1997 Acteal Massacre
The State of Chiapas, Mexico is a mountainous region located in the south-central area of Mexico, bordering Guatemala. Historically, the economic advances and modernity of other regions of Mexico, including Mexico City, have not benefited the residents of Chiapas. Chiapas has been among the most underdeveloped states in the country. Most of the residents of Chiapas live in extreme poverty and have had very little access to the most basic services, including electricity, sanitation, medical care, education, and dependable transportation. In addition, prior to 1994, Chiapas was fairly isolated from the government power center in Mexico City, and there was very little investment in the region. Roads to many of the villages and towns were nonexistent or in precarious conditions, which resulted in their isolation.
This situation was exacerbated by persistent racist attitudes toward many of the inhabitants of Chiapas. Most people in those areas are of indigenous descent, unlike the white or mestizo populations of the developed areas of Mexico, including Mexico City. Many speak a variety of languages, including Tzotzil, as their first language rather than Spanish. These ethnic and cultural differences played significant roles in the mistreatment endured the residents of Chiapas from Mexican governmental entities and the wealthy hacendados, or landowners, of the region.
On January 1, 1994, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, or Zapatista Army of National Liberation (“EZLN”), an indigenous, separatist movement in Chiapas, announced its existence and promptly declared war against the Mexican Government. The EZLN advocates a socialist ideology that demands social and economic justice for indigenous populations. The EZLN attempted to promote its social policies by means of armed conflict against the Mexican Government.
Several organizations not associated with any federal or state government, also known as civil societies, were formed in Chiapas at that time, including, inter alia, the civil society known as “Las Abejas” (“The Bees”). Las Abejas was, and remained at all relevant times, a pacifist organization not affiliated with the Mexican Government. Due to its pacifist nature, Las Abejas was also opposed to the EZLN, which advocated violence as a means to its ends.
On or about January 2, 1994, regular Mexican Army units moved into Chiapas and engaged in armed confrontation with EZLN forces. Shortly thereafter, the Mexican Government under President Carlos Salinas de Gortari entered into peace negotiations with the EZLN. Salinas declared a unilateral cease-fire and offered amnesty to those EZLN members who chose to reintegrate into society. The peace negotiations between the Mexican Government, under Salinas, and the EZLN resulted in the Mexican Government passing an Amnesty Law that became effective on January, 22 1994.
On August 21, 1994, Ernesto Zedillo, was elected President of Mexico. Between August 21, 1994 and December 1, 1994, a transition period ensued between the Salinas administration and Defendant Zedillo’s incoming administration. On December 1, 1994, Defendant Zedillo was sworn into office as the President of Mexico.
Shortly after Ernesto Zedillo was sworn in as President, a military campaign plan was adopted with the aim of suppressing the EZLN, as well as all political and military support for said organization in Chiapas ( “Plan de Campaña Chiapas ’94”). Part of the Plan de Campaña Chiapas ’94, encompassed efforts to create, train, and support self-defense forces and other paramilitary entities which would assist in military operations during the prosecution of the war against the EZLN. When applied, the Plan de Campaña Chiapas ’94 violated the Mexican Constitution, the laws of Mexico, International Treaties and accords, and customary international law.
In February 1995 President Zedillo unilaterally terminated the Chiapas peace process and the Mexican Government, using police and military forces, implemented the Plan de Campaña Chiapas ’94. Chiapas was declared a military zone, and Mexican Army troops were deployed into its territory.
As part of the Plan de Campaña Chiapas ’94, Zedillo’s administration pursued a policy whereby members of villages in Chiapas opposed to the EZLN were allowed to obtain military-caliber automatic and semi-automatic weapons as well as training directly or indirectly from members of the Mexican Army or other persons or groups acting in concert with the Mexican Army (the “Anti-EZLN Villagers”). The goal of arming and training Anti-EZLN Villagers and forming them into paramilitary units was to suppress and intimidate villages purportedly sympathetic to the EZLN, and to coerce those villages to oppose the EZLN.
The increase in paramilitary activities of Anti-EZLN Villagers in a particular area coincided with the arrival and embedding of Mexican Army units in that area, as well as the training of Anti-EZLN Villagers by those Mexican Army units, pursuant to the Plan de Campaña Chiapas ’94.
Acteal is a hamlet located in the municipality of Chenalhó, State of Chiapas, Mexico. A large majority of the residents of Acteal, including the Decedents and the Plaintiffs, were members of Las Abejas and fully ascribed to its non-violent, pacifist practices.
In or about mid-1997, armed Anti-EZLN Villagers commenced a terror campaign including engaging in a series of kidnappings and homicides, many in towns throughout about one fourth of Chiapas, including within the municipality of Chenalhó. Many residents in the affected villages supported neither the policies of President Zedillo’s administration nor the armed conflict espoused by the EZLN. As a result of the kidnappings and murders orchestrated by Anti EZLN Villagers, many residents of these villages fled to Acteal and other villages.
President Zedillo was well aware of the political and military situation he had fomented in Chiapas. In fact, he received a letter warning of the impeding catastrophe and of the human rights abuses taking place in Chenalho from Msgr. Raul Vera-López, the Bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas. Notwithstanding this and other warnings, President Zedillo elected to stand by and do nothing to end the terrible situation he had created.
On December 22, 1997, certain Anti-EZLN Villagers, carried out a paramilitary operation in and around Acteal which resulted in the mass execution of forty-five Acteal villagers. At approximately 10:30 a.m., the paramilitaries encircled the perimeter of Acteal and commenced firing on its residents. At that time, most of the village had congregated around a small, wooden chapel in the center of Acteal, and been engaging in a communal fasting and prayer retreat for peace. The paramilitaries concentrated their fire on the residents of Acteal, who were in the middle of this retreat.
Some of the residents were able to escape through the perimeter established by the paramilitary Anti-EZLN Villagers and flee into the countryside. However, the paramilitaries slaughtered forty-five residents of Acteal, including seven men, twenty women and eighteen minors, one of them a toddler. Approximately twenty other Acteal villagers were injured in that paramilitary operation. Law enforcement authorities did not entered the village until some 12 hours after the shooting started. The crime scene was not preserved.
In order to hide his complicity in the Acteal Massacre, President Zedillo, along with Jorge Madrazo Cuellar, the Solicitor General and Attorney General of Mexico orchestrated and participated in a conspiracy to cover-up any connection, responsibility, involvement or participation with or in the Acteal Massacre (the “Cover-up”). In furtherance of the Cover-up, 128 persons from the area surrounding Acteal were arrested at the direction of the Attorney General’s Office for the Republic of Mexico, the Procuraduria General de la Republica (the “PGR”), the agency that led the investigation and prosecution relating to the Acteal Massacre, which was then under the direction of Madrazo. On October 4, 2007, 34 persons were convicted of various crimes arising from the Acteal Massacre including culpable homicide and aggravated battery. Many were sentenced to 26 years of incarceration.
On August 12, 2009, the Supreme Judicial Court of Mexico entered a decision determining that the arrests and convictions of 20 individuals resulting from the PGR’s prosecution of the Acteal Massacre had violated Mexican criminal procedure, criminal law and constitutional due process. Some of the violations included: (a) materially significant discrepancies in testimony between and among victims regarding both the appearance and clothing of the alleged perpetrators; (b) material retractions of testimony which could have exonerated one or more defendants; and (c) the illegal acquisition and formulation of evidence for the purpose of convicting the alleged perpetrators. It was also determined that prosecution witnesses, who could not identify many of the alleged perpetrators of the Acteal Massacre during their initial declarations, later confessed that the Federal Judicial Police provided them with a list of the names and villages of residence of those alleged perpetrators after those witnesses had provided their initial declarations.
As a result of the Supreme Court Decision, the case involving the Acteal Massacre was dismissed, the convictions of 20 defendants were reversed and those defendants were released from prison after 11 years of incarceration.
Many of the victims of the Acteal Massacre have sought redress in the United States legal system and a complaint has been filed. They seek to proceed anonymously given that they continue to fear for their lives and the lives of their families.