Human Rights and Civil Society

Supreme Court orders to release prisoners from the Acteal Massacre

* Due to technical difficulties, the publication of this article was delayed from its original postdate of April 11, 2013.

Acteal funerals (1997). Photo: Carlos Cineros, La Jornada.
Acteal funerals (1997). Photo: Carlos Cineros, La Jornada.

04/11/13 – On April 10, the Mexican Supreme Court (Suprema Corte de la Nación, SCJN) ordered the release of 15 persons who had already previously been found guilty for their involvement in the Acteal Massacre in 1997. The 15 individuals set free, all of whom are indigenous males from the state of Chiapas, were originally sentenced to 36 years in prison, although that was eventually lowered by 15 years. The released add to a growing list of other individuals who were set free by the SCJN the past few years, including more than 20 in 2009, and seven in 2012.

The uncommon Supreme Court decision is the result of an extraordinary legal measure, known as “recognition of innocence,” that is admitted when new evidence arises in a case that is sufficient enough to revoke previous decisions, even when the case has already exhausted all remedies given by law. In the Acteal case, the Court argued that the reason for the captives’ release is that the evidence presented by the Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR) was illicit, meaning that the testimonies—the main evidence presented against the accused and from which they were all convicted—were coerced, thus nullifying all evidence found against them.

The Acteal Massacre occurred on December 22, 1997, when a group of armed men stormed a church in Acteal, a municipality of Chenaló in the southern state of Chiapas, and opened fire on the congregation, killing 45 people—nine men, 15 children, and 21 women, four of whom were pregnant at the time—, and injuring 25 more. The victims were all members of “Las Abejas,” a pacifist civil society organization dedicated to protecting the rights of the indigenous. Around 80 people—all indigenous tzotziles—were arrested by the PGR under charges of homicide, inflicting injury, and possession of firearms for their connections to the massacre. A significant number of them have since been released, which has caused some controversy given the perception of their potential ties to paramilitary groups. Nevertheless, there is still no evidence indicating that the real perpetrators of the massacre were amongst those originally detained.

Although the Mexican government largely dismissed the allegations of paramilitary activity in Chiapas, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency of the Department of Defense declassified cables in 2012 that suggest the involvement of the presidencies of Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) and Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) in recruiting, training, and arming paramilitary groups to combat the insurgent rebellion of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN), a group that went public with its cause on January 1, 1994. As well, there is a strong believe that the massacre of Acteal was indeed orchestrated among the high ranking officials within the Zedillo administration to target supporters of the EZLN.

More recently, victims and survivors from Acteal, through Rafferty, Kobert, Tenenholtz, Bounds & Hess legal firm, presented a civil case on September 16, 2011, for $50 million (USD) against President Zedillo for damages resulting from the massacre, which was accepted by a federal court in Connecticut. As the case was being tried, the Mexican government sent a diplomatic note asking the U.S. Government to grant immunity for the former president, which the government recommended to the Court in September 2012. The case has since been adjourned due to a motion of suspension from Zedillo, but the Court still has to decide whether or not to dismiss the case entirely.


Rodríguez Ferreira, Octavio. “El colapso del sistema de justicia penal mexicano: Reflexiones a propósito del caso Acteal.” Working Paper. Justice in Mexico Project. October 2009.

Henríquez, Elio. “Siete indígenas exculpados del caso de Acteal demandarán a la PGR.” La Jornada. February 5, 2012.

Hernández, J. Jaime. “EU da inmunidad a Ernesto Zedillo por caso Acteal.” El Universal. September 8, 2012.

“Pide Zedillo desechar en EU demanda por Acteal.” Vanguardia. March 11, 2013.

“La Suprema Corte ordena la liberación de 15 indígenas por el caso Acteal.” CNN México. April 10, 2013.

Redacción. “Ordenan liberar a 15 por caso Acteal.” Reforma. April 10, 2013.

“Historia de las abejas.” Las Abejas de Acteal. Web. Last visited April 15, 2013.

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