Photo: Ernesto Zedillo (WEF)
A federal judge in Connecticut dismissed a suit brought against former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo over a 1997 massacre.
The plaintiffs can appeal the ruling by U.S. District Judge Michael Shea.
The law firm of Rafferty, Kobert, Tenenholtz, Bounds & Hess filed the $50 million suit in 2011 on behalf of a dozen unnamed relatives of victims of the Acteal massacre.
Days after the filing, the Mexican government asked Washington to make a determination on whether Zedillo, now a faculty member at Yale University, could be sued in U.S. federal court for events that took place during his 1994-2000 tenure as head of state.
Immunity of heads of state before foreign courts for official acts “is based on international custom, with the aim of ensuring respect for the equal sovereignty of states,” Mexico’s foreign ministry said at the time.
The U.S. government weighed in last year with a recommendation that the suit be thrown out.
“This complaint is predicated on former President Zedillo’s actions as President, not private conduct,” State Department legal adviser Harold Hongju Koh said in a letter to the U.S. District Court in Hartford, Connecticut.
On Dec. 22, 1997, men with assault rifles killed 45 unarmed Tzotzil Indians, including 15 children, as they were praying inside a church in Acteal, Chiapas state.
Lawyers for Zedillo insisted from the start that the allegations he played a role in the massacre were “unfounded” and “slanderous.”
The slaughter occurred during the period when the Mexican government was fighting the Zapatista National Liberation Army, or EZLN, guerrilla group.
Tzotzils from several communities had gathered in Acteal after fleeing violence between EZLN supporters and armed members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which governed Mexico at the time.
The massacre led to the resignations of federal Government Secretary Emilio Chuayfett and Chiapas Gov. Julio Cesar Ruiz Ferro, both of them PRI members.
The U.S. lawsuit accused Zedillo of complicity with the killings and with an ensuing cover-up organized with former Attorney General Jorge Madrazo Cuellar.
The plaintiffs contended that the Zedillo administration abandoned talks with the EZLN - whose armed uprising lasted only about a week - in favor of a violent crackdown after a report from a U.S. bank cited instability in Chiapas as a negative factor for the Mexican economy.
Zedillo, according to the suit, conspired with Madrazo Cuellar to hide the president’s connection with a covert operation involving the use of police, soldiers and civilian paramilitaries to crush the Zapatistas.
“Compelling evidence shows that the authorities facilitated the arming of paramilitaries who carried out the killings and failed to intervene as the savage attack continued for hours,” Amnesty International said in a 1998 statement on Acteal.