In the Matter of Civilian Population of Chiapas Historic Case

At a Glance

Date Filed: 


Case Description 

In the Matter of Civilian Population of Chiapas is an emergency complaint filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), in conjunction with the Center for Human Rights Legal Action in Washington, D.C. It was filed with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and demanded that the Commission take action to protect the lives of both civilians and injured or captured Zapatista soldiers. The Commission was also asked to conduct an on-site investigation of the reported abuses.

On January 1, 1994, the Zapatista National Liberation Army, an armed group representing the indigenous people of Chiapas, Mexico, launched a rebellion aimed at reversing generations of abuses and timed to coincide with the effective date of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The Mexican Army responded with massive and indiscriminate repression, targeting the entire indigenous population and the leaders of organizations known to represent their interests. Civilian villages were bombed and civilians were detained, tortured, and executed.

In 1992, CCR began investigating human rights abuses committed against indigenous people in Mexico in response to an incident in which a group of indigenous people were detained and tortured in Palenque after a protest march. Palenque, the site of an important Mayan city, is located in Chiapas, the state bordering Guatemala. Chiapas is home to the highest percentage of indigenous peoples and the most notorious area for human rights violations of indigenous peoples in Mexico.

Indigenous peoples in Palenque objected for many years to encroachment of traditional lands by the tourism industry, and the government’s failure to provide basic services, such as schools and access to markets. Local authorities also frequently arrested, detained, and brutalized them for such transgressions as the failure to possess national identification papers, which are difficult for them to obtain. When they organized protest demonstrations, they were met with harsh police repression and even torture.

On New Year’s Day of 1994, these chronic abuses exploded in a revolt led by the Zapatistas. Five days later, hosted by the Chiapas Diocese, a fact-finding delegation—including CCR, the North Start Fund, the Funding Exchange, and Mexican civil rights and religious groups—toured the area in Mexico to investigate any human rights abuses.