October 1, 1994

Associated Press

CHAMULA, Mexico (AP) -- Villagers killed three evangelical Christians who returned home a year after being driven out for abandoning traditional Mayan Indian ways.

The deaths Thursday raise the stakes in a decades-old clash between efforts to protect an imperiled culture and the right to freedom of belief. More than 15,000 evangelicals have been expelled from Chamula, often violently, since the late 1970s.

About 35 state police fought their way past roadblocks of trees and stones on Friday to find the bodies in the village of Icalumtic in Chamula, a district just north of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state.

Chiapas state Attorney General Manuel Becerra flew to the site by helicopter, and state police chief Augusto del Pino also went to the scene.

Gov. Javier Lopez Moreno contacted village and evangelical leaders to appeal for calm, said state spokesman Armando Rojas Arevalo.

Survivor Manuel Diaz Jimenez said about 200 villagers armed with clubs and guns attacked the evangelicals on Thursday evening.

"They arrived saying they had an order from the mayor, Domingo Lopez Ruiz, to kick them out," he said.

The victims were Miguel Mendez Santis, Veronica Diaz Jimenez and Miguel Lopez Perez.

The slain evangelicals were among some 600 expelled who returned home in mid-August, causing a complete breakdown in slow-moving talks to end the conflict.

The talks had begun after the expelled evangelicals seized the mayor, Lopez Ruiz, during a visit to San Cristobal and held him hostage for several days.

But the mayor warned recently that the returned evangelicals would have to leave or be forced out.

Indians in Chamula have clung fiercely to a traditional form of government and to a religion that mixes Mayan and Roman Catholic elements.

Village leaders see the evangelical Christians as a threat to their culture and power. Evangelicals reject certain Chamula traditions, such as use of alcohol and payment for village ceremonies.

Tensions also have been raised by a shortage of land in the area.

Many of the expelled Chamula villagers live in slums on the hillsides ringing San Cristobal and some expressed sympathy for the Zapatista rebels who seized the town on Jan. 1, then pulled back east into the forest.

Critics charge that the village leaders are more interested in maintaining power than in protecting their culture. They complain that the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party has overlooked the problem in return for virtually unanimous vote returns from the region.