Federal court upholds dismissal of Zedillo case

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Photo by Joyce Xi.

Ernesto Zedillo GRD ’81, head of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and a former Mexican President, may finally be able to put a lawsuit alleging human rights abuses behind him.

Last week, a federal appeals court in New York upheld the July decision of a Connecticut court to dismiss a lawsuit claiming that Zedillo bore some responsibility for a 1997 massacre in a Mexican village. The $50 million suit was filed in July 2011 by 10 unnamed plaintiffs, who claimed they were survivors of the massacre in Acteal, Mexico, where a paramilitary group killed 45 people who were attending a religious meeting.

Judge Michael Shea of the Connecticut Judicial District dismissed the case in July after the U.S. State Department claimed  Zedillo was immune from prosecution for actions within his capacity as head of state.

“Of course, I am pleased that the slanderous lawsuit has been dismissed,” Zedillo wrote in an email to the News. “Although it has not been a distraction from my work and family life at all, it is always good to see that justice is done.”

The 10 plaintiffs first filed the lawsuit in Sept. 2011, claiming to be members of Las Abejas — a Catholic pacifist society targeted in the 1997 massacre — who survived the killing. They claimed Zedillo turned a blind eye to the paramilitary groups that ultimately carried out the massacre. Further, they said, Zedillo may have attempted to cover up the massacre during subsequent investigations. In addition to the $50 million dollars, the plaintiffs in the case sought a declaration of guilt against Zedillo.

University spokesman Tom Conroy said the University was pleased to see the case dismissed. Conroy added that Zedillo had remained fully engaged in his Yale responsibilities throughout the legal proceedings.

In appealing to the three-judge federal panel after the July dismissal, the plaintiffs argued not that the dismissal was incorrect, but rather that the Connecticut court should have given them the opportunity to amend their complaint.

The federal court, though, suggested that any amendment would be futile for the plaintiffs given Zedillo’s immunity as a head of state.

“The primary basis for the suggestion of immunity is that the complaint relates exclusively to actions taken in the defendant’s official capacity as head of state,” the federal court’s decision said. “The additional allegations plaintiffs want to press — that Zedillo was personally involved in the massacre and that the Mexican ambassador’s request for immunity was invalid — would not overcome the immunity.”

The plaintiffs have not yet announced whether they will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to their attorney Roger Kobert after the decision last week. Kobert could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Zedillo’s lawyer, Jonathan Freiman LAW ’98, said appealing to the Supreme Court would be “ridiculous.”

The 10 plaintiffs have remained anonymous, prompting questions over their identities.

“The organization that has long represented the victims said very plainly after this lawsuit was filed that the description of the anonymous plaintiffs doesn’t match the details of any known survivors or families from the massacre,” Freiman said.

A 2012 investigation by Spanish-language news channel Univision claimed to find evidence that former Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari was behind the lawsuit. Salinas served as president directly before Zedillo.

By pushing forward democratization in Mexico, Zedillo alienated many members of his and Salinas’ party, the Industrial Revolutionary Party, which had controlled Mexican politics for decades. While president, Zedillo also ordered the arrest of Salinas’ brother for complicity in a murder and illegal enrichment.

Univision claimed that there were several links between a Miami-based law firm associated with Kobert — Rafferty, Kobert, Tenenholtz and Hess, P.A. — and Salinas’ family. Kobert told Univision that one of Salinas’ lawyers knew Kobert’s colleague Marc Pugliese, who was listed last week along with Kobert as one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs.

In a 2012 email to The Economist, Salinas denied being involved in the case or knowing the lawyers on either side.

“For our part, we will consider taking legal action against the person who orchestrated and financed this calumnious lawsuit,” Freiman said.

Zedillo served as President of Mexico from 1994 through 2000.

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