Former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo GRD ’81, the director of Yale’s Center for the Study of Globalization, denied on Sunday accusations that surfaced late last week that he committed crimes against humanity by supporting murderous paramilitary gangs during his six-year term as president.
Yale officials are standing behind Zedillo, supporting the economist who served as president of Mexico from 1994 to 2000 before taking over the directorship of the Globalization Center in 2002. A human rights organization in Mexico has accused Zedillo of secretly sponsoring the creation and training of paramilitary groups to mitigate the threat to his government posed by the anti-government Zapatista National Liberation Army.
When informed of the accusations levied by the Fray Bartolome de las Casas Center in an e-mail from the News on Sunday, Zedillo denied links between his administration and the paramilitary groups and said the group’s claims are unsubstantiated and do not merit an official response from him or other members of his government.
“This accusation is a total calumny and will therefore be dismissed as such by any person or institution who dares to review the record of my administration’s social, economic, political and human rights achievements in Chiapas and all of Mexico,” Zedillo wrote in the e-mail while traveling to Boston to attend meetings. “I never responded to insults or calumnies when I was in politics. I don’t think I should do it now or ever.”
The Casas Center, whose representatives could not be reached for comment on Sunday, filed its complaints with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission in October. But the story was not picked up by the international media until La Jornada, a left-wing daily in Mexico City, ran a front-page article about the accusations last Thursday. Zedillo dismissed the allegations as leftist attacks on his record.
“It’s very revealing that I cannot find any news about it in relevant Mexican media such as the Reforma daily of Mexico City,” Zedillo said. “All I can say to you is that I regret that it’s so easy for some people to mislead others, even about things that are in the public record in a very transparent way.”
Yale officials called the claims groundless and said they will not take any action against Zedillo.
“President Zedillo is a person of great integrity and is doing a great job for Yale,” Yale President Richard Levin said Sunday night. “I think history will record him as one of the great presidents of Mexico.”
Zedillo, a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, was elected president by a landslide in 1994. He is often credited for abandoning Mexico’s traditional style of governing and committing himself to democratic principles as president. But early in his presidency, Zedillo reneged on an Indian rights agreement he had reached with the Zapatistas — a move likely prompted by “tremendous pressure” from conservative elements in the country — and thus set the stage for a prolonged conflict with the Zapatista revolutionaries, said Harvard professor John Womack, a leading authority on Mexican history.
In a move that has long provoked controversy surrounding his presidency, Zedillo employed military threats against the Zapatistas after negotiations broke down, Womack said. Throughout the conflict between the Zapatistas and the government, paramilitaries are said to have accounted for 123 killings and 37 kidnapping disappearances, as well as the forced displacement of about 13,000 civilians from their homes.
Zedillo denied allegations that the Mexican government supported the paramilitaries and said the government had investigated any evidence suggesting the existence of paramilitary groups. Groups that were identified as paramilitaries were subject to the full extent of the law, he said.
“We did our best and succeeded to prosecute people that committed violent crimes in Chiapas,” Zedillo said.
Although Womack said he does not believe Zedillo is personally responsible for the actions of paramilitary groups in Chiapas, he said Zedillo, in ordering the military to occupy the region, facilitated paramilitary operations.
“I don’t think he personally would have said, ‘Hey, let’s send some paramilitary people in there,'” Womack said. “But any president anywhere ought to be responsible for what goes on while he or she is president, and the sad fact is, while he or she is not responsible, in fact, they don’t have the power to stop it.”
Yale professors and administrators alike defended Zedillo on Sunday. Environmental law professor Daniel Esty, who holds an office at Betts House with Zedillo, said the accusations against his colleague are “way wide of the mark.”
“He’s a great hero,” Esty said. “He was probably the most honest president of Mexico. Zedillo played an enormous role in the modernization of Mexico.”
International economist Gustav Ranis, who taught Zedillo when he was a graduate student in economics at Yale, said he thinks his former student is a “first-rate individual and scholar.”
“I know he did a very good job on the economy, on democracy,” said Ranis, who last year completed his term as director of the Yale Center for International and Area Studies. “His reputation will go down in history as the person who opened up Mexico to democracy.”
While American political scientists likely will continue to regard Zedillo as a hero due to his expansion of trade with the United States and the growth he oversaw in Mexico’s economy and military, Mexicans themselves often hold less effusive views of his tenure, Womack said.
“In Mexico, I think people will think if they’re rich and they made money out of selling their banks, that he was a good president,” Womack said. “But if they’re poor and went through a horrendous economic crash and crisis in ’96, ’97, they’re going to remember him as a president during a time they lost everything they had.”
The Mexican Student Organization at Yale declined to take an official stance on the allegations on Sunday. Irma Mejia ’06, president of the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan, a Chicano student group at Yale, was unavailable for comment.