Released Acteal Prisoners Face New Challenges
An international group from Open Doors recently went to Chiapas, Mexico to encourage and pray with Christians who are being persecuted for their faith. During the trip, the group met with Christians who have been released from prison.
Though the men are free from crowded Mexican prisons, making the transition from prison to freedom is not always a smooth one. There are family adjustments, forced moves to unfamiliar areas, for some, new jobs, and for others, no work at all. All of these challenges are compounding by the fact that they are also recovering from the psychological trauma of being locked up unjustly for several years.
The men were arrested on December 22, 1997 during an armed confrontation in the Acteal area of Chiapas. The seventy-nine men, mostly evangelical Christians, were each sentenced to terms of 26 to 36 years in prison. Over the years, with the assistance of Open Doors representatives, the men have been released after being found innocent; only one man remains in prison. However, as part of the terms of their release they could not return to their homes; instead, they have been given a places to live which is hours away from their families.
Open Doors workers are now engaged in helping the prisoners in their healing process—including the area of spiritual healing. The team met with approximately a dozen of the ex-prisoners who are being housed in a shelter in the large city of Tuxtla Gutierrez. Unfortunately, the shelter is located near a bar, and some of the men have been pulled away by alcohol.
There was little joy among the ex-prisoners they met. Instead, they expressed frustration with not yet received government authorization to work. The government will also not give them land until the final Acteal prisoner is released.
One of the ex-prisoners shared that he had considered suicide after his release from prison. Another man stated that he feels more imprisoned in this current “waiting” place than during the many years of incarceration.
Roberto, who served as the spokesman for the group, said that the men just want to return to their former lives. However, several of the men’s wives left them for other relationships. Some of the wives decided not to leave Acteal to join their husbands in their new location. As a result, some of the men periodically travel from Tuxtla Gutierrez to Acteal three days out of the week to visit their families despite possible retribution by some community members.
Roberto praised Open Doors for its outreach over the years. He especially recalled the many letters of encouragement the men received and the visits from Open Doors team members who prayed with them and brought personal hygiene items. Open Doors is now offering a Bible study using “Standing Strong Through Storm” materials to help the former prisoners rebuild strong spiritual foundations for the future after their years of imprisonment.
The group also visited some former prisoners released in 2009 and 2010, who are working land the government provided in the municipality of Villaflores, located over an hour away from Tuxtla Gutierrez. Though the land is in a hot and humid area, the men have been adjusting to the climate and are growing crops with success. The government had partially built twenty-five small homes prior to their arrival, and the men and their families completed the construction.
“I am so thankful that you brothers and sisters are here to visit us,” he said. “Sometimes we think that people have forgotten about us after being released. But Open Doors has not forgotten us.”
The men and women they met with had dedicated a partially-built church in May. Two other small churches are under construction in the Villaflores area where the former prisoners reside.
The group prayed with them, and the men of the church sang in their indigenous languages of Tzotzil and Spanish. The song “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” was sung in Trotzil, Spanish, English and Swedish during the gathering. It was a blessing and joy to see God’s love reach beyond borders, cultures and languages to unite believers from around the world.
Father, we pray for the ongoing challenges of these men now living in Tuxtla Gutierrez, even as we rejoice in their release from prison. We pray that the one final prisoner will be released soon so that the promised land will be given to them by the government. We pray for provision of food and shelter, for restored relationships with families, for protection from the temptation to turn to alcohol, for justice to be served by the government that they might be able to once again earn a living. And we pray for their encouragement and spiritual strength through the study of Your Word. In the Name of Jesus, the Bread of Life, Amen.