Mexico: ex-president claims immunity in Acteal massacre

Former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de León (1994-2000) filed papers in US district court in Hartford, Connecticut, on Jan. 6 claiming that his presidential status gives him immunity from a legal action stemming from a December 1997 massacre in the southeastern state of Chiapas. Ten unnamed survivors of the massacre of 45 indigenous campesinos in the community of Acteal are demanding $50 million in damages in a suit they filed against Zedillo in Hartford on Sept. 19. The former president is currently teaching at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Since he is in the US, he is subject to two US laws—the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 and the 1789 Alien Tort Claims Act—which permit foreigners to bring suits in US courts for violence that occurred in other countries.

The Acteal killings were carried out by indigenous paramilitaries against members of the Civil Society Organization Las Abejas (“The Bees”). The Mexican government has always contended that the killings arose from long-standing conflicts between indigenous communities. Dozens of men from neighboring villages were convicted of participating in the massacre, although the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation (SCJN) overturned 22 of the convictions in August 2009.

Zedillo’s 122-page court filing called charges that the former president “was somehow complicit” in the killings “baseless and outrageous.” But the massacre occurred during conflicts between the government and the rebel Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), and the Acteal community was sympathetic to the EZLN. A number of Mexican analysts feel that Zedillo’s government may have trained and backed the paramilitaries, or at the very least aggravated tensions between EZLN supporters and opponents in Chiapas.

“[W]ithout doubt, in Zedillo there was complicity or [guilt by] omission for the tragic events in Acteal,” former legislator Jaime Martínez Veloz told the left-leaning Mexican daily La Jornada. Martínez Veloz had been a member of the Concord and Peacemaking Commission (COCOPA), a multi-party congressional commission sent by the federal government to negotiate with the EZLN starting in 1994. “Ultimately, Acteal is the most brutal expression of the failure to comply with the San Andrés Accords,” he said, referring to an agreement COCOPA worked out providing more autonomy for indigenous communities in Chiapas. Zedillo’s government rejected the accords, leaving the conflicts unresolved. (CNN, Jan. 6; Notimex, Jan. 7; La Jornada, Jan. 8)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Jan. 8.

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