March 23 (Bloomberg) -- A judge in Connecticut will soon decide whether to allow or dismiss a civil suit against Ernesto Zedillo, Mexico’s president from 1994 to 2000, accusing him of responsibility for the Acteal Massacre, which occurred on Dec. 22, 1997, in the southern state of Chiapas and resulted in the death of 45 villagers.

Reliable inquiries have demonstrated something very different: The brutal crime was the consequence of local conflicts that not only preceded Zedillo’s government but continued beyond it. The accusation is clearly an attempt both to slander the reputation of a distinguished politician -- who will go down in history as a great facilitator of Mexican democracy -- and to destroy his family financially (since the suit asks for millions of dollars in damages).

The suit was brought in Connecticut because Zedillo is the director of the Center for the Study of Globalization at Yale University, where he has built an international reputation. The source of the litigation (its sponsors are anonymous), its reception in Mexico and the accusations it involves deserve close examination.

The Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, one of the poorest states in Mexico and with a heavily Indian population, began on Jan. 1, 1994. It was led by the soon-to-be-famous Subcomandante Marcos during the term of Zedillo’s predecessor, Carlos Salinas de Gortari. After some initial bloodshed, Salinas’s sensible response wasn’t to order attacks but to pursue a policy of dialogue and containment. When Zedillo became president, his government continued that strategy while increasing its social commitment to the region.

Chiapas Violence

The Zapatistas retained control of parts of Chiapas and ignored the urging of many of their national supporters (given the significant public impact of their uprising) to enter the political process and renounce armed rebellion. In certain critical areas, tensions were particularly strong between the Indian groups that favored the government of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI, and those that supported the Zapatistas.

In the small community of Acteal, a dispute over power, followed by another over ownership of a sand quarry, escalated into a pattern of violence and mutual attack. It culminated in the atrocity of the massacre of mostly women and children. The crime was carried out during a Roman Catholic service and the killers were part of a local anti-Zapatista faction motivated by the desire for revenge of a local strong man. The dead were all connected with a Zapatista group of women known as Las Abejas (“the Bees”).

The crime horrified the nation but its sources were purely local and were never linked to any policy initiated by the federal government. After extensive and complicated trials, a number of the accused perpetrators were sent to prison, where many of them remain (in a country with no death penalty).

The attempt to place direct responsibility on Zedillo has been rejected by Las Abejas themselves, who still operate as a nongovernmental organization in Chiapas and have stated that none of their members are plaintiffs in the case.

Supposedly, the plaintiffs are 20 relatives of the murdered Zapatistas who claim anonymity “for fear of persecution,” though it is far from clear who might persecute them. Zedillo (and the PRI) have been out of office for more than a decade and the former president, at the end of his term, chose to leave the country and accept the offer of a position at Yale. That decision (which has earned the respect of many Mexicans) was driven by a desire not to become personally involved in the complex political situation that followed the electoral defeat of the PRI.

Modest Origins

Zedillo is a man of modest origins, the son of an electrician and a secretary who died young. He was educated in public schools and, through great effort and application, obtained a doctorate in economics from Yale and then moved up through important positions in Mexican society and in the governing PRI.

He was the campaign manager for the designated successor of Salinas, the reformer Luis Donaldo Colosio, who was killed in March 1994. The circumstances of this crime haven’t been fully elucidated, though the assassin was caught and sentenced.

With elections due in July, Zedillo was chosen as the replacement candidate. Barely in office, he had to deal with a grave financial crisis triggered by the economic policies of the previous administration. He confronted and overcame the crisis (aided by the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement concluded by the Salinas government and by substantial support from the Clinton administration) and exercised his office with the prudence and sense of reality that are marks of his character.

Aware of growing national and international pressure, Zedillo saw the need to open the system toward genuine electoral democracy. He didn’t create the democratic transition in Mexico, of course. It had lengthy antecedents in the efforts of various political groupings, social and civic leaders as well as intellectuals and artists. But during the seven decades of political domination by the PRI, a Mexican president held extraordinary powers.

Though the extent of these powers may not have been as unrestricted as in the heyday of the party, Zedillo could have obstructed and significantly delayed the movement toward democracy. It would have been a direction favored by the more reactionary and corrupt elements of the party, known as “dinosaurs.” Instead, for the good of a grateful nation, he made a far wiser (and braver) decision. He recognized the need to limit the powers of the president and to give full autonomy to the courts. Perhaps most importantly, he consolidated the autonomy of the Federal Electoral Institute and the Federal Electoral Tribunal.

PRI Defeat

In the midterm elections of 1997, the PRI lost its majority in Congress and a candidate from the center-left, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, won the second-most-important elected office in Mexico: the mayoralty of Mexico City. And in 2000, Vicente Fox, a candidate of the center-right PAN, would become president, ending the PRI’s monopoly.

The ordinary Mexican enthusiastically welcomed the sudden relevance of his or her vote. But there were powerful people in the country who neither approved of the democratic opening nor of various other decisions by Zedillo. The suit is very likely to have originated in such personal rancor. We can only hope that the judiciary of the state of Connecticut will dismiss this baseless assault against a man of honor.

(Enrique Krauze, the author of “Mexico: Biography of Power” and “Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. This article was translated from the Spanish by Hank Heifetz.)

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