On December 22, 1997, 45 refugees, mostly women and children from neighboring villages, were massacred in the town of Acteal. Men carrying AK-47s attacked the refugees, first at the church, and then proceeded for the next five hours to hunt down those who sought safety in the nearby hillside. The impunity which these murders enjoyed as they carried out this brutal attack is clear evidence of the involvement and complicity of the local PRI government. This paramilitary group (like others operating in the region) was directly funded and supplied by members of the PRI as well as former army personnel. In fact it is certain that not only the Mayor of Acteal was involved but also the Governor of the state of Chiapas.

The Mexican government's response to the massacre was not a massive effort to eliminate the paramilitaries, in fact no paramilitary group has yet been disbanded. No, instead the government choose to use this massacre to increase military operations in the Zapatista communities. Much larger armored vehicles are now in use throughout the countryside, and the troop presence have reached its highest level of saturation, in many areas a ratio of 1 soldier to every 10 inhabitants. The tension in the Zapatista communities is increasing daily. The military makes incursions into the centers of the communities, they set up encampments in in the surrounding fields, making it impossible for the the people to prepare their their milpas. The communities are defiant and struggle to resist the military occupation. There are daily confrontations where 100s of women and men in remote communities literally stand up against the military presence, demanding that the army must leave the area.


The presence of the army along with death threats from paramilitaries operating in the communities have caused many families to flee their communities and become refugees in distant communities. Over 11,000 indigenous have become refugees in the past few months, many of them seeking a greater degree of safety in the community of Polho, while others have felt the need to relocate as far away as San Cristobal. [Refugee testimonies]

Polho has become a symbol of strength within the region of Chenalho. The murals which cover the buildings here record the horrors of the massacre in Acteal as well as the resistance of the people to the military.

Here also refugees have created shelters out of plastic and wood, encampments of makeshift tents where children continue to play, food and clothes are distributed and some medical attention is provided. But the overall conditions are often extreme, some nights the temperatures reach near freezing, and malnutrition and disease have already taken the lives of a number of young children.