By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS CHIAPAS — The Mexican government’s stiff-necked resistance to international human-rights intervention borders on the xenophobic. In recent years, the administration of President Ernesto Zedillo has tossed hundreds of independent human-rights observers from a dozen nations out of Mexico and implemented tough new visa requirements that virtually bar such observers from the country.
Mexico has repeatedly refused to honor recommendations made by the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Human Rights Commission, and stonewalls allegations of abuse brought before Geneva-based United Nations commissions on torture and indigenous rights. Amnesty International Secretary General Pierre Sane was pointedly snubbed by President Zedillo during a 1997 visit.
In this context, the late-July arrival of Asma Jahangir, a special U.N. rapporteur for extrajudicial executions, was watched closely by the human-rights community here — Jahangir’s final report will serve as a working document for the announced visit of U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson in November. One measure of the importance of the rapporteur’s investigation: Despite repeated petitions, her predecessor, an African diplomat, was never invited to the country by the Mexican government.
That Zedillo accepted the Jahangir visit at all is an indication of his confidence in the strategy of brazen denial — the Zedillo government continues even to deny the existence of paramilitary formations in Chiapas — and of the need to shore up the image of his long-ruling (70 years) PRI Party on the eve of presidential elections.
Certainly Zedillo shows little real concern about rights abuses. In fact, according to one observer I spoke to, Mexico’s official delegation to a July 16 U.N. session in Geneva reviewing Mexico’s compliance with international human-rights norms included a PRI deputy, Norberto Santiz, who is alleged to be the founder of the MIRA paramilitary group.
But if Zedillo thought he could manage the U.N. fact-finding visit, he soon learned otherwise. Touring massacre sites in Guerrero (Aguas Blancas, El Charco) and Chiapas, Jahangir, a sharp-tongued Pakistani woman who is her nation’s most prominent advocate for women’s rights, did not mince words. She lambasted the Mexican judicial system ("impunity from prosecution is at the heart of this problem") and even the military ("it is part of the problem — not the solution"), and counseled the Zedillo administration to invite international observers to next year’s presidential elections if it wanted to salvage its credibility.
"Mexico is in a critical situation," she bluntly told reporters during her Chiapas swing. "Of course there are extrajudicial executions here," she commented tartly during a stopover in Acteal in the highlands, where, on December 22, 1997, 45 Tzotzil Indian supporters of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) were gunned down by government-affiliated paramilitary forces.
The Zedillo administration reacted with predictable umbrage. Jahangir was accused of interfering in Mexico’s internal politics and a diplomatic note was threatened. "She does not have the faculties to speak out on our political situation," Undersecretary of Foreign Relations Carmen Moreno snapped, suggesting that the rapporteur confine her conclusions to the issue of extrajudicial executions. But when Jahangir stated that such killings were a common thread in Mexico, Moreno declared that such observations "did not correspond to reality."
"Our investigations often anger our hosts. If the Mexican government didn’t want to know about extrajudicial executions, why did it invite me here?" retorted Jahangir. In the special rapporteur’s view, her bumpy stay in the country did not jeopardize the Robinson visit, but other human-rights observers were not so sure. "The government’s experience with Jahangir was not a happy one. Remember that Zedillo must invite Robinson to Mexico, and invitations are subject to unexplained delays," cautioned one non-Mexican aid worker, based in San Cristobal, who pleaded anonymity.
Despite the Zedillo government’s efforts to discredit the rapporteur’s stay, it went to great lengths to impress its peace and human-rights credentials upon her. On the day Jahangir traveled to Acteal, the president himself flew into the conflict zone to plant trees and renew his offer of peace talks with the EZLN.
And on the day Jahangir touched down in Chiapas, 20 Tzotzil Indians accused of being the material perpetrators of the Acteal massacre were sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment. Eleven police officers who stood by during the killing received three-year terms, and a former Mexican army officer who trained the paramilitaries was sentenced to two years and a $100 fine a few months back. All this after the accused were held for nearly two years with no movement in the case. Still, no "big fish" (pez gordo) has ever been prosecuted for Acteal — indeed, Julio Cesar Ruiz Ferro, the interim governor at the time of the massacre, was recently promoted to the position of agricultural attaché at Mexico’s embassy in Washington, D.C.
Profoundly suspicious of the sudden convictions, the U.N. rapporteur met with the purported killers in Cerro Hueco, the state’s maximum lockup. Later, she asked reporters if they thought the Indians were guilty. "In my country, when a big crime occurs they just go out and round up anyone," she explained. Commenting privately on the convictions and Zedillo’s show visit to Chiapas, she mused, "The Mexican government must think I’ve come here to play marbles."