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c. The Acteal massacre

164. Another of the tragic occurrences that took place recently in the state of Chiapas, which reflects the gravity of the stage which this conflict has reached in the area was the massacre that took place in the community of Acteal, municipality of Chenalhó, on 22 December 1997. A group of heavily armed men killed 45 persons (including a baby, children and women), who were at the time internally displaced. Most of the victims were killed as they sought refuge inside a church, which was machine-gunned indiscriminately. The reports stated that the perpetrators of the massacre belong to paramilitary groups allegedly connected to local members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), including the then President of the Municipal Council of Chenalhó.

165. This act, which has produced justifiable outrage both nationally and internationally, is an indication of the excesses which the conflict in question can produce if urgent measures are not taken to combat the tolerance of this kind of acts, which leads to impunity. Also as important are the long-term goals in a number of areas (social, economic, legal, among others) to bring about a peaceful solution. More specifically, the State has the obligation imposed under Article 1.1 of the American Convention, namely: "to respect the rights and freedoms recognized in it and guarantee their free and full exercise to all persons under its jurisdiction." As part of that obligation, the State has the following duties: to prevent events of this kind from being repeated; to conduct a serious, complete, and exhaustive investigation into the events, so that the perpetrators can be identified, disarmed, and detained; and, to compensate the victims and their families for the damages resulting from the violation of their human rights.(26)

166. On 24 December 1997, the Commission requested Mexico to adopt without delay precautionary measures for the protection of the lives, physical integrity and health both of the immediate survivors of the Acteal massacre and of other internally displaced persons in the municipality of Chenalhó; to undertake an immediate, serious and exhaustive investigation of the reported events; punishment of the authors; and to take the necessary action to prevent any repetition of similar occurrences in the area. On 31 December 1997, Mexico informed the Commission of certain of the requested precautionary measures which it had taken in response to the Chenalhó incident. These measures included a series of steps taken by the Office of the Attorney-General of the Republic to investigate the incident, in addition to medical care for the wounded victims, protection for displaced persons, the establishment of 20 social assistance groups made up of various health professionals and others, and strict enforcement of the Federal Law on Firearms and Explosives. The Commission received additional information and comments from complainants and the State, and it conducted a hearing of the two sides during its 98th session.

167. At the end of March 1998, the Attorney-General's Office had brought criminal proceedings against 124 persons in relation to the events in Acteal, and 97 of those persons were at the time being detained and were involved in a trial, facing primarily charges of homicide, assault and battery, possession and use of prohibited firearms or firearms for the exclusive use of the Armed Forces, and criminal conspiracy. Special attention should be drawn to the fact that the defendants in the criminal proceedings included the municipal president of Chenalhó on the day the events took place. That official stood accused of being an accessory before the fact to the crimes of aggravated homicide and wounding with grievous bodily harm, in addition to criminal conspiracy and possession of unlicensed firearms for the exclusive use of the Armed Forces. Moreover, eleven former police officers from the Chiapas State security forces were among those imprisoned in Chiapas facing criminal proceedings. They were charged with permitting the shipment of firearms for the exclusive use of the Armed Forces, and with failure to prevent the homicides from occurring, despite the fact that they were present at the time the incidents took place.

168. In principle, the IACHR does not have information that establishes the direct participation of members of the forces of law and order in the Acteal massacre. However, the Commission would point out that official data point to the fact that state agents were involved in previous stages and in the cover-up of the event. In fact, the inquiries conducted by the Office of the Attorney-General clearly show that public security forces not only tolerated, but encouraged the illicit trafficking in weapons to the benefit of groups supporting the authorities in office, on the alleged grounds that they were meant for their own protection and to defend their property. The investigation into the Acteal massacre by the Mexican State authorities has provided evidence that several of the accused had joined forces and been organized since September 1997 on the pretext of looking out for the security of the inhabitants of the community of Miguel Utrillla, Los Chorros, in the municipality of Chenalhó. The community leaders provided this group of supposed vigilantes with firearms, which over time became increasingly sophisticated and more powerful, as can be seen from the acquisition of AD-47 weapons and R-15 rifles, which civilians in Mexico are strictly prohibited from using.

169. Other recent steps taken by the Office of the Attorney-General of the Republic include the following: creation of a Special Prosecutor's Office for the municipality of Chenalhó, in charge of wrapping up the investigation into the incidents; a follow-up on the criminal proceedings, investigations, and inquiries related to the case; and investigation of the armed groups of civilians, and arms trafficking in Chiapas. In addition, three offices were opened under the Ministerio Publico de la Federación [Office of the Public Prosecutor of the Federation] in the municipalities of Pantelhó, Tila y Ocosingo, whose population is 95% indigenous. According to official reports, these offices will be staffed by bilingual ministerial personnel from the areas in question, to give greater attention to the local people.

170. The Commission acknowledges the importance of the measures that have been adopted to date by the State in investigating the Acteal massacre, but it reserves the right to give a detailed opinion regarding the effectiveness of those measures, since it may be called on to pronounce a decision in an individual case. As far as the precautionary or protective measures are concerned, the Commission expects to continue to receive information from the Mexican State periodically, which it will forward to the complainants so that they may submit any comments they may have. The IACHR will keep the situation in Acteal and in the villages affected by the events described under close observation.

d. El Bosque

171. On June 10, 1998, the State conducted a joint police-military operation in the municipality of El Bosque in Chiapas State. According to official information, the purpose was to recover the building which housed the offices of the autonomous municipal council of San Juan de la Libertad, and serve 15 arrest warrants in the villages of Unión Progreso and Chavajeval in that municipality. According to preliminary reports, the mobilization of over a thousand soldiers and policemen culminated in the death of seven peasants and one policeman, with nine people on both sides wounded, 57 indigenous people arrested, and one PGR helicopter damaged. The information received indicates that this was the first armed conflict since the cease-fire agreed between the State and the EZLN in March 1994.(27)

172. According to the official version, the conflict began when the police were ambushed and attacked by weapon fire at approximately seven in the morning on June 10, 1998, at a place close to Chavajeval. Mexico's Interior Secretary, Francisco Labastida Ochoa, reported that the attack was not initiated by the Mexican army, or by State security forces from Chiapas State, but that: "they were attacked when they tried to arrest various persons for whom arrest warrants had been issued on charges of homicide and grievous bodily harm.(28) In contrast, the Autonomous Council of "San Juan de la Libertad" and representatives of the Unión Progreso community asserted that what had happened was a State attack.

173. The events in El Bosque have been the subject of reports and communiqués issued by various organizations, including the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Mrs. Mary Robinson, who heads that office, had the following to say in her first statement on Chiapas since she took office:

The deaths of nine people in what has been reported as action by government forces in the town of San Juan de la Libertad this week is just the latest in a string of violent incidents in a region already affected by widespread displacement, dispossesion and severe poverty.(29)

174. Mrs. Robinson also stated in the same press release that the reports regarding the situation in that state "paint a grim picture of an atmosphere of fear among the indigenous people of Chiapas caught between government forces suported by officially funded militias on one side and armed resistance groups on the other. Such conflict does not serve the interests of anyone".

175. The IACHR will keep this worrisome situation under close examination. For the time being, the Commission expresses its concern over the escalating violence in the region, and notes that this has coincided with the collapse of the negotiations and the expulsion of the international human rights observers.

B. The Huastecas region of Veracruz and Hidalgo

176. The Huastecas region is located between the coastal plain of the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern slopes of the Sierra Madre Oriental, in the states of Veracruz and Hidalgo. The main inhabitants of this region are indigenous Nahuas, Totonacas, Otomis, Huastecos, and Tepehuas, although mestizos are found in the main towns. The precarious economic conditions in which the indigenous people live, together with strong competition from ranchers and farmers, have been at the root of the serious social conflicts over land in Huastecas. The peasants in this region have launched their resistance by establishing various organizations to defend their rights, and in particular their right to land. The last few years have seen an upsurge in violence by the police, officials and caciques [local political bosses]. The violence is rooted not only in land issues, but also in political and military issues.

177. In recent years the federal government has shown its concern over this area of the country, and it has carried out different programs in an attempt to prevent the social differences among its inhabitants from becoming more accentuated and to restore law and order. Nonetheless, recent data point to a series of violent events in which it is not always easy to distinguish the roles of the various participants. In the Veracruz area of Huastecas, the victims are mostly indigenous peasants, who are often members or leaders of the OIPUH-FDOMEZ(30) a group that comprises the Independent Organization of the United Peoples of Huasteca and the Emiliano Zapata Organized Democratic Mexican Front, or the Organization of Ethnic Peoples of Huastecas. The aggressors are generally identified with public security forces, the army, and pistoleros [gunmen] linked with local political bosses and officials.

178. In Huastecas, the conflict has agrarian and political roots. The struggle over the land is still going on, and the local peasants continue to be the victims of repression exercised through persons known as regional "caciques" or political bosses. These leaders are usually landowners with local political influence, who resort to illegal armed groups known as "pistoleros" to defend their interests. In this part of the country, the situation described, together with the presumed action of armed groups and the activities of drug traffickers, has led to a deepening of the conflict. This conflict has been reactivated since the EZLN revolt in Chiapas and, the joint operations of the army and the police, mounted under the pretext of searching for weapons or drug traffickers, have dealt a hard blow to the indigenous communities, whose inhabitants report that a general climate of terror and hostility prevails.

179. A similar situation exists in the state of Hidalgo. There too, the victims are primarily indigenous peasants. However, land disputes do not appear to have been as important a factor here as in the Huasteca Veracruz areas. The level of politico-military violence increased in 1995, particularly in the municipalities of Atlapexco and Huatla.

180. In a communiqué which it sent to President Zedillo, the FDOMEZ denounced "caciques and large landowners pretending to be small landowners", who have killed many indigenous peasants in the municipalities of Yahualica, Tianguistengo, Huazalingo, Atlapexco and Huejutla in the state of Hidalgo, and in Tantoyuca, Chalma, Benito Juárez and Ixhuatlán in Veracruz, with the support of "paramilitary groups, police and the Mexican army itself, driving them from their lands, arresting them and unjustly imprisoning them, if not forcing their disappearance or killing them outright".(31)

181. The Working Group on Forced or Involuntary Disappearances also noted in its most recent report that a large number of people had forcibly disappeared in the state of Veracruz during 1995.(32)

182. The IACHR has received complaints about the situation referred to above. On August 11, 1995, for example, it received a complaint about the torture and killing of Rolando and Atanasio Hernández Hernández. According to the complainants, the judicial police of the state of Veracruz and gunmen in the service of the former head of the municipality of Ixhuatlán de Madero attacked and evicted the indigenous Nahua and Otomi communities living in Plan del Encimal, in the municipality of Madero, Veracruz. The attackers shot and wounded their victims, bound them and took them away when they withdrew from the community. Four days later, the bodies of Rolando and Atanasio Hernández Hernández were discovered with clear marks of torture.

183. The IACHR approved publication of the 1/98 report on the Hernández Hernández case during its 99th special session. In that report, the Commission concluded that the State had violated Articles 4, 5, 7, 8, and 25 of the American Convention. It went on to reiterate its recommendations to the Mexican State, as follows: that it complete a serious, impartial, and effective investigation into the reported events and institute criminal proceedings against the responsible parties; that it provide for reparations to compensate for those violations; that it enact a law regulating Article 21 of the Constitution to ensure that the rights to judicial guarantees and judicial protection, as set forth in Articles 8 and 25 of the American Convention, are enforced.

C. The State of Guerrero

184. Some of the most serious violations of the right to life in recent years have been reported in the state of Guerrero. The economic, social and cultural backwardness of most of the communities in the state is viewed as the result of the misguided policies pursued by States about whose arbitrariness complaints have been received. The violent incidents that have occurred there have focused national attention on this state. Unfortunately, facts that are known about the situation paint a sorry picture of the daily lot of the residents of that state: official intimidation of social opposition leaders, militarization of the state under the pretext of combating drug traffickers and armed dissident groups, assassinations carried out by members of the state security forces, and pre-and post-election conflicts.

185. The pattern of repression that has prevailed and spread over time frequently involves members of the state police force. Torture, murder, arrest and illegal judicial processes, disappearances, electoral violence and violence resulting from conflicts over land, increased militarization and intimidation by the military, according to reports received, are violations of the personal freedoms of the residents of the state of Guerrero.

186. In this connection, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances reported that between 1974 and 1981 there were 98 complaints of disappearances in the state of Guerrero, and that of the five new cases reported in 1996, four related to the state of Guerrero.(33)

187. The disparity in living conditions has also led to social protest and has polarized the political situation, which in turn has provoked official repression, making Guerrero the most repressive state in the nation.

188. In recent years, in the wake of the political upheaval that followed the 1988 elections, a series of violations of the personal freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution have been reported in the state of Guerrero. This situation began since the creation of the opposition party PRD, which resulted in various violent conflicts between its followers and those of the governing PRI, where the latter's members have benefited from the tolerance or outright support for these illegal acts of the security forces and authorities of the above mentioned state.

189. These reports have sometimes implicated the state security forces in large-scale extra-judicial executions, such as the killing in 1995 of 17 peasants who were on their way to attend an event in honor of Gilberto Romero Vásquez, their leader who had forcibly disappeared. According to the report submitted to the IACHR, on 28 June 1995, several members of the Peasant Organization of Sierra del Sur (OCSS) in the state of Guerrero had boarded a red truck to take part in a demonstration demanding that their disappeared comrade be produced alive. A blue truck had set out at the same time with 50 passengers aboard. At approximately 10.30 a.m., the red truck with 70 peasants aboard was stopped at the Aguas Blancas ford by members of the motorized police of the state of Guerrero. After stopping the bus, the police forced the peasants to get out of the truck and to lie face down on the ground. Ten minutes later, the smaller blue truck arrived at the scene and its passengers were also forced to get disembark. As they were doing so, however, the police opened fire indiscriminately. The shooting lasted ten minutes, during which 17 people were killed. In the months leading up to this killing, several confrontations had taken place between the indigenous communities and State officials. More than three dozen people, including political activists, peasants and police officers had been killed by unidentified assailants during this period.

190. In conjunction with the preparation of this report, the Commission initiated proceedings in Case 11.520 (Tomás Porfirio Rondín and others). In this case, the IACHR concluded that the Mexican State violated Articles 4, 5, 7, 8 and 25 of the American Convention. Consequently, in its final report 49/97, it recommended that the Mexican State take the following steps:

A. Complete a serious, impartial, and effective investigation into the events described in this report, which occurred on June 28, 1995, in the ford of the Aguas Blancas river, based on the judgment handed down by the Supreme Court of Justice on April 23, 1996.

B. Initiate the appropriate criminal action, so that the personal involvement of high officials of the government of Guerrero State, who were identified in the judgment issued by the Supreme Court, can be established, and so that, as a consequence, the corresponding criminal sentences can be imposed on the responsible parties.

C. Authorize adequate compensation to the families of the persons who were executed, and to the surviving victims of the events in Aguas Blancas, and arrange for proper medical care for the victims who require it, as a result of the wounds they received during the referenced incident in Aguas Blancas.

D. Adopt the necessary measures to ensure the prompt enactment of a law regulating Article 21 of the Mexican Constitution, to enforce judicial guarantees and judicial protection, as set forth in Articles 8 and 25 of the American Convention.(34)

191. In its final conclusions on report 49/97, the IACHR decided that the State had not carried out the recommendations indicated, based on the information provided by both parties,. In fact, the State did not complete a serious or impartial investigation into the events underlying the report. This finding is all the more alarming when account is taken of the time that has lapsed since the Supreme Court established that high officials of Guerrero State, including the Governor himself, were involved in the events. The ineffectiveness of the current investigations is more than obvious, because of the lack of concrete results, and because of the consequent impunity of the persons materially and intellectually responsible for the events. The compensation granted by the State is not considered adequate either, since it was not based on the individual circumstances of the victims. As for regulations pertaining to Article 21 of the Constitution, the Commission noted the progress made in the arguments advanced in the decision issued by the Supreme Court of Mexico in case CLXVI/97, issued on November 11, 1997, which determines the merits of amparo proceedings in cases in which the Public Prosecutor refrains from or delays in initiating criminal proceedings. However, the IACHR decided to reiterate the recommendation it made in this regard in the interest of greater legal certainty, and also on account of the fact that said recommendation was not applied to the case in point. Based on all the foregoing, the IACHR decided, at its 98th regular session, to publish Report No. 49/97 and to include it in its Annual Report to the OAS General Assembly.

192. The police were also blamed for the execution of 12 peasants in a nearby village, who had been identified a few days after the attack by the only survivor, a boy of fourteen.

193. On June 28, 1996, at a ceremony organized to commemorate the first anniversary of the "Aguas Blancas massacre", a group of armed individuals wearing face masks and military-style clothing made its appearance. Without committing any acts of violence, the members of the group introduced themselves as the People's Revolutionary Army (EPR) and read out a statement which they referred to as the "Aguas Blancas manifesto" and in which they explained the reasons that had led them to become an armed opposition group.

194. The next day, the state of Guerrero was virtually occupied by personnel from the Mexican army and navy. Almost immediately, reports began to be received of arbitrary arrests, especially by militants of OCSS, an organization that was believed to be linked to armed groups. Witnesses reported that detainees were beaten during this operation and were later held incommunicado.

195. In its observations on this report, the Mexican State stated that the EPR "is a terrorist group which has attacked military installations, wounding and even killing members of the Armed Forces. In the face of this situation, the State has acted with the firmness required to maintain order." The IACHR acknowledges and respects the obligation and authority of a State to defend itself against armed movements, and to come to the point of using force. However, the Commission considers it necessary to point out that the "firmness" with which the Mexican State claims to have acted must always be exercised within the legal limits imposed by international humanitarian and human rights law. The Commission regards this clarification to be opportune, in view of the fact that the presence of the EPR has not only triggered renewed controls, but also the indiscriminate subjugation of community organizations and leaders. At the present time, the militarization has spread over various states, where the official justification for this military presence is stated as a need to combat drugs and crime. It is clear that as the military presence in certain communities increases, reports of violations of the right to life of the local inhabitants increases as well.(35)

D. The State of Oaxaca

196. Oaxaca is a state that has traditionally suffered from violence linked to its politico-economic system. Its poverty and geography have conspired to keep many communities isolated and defenseless. A large part of the indigenous population speaks no Spanish, which places them in an even more vulnerable situation and facilitates their exploitation and control by caciques.

197. Since 1989, most of the political repression and killing in Oaxaca has been directed against local leaders who had been fighting the system for years through their regional organizations. Others have been reportedly killed for protesting against electoral fraud.

198. According to data supplied by the human rights secretariat of the PRD, the following cases that occurred during 1994 may be mentioned as examples:

- The PRD leader in Tlalistac de Cabrera, Pánfilo Lorenzo Hernández, was shot to death in the vicinity of San Sebastián Tutla. His killing was believed to be "political revenge" for having led the movement to recover land for the peasants of that region.

- Eliseo Alfonso Cruz Sandoval, a 66-year-old peasant, was shot to death as he walked with his son to the community of Las Trancas, where they were to meet with the archbishop.

- Cándido Robles Ruiz and Cristóforo Herrera were murdered by persons waiting in ambush as they made their way to a local bar after attending a meeting.

a. Land and violence

199. Problems stemming from ownership of land persist in Mexico today. In Oaxaca, land disputes create tensions between and within indigenous communities, between large and small landowners, and between different religious sects, political parties and peasant organizations.

200. There are currently more that 300 unresolved land disputes in the state and these have led to considerable violence. According to information received, state government forces have sometimes taken part in acts of violence. At other times, the violence takes place within the communities themselves. It is widely believed, however, that the government is using land disputes as a means of social control, to keep dissidents out of power. The general opinion among the region's inhabitants is that the state government shows favoritism to some over others and that it sometimes purposely allows the violence to continue without any attempt to control it.

b. Violence against human rights defenders and against indigenous and other civic leaders

201. In recent years, there has been a widespread movement to develop civilian organizations, such as indigenous peasant associations, groups of teachers, outreach workers, and human rights defenders. This process has changed the traditional social dynamics, and has touched off violent reactions at times on the part of the local political bosses and officials of the governing party. As a result, civilian society in Oaxaca has been the object of serious attacks and threats. These attacks have taken various forms: some have consisted of campaigns to discredit members of these community organizations; in other cases, they have taken the form of actual physical attacks on these organizations, causing injuries and even death to its members; legal means have also been employed to intimidate non-governmental organizations. In all of these cases, the common objective is to sow terror among these groups so that they will abandon their efforts to bring about social change.

202. Frequently these activists raise issues that relate to such matters as democracy, corruption, justice and human rights, which are perceived as a challenge to the status quo in the hundreds of small and isolated communities throughout Oaxaca. But, as stated earlier, the state has had a long tradition of caciquismo, whereby powerful local bosses exert considerable influence over important aspects of the lives of all members of the community. It is not surprising, then, that individuals who dare to question this social model - including people from communities other than those in which they lend their services - are targets of attack and in extreme cases even assassination because of their activities in the region. The IACHR examines this type of situation in greater detail in Chapter X of this report, under the right to freedom of expression.


203. In view of the situation described above, the IACHR makes the following recommendations to the Mexican State:

204. To take the necessary steps to reform the criminal law of Mexico with a view to characterizing forced disappearance as a crime.

205. To conduct meaningful, prompt and impartial investigations in all cases of disappearances that have not yet been resolved and those responsible punished.

206. To act in a meaningful, immediate and effective manner to ensure that complaints about violations of the right to life committed by members of the Mexican police or Armed Forces are immediately and thoroughly investigated and that those found guilty are duly punished.

207. To take the necessary steps in order to ensure that security agents are subject to administrative suspension during the investigation of complaints of alleged violations of the right to life.

208. To develop coordinated strategies to effectively combat the proliferation of paramilitary groups ("white guards"), who are organized by landowners, to disband such groups, disarm its members, investigate the violations, and to punish those persons whose responsibility has been established.

209. To provide better training for police personnel with particular emphasis on the excesses which they commit during operations to control crowds, especially of rural dwellers; and to clearly inform such officials of their duties and obligations and of the criminal liability which they may incur if they fail to observe the requirements of the law.

210. To provide remedies and compensation to the relatives of victims of violations of the right to life.

211. To promote and develop peace initiatives in areas affected by armed conflict, especially in the states of Chiapas and Guerrero, with a view to bringing about the reforms that are necessary to ensure full compliance with human rights.

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26. See IDH Court, Velásquez Rodríguez Case, Preliminary Pleas, Judgment of June 26, 1987, par. 191.

27. "Proceso," 1128, "Two versions of the conflict in Chiapas," published on the Internet June 14, 1998.

28. "La Jornada" newspaper, SG: Ante el silencio de Marcos, paciencia infinita [With Marcos' Silence, Infinite Patience], Internet publication dated June 19, 1998.

29. United Nations, HR/98/38, June 12, 1998, High Commissioner for Human Rights expresses mounting concern about situation in Chiapas, Mexico

30. In its analysis of the role of rural people's organizations in the region, one Mexican NGO provides the following clarification:

Despite a history of fighting for the rights of rural people, and despite real progress, recent actions by the OIPUH-FDOMEZ have been improper. Though often victims of repression, the members of these organizations have also been perpetrators.

"Miguel Agustín Pro" Human Rights Center, Violence in the Huastecas region of Veracruz and Hidalgo, Internet document, p. 4.

31. Miguel Agustín Pro Human Rights Center, op. cit., p. 6.

32. Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, E/CN.4/1997/34, December 13, 1996, paras. 231-237.

33. United Nations, E/CN.4/1997/34 cited.

34. 1997 Annual Report of the IACHR, Report No. 49/97, Case 11,520 - Mexico, February 18, 1998, p. 704.

35. On this point, Starting in 1994, Amnesty International reported an "alarming increase" in the number of complaints involving new cases of forced disappearance. In most cases, the persons were political and social activists, and who disappeared in the course of supposed counter-insurgence operations or operations to combat drug trafficking, especially in the states of Chiapas, Guerrero, and Oaxaca, where armed dissident groups emerged in 1994 and 1996. See Amnesty International, AMR 41/05/98, May 7, 1998.