Ernesto Zedillo is facing a lawsuit in Hartford federal court for a massacre that occurred in a remote village while he was in office. Zedillo, who is now a Yale professor and director of the Center for the Study of Globalization, says he had nothing to do with the massacre.
The incident occurred in December 1997. Forty-five members of the pacifist group Las Abejas (the Bees) were murdered that day. Paramilitaries from a group known as Red Mask fired rifles into the backs of their heads while they were praying in church.
When they were done, the paramilitaries headed out into the forest and hunted down survivors for another four hours. The assault came on the village as tensions mounted in the Chiapas region after leftist rebels known as the Zapatistas stormed the national palace on January 1, 1994 — the same day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect.
The lawsuit alleges Zedillo either knew — or should have known — about the attack before it happened.
In a letter to the Advocate, Zedillo says the Mexican government would never rely on paramilitaries to crush a rebellion.
"The Mexican Federal Government had its own institutions to pursue security and justice and would have under no circumstance accepted the existence of groups outside the law to settle arguments or conflicts," Zedillo says. "I insist, the lawsuit is full of false statements that do not pass any test of verification with serious sources."
Patricia Olney is an expert on paramilitary violence in Chiapas and a professor of political science at Southern Connecticut State University. She says she doubts that Zedillo had a direct hand in the massacre, but believes there was widespread local complicity within Zedillo's party, the PRI.
"I tend to believe what he says about this, because the one thing that is really obvious about him is that he has a very urban mindset that clashes with rural realities," Olney says. "He wanted to try urban rule-of-law solutions in places with very primitive politics where might makes right. The problem is that in places like Chiapas, the road to Hell can easily be paved with good intentions. His problem is going to be that even though he evidently did many things to prevent the arming of paramilitaries in Chiapas and to try to stop them after Acteal, he never controlled the local political machines well enough to stop the bloodshed."
Zedillo responded defensively.
"What I would say is that your expert did not notice the fact that the place I spent the most time outside Mexico City was in Chiapas and that during my term, thanks to our policies and our presence, Chiapas had significant progress on health, education, fighting extreme poverty and democracy," Zedillo says. "Most of the time I was there, I was in rural areas. Not even a police state — and we weren't one, fortunately — can 'control' every citizen and every part of its territory."
The lawsuit was filed by 10 anonymous plaintiffs, some of whom are survivors of the massacre and others are family members of people killed. The request to remain anonymous demonstrates that conflict and instability remain an issue in the region.
"I have fear of retaliation against myself and my family from sympathizers of ex-President Zedillo, from P.R.I. sympathizers, and from paramilitaries, which are still in existence in this country," the request for anonymity reads. "The Mexican army continues to have a significant presence in the Chiapas area. The state and federal police continue to act with impunity."
John Womack is history professor at Harvard University who wrote a book called Rebellion in Chiapas. He was in Acteal in the summer of 1997 when conflict was beginning to flare up. He weighed in on the lawsuit via e-mail.
"I will not speculate about who 'had a hand in Acteal.' And I have not read anything more than the newspapers about the Hartford suit," Womack says. "But presidents can be very careful for all concerned, or carefully in favor of some against others, or too careless about it all. They certainly can order tight security for all, or only some, in districts where violence is likely; or they can neglect to give such orders, or neglect to exact subordinate compliance with orders."
The lawsuit, which was filed under the Alien Tort Statute — typically used against multi-national corporations accused of hiring paramilitaries to defend their economic interests— alleges that Zedillo either knew about the assault on civilians in Acteal or should have known.
Zedillo pointed to two documents in his defense.
One is a "Libro Blanco Sobre Acteal," a report produced by the Mexican District Attorney's office in the wake of the murders. That report asserts that Zedillo refused to authorize the arming of local anti-Zapatista militias in Chiapas. The other document Zedillo sent is a letter signed by Las Abejas. In it, the leaders of the organization denounce the lawsuit as opportunistic and political.
But Womack says that could be a tactical move to protect the people who still live in the village.
"I think anybody living in Acteal or having family there and being a member of Las Abejas would have reason to expect homicidal attacks on themselves or their family if they publicly blamed any authority or ex-authority for ordering or inducing a massacre there, or protecting the perpetrators of the massacre," Womack says.