Chiapas: Acteal killers get 25 years

From El Universal, Aug. 12 via Chiapas95:

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, CHIAPAS — A judge has imposed long prison terms on 50 indigenous defendants convicted of carrying out one of the most heinous crimes in past decades – the 1997 butchering of 45 other indigenous people, mostly women and children, as they prayed in a southern hamlet. Despite the sentences announced Thursday, the motive for the slaughter and its possible instigation by erstwhile authorities remain shrouded.

The Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center reported the 25-year terms handed down Thursday to the 50 defendants. But it lamented that Judge Jose Luis Martinez failed to “contemplate the responsibility of the Mexican state” or the question of reparations for people who lost loved ones in the massacre at Acteal, a village in the conflictive state of Chiapas.

The judge, explaining why he did not impose even longer terms permitted by the penal code, noted “the minimal degree of guilt of the accused, due to the backwardness of their social development, their poverty, their scant education, their ignorance and the degree of fanaticism they display regarding politics as well as religion and social matters.”

Martinez went on to cite evidence that “the victims’ bodies were abused even after they were dead, as they were not only executed, they were also stoned, with crushing of skulls; finished off with coups de grace; cut up and stripped.”

On Dec. 22, 1997, a contingent of men toting assault rifles killed 45 unarmed indigenous people – including 21 women and 15 children – praying inside a chapel in Acteal.

The victims were members of a grassroots Roman Catholic organization known as Las Abejas (The Bees), which despite being pacifist supported the leftist and indigenous-rights goals of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, whose January 1994 uprising brought national and international attention to the remote, mountainous state of Chiapas.

After about a week of minor clashes with police and troops, the Zapatistas began their transformation into a grassroots political and civic movement that came to be more or less tolerated by the government in isolated, mostly indigenous areas of the impoverished state bordering Guatemala.

But even as the Zapatistas largely abandoned armed struggle, those who felt threatened by the indigenous-rights movement created paramilitary groups, the largest being a faction called Peace and Justice, that ruthlessly drove more than 12,000 indigenous people out of their communities in Chiapas between 1995 and 2000.

In fact, the victims at Acteal were themselves internal refugees, forced from their homes elsewhere in the state.

Rights organizations said the massacre resulted from acts of both commission and omission by allies of the man who was governor of Chiapas at the time, Julio Cesar Ruiz Ferro of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

“Compelling evidence,” Amnesty International said in a 1998 statement on the Acteal bloodbath, “shows that the authorities facilitated the arming of paramilitaries who carried out the killings and failed to intervene as the savage attack continued for hours.”

The Inter-American Human Rights Commission, while acknowledging a lack of information that would establish “the direct participation” of security forces in the episode, pointed to official data indicating the involvement of state agents before the slayings and in the subsequent cover-up.

“In fact, the inquiries conducted by the Office of the (Mexican) Attorney General clearly show that public security forces not only tolerated, but encouraged the illicit trafficking in weapons to the benefit of groups supporting the authorities in office,” said the commission, a body of the Organization of American States.

An article in the Human Rights Brief, a publication of the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law at Washington College of Law in the U.S. capital, said the Peace and Justice vigilantes received a grant of US$575,000 from Chiapas Gov. Ruiz Ferro a few weeks before the massacre in Acteal.

That piece also cited a 1998 statement by then-Interior Secretary Francisco Labastida to the effect that decommissioned Army officers had provided training to paramilitary groups.

See our last posts on Mexico and Chiapas. See our last report on the Acteal massacre.