Skip to content

15 years on, Acteal victims still await justice

December 12, 2012


On December 22, 1997, dozens of Mascara Roja paramilitaries entered a church in Acteal, Chiapas and slaughtered those praying inside. The 45 victims, members of pacifist Christian organization Las Abejas, included 15 children – the youngest being a two-month-old baby – and 21 women – four of whom were pregnant.

They were murdered because of their support for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), an indigenous rebel group which claims autonomy in the mountains and jungles of Chiapas.

Fifteen years on from the Acteal massacre, most of the perpetrators have been released from jail and any sense of justice or closure for relatives of the victims remains conspicuous by its absence.

In September, Manuel Santiz Perez became the latest person convicted of participation in the atrocity to be released by Mexico’s Supreme Court. Of the 84 originally convicted, 37 were released in September 2009 when apparent violations of their legal rights came to light. Another 15 of the perpetrators were released for “good behavior” in October 2010.

On Saturday, Las Abejas issued a statement condemning the “mass release of paramilitaries” and denouncing the news that Mascara Roja and Paz y Justicia – another infamous anti-EZLN paramilitary group – recently resumed operations in the southern state. The state government “manages” the conflict in Chiapas and “allowed the reactivation” of these groups, Las Abejas said.

To add insult to injury, many suspect the Acteal massacre is now being manipulated for political reasons in an ongoing feud between former presidents.

Last month, Ernesto Zedillo, who ruled Mexico from 1994 to 2000, claimed immunity in response to a civil lawsuit brought against him in the United States last year on behalf of several apparent victims of the massacre. The mysterious lawsuit was filed on behalf of ten anonymous Acteal residents by Rafferty, Kobert, Tenenholtz and Hess, PA, a corporate law firm from Miami which had never previously handled a human-rights case.


The plaintiffs, who say they were wounded or lost family members in the attack, are suing the former president for 50 million dollars on the grounds that his government allowed Mascrara Roja to commit the atrocity and then covered up the killings.

“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 issued in September 2011.

Zedillo, who now lives in Connecticut and teaches at Yale University, issued a 26-page document in November affirming that he could not be prosecuted for actions taken as president and dismissing the claims against him as slander based on anonymous sources. In September the U.S. State Department had suggested Zedillo be granted immunity and he is now awaiting a federal court ruling on his legal status.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has long been accused of arming and bankrolling indigenous paramilitary groups to combat the EZLN during Zedillo’s administration, although no evidence has been unearthed to prove he was personally responsible for the Acteal massacre.

The most damming indictment came in September 2011 from Emilio Chuayffet,  Zedillo’s interior minister at the time of the massacre. Chuayffet (who was named last week as President Enrique Peña Nieto’s education minster) told investigators in Chiapas that Zedillo, his Private Secretary Liebano Saenz and the then Chiapas Governor Julio Ruiz Ferro were all guilty of “conspiring to impede and hide multiple warnings ahead of the impending massacre.”

Las Abejas also believe that the Acteal killings were part of the government’s plan to eradicate the Zapatista rebels and their supporters, but they remain highly suspicious of the plaintiffs, publicly stating that “for us, these people do not exist.” Likewise, the Fray Bartolome de las Casas human rights center in Chiapas claims no knowledge of the lawsuit, insisting the case “has nothing to do with the victims” in Acteal, whom it has long represented.

So who could it be that is suing Zedillo? In recent months a number of Mexican journalists and political analysts have suggested that his presidential predecessor Carlos Salinas de Gortari instigated the lawsuit in a drawn-out act of vengeance.

Univision news revealed last week that the Miami lawyers handling the case have represented members of the Salinas family before, while in October, Raymundo Riva Palacio wrote in 24 Horas that even “if not entirely designed by Salinas, (the case) was promoted and managed by him personally.”

The animosity between the former PRI presidents dates back to 1995, when Zedillo ordered the arrest of Carlos Salinas’ brother Raul for money laundering and complicity in the murder of his ex-brother-in-law, a PRI official named Ruiz Massieu. Duly convicted, Raul Salinas served ten years in prison before being absolved of all charges. As a result of the convictions he also had 74 million dollars confiscated by Swiss authorities who said the money had been obtained illicitly.


Salinas’ lawyers have denied his involvement in the case against Zedillo, but this has done little to stem speculation that the Acteal lawsuit is far from the sincere bid for long-denied justice that it claims to be.

Instead, it seems the victims’ suffering is being hijacked; becoming a mere tool of revenge in a personal feud between two former presidents who both showed little but disdain for the Zapatistas and their sympathizers during their respective administrations.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 24, 2013 18:20

    Duncan, this is an excellent follow-up piece, most reports on this story really lack details of what the allegations are and how they’re being made.

  2. El Murciélago permalink
    May 1, 2013 08:49

    Man, where did you get this info? There’s more wrong than right. I was there. Las Abejas agree somewhat with EZLN goals, but oppose their violent methods- methods which actually caused the formation of Las Abejas in the first place. I have spoken with EZLN guerrillas, Las Abejas, other residents and various paramilitary groups about the massacre, and the general concensus, in private conversation, was that the EZLN was responsible for the massacre because of growing support for Las Abejas. One EZLN member strongly supported such action and stated he would kill his own mother if it would help their cause. It is known the EZLN pointed out pacifist leaders from various villages and accused them of the massacre. This is obviously intentional handpicking of political enemies because there was no way to identify them, and some of those picked were very sickly and feeble.

    It is a complex situation there- so many groups, and differing loyalties and goals from village to village within the same group, but generally the EZLN can be more accurately seen as a Communist revolutionary guerrilla army core with passive adherents that are more like fans and supporters rather than an actual part of EZLN, although Subcomandante Marcos would argue anyone globally that so much as thinks warm thoughts about them is a part of EZLN. It would take an especially stupid person to be familiar with Marcos’ writings and background and still profess him a pacifist, unless, of course, that person’s goal is intentional disinformation. I hope this story came off a news feed rather than your own personal writing. I know the newspapers in Mexico, especially in the south, are- or at least were at that time- very pro-EZLN, because at least half a dozen of them lied about me and my purpose there, stating that I was supporting the EZLN.


  1. ‘Resurgent’ Zapatistas march in silence « The Tequila Files
  2. Former president’s brother acquitted | The Tequila Files
  3. Zapatista killed in clash with militant agricultural workers | The Tequila Files

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: