Former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, who is now a Yale University professor, has been sued in Connecticut for alleged crimes against humanity in connection with the 1997 killings of 45 people in a Mexican village, a lawsuit that he called slanderous.
Lawyers for 10 unnamed plaintiffs filed the lawsuit last Friday in U.S. District Court in Hartford, alleging Zedillo was responsible for the massacre by paramilitary groups in the village of Acteal, in the southern state of Chiapas, and tried to cover up the killings. The plaintiffs, who include people injured in the attack and relatives of some of the dead, are seeking total damages in the millions of dollars, one of their lawyers said.
Zedillo, who was president of Mexico from 1994 to 2000, is now a professor of international studies at Yale and director of the New Haven school's Center for the Study of Globalization. He said in an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday that he will be hiring an attorney to fight "these slanderous accusations."
"The allegations, as reported by the press, are totally groundless and obviously false," Zedillo wrote. He called the accusations fabricated and defended his record "on my pursuit for rule of law, respect to human rights, economic and social development in the poorest regions of Mexico and the achievement of full democracy in my country."
He added, "It is obvious to me that whoever is behind that lawsuit is not really seeking justice for the innocent people whose (lives) were so painfully devastated by that outrageous crime."
A Yale spokesman didn't immediately return a message Wednesday.
The massacre in Acteal on Dec. 22, 1997, was the worst instance of violence during a conflict that began when the leftist Zapatista movement staged a brief armed uprising in early 1994 to demand more rights for Indians in Chiapas.
Paramilitaries with alleged government ties attacked Roman Catholic activists who sympathized with the rebels during a prayer meeting in Acteal. The assailants killed 45 people over several hours, including children as young as 2 months old.
After the killings, Zedillo denounced them as criminal and urged government and human rights officials to investigate.
The 53-page lawsuit, however, alleges that Zedillo's administration ended peace talks with the Zapatistas and launched a plan to arm and train local militias to fight against them. It also claims Zedillo was aware of the actions in Acteal, covered them up and broke international human rights laws under the Geneva Conventions as well as a host of other laws.
The lawsuit says 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."
Last October, a Mexican federal judge ordered the release of 15 people convicted in the massacre after ruling their convictions were based on illegally obtained evidence. That brought to 60 the number of convicts who had been freed after judges found irregularities in their prosecutions for the slayings. Thirty-five people remain in prison.
The lawsuit against Zedillo was filed by the Miami-based law firm of Rafferty, Kobert, Tenenholtz, Bounds & Hess and West Hartford attorney Matthew Dallas Gordon. Lawyers say the plaintiffs don't want their names revealed because they're scared for their safety.
"My clients are seeking justice ... against a man we're confident will be shown to have played a significant role in causing them harm," attorney Roger Kobert said Wednesday. "These are uniformly poor, agrarian, defenseless people and it took a lot of courage for them, even anonymously, to come forward and seek justice in the U.S. court system."
Kobert said there were efforts to bring similar claims against Zedillo in Mexico, but he didn't know the results of those attempts.
Kobert said the lawsuit was filed in Connecticut because that is where Zedillo now lives. It was filed under the federal Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows people alleging violations of international law to sue in the United States, and the Torture Victims Protection Act, which permits damages for torture and illegal killings abroad.