Saturday, December 22, 2007

10 Years Later, Chiapas Massacre Still Haunts Mexico

Published: December 23, 2007

ACTEAL, Mexico — It was 10 years ago that gunmen crept down the hillside into the center of this impoverished Indian village in Chiapas State. By the time they fled hours later, the attackers had littered the ground with bullet casings and killed 45 innocent people, including 21 women and 15 children.

Since the Acteal massacre, on Dec. 22, 1997, dozens of people have been arrested and convicted. But the case remains as foggy as the community, which is so high in the hills that clouds sometimes linger at ground level and the lush vegetation can disappear into the haze.

Then-President Ernesto Zedillo, reacting to international outrage over the killings, ordered an aggressive investigation. What prosecutors found was ugly: While local government officials and police officers had not wielded the weapons that day, they had allowed the slaughter to occur and tampered with the crime scene afterward.

The killers had been members of the then-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. The victims were Roman Catholic advocates from a group called Las Abejas, or The Bees, who sympathized with the Zapatista rebels who were in open revolt in Chiapas.

All involved were poor Tzotzil Indians, many of them related.

A decade after the massacre, the Tzotzil live side by side but divided. In one group, the one that backs the PRI, many of the men have been sent to prison for the killings. The others, from the Abejas group, who live down the road, insist that even more killers are at large.

Meanwhile, Mexico’s courts struggle to handle what has grown into one of the country’s longest and most complex cases. A dozen judges have been involved in the trials and, now, the appeals of their convictions.

A year ago, the public interest law clinic at Mexico City’s Center for Investigation and Economic Studies began defending those convicted of taking part in the massacre. Lawyers say they have found that outrage over what happened to the innocents that day led to more abuses. They describe an effort to round up anyone, which sent many other innocent people to prison. “The Acteal case shows all the problems of Mexico’s criminal justice system,” said Javier Angulo, who teaches constitutional law at the center and supervises a team of students who are representing the Acteal defendants. “We solved the problem of the Acteal massacre by creating other problems and arresting people who did nothing at all.”

The case is an ideal one, Mr. Angulo argues, to show law students that every defendant ought to be treated fairly, even if there is great public dismay over a particular crime.

“This is the most complicated case in Mexico,” he said in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of Chiapas State, as he prepared to appeal the convictions of some of the men. “It’s possible that in 10 more years we’ll still be talking about what really happened in Acteal.”

The details of the case have been exaggerated and mythologized in so many ways, he said. The number of killers, which he puts at nine, has grown to hundreds in some people’s estimation. Witnesses who in their first interviews could not name any of the attackers later gave authorities detailed lists of the men who fired the guns. The early version of the attack, that the victims of Acteal were gunned down while praying in a church, had been exaggerated to give an awful act an even more sinister resonance, he said.

Advocates for the people who died at Acteal express fury at those who dare to defend the accused. “They tell so many lies,” said Diego Pérez Jiménez, president of the Abejas group, who is pushing the government for compensation for the families of the deceased. “These guys in jail were killers, and there are more killers out there. That’s the truth.”

One thing is clear, that the long judicial process has done little to ease the tension in the hills.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Sequoyah High’s Success Energizes Tribe

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — If not for basketball, Angel Goodrich and her school, Sequoyah High, would be as easy to overlook as the dusty farming towns that freckle northeast Oklahoma. Goodrich, a shy sliver of a guard, is the face of the Lady Indians, who are the three-time defending state champions in their classification and a rising force on the national scene.

Sequoyah High’s girls’ basketball team opened the season two weeks ago against Broken Arrow. It has won three state titles in a row.
They opened the season ranked in the top 10 in Sports Illustrated’s national poll. And this week they will participate in the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix. Sequoyah is the first all-Indian school to receive one of the coveted invitations.

A Kansas-bound senior with a quiet demeanor and quicksilver moves, Goodrich is the first Division I athletic scholarship recipient in school history. To her teammates, the 5-foot-3 Goodrich is no big deal. They pull her baggy shorts down in practice and share their Cheetos with her during breaks. When they look at her they see a reflection of themselves, a small-town American Indian with big dreams.

Goodrich’s individual acclaim, far from inducing envy or awe, has nudged those around her to aim higher. Because of her, teammates with parents and older siblings who did not finish high school talk about completing college. In the process, the expectations of a team, a town and a tribe are being raised like a fist in triumph.

Larry Grigg, who is Sequoyah’s athletic director, said: “There are so many young kids watching her. They’ll set their goals to be like her. Even if they don’t reach them, if they get partway up the mountain, that’s still pretty good.”

When Goodrich, who was recruited by Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Arkansas, among others, accepted a scholarship to play basketball at Kansas during the November signing period, it was a watershed moment for her school. Her signature formalized a covenant that would have been unfathomable a generation earlier.

Formed in 1871 as an orphanage for Indians, Sequoyah has an enrollment of 380 in grades 7 through 12, including 202 girls. The school is a few miles outside Tahlequah in the heart of the Cherokee Nation, which is not a reservation but a jurisdictional service area that includes all or parts of 14 counties. The school was refashioned as a vocational institution in 1925 and later became known as a place of last resort, an institution for the incorrigible.

In the 1980s, a Cherokee teenager from the nearby town of Stillwell begged her parents to let her transfer to Sequoyah because she felt like an outsider at her public school. Her parents refused, so strong was the school’s stigma.

That teenager, Fayth Goodrich, married a man she met in the Air Force and had three children. Angel is their middle child. Goodrich’s younger sister, Nikki, is a 5-foot sophomore guard who is on college recruiters’ radars.

Goodrich is a trailblazer who would prefer not to leave any footsteps. She is as famous for her reserve as she is her reverse layups.

Coach Bill Nobles receives weekly academic updates on his players, and on the first Monday in December, one teacher wrote in jest in the margin of Goodrich’s grade slip, “So vocal!”

Goodrich, interviewed recently in the cramped office in the musty gym that Nobles shares with other coaches, said, “You won’t hear me say a word if I don’t know you.”

It was the eve of the season opener Dec. 4 and Nobles had exciting news to relay to Goodrich: She was under consideration for the McDonald’s all-American team. Goodrich shrugged and seemed to disappear, turtlelike, into her zipped varsity jacket.

Her sentences grew elongated and her voice more enthusiastic when she described to Nobles a college game she had watched on TV the previous night between top-ranked Tennessee and No. 4 North Carolina.

“Did you see the ending?” she asked him. Nobles had been watching game film, so Goodrich filled him in.

A North Carolina freshman stood at the foul line with five seconds left and a chance to tie the score with three free throws. She made the first, missed the second and intentionally missed the third.

“I don’t know why she did that,” Goodrich said. “If she made the third free throw, they could have fouled right away on the inbounds pass. Then they would have had enough time to set up a shot at the end.”

Sequoyah High’s girls’ basketball team opened the season two weeks ago against Broken Arrow. It has won three state titles in a row.

The Sequoyah girls’ coach Bill Nobles said those who tried to recruit his players had doubts about whether they would stick it out.
Basketball is the one subject that draws Goodrich out of her shell. In her first game for Sequoyah, she came close to recording a quadruple double. As a junior, she averaged 17.9 points, 7.5 assists, 6.9 steals, 6.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks.

Goodrich loves to feed her teammates for open shots and hates to shoot free throws. “They scare me,” she said. “They make me nervous.”

Standing at the foul line, with all the eyes in the building trained on her, feels too much like being on a stage. “I just like going out there and playing,” she said.

Her main concern about college, she said, is how to juggle basketball and Sunday Baptist services. The adults around Goodrich have other worries.

Indians made up 0.3 percent of all female athletes at National Collegiate Athletic Association institutions in 2004-5, the latest statistics available. During the recruiting process, Nobles said, many coaches expressed concern that Goodrich might not stay for four years.

“There’s still that stigma that Native Americans are not going to stick with it,” he said. “They’re these belief structures that are slow to break down, that they’re going to get homesick, get pregnant, get involved with alcohol or drugs. That’s one of the things I talk to Angel about.”

A native Oklahoman, Nobles was born 30 minutes west in Muskogee. His mother, Barbara, is part Cherokee; his father, John, was a full-blooded coach. During his 30-year career, John Nobles’s teams won three state titles and he was once the National High School Association’s coach of the year.

Nobles, 46, is cross between Bobby Knight and the father of Hannah Montana. He puts his players through the wringer with his exacting standards, especially when it comes to boxing out for rebounds and trapping on defense. But then, after every game, Nobles collects the uniforms and takes them home to wash because the one washing machine on campus is always being used.