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Mexican Bishops call for Chiapas probe

MEXICO CITY—Two Roman Catholic bishops called Tuesday for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate human rights violations in Mexico's Chiapas state, where an Indian rebellion still flickers.

Bishops Raul Vera Lopez and Samuel Ruiz, founders of a Chiapas human rights group, said Mexican President Vicente Fox's administration should be as interested in the Chiapas cases, which occurred in the late 1990s, as it is in human rights abuses from 30 years ago.

Early in his administration, Fox appointed a special prosecutor to look into human rights abuses from the 1960s and 1970s after a government commission reported that 532 political dissidents had disappeared during those years.

The bishops also said Fox's government should help investigate a complaint they recently lodged with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission against Fox's predecessor, Ernesto Zedillo, accusing Zedillo of authorizing murderous paramilitary gangs during his 1994-2000 rule.

There was no comment Tuesday from Fox's office. Fox's interior minister, Santiago Creel, said he respected the bishops' accusations, but that any investigation should be handled by the special prosecutor already looking into the political crimes of the 1960s and 1970s.

Zedillo was unavailable for comment. He was quoted in the Yale Daily News on Tuesday as calling the complaint "totally slanderous."

"This accusation ... will be dismissed by any person or institution who reviews my record of social, economic, political and human rights successes," the paper quoted Zedillo as saying. Zedillo is now head of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.

Investigating government-sanctioned violence against political dissidents, including armed rebels, has been a growing issue in Mexico since Fox appointed Ignacio Carrillo Prieto in 2002 to investigate the deaths and disappearances of political dissidents during the 1960s and 1970s.

Last fall, Carrillo sought an arrest warrant for former President Luis Echeverria Alvarez in connection with the deaths of dozens of demonstrators in a 1971 protest, but he was turned down by a judge who said the case was too old for prosecution.

No such high-level attention has been paid to more recent allegations of human rights abuses surrounding the remnants of the so-called Zapatista National Liberation Army, which launched its first attacks on New Year's Day 1994.

Since then, the Zapatista movement has become primarily a social and political group, but its supporters are still subjected to armed attacks, the bishops charged.

"Paramilitary groups have not been disarmed and continue to be organized," said Ruiz, a former Roman Catholic bishop of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas and former mediator of failed peace talks between the government and the Zapatistas. "Crimes persist and a large number of people can't return home."

Ruiz and Lopez are members of the Fray Bartolome de las Casas human rights group, which last week filed a complaint with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission in San Jose, Costa Rica, accusing Zedillo "of applying and allowing a counterinsurgency policy against the civilian population" of Chiapas.

The complaint also detailed 123 killings and 37 cases of kidnapping and disappearances that it blamed on government-tolerated paramilitaries and said 13,000 people had been forced from their homes.

The complaint recounted the most notorious of the killings, when armed men attacked a prayer meeting of Roman Catholic peasants in the village of Acteal on Dec. 22, 1997.

The complaint said the armed men used high-caliber arms and expanding bullets "used only by the Mexican military." The men "massacred 19 women, 8 men, 4 children, four unborn children when their mothers were brutally murdered and an additional 25 were left injured."

In its document, the group said it obtained testimony from an ex-leader of one paramilitary saying the paramilitary was trained by the army to battle the Zapatistas. The complaint also named former Defense Secretary Enrique Cervantes and Gen. Mario Renan, former commander of the Chiapas military zone.

Seventy-seven people have been jailed in relation to the Acteal killings, but human rights advocates say most are poor peasants and that those who ordered the violence are still at large.

Zedillo's supporters have long said the president spent much of his efforts trying to dismantle the paramilitaries. They say Zedillo's real accomplishment was establishing Mexico's truly democratic presidential election, which resulted in Fox's election in 2000, the first time a victor wasn't a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had ruled Mexico for 71 years. Fox is a member of the National Action Party.

But human rights groups charge that Zedillo helped create the so-called Peace and Justice paramilitary force that had ties to the PRI. The group received about $4 million for agricultural programs, but officials ignored reports that it was using the money to buy weapons.

Antonio Ocaranza, who was Zedillo's spokesman, supported his former boss Tuesday, saying Zedillo had referred the Acteal case to the federal attorney general's office.

"He was so conscious to work within the framework of the law, unlike other presidents who would have interfered under pressure," Ocaranza said. "I remember him saying Acteal was the worst moment of his life."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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