Don Samuel Ruíz García, bishop emeritus of San Cristóbal de Las Casas in the Chiapas highlands, died in Mexico City on Jan. 24 at the age of 86. Known to his flock as Don Samuel or Tatic—”father” in the Maya tongue—Bishop Ruíz was long an advocate for the poor in marginalized Chiapas state, and came to national prominence when he brokered peace talks with the Zapatista rebels in 1994. The day after his passing, thousands of indigenous campesinos from throughout Chiapas filed past the coffin at a memorial mass in the San Cristóbal cathedral that also commemorated the 51st anniversary of his ordination there. Bishop Raúl Vera López of Saltillo, who served as Bishop Ruíz’s coadjutor in Chiapas from 1995 to 1999, presided over a memorial mass in Mexico City. The Vatican issued a message hailing him as the “bishop of the poor.” Even President Felipe Calderón—on the opposite side of political battles with Bishop Ruíz in life—said his death “constitutes a great loss for Mexico.” (Upside Down World, Feb. 9; NYT, El Universal, Jan. 26; Catholic News Service, Jan. 25)
Ruíz won his honored place in Mexico’s political landscape despite—or, paradoxically, because of—his long years as a political pariah for the country’s elite. In 1993, following years of pressure from conservatives in Mexico’s Catholic hierarchy, the Vatican ordered that Ruíz step down, accusing him of doctrinal errors in his advocacy of an “indigenous theology” that incorporated elements of Maya tradition. When the Zapatista rebellion broke out months later, it became obvious that Ruíz was the only man in a position to broker a peace dialogue, and the Vatican backed off. In March 1994, with Ruíz presiding, masked Zapatista comandantes met with a government-appointed negotiator at the San Cristóbal cathedral, in what was seen by many in Mexico’s political establishment as a grave humiliation.
Don Samuel’s work resulted in sometimes violent religious conflicts in the state of Chiapas, with both conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestant converts demonizing him as the “Red Bishop.” In the ’90s, as he sought to bring peace to Chiapas, death threats mounted against Ruíz. But his dialogue with the Zapatistas arguably saved Mexico from civil war. When he finally stepped down as bishop in 2000, the peace talks were long stalemated, but the Zapatistas had committed themselves to civil rather than armed struggle—albeit without surrendering their weapons or coming out from clandestinity.
Ruíz remained active even in retirement. He relentlessly sought justice in the case of the 1997 Acteal massacre, returning to Chiapas to preside over the commemoration each year—and even called for charges to be brought against ex-president Ernesto Zedillo as author of the attack, in which 45 unarmed campesinos were killed by a paramilitary group. Ruíz repeatedly warned of the potential for renewed warfare in Chiapas if lingering injustices were not addressed.
He remained a harsh critic of Mexico’s neoliberal economic program. He advocated on behalf of San Salvador Atenco, the central Mexican village that mobilized to defend its traditional lands from expropriation for the construction of a new Mexico City airport. He was similarly outspoken on the Oaxaca uprising of 2006, where he again sought to mediate an end to the crisis. In 2008, he was also named to help establish a dialogue with the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), a guerilla group that took up arms in the mountains of Oaxaca and Guerrero.
Bishop Raúl Vera, while denying the he considers himself Don Samuel’s successor, has been outspoken on the wave of violence now shaking Mexico’s north, where his diocese is—and has also met with threats and harassment. He received new anonymous death threats just days before Ruiz’s passing, after accusing authorities of turning a blind eye to kidnappings and other abuses by narco gangs. Vera also remains involved in Chiapas, and has assumed leadership of the Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Human Rights Center that Ruíz founded. (Milenio, Vanguardia, Saltillo, Feb. 8; Vanguardia, Feb. 2; El Universal, Jan. 29)