More than 35 mainly evangelical Christian prisoners unjustly accused in the December 1997 massacre in Acteal, Chiapas had hoped they would be released from jail this week, but after long deliberations the Supreme Court of Mexico on Wednesday (Nov. 4) ruled only nine should be freed and ordered new trials for 16 others.
The high court thus ended its involvement in the controversy over the ordeal of the peasant laborers, ordering the release of the nine men – without declaring them innocent – and retrials for 16 others, this time without “invented” evidence and testimony. Those 16 men, plus several others including six who had previously been granted retrials, remain in prison.
In a 4-1 vote, the court ruled the federal attorney general violated legal process, fabricated evidence and false testimonies, formulated non-existent crimes and provided no concrete argument establishing culpability of the nine men.
Supreme Court Justice José Ramón Cossío Diaz said the decision to free the men was not a declaration of innocence but recognition of “a lack of impugning evidence” against them in the Dec. 22, 1997 massacre, in which 45 people were killed, including women and children.
“These Indians were condemned and declared guilty as a result of a trial that was plagued with violations,” Cossío Diaz said, according to El Universal. “No material proving their guilt exists.”
When prisoners convicted in the Acteal slayings learned that only nine were being released, they reportedly wept – some for joy, but most from disappointment.
“Everything was invented – I did not kill anyone,” one of the evangelical Christians released, 45-year old Manuel Luna Perez, told Proceso magazine. “Many of our companions [in jail] also know nothing about who planned the massacre.”
The court ruled that federal authorities had used “invented proofs and witnesses” in convicting the men, many of them evangelical Christians supportive of the then-ruling party who had land disputes and other conflicts with their accusers – mainly Roman Catholics sympathetic to the rebel Zapatista National Liberation Army.
At least five of the nine men released were known to be evangelical Christians when they were rounded up 12 years ago: Pablo Perez Perez, Emilio Gomez Luna, Juan Gomez Perez, Hilario Guzman Luna, and Manuel Luna Perez. Also released were Mariano Diaz Chicario, Pedro Lopez Lopez, Juan Hernandez Perez and Ignacio Gomez Gutierrez.
The nine were released from El Amate federal prison in Cintalapa, Chiapas yesterday and transported to Tuxtla where they are temporarily housed.
“There must have been about 200 to 250 people who made the trip [to the prison] – many were spouses and family members anxious to see the men,” said a Compass source in Chiapas. “As per the previous occasion, the people waited patiently outside the prison for the men to be released, only to be disappointed because they were not allowed to speak with them when they left the prison. The men were put in a mini-bus and taken to where they will be housed under government supervision for the next couple of weeks.”
The relatives and others traveled on to the men’s temporary quarters in Tuxtla, where they were able to meet with them, and several of the ex-prisoners’ spouses and other family members are staying with them there, the source said.
The freed men said the government has offered them what it promised 20 prisoners released on Aug. 13, the source said: farmland, help with building houses, water, electricity and other basic amenities, as well as helping them monetarily until they become self-supporting.
An attorney representing 31 defendants in the case, Jose Antonio Caballero, reportedly expressed disappointment that the high court didn’t free more of those accused. But the attorney told EFE news service that the ruling would help remedy some of the mistakes in the legal process.
In the case of the 16 men to be given new trials, the high court ruled there was sufficient evidence for prosecution to retry them in a lower court in Chiapas. This time, the Supreme Court ruled, the lower court will not take into consideration any of the fabricated evidence or false testimonies, and the charges of use of military weapons and carrying a gun without a license are dropped.
On Aug. 12 the high court ordered the release of the first 20 prisoners (freed the next day), for the same reasons the nine men were released yesterday. All the freed men, mostly evangelical believers who insisted on their innocence, had been sentenced to 25 years and had already served nearly 12.
The most recent group was to have been freed on Oct. 28, but the Chiapas government led by Gov. Juan Sabines requested extra time to present “new proofs which demonstrate the probable responsibility of previous state and federal public officials, as well as civilians” in the massacre, according to La Jornada. Over the years, lawyers have insisted that the men were tried without access to interpreters or legal defenders acquainted with their indigenous culture and customs, as required by Mexican law.
For the past several weeks, families of the condemned men had set up a form of tent protest in the central plaza of Mexico City, attempting to call attention to the plight of their husbands, fathers, brothers and cousins.
With this week's decision and the decision on Aug. 12, the court has ordered the release of 29 of the total 57 prisoners and retrials for 22 others accused in the Acteal massacre. Those 22 plus six others remain in prison.
Controversy over who killed the 45 people has revolved around whether there was a “massacre” by numerous “paramilitary” villagers or a “confrontation” between a handful of neighboring peasants and Zapatista National Liberation Army rebels. Historian Héctor Aguilar Camín has argued that there was both a confrontation and a massacre, with some overlap between each, but that they were largely separate incidents.
Five confessed killers have testified that they and four others engaged only Zapatista militia to avenge the death of a relative, while the federal attorney general’s office charged that at least 50 pro-government “paramilitaries” descended on a relief camp hermitage full of displaced peasants bent on killing and robbing them. The testimonies of the five confessed killers – four others remain at large – agree that the nine avengers were the only ones involved in the firefights, and that the decision to attack the Zapatistas was a private family decision made with no involvement from government authorities.
They also agree that the sole motive was to avenge the assassination of a relative – the latest of 18 unprosecuted murders by Zapatistas over the previous three months, according to Aguilar Camín.
Government prosecutors unduly dismissed much of the testimony of the five confessed avengers, Aguilar Camín wrote in a 2007 article for Nexos, noting that the killers testified that state security forces were nearby and did nothing. He highlighted the judicial irregularities of the round-up and conviction of the peasants – apprehensions without evidence or warrant, charging 83 people with homicide when only 45 people were killed and lack of translators and attorneys for the suspects, Tzotzil Mayans who did not know Spanish.