A lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut on Friday alleges that Ernesto Zedillo GRD ’81, former president of Mexico and current director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, violated the Geneva Conventions, the United Nations Charter and Mexican common law, among other codes of conduct, while in office.
The civil action suit was initiated by the Miami, Fla., law firm Rafferty, Kobert, Tenenholtz, Bounds & Hess, P.A. on behalf of 10 anonymous plaintiffs who are seeking damages likely to exceed $10 million dollars from Zedillo. The case involves his alleged role in an attack on civilians in the village of Acteal in Chiapas, Mexico, that took place Dec. 22, 1997, during his six-year term as president.
A 53-page complaint details claims that Zedillo knew about the attack and covered it up, violating a series of domestic and international laws, ranging from common laws of Mexico and the United States to international declarations and treaties such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.
“Defendant Zedillo knew or should have known that his subordinates were committing human rights abuses, and he failed to prevent the abuses or punish those responsible,” the complaint reads. Though the attackers, a local militia, were not officially affiliated with the government, the complaint alleges that the Mexican military may have armed or even accompanied them.
Since news of the lawsuit broke Monday evening, Zedillo has asserted his innocence. He called the accusations “infamous and irresponsible” in an email to the News on Monday, and said he plans to respond to the lawsuit and approach the appropriate authorities.
“Just let me reiterate that the allegations, as reported by the press, are totally groundless and obviously false,” Zedillo said in an email Tuesday. “Any person who dares to check the facts will conclude that this is a calumny fabricated for reasons that I ignore.”
He added that he had not received a formal copy of the lawsuit and declined to comment further. University General Counsel Dorothy Robinson said in an email Tuesday that Zedillo will hire private counsel, since the lawsuit has no connection to Yale.
According to the complaint, Zedillo’s wrongdoing began shortly after his election in 1994, when he opted to break a ceasefire with an indigenous insurgent group known as the Zapatistas. The complaint says that to fight the insurgents, Zedillo instituted a plan known as “Plan de Campaña Chiapas ’94,” which involved arming and training local militia groups.
According to the plaintiffs, villagers in Acteal, located in the contested state of Chiapas, had formed a pacifist group known as “Las Abejas,” or “The Bees.” Troubled by the fighting occurring in their area, members of Las Abejas held a retreat in and around a local chapel to pray and fast in the name of peace, the complaint said. Two days into the retreat, an anti-Zapatista militia armed with assault rifles surrounded the church and opened fire, killing 45 and wounding 17.
The plaintiffs’ complaint suggests that the Mexican military was involved or at least aware of the attack, and argues that, as the commander-in-chief of the Mexican military, Zedillo was either responsible or criminally negligent.
Furthermore, the case alleges that Zedillo’s administration worked to cover up its involvement with the massacre, convicting innocent people of the crime to draw attention from the real perpetrators. Two years later, in 2009, the Supreme Court of Mexico overturned 20 of these convictions on the grounds that prosecutors had formulated testimonies and tampered with evidence.
That point was a “watershed,” said lawyer for the plaintiffs Roger Kobert. After the Supreme Court overturned the convictions, the plaintiffs began to move forward with planning their case, Kobert said.
Although Zedillo is not a United States citizen and the crimes were not committed on U.S. territory, the plaintiffs filed the lawsuit in U.S. district court in Connecticut under the Alien Tort Claims Act and Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991, which allow plaintiffs to file civil suits about certain violations of international law within the United States. The 10 plaintiffs — survivors and immediate relatives of the individuals killed — chose to remain unnamed out of fear for personal safety, according to the complaint.
For the 10 plaintiffs to win their case, they will have to prove the connection between Zedillo and the massacre, which could be difficult considering his high ranking position at the time, said Jenny Martinez ’93, a professor at Stanford Law School who specializes in international courts and tribunals.
“The big issue in cases of this kind is quite often the connection between the defendant and the atrocity,” Martinez said. “The law allows a superior to be held responsible for his subordinates, but factually coming up with the proof of the connection is often what is difficult.”
The plaintiffs have publicly displayed 12 pieces of evidence on their website, www.acteal97.com, that they claim tie Zedillo to the massacre. The evidence includes several investigative newspaper articles and government memos. Counsel for the plaintiffs has additional evidence, Kobert said, though he said he could not comment further on specific items.
Martinez said she doubts that the news articles will be admitted in trial, though she added that the evidence as a whole sounds compelling enough to overcome a motion to dismiss the case.
She added that while there have been similar suits successfully brought against defendants living in the United States, most involved generals and other mid- to high-ranking officials, not former presidents. Due to the complexities of laws that apply to former heads of state, Zedillo may be able to claim immunity in the case, Martinez said.
According to Martinez, defendants of alien tort claims sometimes flee the country when they are served with court papers. However, it is rare to find such defendants in prominent university positions when the lawsuits are filed, she added.
“We expect that professor Zedillo as a prominent figure in the United States is not going to flee nearly or solely due to the filing of this lawsuit,” Kobert said. “While we expect to prevail on the case, we expect that he will hire lawyers and attempt to avoid responsibility.”
As the case proceeds, Zedillo’s role as a professor at Yale will likely not change, Robinson said in a Monday email. Zedillo is currently teaching an economics seminar, “Debating Globalization.”