The Mexican Army and the 1997 Acteal Massacre

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As Mexicans debate last week’s Supreme Court ruling vacating the conviction of 20 men for the Acteal massacre, newly declassified documents from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency describe the Army’s role in backing paramilitary groups in Chiapas at the time of the killings. The secret cables confirm reporting about military support for indigenous armed groups carrying out attacks on pro-Zapatista communities in the region and add important new details. They also revive a question that has lingered for almost 12 years: when will the Army come clean about its role in Acteal?

Since the brutal attack of December 22, 1997, the Mexican government has offered multiple versions of the military’s involvement in the conflictive Chiapas zone around Acteal. The problem is the accounts have been incomplete or untrue. The most important of the DIA documents directly contradicts the official story told about the massacre by the government of then-President Ernesto Zedillo.

In the report issued by the nation’s Attorney General Jorge Madrazo in 1998, Libro Blanco Sobre Acteal, the government asserted that “The Attorney General’s office has documented the existence of groups of armed civilians in the municipality of Chenalhó, neither organized, created, trained, nor financed by the Mexican Army nor by any other government entity, but whose management and organization respond to an internal logic determined by the confrontation, between and within the communities, with the Zapatista bases of support.”

But in a telegram sent to DIA headquarters in Washington on May 4, 1999, the U.S. Defense Attaché Office in Mexico points to “direct support” by the Army to armed groups in the highland areas of Chiapas, where the killings took place. The document describes a clandestine network of “human intelligence teams,” created in mid-1994 with approval from then-President Carlos Salinas, working inside Indian communities to gather intelligence information on Zapatista “sympathizers.” In order to promote anti-Zapatista armed groups, the teams provided “training and protection from arrests by law enforcement agencies and military units patrolling the region.”...

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