The US State Department issued a finding Sept. 7 that former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, now teaching at Yale University in Connecticut, should be immune from a civil lawsuit brought against him in the US in connection with the 1997 massacre at Acteal hamlet in Mexico’s conflicted southern state of Chiapas. “The complaint is predicated on former President Zedillo’s actions as president, not private conduct,” said Harold Hongju Koh, a State Department legal adviser and a professor at Yale Law School, also citing the complaint’s “generalized allegations.” The US Justice Department submitted the letter to federal District Court in Hartford, where a judge is to make the final determination. “We are extremely disappointed by the decision of the Department of State to grant immunity to the ex-president, which will prevent us from proceeding with the case against him,” attorneys Roger Kobert and Marc Plugiese of the firm Rafferty, Kobert, Tenneholtz & Hess told Notmex news agency.
The suit was filed by 10 unnamed individuals who claim to be survivors of the massacre, carried out by a paramilitary group that has been linked to government counter-insurgency efforts against the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN). Lawyers said the plaintiffs, who are seeking $50 million in damages, remain anonymous because they fear reprisals. The plaintiffs purport to be members of Las Abejas (the Bees), a campesino group sympathetic to the Zapatistas but unarmed and pacifist in orientation. In the Dec. 22, 1997 massacre, 45 Abejas followers were killed, including 18 children. Lawyers for Zedillo, who was president at the time of the massacre, called the suit baseless and politically motivated.
Las Abejas in a statement asked the court not to grant immunity to Zedillo, but also disavowed the plaintiffs, saying they had no connection to the group. Abejas leader Porfirio Arias told The Economist, “For us, these people do not exist.” Arias asserted that true members of Las Abejas would not act anonymously. “We are not afraid of the government… The survivors don’t hide their faces.” And he emphasized that the group wants Zedillo to face a criminal trial, not just a civil suit. “Blood cannot be exchanged for money,” he said. (Proceso, NYT, AP, Sept. 8; The Economist, Sept. 1)
A statement on Las Abejas website blames the political elite of Zedillo’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for the massacre, as well as faulting the now-ruling National Action Party (PAN) for complicity in impunity for the crime—but disavows the lawsuit as “contrary to the posture of Las Abejas, which throughout all these years has demanded…punishment for the material and intellectual authors of the massacre.”
The question may arise again with the current president, Felipe Calderón, who leaves office in December and is said to be considering a move to the US. Opponents of his aggressive policies in the “drug war,” which has left more than 50,000 dead in his six-year term, have sought to bring a case against him in the International Criminal Court at The Hague.