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Mexico Charges Sixteen In Massacre Inquiry Begins Into Killing Of 45 Villagers

Mexican authorities announced Friday night that they had charged 16 men with first-degree murder in the killing of 45 people in a tiny village in southern Mexico.

Attorney General Jorge Madrazo Cuellar, who is leading the investigation of the killings on Monday that have outraged Mexico, described the inquest as being in its “earliest stages.” He said investigators were still looking into the politically sensitive issue of whether public security officials in the state of Chiapas had any role in the attack or any warning that it would occur.

“This does not signify in any way the end of the investigation,” Madrazo said in a news conference in Mexico City Friday night. He characterized the arrests as being based on “unquestionable and direct accusations made by the inhabitants of the communities in conflict.”

He said that 24 people were still being detained under investigation and that two minors had been put in the custody of a juvenile court judge.

In addition to the charge of firstdegree murder, which implies that the suspects were the actual gunmen, they were also charged with assault and organized crime.

In his statement, Madrazo tried to put the massacre into the context of the complicated religious, political and economic conditions of the region, which were profoundly affected by the 1994 appearance of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, an Indian guerrilla group that began an uprising for greater political and economic rights.

He described generations of conflict between the three leading families in the Chenalho area that surrounds Acteal, the hamlet where the killings took place. Those conflicts have taken on political overtones and loyalties that have increased and become more violent since last August, with several killings, kidnappings and burnings of houses on all sides.

Outraged reports have filled newspapers that villagers from Acteal tried to warn local officials of their fears of attack from paramilitary groups. And an official with the state government has confirmed that Roman Catholic Church officials here called the state police to report gunfire in Acteal at 11:30 a.m. on Monday, just after the attack started.

Under immense public pressure, Emilio Chuayffet Chemor, the interior minister, said he could not document exactly what had happened, adding that reports of early warnings were at the moment “something that is only hearsay.” But he assured the public that investigators would spare no effort to find the answers.

“We will enforce the law against the guilty ones - those who planned it or carried it out,” he said Friday in a news conference in Mexico City.

The governor of Chiapas, Julio Cesar Ruiz Ferro, said that in fact the first calls were received around 11:30 a.m. that day. But he said, “The police, when they went to town, they did not see anything.”

“The information we had is that by that time, nothing like that report was happening,” he said Thursday.

In the four days since the killing, the lack of concrete information about who is to blame has put the federal and state governments on the defensive, so much so that Chuayffet and Ruiz felt the need to say they had no intention of resigning their posts.

The underlying political problem is that survivors of the attack maintain that the armed men, part of a growing network of paramilitary groups in southern Mexico, were loyal to the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party. And opposition leaders have accused Ferro’s state government of funneling money to one paramilitary group.

The following fields overflowed: DATELINE = SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO