San Cristobal de Las Casas, Mexico – Maria* said the bullets “fell like rain” onto the tin roof of her house when the masked gunmen arrived in her village in southern Mexico on the night of November 9.
In tears and speaking through an interpreter in her indigenous Tzotzil language, she recounted the events that pushed her and thousands of others to flee their homes in Chalchihuitan, Chiapas in late October and early November.
She told Fray Bartolome de las Casas, or FRAYBA, a human rights centre based in San Cristobal, that her family “fled 100 metres” from the house and hid in a ditch.
She added that her children wanted to return home, but they couldn’t go back for fear armed men would shoot at them if they got too close.
The gunmen are part of a paramilitary force from the neighbouring municipality of Chenalho, about an hour drive north of San Cristobal de Las Casas.
Their efforts to drive out their neighbours in Chalchihuitan are part of a territorial dispute that has pitted the two Tzotzil communities against each other for decades.
The initial attacks on October 18 resulted in the shooting death of one man. Since then more than 5,000 people from Chalchihuitan have fled their homes into the surrounding mountains.
Most of the displaced are women, elderly, children and infants who are struggling to survive as temperatures drop to near freezing every night.
At least 10 people have died from exposure to the cold temperatures and lack of medical care, including two babies, two toddlers and five elderly people.
Last weekend, one young man died by suicide after expressing fear and hopelessness in the face of his and his family’s displacement, local media reported.
“It is absolutely unacceptable that today in Mexico, children are dying of hunger and cold,” Mexico’s UNICEF representative Christian Skoog said in a statement after the deaths were reported.
The violence is unfolding at a symbolic time.
Friday marks the 20th anniversary of what has been called the Acteal massacre. In 1997, 45 unarmed Tzotzil indigenous community members were shot by masked men during a prayer meeting at a church just up the road from Chalchihuitan and Chenalho.
The victims were peaceful sympathisers of the Zapatistas, a left-leaning indigenous group that openly rebelled against the government in 1994 in response to the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
The paramilitaries that carried out the attack were affiliated with the then-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which is also the party of current Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.
Then-President Ernesto Zedillo called for an official investigation of the Acteal incident in 1998. It revealed that local corrupt police and politicians stood by and allowed the killing to be carried out by the paramilitary forces. Yet survivors believed the investigation did not go high enough.
Father Marcelo Perez Perez, a Tzotzil Catholic priest from a parish a few hours north of Chalchihuitan, said that there are chilling similarities between Acteal and the current crisis.
“Seeing that they’ve burned houses, they killed on October 18, and there are more than 5,000 displaced people, that is already a clear sign that something worse than Acteal is approaching,” Perez told Al Jazeera.
During the weeks leading up to Acteal, paramilitaries were behaving in a similar way to the gunmen from Chenalho: driving people out of their villages, burning houses, shooting and stealing livestock and firing their weapons at random, according to rights groups.
But Perez fears an imminent massacre worse than the killings that happened on December 22, 1997, “because today, 20 years later in Chalchihuitan, the number of displaced people is far higher.”
Decades of conflict
The beginning of the current conflict took root long before Acteal.
As part of an agrarian reform package in 1973, the Mexican government decided to delineate an official boundary between Chenalho and Chalchihuitan.
For generations, the two communities had simply used the river as a natural border between their lands, but the new reform created confusion that planted the seeds of future hostility.
“Everything was fine before,” Perez said.
“But then the reform came, they changed the boundaries, and stopped respecting the natural ones from before.”
Today residents of Chenalho say that people from Chalchihuitan are in their territory, raising livestock and growing coffee and other crops on their land.
Leaders from Chalchihuitan deny this, claiming that a 1975 resolution declared the contested portion of land theirs and that they’ve been paying taxes on it ever since.
Chalchihuitan resident Domingo Diaz Perez spoke at a press conference in San Cristobal de las Casas last week to reassert the claims of his community and express his fear about what is happening at home.
“The current situation, in truth, is serious,” he told reporters. “It is extremely worrying because the paramilitary groups from Chenalho are very well armed – with high calibre weapons.”
The intermittent violence keeps them scattered in the mountains, sleeping under black tarps. “They don’t want to be together in large groups because they are afraid of an attack, a massacre by the paramilitaries,” said Diaz Perez.
On Thursday, Father Marcelo Perez Perez told Al Jazeera that he had a series of meetings in San Cristobal with representatives of the state and local government. He said they pledged “humanitarian aid, agrarian ‘process’ and security”.
But residents say that the sound of automatic gunfire almost every night prevents them from returning to their houses.
FRAYBA has collected bullet casings from AK-47 and AR-15 assault rifles during its observation visits to the region.
The organisation’s director, Pedro Faro, points out that such weapons “are exclusively for military use”.
Local human rights defenders have criticised the government response to the crisis and failure to disarm the gunmen.
During a December 13 press conference hosted by FRAYBA, Pablo Ramirez Obando accused the state and federal governments of allowing Chenalho’s paramilitaries to act with impunity, saying that their “activities have been permitted by the authorities in Chiapas and by the federal government”.
In addition to attacking villages and pushing people to flee their homes, FRAYBA, along with other local organisations, reported that the paramilitaries had blocked the only highway into Chalchihuitan.
“The destruction of this highway was carried out with heavy machinery by armed men from Chenalho, as a way to cut off and control the population of Chalchihuitan,” Obando said.
The blockade transformed the usual 90-minute drive from San Cristobal to Chalchihuitan into a seven-hour odyssey across often flooded dirt roads, preventing food and supplies from entering the municipality.
To complicate matters further, a local agrarian court handed down a ruling on December 13, declaring that the territory in question needed to be reassessed and remeasured, but declining to favour one municipality over the other. Shortly after, the Chiapas state government announced in conjunction with the municipal government of Chenalho an interpretation of the ruling alluding the territory belonged to Chenalho.
Father Perez said that a favouring of either municipality over the other would exacerbate the situation. “It doesn’t bring peace,” he said. “Because both sides want to be benefitted by the decision.”
Faro did see a silver lining in Chenalho’s interpretation of the tribunal ruling.
“The fact that they declared themselves the winner did have some so-called positive effects because they reopened the highway route to Chalchihuitan,” Faro said.
“That has enabled basic goods to begin entering the municipality again.”
Nevertheless, the crisis persists as people still fear returning to their homes amidst continued gunfire.
Perez maintains that the only way to restore lasting peace is to urge both sides to enter into a dialogue moderated by FRAYBA or other members of civil society.
“Although the government says it’s done a lot, in reality, there is so much corruption, and they haven’t resolved the problem of extreme poverty that exists here,” said Perez.
“They just make the indigenous communities fight among themselves, and that’s a big problem and immense sorrow for us.”
State officials in Chiapas did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Even if the violence does not escalate to repeat the history of Acteal, the current conflict will likely have long-standing consequences.
Many of the displaced have given testimony to local and international human rights observers.
There are numerous accounts of livestock being killed or stolen during the attacks and reports that coffee and other crops are rotting on the vine since people are too afraid to return home for the harvest.
Speaking to FRAYBA, Marta*, another displaced woman lamented her situation: “This year we will be more hungry.”
*Names have been changed to protect the individual’s identity and privacy.