An outrageously faulty case in Mexico illustrates how the country's indigenous citizens struggle to be treated fairly under the law.
In August 2006, police in the central Mexican state of Querétaro arrested a middle-aged indigenous street vendor named Jacinta Francisco Marcial, accusing her of kidnapping six federal agents during a melee months earlier at a market in the town of Santiago Mexquititlán.
According to town residents and eyewitness testimony, the agents, who were not in uniform, broke proper protocol in late March and illegally confiscated the vendor's products. They raided the market under the pretext that it was selling pirated DVDs, which are ubiquitous in stalls across Mexico.
The vendors, suspecting that the "operation" was really a robbery on the part of the plainclothes agents, fought back.
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Arguing and scuffling ensued. According to a brief on the incident written by Amnesty International, authorities that day agreed to negotiate with the vendors and compensate them for the merchandise. They also agreed that an agent would remain as collateral while the others collected the money. By 7PM the vendors had been paid, the agents had left, and the incident was over.
Four months later, on August 3, the government surprisingly scapegoated three indigenous vendors for the alleged "kidnapping," which it turned out had occurred while at least one of the accused — Jacinta — was attending mass and visiting the local pharmacy.
A mother of six who was earning a living selling soft drinks and ice cream, Jacinta is a member of the Otomí, an indigenous ethnic group in the region, and spoke only the local dialect of the Otomí language, Hñähñu. She had been a street vendor she was seven, and wasn't educated beyond elementary school.
She was the last person anyone would ever suspect of kidnapping federal agents.
Police informed her that they were investigating an incident concerning a felled tree, and that she had to accompany them to resolve it. Jacinta understood very little Spanish and didn't comprehend what was happening. She ended up in court and was pressured to sign papers she couldn't read.
After arriving in prison, Jacinta was informed that she was accused of kidnapping the six federal agents. The police had also arrested Alberta Alcántara and Teresa González, two other indigenous street vendors in Santiago Mexquititlán who were present during the incident but were not directly involved.
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The only evidence tying Jacinta to the incident was a photo printed in a local newspaper that showed her walking by a crowd of angry vendors.
The three women were tried and convicted without a Hñähñu translator, as required by law. Despite a lack of evidence that would ensure their guilt, they were each sentenced to 21 years in prison.
No justice in Mexico
The case typifies the lack of justice that indigenous people face in Mexico.
The figures are bleak: 98 percent of reported crimes go completely unpunished in Mexico, according to various government and independent counts, and tens of thousands of people serve months or even years in jail while awaiting a formal trial, suffering a lack of legal counsel, family visits, and medical attention.
The United States has for years tried to help Mexico upgrade its justice system through high-stakes funding campaigns such as the Mérida Initiative, but Amnesty International denounces the country's flagrant human rights violations year after year.
Following expressions of outrage from indigenous groups and human rights organizations, the charges against Jacinta were eventually dropped and she was released — on Mexican Independence Day — in September 2009, more than three years after her unlawful arrest. Mexico's Supreme Court ordered the release of her two co-defendants the following April.
For many, the story ended there.
But Jacinta's case took another remarkable turn late last month, when human-rights lawyers successfully got the government to concede its wrongdoing.
Setting a potential precedent, on May 28 a Mexican court ordered the federal attorney general's office to compensate Jacinta for damages resulting from her unjust incarceration. The court also ordered the agency to publicly declare her innocence.
It was the first time that a Mexican citizen held the government accountable for a wrongful incarceration and was awarded reparations and a public apology.
"We live in a country that is extremely discriminatory towards indigenous people," Martha Sánchez, coordinator of indigenous affairs at the Simone de Beauvoir Leadership Institute, told VICE News. "Indigenous women are continually viewed as criminals, and in the courts they are not provided with interpreters."
Outrageous offenses are routinely committed against indigenous women in Mexico.
In May, an indigenous woman was forced to give birth in the bathroom of a hospital because doctors refused to admit her to an emergency room. It was the latest in an astonishing string of reported cases of indigenous women being denied adequate medical attention at public hospitals in Mexico.
According to a 2010 census by the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples (CDI), Mexico is home to more than 15 million indigenous people. The commission runs a decarceration program aimed at helping wrongfully imprisoned indigenous people regain their freedom with bail assistance or through appeals. Between January and November of last year, 675 indigenous people were freed with the assistance of the program, highlighting a striking vulnerability to wrongful incarceration.
"We're working hard for those accused of a crime to have translators," Nuvia Mayorga, the CDI's director, has said. "We want to train translators who can speak several languages to help us free people from prison who have been judged wrongly because their lawyers and public prosecutors don't speak their language."
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Mexico is already obligated to provide interpreters in court based on their signing of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but these rights rarely translate into reality for Mexico's citizens.
"Their recognition of innocence doesn't represent justice," Mario Patron, the subdirector of the Miguel Agustín Human Rights Center, told VICE News. "There is too much impunity in this country. We need to hold all the agents and the public prosecutor responsible."
He said the center decided to pursue the case in federal court so that a precedent could be set, raising the possibility that all people who have had their human rights violated in Mexican courts can sue for damages. It is not yet clear what amount Jacinta will receive.
"This sentence doesn't just apply to Jacinta," Guillermo Chao, a spokesman for the federal court that heard Jacinta's case, told VICE News. "It will potentially apply to all people who are wrongly incarcerated and decide to issue a formal complaint with our court."
Jacinta has repeatedly emphasized that the money doesn't matter to her. She has said that she wants to ensure that other impoverished and indigenous women will not be incarcerated and forced to live the nightmare that she endured.
In today's Mexico, unfortunately, that nightmare is a reality for far too many.
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