Indigenous Women in Chiapas Prison Find Legal Advocates

Indigenous women are often treated unfairly in Mexico’s justice system, a professor says, noting that many are illiterate and do not speak Spanish. Some are not provided translators at trial and do not understand the proceedings against them. A collective of professionals and ex-prisoners, however, helps some of them win their freedom and aids them as they rejoin society after their release.

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Indigenous Women in Chiapas Prison Find Legal Advocates

Adriana Alcázar, GPJ Mexico

With the help of the Cherry Collective, a nonprofit in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, María, a former prisoner, was able to find employment after her prison sentence was over.

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SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO – For Rosa, the path that led to the prison exit was long and uncertain.

“I didn’t know what waited for me outside,” says Rosa, 37, who asked that her last name not be published. “I didn’t have money or things. I was alone.”

When Rosa was 18 years old, she was arrested in connection with the death of her husband. He was killed in a fight, but she says she wasn’t there. She was told she was taken into custody as a witness, she says, but she wound up as a defendant.

“They never let me leave,” she says. “I didn’t know why. I didn’t understand anything.”

Rosa was convicted of murder and sentenced to 45 years in prison.

At the time, Rosa was illiterate and spoke only Tzeltal, a Mayan language. She says she was told to sign documents that were in Spanish and that there was no translator to help her. Likewise, court proceedings were in Spanish, and there was no interpreter.

Rosa’s experience is common among indigenous women in Chiapas, experts say, but one nonprofit organization is working to support those women as they navigate the legal system and reintegrate into society after leaving prison.

When I left, I had a place to go. The rest of the women should also have that option and not feel alone.

Colectiva Cereza (Cherry Collective) reviews cases of indigenous women at the San Cristóbal de las Casas state prison and works for their early release and rehabilitation. Experts say the nonprofit is the only public or private initiative in Chiapas state that provides legal services and rehabilitation to women prisoners. Through a partnership with a local university, the collective also offers free courses in basic literacy, math and technical skills.

In Chiapas, indigenous people make up 27 percent of the population, according to 2012 data from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography. The illiteracy rate among indigenous women in Mexico is about 40 percent, according to 2010 census data.

Over the past six years, 37 women, have obtained early release because of the collective’s legal assistance. One conviction was overturned, the collective says.

Rosa was their first case. She’d been a prisoner at the State Center for the Social Reintegration of the Sentenced, No. 5, a prison in San Cristóbal de las Casas municipality in Mexico’s southernmost state of Chiapas, for 13 years when she met volunteers from the Cherry Collective, who were at the prison giving out clothes and other items. After hearing Rosa’s story, the group decided to review her case.

“When they told me they could review my case, I didn’t believe, I didn’t believe them,” Rosa says in broken Spanish. “For me, no one had ever helped me before.”

Collective members found that Rosa hadn’t had access to a translator, says member Patricia Fernández. Rosa’s case was heard by an appeals court, and in November 2011 Rosa secured an early release. Her conviction was not overturned, but she left prison about 30 years before her original sentence would have allowed.

Indigenous women who are illiterate and who do not speak Spanish represent the majority of the collective’s cases, Fernández says.

“You don’t understand anything, you don’t know the laws of the place, you don’t know how to read, nor write, and they accuse you of something,” she says. “How would you feel?”

The population in the state prison is 60 percent indigenous, says Fernández, based on the collective’s figures, which are gathered when collective members meet prisoners. Close to 35 percent of all prisoners are illiterate, and 20 percent speak only an indigenous language.

Photos by Adriana Alcázar, GPJ Mexico

Rosa was the Cherry Collective’s first case. They provide female prisoners with legal assistance.

The Cherry Collective’s house is a refuge for many former female prisoners living in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, who often have nowhere to go.

María, left, and Leticia are former prisoners who work together at the local university.

An inner mural at the Cherry Collective’s headquarters in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. Women who have left prison with the collective’s legal assistance often find a home here.

Potatoes are the main ingredient in the empanadas that Rosa prepares for sale each night. She sells them in the main square of San Cristóbal de Las Casas.

GPJ requested data from prison officials on illiteracy and indigenous language use in the prison, but that information was not provided to GPJ as of publication time.

Indigenous women often get a raw deal in Mexico’s justice system, says Rachel Sieder, a senior research professor at the Center for Research and Graduate Studies in Social Anthropology in Mexico City, the nation’s capital. Sieder’s research focuses on the rights of indigenous peoples and legal anthropology in Latin America.

“Most people who are staffing the justice system in a place like Chiapas are not indigenous; they’re from a nonindigenous, Mestizo elite,” Sieder says in a Skype interview, referring to people of mixed European and indigenous heritage.

Indigenous people who do not speak Spanish are often at a huge disadvantage in the legal system, she says, because there’s a lack of empathy that results in a shortage of interpreters and translators, among other problems.

According to one 2007 report by the Mexico Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, only about 16 percent of people who spoke indigenous languages had access to a translator or interpreter during their court proceedings. That report focused on the state of Oaxaca, which also has a high percentage of indigenous people.

Prison is a place where no one wants to go. The people who enter there receive a mark, a rejection, a stigma.

The Cherry Collective works to get women out of prison, but much of its assistance comes once they are released. The collective partners with the University for Sciences and Arts of Chiapas to help women find jobs. Staffed by a psychologist, an anthropologist, a social worker, a lawyer, a sociologist and 14 ex-prisoners, including Rosa, the collective teaches members to read, write and speak Spanish. In total, 25 women have participated in the courses, and 12 have graduated with a certificate.

Everyone who works for the collective does so as a volunteer, and operational funds are donated, Fernández says.

Leticia, who asked that her last name not be published, was 22 and illiterate when she was sentenced in 2006 to 10 years in jail on charges of stealing from her employer. The collective discovered that Leticia didn’t have adequate legal representation.

Indigenous women in Chiapas often lack the financial means or legal resources to have a fair trial, says David Vázquez, the lawyer who volunteers with the collective. Those women, including Leticia, are left in the hands of public prosecutors who are often overwhelmed with cases.

Once in prison, Leticia completed a six-month course, run by the collective, in which she learned basic math and to read and write. She also learned to make jewelry. Her performance in the course led authorities to grant her early release, Fernández says. Leticia left jail last November.

“Sometimes the women can leave much earlier” on good behavior, obviating the need for a case review, she says. “A trial review can often take up to five years, while a reduced sentence for conduct is one year.”

The collective provides women with as many options as possible to obtain early release, Fernández says.

Now, Leticia works in a cafeteria at the Autonomous University of Chiapas.

“I am very grateful,” she says.

For these former prisoners, education is fundamental for rehabilitation, says Nancy Cruz, a sociologist and researcher specializing in the topic at the Autonomous University of Chiapas.

“Prison is a place where no one wants to go,” she says. “The people who enter there receive a mark, a rejection, a stigma.”

Having a title conferred by a university can help the former prisoners conquer those prejudices, Cruz says.

“For a Mexican, to have papers is important, to have diplomas, titles, be accredited – that gives prestige,” she says.

Now, Rosa sells empanadas in the San Cristóbal de Las Casas town square. She says she returns to the prison to work with the collective because she wants women there to know they’re not alone.

“I know what it feels like to be in jail. I lived it, I felt very alone, and I don’t want them to feel the same,” she says.

Rishi Khalsa, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.