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Mexican troops training at a Military Camp in Chiapas.
(Photo courtesy of Adolfo Gutiérrez)

Breaking the Silence
The Mexican Army and the 1997 Acteal Massacre

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 283

Posted - August 20, 2009

For more information contact:
Kate Doyle
- kadoyle@gwu.edu

In Guatemala (until Monday, August 24): 502 4408-9899
New York office: 646-613-1440, ext. 238

Research Assistance: Susana Zavala and Emilene Martínez-Morales

NOTE: The article in this briefing book appeared in Spanish in the Mexican newspaper Milenio on August 20, 2009

[Text in Spanish]

The Mexico Documentation Project

 

Links

Documentos de EEUU: Ejército Mexicano Entrenó a Paramilitares

CSG y Zedillo Autorizaron Apoyo a Paramilitares en Chiapas

Revelaciones de Washington Sobre el Papel del Ejército en Acteal

Kayte Doyle Habla sobre su Reportaje de que el Ejército Mexicano Entrenó a Paramilitares

Confirma E.U.: el Ejército Entrenó a Paramilitares

Archivos Improcedentes

 

 

 

 

Washington, D.C., August 20, 2009 - 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.” (p. 32, emphasis added)

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.”

Although the cable was written in 1999, the attaché took care to point out that Army intelligence officers were overseeing the armed groups in December 1997. The document provides details never mentioned in the many declarations of the Mexican Army following the attack. The human intelligence teams, explains the Defense Attaché Office, “were composed primarily of young officers in the rank of second and first captain, as well as select sergeants who spoke the regional dialects. The HUMINT teams were composed of three to four persons, who were assigned to cover select communities for a period of three to four months. After three months the teams’ officer members were rotated to a different community in Chiapas. Concern over the teams’ safety and security were paramount reasons for the rotations every three months.”

The Defense Intelligence Agency released the excised documents to the National Security Archive in 2008 in response to a Freedom Information Act request. (An appeal for additional records is pending.) The information was compiled by the agency’s representatives in Mexico, defense attaché officers whose primary task is to gather intelligence on the Mexican armed forces and send it to headquarters in Washington for analysis. The analysis is then used by the government to assist in crafting national security policy in Mexico. The agency is the eyes and ears of the U.S. Secretary of Defense abroad: think of it as the Pentagon’s CIA.

So the “internal logic” turns out to be the military’s, in the form of a carefully planned counterinsurgency strategy that combined civic action programs – frequently trumpeted by the Defense Secretariat in statements to the press – with secret intelligence operations designed to strengthen the paramilitaries and provoke conflict against EZLN supporters.

In the almost twelve years since the massacre human rights groups, journalists and investigators have been able to unearth a smattering of true facts about the slaughter at Acteal, but without the help of official transparency. Requests for government information made through the Mexican freedom of information law--such as the ones filed by the National Security Archive last year--meet a resounding silence. The Attorney General’s office helpfully steers the requester to the library to find its 1998 report. The Interior Ministry responds with a copy of a public communiqué the agency issued five days after the massacre summarizing “Actions Taken” in the Acteal case. The nation’s intelligence center replies that it has no control over what should be military files, and therefore no documents. And the Army? “After a meticulous search in the archives of this Secretariat,” writes the institution to the National Security Archive, emphasis added, “the requested information was not located.”

Perhaps even more unsettling than the supposed non-existence of documents in the Defense Secretariat is the response of the Office of the President to requests about Acteal. The staff of President Felipe Calderón told this requester to look in the Presidential Archives of the General Archive of the Nation for files relevant to the massacre. We did. We found many. They are all located in the section “Unprocessed Files,” where letters, telegrams and other forms of complaints from Mexican citizens have languished for years without reply. The communications that poured in after December 22, 1997, from every state in Mexico as well as from international human rights groups and academic institutions contain expressions of anger, despair, and condemnation for the attack. They also include specific charges made by residents of Chiapas about instances of violence, energy blackouts, and land seizures: potential leads for further investigation by the government into the conflict destroying the region.

The cries for attention sent to the highest mandate in the land went unanswered. They were routinely tagged as unprocessed files and can be perused today by any researcher who cares to look in the national archives.

Until the current administration decides to honor its obligations to inform its citizens about the truth of the 1997 massacre, the people’s call for facts will remain lost in the unprocessed files.

And we will be left to rely on the United States for information about the Mexican Army and Acteal.

 


Read the Documents

Document 1
December 31, 1997
Mexican Military Presence Increases Following the Massacre in Chiapas
Defense Intelligence Agency, secret intelligence information report

In this heavily redacted cable sent to DIA headquarters in Washington on December 31, 1997, the U.S. Defense Attaché Office in Mexico describes the deployment of troops by the Mexican military to the conflict zones of Chiapas. Citing secret and open source accounts, the document indicates that President Ernesto Zedillo committed thousands of new troops to the region following the December 22 massacre of 45 Tzotzil Indian men, women and children, with other units “placed on alert to assist in the event of an uprising.”

Source: Released to National Security Archive under the Freedom of Information Act
FOIA Request No. 38,435, released February 2008
Under appeal

Document 2
May 4, 1999
Military Involvement with Chiapas Paramilitary Groups
Defense Intelligence Agency, secret intelligence information report

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 Acteal 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.”

Source: Released to National Security Archive under the Freedom of Information Act
FOIA Request No. 38,435, released February 2008
Under appeal

 

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