The former Mexican President, Ernesto Zedillo, speaking at a press conference in January 2011.

Story highlights

Mexican villagers say a former Mexican president is responsible for a massacre

They file suit against Ernesto Zedillo in Connecticut, where he resides

Zedillo calls the allegations false

CNN  — 

Survivors and heirs of Mexican Indian villagers who were killed in a massacre in 1997 have filed a lawsuit in the United States against former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, accusing him of crimes against humanity.

The civil action, filed Friday in Connecticut, where Zedillo currently resides while he teaches at Yale University, accuses him of being responsible for the killings of 45 villagers and afterward conspiring to cover it up. He was Mexico’s president from 1994 to 2000.

“Such allegations are not only false but also calumnious,” Zedillo told CNN in an e-mail Tuesday. He said he only had “vague news” about the lawsuit and had not yet been notified by the court. He would “respond accordingly” to authorities, he said.

Although the killings happened in Mexico, the lawsuit argues a long list of U.S. laws and international treaties – including the Alien Tort Claims Act and Torture Victim Protection Act – give the American federal court jurisdiction to try the case.

Mexico’s foreign ministry declined to make a statement on the matter.

The case lists 10 Tzotzil-speaking indigenous residents from the village of Acteal, in the southern state of Chiapas, as plaintiffs. The lawsuit does not identify them other than to say that four are women and six are men. Their parents were among the victims of the massacre, and some of them themselves were injured but survived, it says.

The killings that are at the center of the lawsuit took place on December 22, 1997, in Acteal. The context to what happened there starts in 1994, when the Zapatista movement in Chiapas rose up in arms against the Mexican state. A peace agreement was reached with the Zapatistas before Zedillo came into office, but the lawsuit alleges he was not in favor of the agreement and preferred an offensive against the insurgents.

One possible motive for further squashing the Zapatistas was to reassure markets that Mexico was stable, the lawsuit alleges.

According to the complaint, Zedillo authorized the army to train and equip anti-Zapatista groups to help crush the uprising.

Acteal, according to the lawsuit, had become a center for displaced residents from other villages. On that December day, armed anti-Zapatista villagers, with the help of men who appeared to be from the military, surrounded the village, the lawsuit states. They began shooting as they tightened the perimeter, it says, and 45 people were killed, including men, women and children.

The lawsuit further alleges that Zedillo and his attorney general covered up the massacre by telling the media that the deaths were the result of local infighting. A report from the attorney general’s office also cited the Zapatistas as being responsible for the killings.

Some 128 people from the area near Acteal were arrested and 34 were convicted of homicide and assault in connection with the incident. Later, the Mexican Supreme Court freed 20 of those prisoners because of prosecutorial misconduct, the lawsuit states.

Zedillo belonged to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, and was the last in a string of presidents from that party who ruled Mexico for 71 years.

CNN’s Catherine Shoichet contributed to this report.