by Pilar Franco
(IPS) MEXICO CITY --
eight-year prison sentences handed down to a retired general and two police officers for the 1997 massacre of 45 Native people in Chiapas state could be the beginning of the end for impunity, said human rights groups last week.
Retired general Julio Cesar Santiago Díaz, who served as chief of the auxiliary police of Chiapas, was found guilty of serving as one of the intellectual authors behind the massacre of an infant, 14 children, 21 women and nine men -- all Tzotzil Indians -- in the village of Acteal.
The local court also found police officers Roberto García and Roberto Mendez guilty of homicide and assault "by omission" in the case involving Native people who had been displaced by ongoing violence in this southern Mexico state, according to a communique released by the attorney-general's office.
On Dec. 22, 1997, paramilitaries attacked Tzotzil refugees who were supporters of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN), a rebel group that has been based in the jungle mountains of northern Chiapas since January 1994.
According to witness testimony, 24 more people were injured and five others disappeared in the attack, and local security forces waited four hours before intervening.
In mid-1999, judicial authorities sentenced 57 people, mostly Native, to more than 30 years in prison for their direct involvement in the massacre.
Then, last December, two state employees were sentenced to six years in prison for protecting the criminals behind the attack.
week's rulings represent "the beginning of the application of justice in one of the most serious cases of individual rights violations in Chiapas," Fabian Sanchez, an attorney for the Mexican Human Rights Defense Commission, told IPS.
However, the punishment is minimal "if one considers the magnitude of the events," and the fact that "legal action has yet to be taken against many other political actors," stressed the jurist.
"The proceedings should have revealed the role of the army in training the paramilitary groups in the region," an issue "that still awaits the full application of justice," Sanchez said.
Non-governmental human rights organizations are anxious to learn the legal basis the judge in the case used in reaching these rulings, said the attorney.
According to legal reports, while the massacre was taking place, police chief Santiago Díaz waited beside the Acteal highway for several hours and did not take action or request help from other police units, even after he heard gunshots and machine-gun fire in the village.
In addition, the retired military officer "reported to his superiors that there was no news when he was asked for information about the situation in the community," said the attorney-general's office.
The court handed down the sentences just one week after a series of ambushes and armed confrontations in the municipality of Chenalho and nearby areas left several dead and many wounded.
Meanwhile, the army and the police stepped up their presence in the area, considered a Zapatista stronghold. The village of Polho, declared an autonomous community by the rebels, has become the focus of heavy military traffic and fly-overs by armed forces helicopters.
"Polho is not Los Pinos (Mexico's presidential residence)," "No assassins are hidden here," and "There are no criminals here" are just some of the slogans local residents have painted on bed sheets and hung throughout the town.
A wave of Native people found their way to Polho in recent years as they fled the violence unleashed by paramilitary groups in the area against those they perceived to be Zapatista supporters.
The increased police and military presence in the zone is part of an operation the government claims is a search for those responsible for the recent ambushes and for members of a drugs and weapons trafficking group.
Even with this tense climate, Pres. Ernesto Zedillo stressed that in Chiapas "there is fundamentally social peace," which has led the government to leave behind its "paradigm of confrontation."
Zedillo said that recent violent events in Chiapas were "an exception," and "isolated cases."
Until recently, Chiapas was the model "of flaunting the rule of law in this country," but "today this has radically changed," affirmed the president during a recent visit to the area.
Zedillo said his government has applied the policies and resources necessary to fight "the true threat to Chiapas: underdevelopment, inequality and injustice."
Legal authorities are apparently saying that "the lives of 45 indigenous people are worth just eight years in prison for the intellectual authors of the crime and have given perfect amnesty to nearly all the rest," maintains a La Jornada newspaper editorial.
In addition, "the political and criminal activities of former (Chiapas) governor Julio César Ruiz Ferro and his closest allies have not even been investigated," said the Mexico City-based newspaper.
"In a context of social peace and diminishing conflicts it is difficult to justify the massive, continuous, onerous and offensive military presence throughout the state," according to the editorial.
In contrast to the "official smugness," daily reports from local and international non-governmental organization reveal the "persistence of injustice, misery, despotism, oppression and racism" in Chiapas, the newspaper concludes.
The Mexican government affirms that it will seek out all guilty parties in the massacre.
May 22, 2000 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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