The embattled governor of the southern state of Chiapas resigned Wednesday, becoming the latest high-level politician to fall in the aftermath of the December killings of 45 Indian villagers by a pro-government paramilitary gang in a mountain hamlet in his state.
Gov. Julio Cesar Ruiz Ferro, who has been accused by Catholic Church and opposition leaders in Chiapas of ignoring many warning signs of tension in the region, requested an indefinite leave of absence, saying only that Chiapas ‘needs a new strategy.” His petition was approved by the state legislature.
President Ernesto Zedillo did not ask directly for the resignation, officials close to Mexico’s leader said, but sent numerous signals since the Dec. 22 killings that he was dissatisfied with the Chiapas governor, who is a member of Zedillo’s political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
“The message is clear: in this case we are not going to protect anyone,” one official said, describing Zedillo’s view. “Human lives were lost because the governor did not have a clear view of what was happening in his state. He should have had a grip on it, and he didn’t.”
Immediately after the killings the president wrested the investigation out of the hands of state authorities and handed it over to the country’s attorney general.
Several senior officials of Ruiz Ferro’s administration, including his chief of staff and top security official, are being investigated by the federal authorities for possible criminal negligence in connection with the violence in the forest hamlet of Acteal, in the Tzotzil Indian township of Chenalho.
A top Catholic prelate, the Rev. Gonzalo Ituarte, said he had called the state security chief at mid-day on Dec. 22 to relay reports of gunfire received from villagers in Chenalho. Although there is a joint state police and army outpost within a mile of the hamlet, security forces were never dispatched to the scene, even while the shootings of unarmed Indian refugees, including many women and children, continued throughout the day.
So far, Ruiz Ferro has not been the target of a criminal investigation. But the inquiry remains open, and at least one of his actions is under scrutiny, federal officials said. In the weeks before the killings, the governor authorized a grant worth about $500,000 to a pro-government organization in the Indian highlands, known as Justice and Peace, which Church groups have accused of organzing paramilitary squads.
Opposition leaders in Chiapas have charged that the grant encouraged pro-government forces in Chenalho to believe that they could act against their foes with impunity.
On Jan. 3, Zedillo dismissed the interior minister, Emilio Chuayffet Chemor, who had been his top political operator. Chuayffet was in charge of guiding negotiations with the Zapatista rebels. The talks broke down in late 1996, leaving the conflict to fester.
To date 46 people, most of them Tzotzil Indians from neighboring villages, have been arrested on charges up to first degree murder in the killings. The Chenalho mayor, Jacinto Arias Cruz, also a member of the government party, was accused of organizing and arming the gang of killers and is in jail on charges of assault and conspiracy.