepted by this multinational group, with whom I shared food, worries and some joys for the rest of the month.

The day I arrived we were assigned the "ermita" as our sleeping quarters. This is where people were praying when the shooting started on December 22. The "ermita" is a rectangular construction made of wood planks separated about 1 inch from each other. One could see the bullet holes on the walls and on the asbestos roof. The health promoter, who was also killed in the massacre, had left a couple of boxes of medicine in the infirmary. Upon getting up early the following day I found several women waiting outside with their sick babies in their arms. For days I was the closest to an MD, so I started looking in the boxes for the appropriate medicines that I could use. For the time being it was necessary to bring down the fever through physical means. A couple of days later, after asking visitors for it, I received a box of Tempra for children. What a relief! Ten days later there were boxes and boxes of medicine all around, complicating things more, for not only did we have to look after the patients, now we had to spend considerable time sorting out the medicines: almost half had expired dates on them. Nonetheless, I was able to help with basic conditions like fever, diarrhea, vomiting, coughing and colds that almost every kid had in a chronic state. Also, many people had a yellowish tint on their faces.

Every day important and difficult events were happening that wouldn't allow people to go back to their "normal" lives. One day some policemen with 20 trained dogs would arrive, searching all over and scaring everyone, although we never knew what it was they where searching for. Then the PGR4 investigations started: between three and five brand new vans and pickup trucks with no license plates started coming every day, to "do their job". While all this was happening, the people from the camp and I would stand guard by the road, watching the army driving by constantly, pointing at us with their machine guns and/or their cameras. On a normal day we counted 35 army trucks in one hour.

Parallel to these events, I started talking to the people who speak Spanish (about 20% of the population). They started telling me about their lives and their tragic stories, which allowed me to start having formal therapy sessions on my second week in Acteal. Some only came to talk for a while and then left. By the end of the third week the women started coming to talk to me. Sometimes there were translators available, but when there weren't any, I couldn't understand their words, but I could understand their pain. I also did some energy work on them, tapping their shoulders as they where crying. Children are very afraid of being touched my strangers. With them, when the weather allowed, we spread big pieces of paper on the floor for them to do some drawings. Although the causes of intense fear are still present, I was able to work with specific targets that hopefully will not happen again. For instance, the people that had to look for their loved ones in all the black plastic bags, or others that survived because they where buried beneath all the corpses.

There were all kinds of visitors every day, mostly journalists. For the most part, foreigners carried out their jobs with sensitivity and respect for the people's pain. Unfortunately I cannot say the same for the Mexican journalists, except in very few cases: in their attempts to get the best shot, they would rudely intrude and violate the physical boundaries of people. A similar thing happened with high politicians, who would turn to the camera while giving away a bag of rice, or give the camera to their buddies -after drying their eyes- to have their picture taken.

There is no running water in Acteal, so we used the water filtrated from up the mountain. There are no teachers either, for they all left when the army arrived. By the second week my daughter Mariana had come to visit me on several occasions and finally asked the town representatives for permission to stay in the community. She was accepted right away. Later on she was formally requested to stay as teacher, for the children want to learn Spanish and there is no one to teach them.

There are several scenes that I want to share with you:

  • One is about Mariano, a 31 year old man who lost his wife, three of his older daughters, his sister, his brother-in-law, and two young nephews in the massacre. He now takes care of his two younger children: Marcela, 3, and Pablo, 4. He says he doesn't know what to do when his children throw up, because his wife always took care of them before.

  • The other memory is the birth of a boy on January10 to a displaced family, in a 2 by 2 meter hut with muddy floor and nothing else but a wooden board about 40 centimeters wide. The woman was lying on it, and that's where her baby was born. To wrap the baby up I had to tear a man's shirt that someone had sent. The mother only had a skirt, and she was left like that, all stained in blood.

There are many other scenes like these that will stay with me forever. Therapy?… Of course I need it! And I have started getting some already. Leaving Acteal was very difficult, and coming back to my own life was even harder. Yet, I feel very grateful for the opportunity to have been there sharing those difficult days with my sisters and brothers of Acteal.

Now there are only three things I can do from here:

  1. Share my testimony.

  2. Inform people about the way to send financial help directly to the women of Acteal. They got together and agreed to open a bank account, so they can decide for themselves what to with the money they receive. The account is No. 6043479641 at the Banco Bital in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, in the name of Odelia Vázquez Pérez.

    There is another account, if you prefer to support the Zapatista Base Camps living at the School in Acteal. (The number of displaced people rose from 300 to 1200 in a week!) Their account is No. 6043479740, also at the Banco Bital in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, in the name of Juan López Luna.

  3. Continue praying....
On several occasions I have been lucky enough to hear, especially from my children and husband, the phrase "Thank you for existing, just for being here with me". At those moments it felt very good to hear those words, but it wasn't until those days in Acteal that I was able to actually feel and live their true meaning.

Cielo Falcón


  1. EMDR - "Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing", an accelerated processing of the brain's captured data during the moment of the trauma. It is done through eye movements in order to alternately stimulate the brain's hemispheres, increasing communication between them. As a consequence, the symptoms (effects) of Post-traumatic Stress are diminished.
  2. Priístas - Supporters of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or Institutional Revolutionary Party), political party that governed Mexico for 70 years, defeated by the PAN (Partido Acción Nacional) on July 2, 2000.
  3. In Spanish, "cielo" means both "sky" and "heaven".
  4. PGR - Procuraduría General de la República, the National Attorney's Office.
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