Former President of Mexico Is Sued in U.S. Federal Court for Alleged Human Rights Violations

Ernesto Zedillo

On September 16, 2011, ten anonymous Mexican nationals sued Ernesto Zedillo, the former President of Mexico, in U.S. federal court in New Haven, Connecticut.[1]

The complaint asserts claims for money damages in excess of $10 million under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and the Torture Victims Protection Act (TVPA).[2] The ATS allows claims by “an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.”[3] The TVPA allows claims by an “individual’s legal representative” who has been subject to “extra judicial killing” against an “individual [acting] under actual or apparent authority, or color of law, of any foreign nation” who commits the extra-judicial killing.[4]

Acteal Massacre bodies
Acteal Massacre Caskets

The case centers on a Mexican militia’s December 22, 1997, attack on civilians in the village of Acteal in Chiapas, Mexico.  At the time some of the villagers were troubled by the fighting in their area involving an indigenous insurgent group, the Zapatistas, and had formed a pacifist group known as “Las Abejas” or “The Bees.” On December 21st they started a retreat in and around their local church to pray and fast in the name of peace. On the second day of the retreat an anti-Zapatista militia armed with assault rifles surrounded the church and opened fire, killing 45 and wounding 17.[5]

Zedillo, shortly after his election as President in 1994, allegedly decided to break a ceasefire with the Zapatistas and instituted a plan know as “Plan de Campana Chiapas ’94,” which involved arming and training local militia groups. In addition, the Mexican military and Zedillo allegedly were involved or at least aware of the Acteal attack. Afterwards, Zedillo and his administration allegedly were actively engaged in trying to cover up the Mexican government’s involvement in the massacre. This cover-up included charging and convicting innocent people of the crime, as was confirmed in 2009 by the Mexican Supreme Court when it overturned 20 of the 37 convictions on the grounds that the prosecution had fabricated testimonies and tampered with evidence. [6]

Zedillo has not yet responded to the complaint, but immediately after the suit was commenced he said the accusations were “infamous and irresponsible” and “totally groundless and obviously false.” He had similar dismissive comments in 2005 about a complaint about the Acteal massacre that had been filed against Mexico in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.[7] In 2010, by the way, the Commission decided that the complaint was admissible, i.e., subject to further proceedings, on most of Mexico’s alleged violations of the American Convention on Human Rights with respect to this incident.[8]

The Connecticut lawsuit was filed over six years after the expiration of the 10-year statute of limitations for suits under the ATS and the TVPA. However, under certain circumstances this limitations period can be suspended or tolled. Thus, we can anticipate that Zedillo will raise this affirmative defense. Indeed, the plaintiffs’ complaint anticipates this defense by alleging that the statute of limitations should be suspended or tolled because of the alleged cover-up of governmental involvement in the massacre that was not revealed until the Mexican Supreme Court’s August 12, 2009, reversal of 20 convictions for the reasons previously stated and because of the government’s intimidation of members of the Chiapas indigenous community.[9]

Another affirmative defense that can be anticipated is the plaintiffs’ alleged failure to exhaust “adequate and available remedies in the place in which the conduct giving rise to the claim occurred [here, Mexico].” Again the complaint anticipates this defense with allegations of absence of adequate legal remedies in Mexico and of their exhaustion of the available remedies.[10]

By January 6, 2012, Zedillo is to file his motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction that will include a request for the court to ask the U.S. government for its opinion as to whether Zedillo has immunity as a former head of a sovereign state.[11]

Since 2002 Zedillo has been the Director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization and is believed to live in the New Haven, Connecticut area.[12]

[1] Henderson & Stephenson, Zedillo accused of massacre cover-up, Yale Daily News (Sept. 21, 2011); Navarro, Zedillo faces massacre claims in U.S., Guardian (Dec.27, 2011); Civil Docket Sheets, Doe v. Zedillo, Case No. 3-11-cv-01433-AWT (D. Conn. as of Dec. 28, 2011); 1997 Acteal Massacre, It is surprising that there has been no mention of this case in the New York Times or Washington Post.

[2]  Id.

[3]  See Post: The Alien Tort Statute, 1789-1980 (Oct. 21, 2011); Post: U.S. Circuit Court’s 1980 Decision Validates Use of Alien Tort Statute To Hold Foreign Human Rights Violators Accountable (Oct. 23, 2011); Poat: The Alien Tort Statute, 1980-2004 (Oct. 25, 2011); Post: Alien Tort Statute Interpreted by U.S. Supreme Court in 2004 (Nov. 9, 2011); Post: The Alien Tort Statute, 2004-Present  (Nov. 14, 2011).

[4]  Post: The Torture Victims Protection Act (Dec. 10, 2011).

[5] See n.1 supra. The “Las Abejas” or “The Bees” have said that the plaintiffs are not members of their group and that their group is not interested in obtaining money for the massacre. (Stephenson, Plaintiffs in Zedillo case questioned, Yale Daily News (Oct. 5, 2011); Stephenson, Zedillo lawsuit lacks clear backers, Yale Daily News (Oct. 19, 2011).)

[6]  See n.1 supra.

[7]  Id.; Post, Zedillo says allegations are untrue, Yale Daily News (Feb. 14, 2005).

[8]  Manuel Santiz Culebra, et al. (Acteal Massacre), Rep. No. 146/10 (IACHR Nov. 1, 2010).

[9]  Complaint ¶¶ 120-133. See 28 U.S.C. § 1350, note §2(c ). See Post: Litigation Against Conspirators in the Assassination of Oscar Romero (Oct. 10, 2011); Post: Former Salvadoran Generals Held Liable for $54.6 Million for Failure To Stop Torture (Nov. 11, 2011); Post: Former Salvadoran Vice-Minister of Defense Held Liable for $6 Million for Torture and Extrajudicial Killing (Nov. 13, 2011); Post: The Torture Victims Protection Act (Dec. 10, 2011).

[10] Complaint ¶¶ 234-238.. See 28 U.S.C. § 1350, note §2(b). See posts in n.9 supra.

[11]  Scheduling Order, Doe v. Zedillo (Dec. 6, 2011). Within 30 days after the court dockets the U.S. government’s substantive response to such a request, the plaintiffs shall file their response to the dismissal motion. Within another 30 days after the plaintiffs’ response, Zedillo shall file his reply brief. (Id.) After all of these papers have been submitted, presumably the court will schedule a hearing on the dismissal motion and sometime thereafter issue the court’s decision on that motion.

[12] Ernesto Zedillo Biography,;Lee, Zedillo takes globalization center post, Yale Daily News (April 5, 2002).

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As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

5 thoughts on “Former President of Mexico Is Sued in U.S. Federal Court for Alleged Human Rights Violations”

  1. Comment: Former President of Mexico’s Dismissal Motion

    On January 6th, Ernesto Zedillo, the former President of Mexico, filed his motion to dismiss the complaint charging him with complicity in extrajudicial killing in the Acteal massacre.

    The basis for the motion is the U.S. federal common law that grants immunity from civil lawsuits challenging the official actions of current and former heads of state. In support of this argument Zedillo’s brief supports numerous federal court decisions and statements submitted by the U.S. Government in such cases.

    Zedillo also asked the court to request the U.S. Government to submit its views on this issue in this case.

    As a retired lawyer, I was surprised to see no mention in the motion papers of the affirmative defenses of statute of limitations and failure to exhaust remedies in Mexico that are discussed in the original post on this case. Under Rule 12 (g) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, this failure should prevent Zedillo from raising these additional affirmative defenses by motion if the court denies the current dismissal motion.

    (Defendant’s Motion To Dismiss on the Basis of Former Head-of-State Immunity, Doe v. Zedillo, Case No. 3-11-cv-01433-AWT (D. Conn. Jan 6, 2012); Defendant’s Memorandum of Law in Support of Motion To Dismiss, Doe v. Zedillo, Case No. 3-11-cv-01433-AWT (D. Conn. Jan 6, 2012).

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