“They came to kill us!” Those are the words of Elisa Zepeda trying to explain what happened in her village of Eloxochitlán on Sunday, December 14, 2014.
It’s a story as old as David and Saul. A tale of jealousy, hate and revenge, all lived out in a village high above Oaxaca City in the Sierra Mazateca, known by locals as San Antonio Eloxochitlán.
|The town center of Eloxochitlán de Flores Magón|
The story goes back years to a young farmer named Acasio Zepeda and his wife Gregoria who lived in San Antonio Eloxochitlán, or as locals simply called it, San Antonio. Located almost directly between Puebla and Oaxaca, San Antonio is a small village without much to recommend it.
Hours from any real population center, literally above the clouds, San Antonio is not that much different from hundreds of other small primarily indigenous towns that dot the Mexican landscape. In place of a formal state, or federal government, local law is based on a centuries old tradition known simply as Usos y Costumbres. Through this system, most legal matters are handled by town elders, their own elected officials and the people are largely self governing. This was the world, for better or worse, of Acasio Zepeda, father of six boys and one girl.
|Elisa Zepeda, roasting locally farmed coffee at her home before it was destroyed|
Knowing how hard the work was, Acasio was determined to give his children another option. As each one of them came of age, he gave them a choice. They could stay and work the land, as he and his ancestors had for years, or they could leave San Antonio, choose a career, and study. But there was a caveat. If they left to study, there was no coming home. They were to stay in school and figure out how to make it through.
That is the path almost all of his children took, including his oldest daughter Eusebia and Manuel, the fourth of his children. Both of them chose to become teachers, not so much because of a calling, but because it was the least expensive career to enter and the family never had much money.
After graduation, both Manuel and his sister Eusebia returned to San Antonio to find love, and begin their careers as teachers in the town of their youth. Manuel soon fell in love and married Malena Laguna Ceballos of Tenancingo, while Eusebia met and married a man by the name of Jaime Betanzos Fuentes from Eloxochitlán.
Over the years, life in this tiny mountaintop village carried on without much fanfare. Manuel and Eusebia taught in the local schools for many years. However in addition to teaching, like his father, and many of the other men in San Antonio, Manuel became a man enamored with aguardiente. Cheap and powerful, often running to 120 proof, it might have proved to be his undoing.
Then a man named Gaspar Camaal Chablé entered his life.
Fresh out of the George Lacy Baptist Seminary in Oaxaca City, Gaspar, or Pastor Chablé as he is known to many, became a spiritual mentor to Manuel. It dad not take long for Manuel to give up drinking and become a regular member of the small church Gaspar was starting.
It was a friendship that lasts to this day, stretching across almost 20 years.
Over the years, having cast aside his tendency to over imbibe, Manuel became a strong force in the church. His story of how God had saved him from himself and gave him the strength to improve his life became a powerful witness in a town that had known him mostly as a teacher who drank too much.
|Manuel Zepeda's trout farm in Eloxochitlán|
Over the years that trout farm has grown to include nine tanks that when fully utilized, are stocked with almost 500 trout. Trout that his wife prepares in her kitchen and are served to people on the patio restaurant of their house. Trout that go a long way to help feed the townspeople.
Meanwhile, as Manuel and Malena were were expanding their trout farm, Eusebia and her husband Jaime were busy building their own life.
Both families, extremely ambitious, aspired to win the votes, and the love of the people of Eloxochitlán. Manuel eventually won election in 2009 and Jaime in 2013 was elected to the position of assessor. A sort of assistant to the President of the community. But by then, their relationship had been poisoned by a previous election.
Jamie, running for office against his own brother Raul Betanzos Fuentes came up short on the vote count. He went to Manuel, his brother-in-law, and asked him to stand with him against Raul. He believed that between the two of them, they could prevail in a move to contest the election.
Manuel however felt differently. Looking at the vote totals, and the facts, he simply believed that Raul won, fair and square, and that it would be better for Jaime to wait his turn. Feeling betrayed, Jaime was angry and the seeds of anger and jealousy were sown deep.
Over the ensuing years, Jaime was never satisfied with the political leadership of the city, convinced he could always do better. When his brother-in-law Manuel won election in 2009, the stage was set for a full scale confrontation.
Over the next few years, until Jaime finally won election, the two sides of this familial and political divide traded numerous accusations. As is often the case in Oaxacan village politics, both sides have been accused of treason, brutality, murder and corruption.
|The marketplace of Eloxochitlán, where people gathered to vote.|
It was a slightly sunny day, a rare surprise in a place normally dominated by clouds and rain. But the weather was not to be the only rarity on that day. As the people gathered for the noon meeting, a small group, led by Jaime Betanzos, had a much more ambitious agenda.
He and his small group of leaders wanted to settle a few old scores against his brother-in-law and former President of Eloxochitlán, Manuel Zepeda.
|Dave Miller, Manuel Zepeda and Abisia Camaal, son of Gaspar, in Manuel's house as electricians work to repair damage.|
It did not take long for people to scatter, fearing for their lives. The panic was evident on their faces as they ran. All the while, explosions could be heard rolling across the green hills of the city. Soon large clouds of black smoke could be seen rising from the area where the town meeting was to be.
Regardless of the cause, this is what is now known.
Elisa Zepeda, the daughter of Manuel and Malena, was the one the armed group was seeking. Long active in the human rights struggle for the people of Eloxochitlán, she had become a thorn in the side of those currently in power, led primarily by her uncle, Jaime Betanzos, the husband of her father’s sister, Eusebia.
When it became apparent Elisa was the target, she took refuge behind the house of her friends Gilberto and Noemi, shielded by her uncle Vicente. Hiding in a small closet, they both feared for their lives because the armed mob had, in addition to guns and machetes, molotov cocktails, loaded with gasoline.
|This is the closet where Vicente and Elisa hid.|
As the group approached, Vicente and Elisa, knowing there were the typical tanks of propane stored in every Mexican home stored nearby, made the decision to abandon their hiding place and make a run for her dad’s house.
Elisa did not make it.
As they ran, she was grabbed by the mob, now numbering in excess of 50 people, and was savagely beaten. The final words of the group, widely reported across Mexico, were “This is where your dreams end asshole. Don’t stick your nose in the town’s business again.” And with these words, they left her to die.
That’s when the mob turned to destruction.
|This was part of the living room of Gilberto's home.|
|The former storefront for Gamaliel and Dolli's grocery store.|
|Inside the former store of Gamaliel and Dolli.|
That’s when the bullets began to fly through the doors and the rocks began to fly though the windows. Miraculously, Elisa, not dead after all, had made her way back to her childhood home and what she hoped would be the safety of her parents arms. It was not to be.
The doors of the house were no match for a group determined to kill and humiliate as many members of Manuel’s family as possible. As the attackers entered, some looked for cover and others fled out a back door, only to be caught between two sides of the same mob.
|Gaspar Chablé with Gregoria, both victims of the violence in Eloxochitlán|
Elisa was beaten again, even as her mother Malena sought to protect her. Covering her with her own body, Malena took several blows in this new beating. Even today, it is not known if she will ever see again from her right eye. Pastor Gaspar Chablé was also beaten at the house, receiving numerous cuts on his head from the machetes and rebar. Manuel’s 86 year old mother, Gregoria, pleading with the attackers to stop, was also beaten, receiving cuts to her scalp. Gaspar remembers the group talking about killing them all as he collapsed behind an old cistern that now is permanently marked by his blood.
But it was two men who paid the ultimate price. When the mob set upon Manuel’s house and the house of his daughter Elisa, they came across Manuelito, the town mechanic. Manuelito was known as a standup guy. Regularly fixing cars and charging very little, he saw his work as a way to give back to the community. His taller, or garage, was on his father’s land, next door to his sister’s home.
He was taken, tortured and beaten in an attack that rivals anything the Ku Klux Klan ever did in America. All to send a message. One other man, Gustavo Andrade, the sole member of the local police force to stand up to the mob, also died, giving his life to protect Elisa.
Manuel leaves a wife and two children. Gustavo, a wife and four kids.
|Gamaliel and Gaspar inside Vicente's burned out cyber café.|
At the end of the day, Gilberto and Noemi lost their home, truck, and business. Elisa and her husband David lost their home and Elisa’s car. Gamaliel and Dolli lost their business and their truck. Vicente and Euodoxia lost their cyber cafe. Manuel and Malena had their house looted, their money stolen, much of their furniture destroyed and their restaurant ransacked.
Manuelito and Gustavo lost their lives and their families now have no way to support their suddenly smaller families. Pastor Chablé lost his truck, one of 19 vehicles burned that fateful day and was sent to the hospital with numerous gashes on his scalp requiring stitches.
Elisa and Malena, by far suffering the worst of the injuries, were beaten to within an inch of their lives. Both of them spent days in the hospital, in and out of comas. Both of them face months of both physical and emotional rehabilitation. Many of the scars may never heal.
All of the ringleaders of the attack are now sitting in prison in Oaxaca under order of the Attorney General of the State. In addition to former mayor Jaime Betanzos Fuentes, and the current mayor Alfredo Pacheco Bolaños, local police, Fernando Martinez Gavito, Wilfrido Salazar Herrera, Omar Morales Alvarez and Ruben Jimenez Cerqueda are also in custody. A seventh man, Monfil Avendaño, was also involved and is being held. All seven men are awaiting trial for their involvement in the events of December 14, 2014 in Eloxochitlán.
The rest of the attackers, and Jaime’s wife, Eusebia, the older sister of Manuel, remain in hiding across the region known as the Cañada de Oaxaca.
Recently I was in Eloxochitlán. For this story I talked personally to each and every victim. I saw their homes, walked among the destruction of their businesses and listened as each one told me their stories, many as the tears fell from their eyes.
I saw the closet where Vicente tried to shield his niece Elisa from her attackers. I also saw the holes that a shotgun made in that closet, moments before they fled. I saw the remnants of buildings that people will never be able to rebuild, because the fires burned so hot, the concrete encased rebar melted.
|The front of Elisa Zepeda's burned out home.|
As I walked and talked with people, I kept trying to get at the spark that caused the uproar. Was it political? Yes. Was it religious? Yes. Was it personal? Yes. But finally, as I continued to peel back the layers of the onion, I started to understand.
This was about respect.
Jaime Betanzos and his family were old school. They liked things the way they were. Thinking back to that first election he lost, he wanted to “fix” it, for years a Mexican tradition. When his brother-in-law Manuel, the college graduate and local business leader, would not go along, he felt disrespected. He took it personally.
|A few of the 19 damaged and burned out vehicles from that fateful day.|
In an attempt to recapture the glory and respect among his people he once had, Saul set about to destroy, and ultimately kill David. He unleashed scores of his soldiers in an attempt to find and finally remove the one person he could never vanquish or conquer.
Jaime, like Saul, quietly steamed for years. Finally, when he was elected, he decided to get the respect he had always felt he was due. If he could not earn it, he would take it, violently, if need be. Working with many of the other local authorities, Jaime used the town budget to recruit the mob that would ultimately wreak havoc across the town.
|The monument to Ricardo Flores Magón, in the heart of Eloxochitlán.|
It was that spirit of change, the same activist spirit that motivated Flores Magón, that inspired Elisa Zepeda and her family.
Many of the people with whom I spoke shared that they were eager for their little town to get back to normal. They liked it quiet and without much fanfare, or drama. But all them were forced to accept a new reality. Their town could never go back to what was normal. December 14 will always be the day that changed normal for the victims and the residents of Eloxochitlán.
Where do they go from here? That depends on whether the people want to continue the long march into modernity that stands in front of many indigenous communities in Mexico, or if they will retreat, fearful of the kind of change that Jaime Betanzos and his group could never embrace.
Copyright © 2015, Dave Miller, All Rights, Photo and Written, Reserved