Emily Pederson

Emily Pederson (b. 1989) is a documentary photographer from Rhode Island. Her work has focused on contemporary social issues in Mexico, including the legacy of the 1994 Zapatista Uprising in Chiapas and the recent mass disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero. She holds a BA in Photography and Human Rights from the Gallatin School at New York University, and received a Gallatin Global Human Rights Fellowship to photograph in Chiapas during the program’s inaugural year in 2011.


Bitter Fruit: The Legacy of Impunity in Chiapas

Pederson_print_20 Marcelina’s mother held her new granddaughter Azalia, who was born in Acteal in November. She didn’t see Azalia until she was three months old, when Marcelina and her family returned for the harvest. She later said that when she found out her daughter’s family was going to Acteal, she was sick with sadness, because she knew that many people were killed there and thought the same thing was going to happen to them.
Colonia Puebla, Chiapas, January 25, 2014


“Then the seeds of violence began to revive, seeds that have grown, and we are seeing their bitter fruit.”
–Communique of Las Abejas de Acteal, August 22nd, 2013

Since 1994, the Zapatistas, an indigenous leftist and militant group in the state of Chiapas in Mexico, have been engaged in a “low-intensity war” with the Mexican state over military and corporate movements into this region. At the height of the tensions, pro-government paramilitaries killed 45 people, sixteen among them children, in the village of Acteal. This has become known as the Acteal Massacre. The massacre’s victims belonged to a Catholic pacifist group, Las Abejas, which sympathized with Zapatista demands for indigenous rights and economic justice, but did not support armed struggle. Even so, members of Las Abejas often paid dearly for their pacifism, facing persecution from pro-government factions in their communities.

Since 2009, the Mexican Supreme Court has released 54 of the paramilitaries who allegedly carried out the Acteal attack, on the basis of procedural errors. For Las Abejas, the releases have meant anguish, outrage, and fear. This photo narrative focuses on the story of Colonia Puebla, hometown of one of the freed culprits and a key site of paramilitary organization during the war, which began in 1994 and reached its height in the late 1990s.

In 2013, nearly one hundred Catholics fled Colonia Puebla for their lives, after a community disagreement over church-owned land reignited political divisions and resulted in escalating violence against them. Most of the displaced people had been refugees before. They had left their homes in terror after refusing to participate in attacks on Zapatistas in 1997, and only returned after years in nearby refugee camps that had swelled with thousands of Zapatistas and sympathizers fleeing paramilitary violence.

Although only a handful of the families displaced in 2013 belong to Las Abejas, their attackers label them Abejas and Zapatistas because of their Catholic religion, and the families claim this has been the biggest factor in their persecution. Their attackers are pro-government Evangelicals. While the conflict is political at its heart, political divisions in Chiapas fall very much along religious lines. Catholic in this region essentially equates with Zapatistas and Zapatista sympathizers; Evangelical equates with pro-government.

After their displacement in 2013, the families from Colonia Puebla received shelter in Acteal, where they were taken in and supported by the Las Abejas leadership and the survivors of the Acteal Massacre. The situation deeply pained the survivors of Acteal, who saw echoes of their own trauma in the hardships of their visitors, and feared that the tragic past was beginning to repeat itself. The Colonia Puebla case has come to symbolize the cost of impunity in Chiapas. The families returned home to Colonia Puebla in April2014, and remain uncertain of whether they have a safe future there.