[JURIST] The Mexican Supreme Court of Justice [official website, in Spanish] on Wednesday ordered the release [press release, in Spanish] of 20 men and the retrial of 6 others convicted in connection with the 1997 massacre in Acteal, Chiapas [AI backgrounder] of 45 rebel sympathizers at a Catholic prayer meeting. The court found that the 2002-2007 convictions on charges of assault, aggravated homicide, and carrying military firearms were based on evidence obtained illegally, in violation of the defendants' constitutional rights. Among the violations were the failure to provide translators [AP report] for Tzotzil-speaking defendants, and showing pictures of the defendants to potential witnesses prior to asking them to identify participants in the killings. Javier Angulo Cruz, a professor at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE) [academic website, in Spanish] who represented the men before the Supreme Court, said that the decision marked a turning point [La Jornada report, in Spanish] in constitutional guarantees for native criminal defendants. The Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center [advocacy website, in Spanish], a Chiapas-based human rights group, said that the decision focused too much on administrative mistakes [press release, PDF, in Spanish], ignoring the larger issue of whether the Mexican government was involved in the killings.
Tensions have long existed between the Mexican federal government and the largely Maya-descended people of Chiapas [official website, in Spanish] over the widespread poverty and ethnic inequality in the state. In January 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation [advocacy website, in Spanish] began a violent uprising [NSA backgrounder] against the central government, eventually capturing and controlling dozens of "autonomous regions" in Chiapas. The violence began on the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) [official website] became operational, as a show of the Zapatista's disapproval of liberalized international trade, including free trade agreements, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank [official websites], which are seen as favoring corporate interests over that of the population at large.