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.”

The U.N. rapporteur’s visit also prompted bitter criticism from an unexpected corner of the Chiapas conflict. In a lengthy communiqué that coincided with Jahangir’s arrival in Chiapas, EZLN spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos blasted the United Nations for its complicity “in reducing Yugoslavia to ashes” during the NATO bombing onslaught in the Kosovo hostilities. “The U.N. has lost all credibility,” Marcos wrote, because it has become a tool of the White House and its allies, and “it would be unethical for us” to endorse United Nations intervention in Chiapas on human-rights issues.

For Marcos, the real United Nations are the many international non-governmental organizations that are so vital to the rebels’ cause. “Amnesty International has more moral authority,” he said, than the organization Jahangir represents. The Zapatista leader also accused the U.N.’s High Commission on Refugees of providing a pretext for the Mexican military’s destruction of the EZLN autonomous municipality of Tierra y Libertad on May 1, 1998, and took United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to task for commending a Television Azteca anti-drug foundation when the network features “known cocaine fiends” in its roster of stars.

The subcomandante’s tongue-lashing is believed to be the first post-Kosovo rejection of United Nations human-rights intervention by a group that has been a frequent target of abuse. Usually, the U.N. is sought out by hard-pressed national-liberation movements to establish international legitimacy.

Yet, like the PRI, the EZLN also sought to have it both ways; while it condemned Jahangir’s visit, the communiqué listed 41 Zapatista victims of presumed extrajudicial executions that the rapporteur might investigate. Jahangir’s response to the subcomandante contrasted with her thinly veiled disdain for government pronouncements. Denying that she is a U.N. official, the rapporteur conceded that the multilateral institution was not above criticism and professed her willingness to meet with the EZLN to further explore the insurgents’ charges.

And so the rapporteur made her sojourn to Acteal, where she gazed in puzzlement upon the “Tower of Infamy,” a monument to the mass killing whose Danish creator was expelled from Mexico by immigration authorities. She also met with family members of presumed victims of extrajudicial executions in Ocosingo and the Ejido Morelia in January 1994 (19 victims), and at El Bosque in the autonomous EZLN municipality of San Juan de Libertad (10 killed in 1998).

A driven, tireless interrogator, Jahangir worked long into the night in unlikely settings such as the posh Casa Vieja hotel, where she received groups of Indians, decked out in ceremonial hats and chujs (short serapes), who presented graphic evidence of abuse by local authorities. Asked how she remained sane after hearing such horror stories day after day, she smiled mischievously and wondered if she was still sane.

During the U.N. special rapporteur’s passage through the Mexican landscape July 16 to 28, Chiapas was repeatedly shaken by violence and fresh extrajudicial executions. On July 19, an opposition-party official was assassinated in Ixtapa, and on the 20th, a Tapachula rancher gunned down a demonstrating farmer. A few days earlier (the 15th), Zapatista supporters at El Portal on the Guatemalan border, who were demanding that local PRI officials resume delivering water to their colony, were tear-gassed and beaten — two were shot — before being hauled off. Up in San Juan Chamula above San Cristobal, armed PRI-istas violently evicted a group of evangelical Christians and generally got so rowdy that the army had to be called out.

“This is a Machiavellian plot to give Chiapas a bad name while the U.N. is visiting the state,” Chiapas Attorney General Eduardo Montoya complained.

But such violence is more the stuff of everyday existence here, a fact the family of José Hidalgo knows only too well. On June 14, this youngest brother of a San Cristobal family that has long staunchly defended beleaguered Bishop Samuel Ruiz disappeared into thin air. Two weeks later, state judicial police returned what they said were José’s bones — they were dressed in his clothes — to the family doorstep. But what most alarmed Manuel Hidalgo, who suspects that his kid brother was the victim of an extrajudicial execution carried out by a local death squad, were the great numbers of unclaimed bones he kept finding while searching for José’s remains.

“They are everywhere in these mountains,” he told the U.N. rapporteur during a San Cristobal interview.

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