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One thousand guilty…

19 August 2009

Judeo-Spanish legal theorist Moses Maimonides… argues [in the 290th “Negative Commandment”] that …”the Exalted One has shut this door”  against the use of presumptive evidence, for “it is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent man to death once in a way.”

“n Guilty Men”, Alexander Volokh

Via “Under the Volcano: Notes on Mexican Politics“:

The Supreme Court voted 4-1 to free 20 men imprisoned for more than 11 years for a massacre in the village of Acteal, Chiapas in 1997.  Another 30 are expected to be freed soon. Citing severe misconduct by the prosecutors and lower court judges, including the fabrication of evidence and testimony, the Court ruled that the accused were denied the constitutional rights of due process and an adequate defense. The killing of 45 Tzotzil Indians, mostly women and children, by assailants from a rival community and the railroaded prosecutions by the Zedillo government during the Zapatista rebellion has long been an open wound.  The Court pointedly did not declare the innocence of those freed…

Although the ruling has been criticized by those who are disappointed that the Mexican Supreme Court did its job and looked at how justice was dispensed, rather than attempting the impossible and re-opening this case, the ruling is a victory for legal reform. And, as in so many Mexican news items, is rooted in events centuries old, and has implications well in other aspects of Mexican life today — the so-called ‘drug war’ among them.

The Mayan peoples have been divided for the last millennium and more not just by language and custom, but within their own communities, by clan.  In recent years,  these divisions have been complicated, starting with religious difference in the 1950s, and taking on a more intransigent political identity since the 1990s.

Those killed in the  22 December 1997 massacre were members of Las abejas, a pacifist organization supported by the Liberationist “wing” within the Roman Catholic Church, although the group also includes Evangelicals and other Protestants, and mixes traditionalist Mayan.  However, at the same time, Las abejas threaten some traditions — both eschewing alcohol and allowing women to hold leadership roles.  As such, they are seen by many of the traditionalists as a threat to their own community value system.

Las abejas identify God with the Queen bee, and see themselves as the worker bees.  The “worker bee” identity echoes the synarchist (Mexican fascist) philosophy, which — under the more benign guise of “usos y costumbres” — means  no dissent is allowed among enforced communal political positions.   While I’ve seen no evidence of violence within Las abejas (who remind me of the Quakers), the usos y costumbres and enforced community standards within traditional communities have led to violence and internecine warfare within the larger community — the Tzotzil community as a whole.  As religious communists, Las abejas are politically allied with other communal-oriented groups like the ELZN.

The proximate cause to the massacre was an ungoing dispute over inheritance of a  120 hectare plot.  There was some question as to whether or not the plot was communal or private property, and adjucation by the Agrarian Land court was at a standstill.  The strongest claimant, a PRI supporter, gave half the land to his supporters, while a nephew — who also stood to inherit if the property was private and not communal — offered his claim to the commune.  This split the local local Tzotil into several factions, with different political and social groups backing different claimants.

As so often in family feuds — especially when land is at stake — violence ensued.  The nephew, and several of his supporters were gunned down in 1992.  Dissatisfaction with medical treatment after the gun fight led to founding Las Abejas by one group supporting the communal land claimants.  Adding fuel to the fire, in 1996, the Zapatista uprising brought the Army into what was already a tense community.

Las Abajos — and the ELZN — claim the Army knew in advance that the attack on the church service was in the works, but did nothing to stop it.  At the very least, they suggest that the Army covered up the incident, for the benefit of the PRI. Interestingly, the ELZN had an English-language press release about this the day after the attack.

International outcry over the massacre of women and children was immediate.  With the ELZN seen as innocent peasants fighting the entrenched powers of the state,  the Zedillo administration had to order an immediate investigation and there was a rush to judgement — leading to several arrests and convictions.

Although the actual number of killers is probably closer to ten than to the sometimes estimated hundred, there was prosecutorial misconduct in the trials that followed, scapegoating those who were simply supporters of the private claim over the communal claim.  It was the trials — not the rightness or wrongness of the cause — that the Supreme Court considered.

What seems important is not that a mistake has been rectified after eleven years, but that the Supreme Court has recognized that justice — and no one claims the 45 victims have received justice — rushed is justice denied.  Especially when the rush to judgement is clouded by political considerations.

In Michoacan and elsewhere, where rural property ownership, religion, party politics and communal rights also lead to violence, and where international attention simplifies the situation (in our day, to a “war on drugs”) there is also a tendency to short-circuit the legal process.

The present administration made a good start in reforming the courts, but has focused on the unwinnable “war on drugs” — and applied military force in a civilian legal matter — which not only exacerbates the violence, but creates a whimsical justice system.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 19 August 2009 11:14 pm

    You have are misspelling the name of Las Abejas several times. And also overlooking the role of the government and PRI politicos in arming and feeding the tension in the communities y what has become a low intensity warfare.
    The fact is that justice has not been served in this case the intellectual and political authors were never judged.

    • 20 August 2009 11:02 am

      One of those times I carried over a stupid error several times. The intellectual authorship of the crime was not the what the court ruled on — only the narrow question of whether or not the individuals charged had received a fair trial.

      The various claimants’ political ties are important, but not to the Supreme Court’s review of the process itself.

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