Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

MEXICO: Indigenous Rape Victims Fight Military Impunity

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, May 29 2009 (IPS) - The aberrations of Mexican justice were clearly visible in the cases of rape and torture allegedly committed by soldiers in 2002 against two indigenous women, Inés Fernández and Valentina Rosendo. But their experiences are not exceptional in rural areas of the southern state of Guerrero.

However, Fernández and Rosendo, both 23, who have suffered death threats and have been stigmatised by neighbours and even by their husbands as rape victims, are not giving up. This month Fernández managed to take her case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and Rosendo may achieve the same in the near future.

Abuses by the military and police are a permanent feature of life in rural areas in Guerrero, and reporting them to the Mexican justice system has had little to no effect, according to human rights organisations that have documented the cases.

The state security forces are deployed in Guerrero to fight drug trafficking and small guerrilla groups, the authorities say.

“Under the pretext of security concerns, the authorities are rampantly violating the human rights” of campesinos (small farmers) in Guerrero, most of whom are indigenous people, and what happened to Fernández and Rosendo is a clear example of this, Vidulfo Rosales, the legal coordinator at the Tlachinollan Mountain Human Rights Centre, told IPS.

Fernández, of the Tlapanec people, was raped in March 2002 when soldiers came to her house, demanding to know where the beef she was cooking had come from.

Just 17 years old, Fernández did not reply because she does not speak Spanish. Furious, the soldiers burst into her home and one of them raped her there in front of her four small children, said Rosales, her lawyer.

Rosendo, another Tlapanec woman who was also under 18 at the time, had gone through a similar ordeal a month earlier. She was washing clothes when she was approached by a group of soldiers who tried to question her but got no reply because she, too, did not speak Spanish. One of the soldiers then raped her.

Both cases were reported to the local police and justice authorities. The prosecutions that followed were marred by obstacles like indifferent treatment by experts, a marked lack of interest in securing evidence, and discrimination against the victims, “things that, as we well know, are not at all unusual here in Mexico,” Rosales said.

After several months of fruitless procedures, the civil justice authorities handed both cases over to the military courts, which in 2006 closed the investigations on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to prove that the soldiers concerned had committed “breaches of military discipline.”

The 1933 Code of Military Justice, sanctioned by the constitution, is applied when crimes “against military discipline” are committed by active members of the forces while on duty. Breaches of military discipline, a broad term, may include anything from insubordination to rape.

If crimes are committed in complicity with civilians, accused soldiers are automatically dealt with by the civil justice system.

The military justice system has been harshly criticised by activists and victims, who complain that impunity is the all-too-frequent outcome and the system does not meet international standards. Although legislators and government authorities acknowledge that it must be reviewed, there are no firm plans to do so.

Rosales, the legal coordinator at the Tlachinollan centre, which has offices in Tlapa, a town in Guerrero surrounded by rural areas, said that when they failed to obtain justice in Mexico, the two rape victims took their cases to the Washington-based Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, part of the Organisation of American States (OAS) system.

Rosendo’s case is still being processed by the Commission, but Fernandez’s was referred in early May to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in Costa Rica, after the Commission determined that the Mexican state was still failing its obligation to grant justice to the victim, in spite of the Commission’s exhortations and recommendations.

“What we are hoping is that the Court will do justice by these women and that the rapists will not go unpunished. We also hope for a sentence that will help bring about change in the military justice system,” Rosales said.

Human rights groups report that military abuses in Guerrero have increased since June 1988, when soldiers killed 11 indigenous people in the rural settlement of El Charco.

The official version of the incident was that the people were killed when soldiers discovered a guerrilla meeting taking place in the El Charco schoolroom, and the insurgents fired on the soldiers.

But the survivors of the massacre deny that they are guerrillas and say no one had any weapons or offered any resistance when the soldiers ordered them out into the school yard where, without provocation, they executed 11 people.

The bodies of two indigenous activists who belonged to a human rights organisation and were documenting abuses by the military were found last February, not far from El Charco and the places where Fernández and Rosendo were raped.

They were Raúl Lucas, 39, and Manuel Ponce, 32, leaders of the Organisation for the Future of Mixtec Indigenous Peoples. On Feb. 13 they were arrested by alleged police officers, in front of several witnesses. Eight days later their bodies turned up with signs of torture.

Their killers, like the men who raped the women in 2002 and those who have committed other murders and abuses, remain unpunished.

The list of human rights violations against indigenous people in Guerrero is a long one, and the alleged perpetrators are invariably soldiers or the police.

For instance, Felipe Arreaga and other campesinos in Guerrero spent time in jail and were persecuted for their activism against deforestation.

Arreaga was accused of murdering a logger’s son and spent 10 months behind bars in 2005, while his companions Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera were imprisoned between 1999 and 2001 on charges of weapons possession and illegal crop cultivation.

Arreaga was arrested by the police and the other two by the army. Human rights groups said they were tortured and framed on trumped-up charges. Arreaga was released for lack of evidence, and his companions were amnestied by former President Vicente Fox (2000-2006).

The militarisation of the state of Guerrero – governed since April 2005 by Zeferino Torreblanca of the leftwing Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) – began in the 1970s, when a guerrilla group named Party of the Poor, founded by Lucio Cabañas, a rural schoolteacher, was operating there.

The group gave rise to the Marxist-Leninist Revolutionary People’s Army (EPR), which has been active intermittently since 1996 and, according to the authorities, has little real power.

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