Along with some 90 other Tzotzil Mayan farmers, Mendez was arrested and accused of participating in the massacre of 45 Acteal villagers, including women and children, in December 1997. Although only five of the men charged had actually participated in the savage murders, Mendez was one of 83 defendants found guilty and sentenced to 26 years in prison.
“My soul was poisoned with a desire for revenge, to the point that I told my wife not to come visit me anymore, to leave me alone!” Mendez told an Open Doors team in mid-May. “I told her, ‘All that keeps me going is the desire to kill the man who accused me.’ Prison is a place where you lose everything, where there is no meaning to live for—just a void from all the losses [I suffered], like the loss of my traditions which gave me security,” he said.
Then in 2004, Mendez was transferred to the Amate Prison, where after four months he met some inmates whom he said were “unlike everyone else.” Several of these Acteal prisoners were evangelical Christians who, despite their shared injustices, continued to trust Christ in the bleak circumstances in their prison cells. After months of watching the truth about Jesus Christ being lived out by these believers among their fellow prisoners, Mendez committed his own life to Christ. “Right there, in the midst of pain, injustice, cruelty and my continuous daily difficulties, I found the father I never had. . .the Father who gives a new heart, who takes away hatred and revenge.”In spite of his depressing jail environment, Mendez soon managed to improvise a secret place to pray to his Heavenly Father. “He placed a deep desire to live only for Him,” Mendez said. “I can now say with certainty that He has the power to change anyone’s heart and give him a new life.”
In the following months, Mendez found himself thinking less and less about the many years left, as he waited out his prison sentence. “Some inmates made fun of me for my changed life,” he admitted. “They always told me that I would be the last person to ever leave the prison, or maybe I never would! But I trusted my Heavenly Father.”
So when he was told on October 12, 2010, that he would be released from prison the next day, he recalled, “My first thought was, ‘Is it possible?’ And then I remembered the promise, ‘Everything is possible for the one who believes!’” The next day, as he boarded the bus and left the prison behind him, he could not contain his tears. “I had feelings of joy for my departure, but also feelings of pain to leave behind my brothers."
Like all the innocent Acteal prisoners who have been acquitted and released, Mendez cannot return to his home village to live. Now 47-years-old, he is living in the city of Tuxtla, waiting for the government authorities to keep their promise to provide him and his family with a house and land for cultivation. Mendez and his wife have eight grown children, four daughters and four sons.
“I am grateful for the support we have received from Open Doors for so long,” Mendez said. “I can see God’s faithfulness, and we really are one family.”
But 18 months after his release, does he really feel “free,” the Open Doors team asked him? “Well, in my heart I have that freedom,” he said gladly, his face flooded with light and joy. “But in my soul," he continued, his eyes welling up with tears, “I will not be completely free until my brothers are released.”
Open Doors first became involved in the Acteal case indirectly by helping support the wives and families of these victimized Christian prisoners in Mexico’s Chiapas state. Since 2003, Open Doors has also assisted in their legal defense process, through which to date a total of 52 innocent indigenous men have been released. The federal court acquittals began in August 2009, followed by subsequent release orders in November 2009, October 2010 and most recently February 2012. However, after 14 long years, 24 men remain imprisoned, pending a final appeal ruling before the Supreme Court of Mexico to overturn their sentences and formally recognize their innocence.
Local lawyers are hopeful that an official complaint about the previous Mexican government’s handling of the Acteal case, registered by the United States in September 2011, will help expedite the court proceedings to free these last prisoners.
Father, thank You for Your overwhelming mercy in Mendez’ life, setting him free both from sin and darkness and from the earthly confines of prison. Protect and provide for his family, now in an exile of sorts in his own country. Soften the hearts of authorities to provide a home and arable land in their new village as promised. Continue to grow his faith and that of his family, that they might be a powerful witness to their neighbors. And we consider the 24 men still awaiting their release. Thank You for the work of Open Doors in assisting their defense, and we pray that You will also use the 2011 complaint registered by the United States to expedite their release. Yet in all of the earthly means Your Spirit uses to bring about their release, may it be clear that You have done it. May Your gospel grow and flourish in the land of Mexico, so much in need of Your light. In the name of Jesus our only hope, Amen.