Former Mexican President Responds to War Crime Charges

PHOTO: WECChristof Sonderegger/World Economic Forum
Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 2009.

Last week, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) said he was immune to a civil lawsuit brought against him in 2011 for the massacre of 45 indigenous people that occurred in 1997 during his administration.

December 22 will mark the 15th anniversary of the massacre of Acteal, a murky event in which a group of leftist rebels known as "Zapatistas" were killed in the southern state of Chiapas. The official version says the tragedy occurred as a result of territorial and religious disputes between indigenous communities. But Las Abejas ("The bees"), a civil organization that represents the victims, say the killings, allegedly carried out by paramilitaries, were part of the government's plan to decimate leftist members of indigenous groups.

On September 16, 2011, 10 indigenous people sued Zedillo for $50 million and a declaration of guilt. The complaint against the former president argues that he is responsible for the damages against them. The plantiffs, who chose to remain anonymous because of security considerations, were either wounded during the slaughter or are relatives of those who were killed.

"Zedillo knew or should have known about the events that led to the slaughter of Acteal and the human rights abuses committed during the killing," read the complaint.

The lawsuit is supported by a document called "94 Campaign Plan Chiapas", allegedly issued by the Mexican Army. According to this document, the plan was to eradicate the indigenous rebels who challenged the government in December 1994. The Army has denied any knowledge of the " '94 Campaign Plan Chiapas."

Zedillo, who now lives in Connecticut, gave a documented response describing the arguments against him as slanderous and based on anonymous sources. The former president, however, didn't address the allegations that the plaintiffs made about his alleged participation in the killings. Instead, the 26-page document is mainly devoted to arguing the "non-justifiability" of the prosecution.

On September 7, in response to a letter sent by the Mexican government, the U.S. State Department made a "Suggestion of Immunity" for Zedillo. Now it is up to a federal court in Connecticut, where the civil suit was filed, to determine the next step.

Originally 84 people were tried and convicted as the perpetrators of this massacre. More than half of those who were tried and sentenced were found to be innocent. Of the 84 convicted, 37 were released by the Mexican Supreme Court in 2009, and an additional 22 cases were reopened and will be tried once again. The reason: The prosecutor's office committed serious violations of the defendants' rights. Among them was the extraction of confessions through torture, evidence fabrication, and the refusal to allow translators to assist those who didn't speak Spanish.

According to Benjamin Salinas, one of the lawyers who worked with the falsely accused massacre participants, even if the lawsuit against Zedillo is not dismissed, it would be extremely difficult to prove his participation. "Normally these kinds of judgments against dictators end in sentences only in regions like Rwanda, where accusers could provide proof of the direct involvement of the characters in crimes against humanity," he said.