Parents in Prison, Children at Risk: A Mexican Family’s Two-Year Ordeal

An illiterate, indigenous couple say they were coerced into confessing in the murder of the husband's brother. They spent about two years in prison before their release, but the lives of their seven children were upended nearly as much - they shuttled among the homes of relatives, friends - even one of their teachers. In the family's lawsuit against the state, a judge found that authorities had utterly disregarded laws and directives to care for the children of those in prison.

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Parents in Prison, Children at Risk: A Mexican Family’s Two-Year Ordeal

Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico

Margarita Gómez López stands with her son, who was an infant when she and her husband were sent to prison. The infant and his six older siblings were left alone. Their advocates say the government failed to follow its own protocols to ensure that the children received the care they needed.

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SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO — Margarita Gómez López was standing near her brother-in-law’s grave when police came to arrest her.

The 6-month-old baby in her arms started to fuss. The police shouted at her to keep him quiet. They took her in to the local government office, where Gómez López, now 36, found her husband, David Hernández Gómez, who’d been arrested there when he went to arrange his brother’s funeral.

The brother had been killed by a blow to the head – the family says no one knows who did it or why – and his body was left in the street.

Margarita Gómez López and her husband also say they don’t know why police arrested them or why they were subjected to everything that happened next.

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Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico

Margarita Gómez López and David Hernández Gómez stand near their home in Teopisca, a community near San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state.

David Hernández Gómez, a wiry farmworker, was beaten. Margarita Gómez López was threatened with rape. Eventually, the couple says, they were forced to sign papers confessing to the murder of David’s brother. Neither read the papers; they’re both illiterate.

Two days later, they were taken to prison. There was no court hearing or guilty verdict. Human-rights advocates say the police looked for an easy scapegoat for the murder and found Margarita Gómez López and David Hernández Gómez – an impoverished, indigenous couple without the resources to defend themselves.

Their seven children, including the baby, who was still breastfeeding, were left at the family’s humble concrete home, alone. That was in 2014.

The oldest daughters, now 18 and 19, helped their siblings pack some necessities, and the group set out to find a place to live. First up was a cousin’s home. Then, it was on to an aunt’s home, then on and on with other relatives, friends – even a teacher.

One daughter says she sought odd jobs: laundry, washing dishes, cleaning. She used the money to buy food for her siblings. But she was vulnerable, she says, and was treated poorly and even abused.

“They went from one house to another – that’s what people tell me,” Margarita Gómez López says.

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Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico

The children of David Hernández Gómez and Margarita Gómez López say they went from house to house looking for help when their parents were in prison.

The police knew about the children but did nothing to ensure that they were cared for, says Rocío García Cadenas, a human-rights attorney at the Mujeres Libres COLEM, the organization that represented the children in a lawsuit against the state that ended in late 2017.

The seven children, including an infant, received no care from officials, García Cadenas says.

“They were negligent,” she says.

García Cadenas says the goal of the lawsuit was to force the state to publicly take responsibility for what happened and ensure that a new protocol is created so that the children of people in prison are never left alone again.

There are laws guaranteeing that children whose parents or guardians are incarcerated will be cared for, but there are no guidelines for how that should happen. As a result, advocates say, those children are often abandoned in vulnerable situations.

As many as 450,000 children throughout Mexico live with people to whom they are not related because their parents are in prison, says Juan Martín Pérez García, executive director of Red por los Derechos de la Infancia en México, a children’s-rights organization.

There’s an alarming lack of information about the welfare of those children, he says.

“We don’t know exactly what kind of conditions they live in – if it’s a benefit or an opportunity, or if they are victims of this negative cultural heritage of physical abuse in domestic work or sexual abuse,” he says. “It is unknown to us.”

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Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico

The seven children left alone at home when David Hernández Gómez and Margarita Gómez López went to prison are among as many as 450,000 children in Mexico who live with people with whom they are not related because their parents are in prison.

The case of the children of Margarita Gómez López and David Hernández Gómez highlights the system’s weakness, says Jennifer Haza Gutiérrez, director of the Melel Xojobal organization. The attorney general’s office didn’t do anything to guarantee that the children could live safely together as a family, she says.

The system should work automatically, says Pérez García, the director of Red por los Derechos de la Infancia en México. Children who are in school and therefore documented with the state should be flagged when someone at their address is arrested, he says. Those children should be automatically reported to the local child protection agency so that officials can examine the options to ensure the children receive the care they need.

The goal isn’t institutionalization of the children, he says, but management of the children’s situation so that they aren’t left alone.

Children up to the age of 6 have the right to live in prison with their mother, father or relative, Haza Gutiérrez says.

If a parent or guardian in prison can’t care for a child, or if the child is older than 6, then both state and federal laws require officials to find family members to care for the child. If that option does not work, foster care is considered.

Officials are required to take culture into consideration, Haza Gutiérrez says. The children must be placed in a situation that is culturally recognizable, she says.

In the case of the children of Margarita Gómez López and her husband, Gutiérrez says, the state was neglectful because it “almost completely delegated responsibility for the care and upbringing of these children to social-assistance centers.”

David Hernández Gómez and Margarita Gómez López were released from prison in October 2016 on suspended sentences. They’re still considered guilty, but their prison time is over. And they’ll have to live with criminal records.

They found their children living in the home of one of their teachers.

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Marissa Revilla, GPJ Mexico

Margarita Gómez López embroiders bags and teaches her daughters to do the same. The family is poor and didn't have the resources to defend itself when Margarita Gómez López were charged with a crime they say they didn't commit.

The children’s case against the state went to trial in April 2017. By November, the court had identified a bevy of state, federal and international guidelines that local officials had failed to follow. But it’s not clear whether the case will have any impact in the future. There were no immediate changes locally. As far as the family knows, no officials were even reprimanded.

The experience took a permanent toll.

“There is much, much pain in the family,” García Cadenas says.

Margarita Gómez López, reunited with her baby, who is now 3 years old, still mourns the time she missed with him. His oldest sisters cared for him while Margarita was incarcerated. In her view, the separation was life-threatening because he had only ever had breast milk.

“What gives me so much rage about those years I lost was that I wasn’t with my children – that I wasn’t with that baby who, thanks to my God, didn’t die,” she says.

Lourdes Medrano, GPJ, translated this story from Spanish.