International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

Former Mexican President Responds to War Crimes Allegations

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Earlier this month Ernesto Zedillo, Mexico’s former president, made a statement claiming he was immune to a civil lawsuit that was filed against him last year regarding a massacre of indigenous people that occurred during his administration in 1997. The Mexican government officially claimed (and continues to claim) that the killing–primarily of unarmed women and children–in Acteal had occurred as a result of religious and territorial disputes among indigenous populations, though the victims’ families and other groups have alleged that the killings were carried out by paramilitaries acting under government orders to decimate leftist members of indigenous groups. As public outcry over the massacre intensified, Mexican authorities swiftly tried and convicted 84 people. Of the convicted, however, 37 have been released because the Mexican Supreme Court believed them to be innocent, and many of the remaining cases are being reopened because the prosecutor’s office committed serious violations, including using torture to extract confessions and the falsification of evidence to get convictions.

The group that filed the lawsuit last year is seeking $50 million in damages, but is also requesting an official admission of guilt.  Military documents have been uncovered which allegedly detail plans to eradicate indigenous rebels who challenged the government the year Zedillo began his presidency, and the group representing the victims claims that Zedillo had knowledge of these policies and of the human rights abuses that occurred during the massacre in Chiapas. In Mexico, immunity is frequently used to cover wrongdoings of preceding presidents, and current president Felipe Calderón has urged that immunity be given to Zedillo (which sets a powerful precedent considering that Calderón himself has also faced allegations that he was committed war crimes and crimes against humanity).

Zedillo did not address the allegations that he participated in or permitted the killings and other acts of violence, including forced displacement of indigenous populations, and instead spent the bulk of his 26-page response describing the lawsuit as slanderous.  Interestingly, Zedillo currently lives in the United States, and since the civil suit was filed in Connecticut, the federal court in that state will decide the next step. In correspondence with the Mexican government in September of this year the U.S. State Department has also officially suggested immunity for Zedillo. It will, of course, be extremely difficult to prove Zedillo’s involvement, and it is unlikely that a U.S. court will try Zedillo for crimes committed while he was president. This raises a number of interesting questions about the trend of impunity that emerges, specifically because many believe that Calderón will also move to the U.S. and seek immunity after finishing his term this December.

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One response to “Former Mexican President Responds to War Crimes Allegations

  1. parvathy249 November 27, 2012 at 2:01 am

    In Mexico, only a very minimal portion of the population strongly believes that the government employs paramilitary groups. There is, however, a notion that the government has certain affiliations with drug cartels but nevertheless, there are no massive outcries that the government is siding with militant groups for the violation of human rights against a particular group (at least this is not a huge topic of conversation in Mexico. People are much more concerned about the government’s support for drug cartels and civilians dying in the cross fire but there is no talk of the government actually funding groups to conduct violence). Indigenous groups are a small sector of the population and have constantly been asking the government for money. After many attempts at mediation, the rest of the Mexican population chooses not to side either with the government or the indigenous groups; although recently indigenous groups and specially the Zapatistas are not necessarily regarded positively in the country, which raises the question: should there be international mechanisms automatically set in place for the protection of indigenous groups in countries where they are a noticeable minority?

    Regarding the civil case of Zedillo – it is unproductive to be automatically accusatory of Zedillo. There will be, as mentioned, a lack of evidence pointing to Zedillo but this does not mean that it is because that evidence was purposefully vanished. This is mostly because the Mexican government has persistently demonstrated its lack of ability of maintaining records of their operations and also because at the time of the attack, investigations have found that the paramilitary group was communicating with the military *not* with the government, “members of paramilitary groups funded and supported by the Mexican military carried out an attack in the village of Acteal” (Jane Doe vs. Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon). It’s important to understand that the military in Mexico, and certainly in 1997, acted very much individually from the civilian government. This still raises interesting questions such as, is a president guilty of acts committed by rogue elements of the military under his/her rule?

    Additionally, the point raised about Zedillo moving to the United States is not necessarily a fruitful one. Many Mexican presidents have moved to the United States for two main reasons: 1. It is close by and 2. They receive very compelling teaching offers at top-notch universities. They do not move to the United States to flee Mexico or for fear of being put on trial. If that were the case, they would probably move to a country that is further away and not such a close trading ally.

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