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Landowner Convicted of Killing Farm Workers’ Leader

February 11, 1990

TUXTLA GUTIERREZ, Mexico (AP) _ A wealthy landowner was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison Saturday for killing a farm workers’ leader he blamed for disputes over his property in a southern state.

The Chiapas state court said in a statement that Roberto Zenteno Rojas was guilty of the December 1988 shooting of Sebastian Perez Nunez, a former state legislator who led the Independent Center of Agricultural Workers and Campesinos.

Zenteno blamed Perez Nunez for disputes over his land. Peasants had been occupying 120 acres of Zenteno’s 740-acre ranch since August 1988, demanding it be turned over to them.

Under Mexico’s agrarian reform law, which has given land to millions of landless peasants, the government may take over land holdings that are larger than legal limits or left idle and turn them into ejidos, a type of communal farm. Personal disputes and vendettas over land rights are common in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state bordering Guatemala, where hundreds of peasants have been killed in recent years over such disputes.

Witnesses said Zenteno shot Perez Nunez 13 times on Dec. 29, 1988, as he waited in a pickup truck to buy gas. The driver, Julio Cesar Morales, also was wounded, but his wife and Perez Nunez’s wife, Manuela, were unhurt.

Zenteno fled after the shooting but surrendered to authorities on Aug. 30, 1989.

Marcelino Nunez, Perez Nunez’s successor in the worker’s organization, said after the conviction that his organization trusted the criminal justice system, but that he was skill skeptical about the government’s commitment to carrying out land reform.

″Roberto Zenteno had a lot of money, not only him, but all of the big landowners who came to his defense,″ Nunez said.

Perez Nunez’ widow and the family of Zenteno could not be reached immediately for comment on the conviction.

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