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

MEXICO: Native Women Raped by Soldiers Find Justice at Regional Court

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Oct 5 2010 (IPS) - “I dream of returning to my community and for everything to be normal again, although that won’t be easy,” Valentina Rosendo, one of two indigenous women who found justice at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, told IPS.

Soldiers harassing indigenous women in Guerrero.  Credit: Courtesy of Tlachinollan Human Rights Centre

Soldiers harassing indigenous women in Guerrero. Credit: Courtesy of Tlachinollan Human Rights Centre

“I want the government to admit that it made a mistake with two indigenous women,” she added, after the Court condemned Mexico for failing to protect her rights and those of Inés Fernández, who were raped by soldiers eight years ago.

In February 2002, 17-year-old Rosendo was washing clothes in a river near her home in the village of Barranca Bejuco, in the southern state of Guerrero, when she was accosted by a group of soldiers, two of whom raped her.

A month later, three soldiers raped Inés Fernández in her house in the nearby village of Barranca Tecuani.

In both cases, the Court found the state guilty of failing to guarantee the two Me’phaa Indian women’s rights to personal integrity, dignity, legal protection and a fair trial, to a life free of violence, and to not be tortured. Inter-American Court rulings are binding and cannot be appealed.

“They are two very similar sentences,” Alejandra Nuño, the Centre for Justice and International Law’s (CEJIL) director for Central America and Mexico, told IPS after the two rulings were reported Monday. “They refer to the presence of the soldiers, discrimination, and violence against women. And rape is classified as torture, in a case that has no precedents in Mexico.”

When she failed to obtain justice in Mexico, Rosendo brought her case in November 2003 before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR), with the support of CEJIL and the Tlachinollan Human Rights Centre, from Guerrero. Fernández did the same the following June.

The IACHR referred the cases to the Court in May and August 2009.

The San José, Costa Rica-based Court and the Washington-based IACHR are the Organisation of American States (OAS) human rights bodies.

“The state cannot continue to deny these incidents, when the serious harm caused in these indigenous communities is abundantly clear,” Abel Barrera, executive director of Tlachinollan, told IPS. “Inés can’t live in peace, and Valentina can’t return to her community.”

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

The Court, presided over by Peruvian Judge Diego García-Sayán, ruled that the state violated three inter-American conventions: the 1969 American Convention on Human Rights, the 1987 Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture, and the 1998 Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence Against Women.

In its sentences, handed down on Aug. 30 and 31, the Court called for a thorough civilian investigation into the crimes against the two women, and ordered the Mexican state to make a public apology to them in both Spanish and the Me’phaa language, publish the sentences in the official government gazette, and open a centre that would provide multidisciplinary health services for women in the area where the abuses took place.

It also calls for reforms of Mexico’s military justice code, with dates back to 1933, so that members of the armed forces are tried in civilian courts for crimes committed in the course of duty.

The Court ordered the state to pay some 87,000 dollars in damages and compensation to Fernández, her husband Prisciliano Sierra and their children, and 75,000 dollars to Rosendo and her daughter Yenis Bernardino.

It must also pay 48,000 dollars to Tlachinollan and CEJIL to cover legal costs.

“It was not easy to seek justice. I left my town, and my husband left me. The government called me a liar,” Rosendo, in a beige blouse and blue jeans, said with tears in her eyes.

Rosendo had to learn Spanish after she was raped, and she now lives in an unrevealed location somewhere in Mexico where she works at a grocery store and has returned to school to complete her secondary education.

Her nine-year-old daughter is in third grade. “She is desperate, and asks why we move all the time and she has to make new friends. She’s not growing up with a normal childhood,” said Rosendo, who goes to therapy every Sunday.

Both Rosendo and Fernández have been harassed and received death threats over the years, and have been stigmatised by neighbours, as rape victims.

This is not the first time the Inter-American Court has ordered the Mexican state to reform the military justice code — which has become one of the flashpoint issues for the executive, legislative and judicial branches.

Conservative President Felipe Calderón announced that he would introduce a bill in Congress to that effect. But the Supreme Court has failed to pronounce itself on the steps to be taken in order to comply with the Inter-American Court rulings.

“We are going to keep a close watch on how Mexico lives up to the sentence, which is binding,” Nuño said.

On Oct. 1, the government said it would live up to the two sentences, but did not specify how or when. It has between six and 12 months to fulfil the various provisions.

The Inter-American Court also handed down two rulings against the Mexican state in November 2009.

The first involved the 2001 murders of three young women in Ciudad Juárez on the U.S. border, whose bodies were found on a piece of waste ground known as the Campo Algodonero (Cotton Field). The second found the Mexican state guilty in the forced disappearance of schoolteacher Rosendo Radilla, a community activist who was abducted in 1974 by soldiers in the state of Guerrero.

In both cases, human rights groups have complained how long the government is taking to comply with the sentences.

For that reason, a number of non-governmental organisations want to establish a committee to follow up on compliance with the rulings.

This year, the Court is to issue a decision on the case of environmental activists Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera, peasant farmers who were arrested and tortured by Mexican soldiers in Guerrero in 1999 and sentenced in 2000 to six and 10 years in prison, respectively, on trumped-up charges of illegal weapons possession and growing marijuana.

Although they were released in November 2001 by then President Vicente Fox (2000-2006) after a major international outcry, they were not pardoned, nor did they receive damages for the abuses and torture they suffered.

The militarisation of Guerrero “is aimed at keeping indigenous people from organising,” said Barrera, winner of this year’s Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, rewarded by the Washington-based RFK Centre for Justice and Human Rights.

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