Why Mexican Justice is a Euphemism

Even in the best of times, Mexican justice is a euphemism – and these are not the best of times.  With 90% of all crimes unprosecuted or unreported, conviction rates are below 10% and too often those who are convicted are innocent victims themselves, rounded up and summarily charged so that security forces – there are 1671 police agencies in Mexico – can clear crimes that may well have been commited by the police themselves.

The two-tiered justice system is profoundly disequal in its treatment of those arrested.  Odds are that the rich and powerful will never see the inside of a jail cell – if not immediately released, they will be held for questioning (“arraigo”) at private hotels such as the Federal Prosecutor’s Office maintains in Mexico City.

Those that have no juice with authorities or a slick lawyer to spring them disappear behind bars for stretches that are better measured in geologic time, awaiting the glacial pace of court proceedings and often held without even being formally charged.  A year can elapse before a prisoner is formally declared a prisoner, the signal that the court will actually hear the case.  Because most prisoners are not bailable (either because they too poor or because the crimes with which they are charged do not allow for release on bail), they will be imprisoned throughout the process, “defended” by public defenders whose caseloads are so out of control that they don’t even know who they are defending.  Guilt, which is presumed, and innocence which must be proven (the Napoleonic Code) is decided by a single judge – there is no jury of one’s peers.

Although judgments must be rendered within a year, they are often deferred.  When a conviction and sentence is handed down, the defendant has the option to appeal for an “amparo”, an injunction protecting the appellant from being imprisoned although he or she may have already been imprisoned for years.  If a higher court does grant the “amparo” against the sentence, the prisoner may be freed “under caution” – which means that he or she must report to court authorities once a week although no new trial will ever be held.  Most cases are eventually dismissed with the payment of a fine that is a multiple of the daily minimum wage.

This Via Cruces is doubly onerous for those catalogued as political prisoners.  Prison authorities encourage isolation and the ostracizing of prisoners with social activism backgrounds and many spend years in solitary confinement subject to violence by prison officials and other prisoners and tortured by intelligence agencies to reveal information or renounce their convictions.  Some just disappear while in captivity.  Speaking for the National Front Against Repression (FNCR), leftist Senator Rosario Ibarra, whose own son vanished after being detained by federal authorities in 1976, estimates that there are currently 900 political prisoners in Mexican lockups.  Ibarra campaigns in congress for a national amnesty.


The criminalization of social protest has been the benchmark of President Felipe Calderon’s 17 months in office since his fraud-marred election in 2006.  Calderon’s first political prisoner was Flavio Sosa, a frequent spokesperson for the Oaxaca Peoples’ Popular Assembly (APPO) which, along with striking teachers, occupied the plaza of that state’s capital from May through November of 2006 demanding the removal of despotic governor Ulises Ruiz.

Following a crackdown by federal police on November 25th  of that year which resulted in over 200 arrests of activists, Sosa and two other APPO leaders were summoned to Mexico City to “dialogue” with Calderon’s newly installed Interior Secretary Francisco Ramirez Acuna.  Upon leaving the secretariat following a December 4th session,  three days after Calderon’s chaotic inauguration,  Sosa and his brother Horacio were surrounded by federal agents and hustled off to Mexico’s most notorious maximum prison then known as Almaloya, charged with the kidnapping of two cops (they had been discovered infiltrating an APPO meeting), blocking highways, seizing state television facilities, and burning down Oaxaca’s highest court.

Both Flavio and Horacio and later a third brother Eric (the two brothers’ crime appears to be sharing the name “Sosa” with Flavio) were held in isolation in a section of the Almaloya Super Maxi that houses the nation’s top-tier druglords, brutal kidnappers like Daniel Arizmendi, “El Mochaorejas” (“The Earchopper”), and confessed political assassin Mario Aburto.  Denied contact with lawyers or family, phone calls and all reading materials, and roughly strip searched every four hours, Sosa’s supporters feared for his mental health.

After eight months of such cruel and unusual punishment, Flavio Sosa was reclaimed by Governor Ruiz from Calderon, wrapped up in chains, and helicoptered to a Oaxaca state prison.  By August 2007, Sosa remained one of the last of the APPO’s prisoners – hundreds rounded up in November and transported to jails out of the state had been released on bail.  But justice had not triumphed.  At least 26 victims had been gunned down by Ruiz’s police, including U.S. independent journalist Brad Will, yet no officer has ever been charged in the killings.  Impunity reigns

One further example of how the justice system works in Oaxaca: Emiterio Merrino, an APPO activist beaten to within an inch of his life by Ruiz’s Ministerial Police during July 2007 demonstrations, was recently fined several thousand pesos by a Oaxaca judge after failing to appear in court – Merrino, who is confined to a wheelchair, was left incontinent and his sight irrevocably damaged by the attack.  He still cannot speak.

During his incarceration in state prison, Sosa maintains that Ruiz’s intermediaries offered him his release and $10,000 USD for each of the next three years if he would leave Mexico, a deal Flavio appears to have turned down.  Sosa has in fact been an unstable political ally.  Elected to Mexico’s Chamber of Deputies in 1999 on the left-center Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) ticket, he jumped to the right-wing PAN party and supported ex-president Vicente Fox in 2000.  In 2004, Sosa jumped parties again, aligning himself with a spurious local formation designed to siphon votes from the PRD, a strategy that guaranteed Ruiz’s victory.

Finally this April 19th, 16 months after his arrest and 60 pounds svelter (Flavio had been dangerously overweight when he went to jail), Sosa was freed after a judge dismissed all charges against him in a lightning-fast hearing that lasted only 20 minutes.  In truth, the activist had not even been present at the demonstrations where many of the events he was charged with inciting occurred.

Sosa’s large family was waiting at the prison gates to embrace him along with the much-discredited leader of Section 22 of the Oaxaca’s teachers union Ezekiel Rosales.  Section 22, whose annual strike for a new contract ignited the 2006 uprising, is once again threatening to strike in mid-May.


The tumultuous skein of resistance and repression in Oaxaca followed hard on the heels of the government’s now notorious rampage in San Salvador Atenco, an agricultural enclave on the shores of Lake Texcoco just outside Mexico City May 3rd and 4th 2006 after a minor altercation at a local flower market escalated into wholesale mayhem.  2000 state and federal police, bent on revenge for the farmers’ successful struggle to cancel expropriation of communal lands for a multi-billion dollar international airport back in 2001, stormed the town before dawn May 4th.  Singling out sympathizers of the Popular Front to Defend the Land (FPDT), the robocops savagely beat the villagers, destroyed their homes, and dragged 207 protestors off to prison, including one farmer in a wheelchair.  26 women were sexually abused while being transported to a state lockup and two young men were killed by police shooters during the two-day assault.  Five non-Mexican human rights observers were summarily deported from Mexico.

The brutality of the attack has been widely decried by international human rights organizations ranging from Amnesty International to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission as Exhibit A on a lengthy list of violations by security forces and the failure of the Mexican justice system and the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) to provide relief.

Two years to the date of this outrage, 16 Atencans and their supporters remain jailed, 13 of them facing lengthy sentences for blocking a federal highway near the town.  27 others, some of them woman who were sexually assaulted by the police, were recently released on bail, among them Magdalena Garcia, a Mazahua Indian who was designated a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. Two flower venders also remain jailed, charged with being in possession of dangerous weapons – their machetes or field knives.

In addition, three leaders of the Atenco-base FPDT – Ignacio Del Valle, Felipe Alvarez, and Hector Galindo – are being held in isolation at Almaloya (now Altiplano), the same super maxi where the Sosas were incarcerated, sentenced to 67 years imprisonment for “kidnapping.”  The nature of their crime? During an April 2006 negotiating session with Mexico state school authorities, the leaders of the FPDT locked the door to keep the officials from leaving the room.

Those responsible for the Atenco travesty have not been held accountable.  21 police officers accused of sexual assault including rape and sodomy, were warned not to do it again by their superiors.  Then-Secretary of Public Security Eduardo Medina Mora, who oversaw the operation, is now Mexico’s Attorney General.  Admiral Wilfrido Robledo, who coordinated Mexico state police and was responsible for the logistics of the attack, now heads up security for Carlos Slim, the world’s richest tycoon.  Enrique Pena Nieto, governor of Mexico state who greenlighted the assault, is being touted as Mexico’s next president.

Lady Justice is undergoing tests to determine just who it was that raped her.


B. Traven’s “Rebellion of The Hanged” is a classic tale of justice in pre-revolutionary Chiapas in which Indian prisoners are hung from trees as punishment for defying their masters.  The story hasn’t changed much since Traven’s day.

Far away from the national spotlight, Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state straddling the Guatemalan border, remains an entity where Lady Justice is violated every day.  The prisoner population in the state is overwhelmingly dark in complexion – Mestizos and Indians.  Indigenous peoples comprise a third of the state’s population but about three quarters of the prisoners in the Chiapas penal system.  Many do not speak Spanish and were denied translators for their day in court – according to federal law, translators must be available to non-Spanish-speaking defendants.

Those behind bars in Chiapas are prisoners of class and convenience, often poor campesinos taken into custody while walking a country road or traveling up to the county seat to do commerce, with no connection to the crimes with which they are charged – former Chiapas state prosecutor Mariano Herran is currently under investigation for railroading innocent Indians into state penitentiaries.

Other prisoners were hauled in by authorities for reclaiming lands that had once been theirs.  Although no members of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation are currently cooling their heels in Chiapas jails, many incarcerated indigenas have affiliated with the Zapatistas’ Other Campaign while locked up.

This March, Indian prisoners went on prolonged hunger strikes in four Chiapas “CERESOs” or Social Rehabilitation Centers to protest their incarcerations.  “Pueblo Creyente”, a Catholic base community affiliated with the San Cristobal de las Casas diocese and backed up Bishop Felipe Arizmendi  (no relation to the Earchopper) won the release of Tzotzil Indian Zacario Hernandez after a 45 day fast.

At its height, nearly 50 Indian prisoners were refusing to eat and the movement was gaining so much momentum from day to day that Governor Juan Sabines agreed to reexamine their cases and eventually 137 prisoners were released because of irregularities in the judicial proceedings that put them in jail.

Two Chol Indian farmers, Angel Concepcion Perez and Francisco Perez, both allied with the Other Campaign, continue on hunger strike.  Both have served 12 years for an alleged murder during a 1996 land struggle in the north of Chiapas but the body of the allegedly deceased has yet to appear.


Unlike their one-time EZLN rivals, Mexico’s other guerrilla, the Popular Revolutionary Army, counts over 40 prisoners in state and federal prisons, a dozen of them Zapotec Indians from the Loxichas in Oaxaca’s coastal sierra who were rounded up in 1996 in the wake of coordinated guerrilla attacks.  Two leaders of the breakaway Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People (ERPI) Gloria Arenas AKA “Comandanta Aurora” and Jacobo Silva Nieto, “Comandante Arturo”, were entrapped in 1999 following the Mexican army massacre of 11 ERPI recruits in a schoolhouse on Guerrero’s Costa Chica and are serving 40 year sentences in maximum security prisons – legislators representing the National Front Against Repression seeking to interview the two were turned away by prison authorities April 6th.

Although the EPR had gone dormant for many years, the disappearance of two of its historic leaders, Edmundo Reyes Amaya and Gabriel Cruz Sanchez, woke the guerrilla from its deep sleep.  Both men were seen being taken in stretchers by police from a hotel in the Oaxaca market May 25th 2007 but have never been seen again.  After Governor Ruiz and President Calderon vigorously denied culpability for the disappearances, the EPR embarked upon a retaliatory bombing spree, taking out petroleum pipelines in three states and minimally damaging a Sears outlet in an upscale Oaxaca shopping mall.

This April 24th, Mexican military troops forced their way into Oaxaca Ministerial Police headquarters at gunpoint and seized sub-commander Pedro Hernandez Hernandez and his chauffer in connection with the disappearances of Reyes and Cruz Sanchez and the two were brought to Mexico City for further questioning where they are being held under “arraigo” for 90 days in one of the federal prosecutor’s private hotels. Also under investigation is Romeo Ruiz, a cousin of the governor, who is said to have played an unspecified role in the caper.


Social activists who take part in civil disobedience are often not immediately prosecuted for their acts of resistance.  Instead, secret arrest warrants are issued and served at the whim of judges and police.  This April, Cipriana Herrera, an activist who works for justice for Las Muertas (“The Dead Girls”) of Ciudad Juarez, 300 women who have been murdered in that border city since 1992, was stopped by state police agents on a Chihuahua freeway, handcuffed, and taken off to jail, accused of blocking one of the international bridges between Juarez and El Paso – in October 2005!

Las Muertas of Juarez have achieved international notoriety in the annals of misogyny.  Despite innumerable investigations into the feminicides, the appearance of dozens of books and several films and the visit of two United Nations Human Rights Commissioners (Mary Robinson and Lucile Arbour), the Dead Girls have been relegated to the cold case file by state and federal authorities.  As in Oaxaca, Atenco, and Guerrero, impunity reigns.

According to Chihuahua farmers leader Victor Quintana at least 40 secret arrest warrants are pending for local social activists in that northern state.


The failure of Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) to aggressively challenge such egregious violations was recently critiqued by the Washington-based Human Rights Watch.  In an unprecedented “special” report, the CNDH was blasted for abdicating its responsibilities to social activists victimized at Atenco and in Oaxaca and Chiapas.  Similarly, the Mexican Supreme Court, which has investigative powers, appears to have abandoned announced probes into the abuses in Oaxaca and Atenco.

Rosario Ibarra, whose son was taken during the “dirty war” of the 1970s in which hundreds of social activists were disappeared after being captured by security forces, compares Calderon’s campaign to criminalize social protest with that dark moment in Mexico’s history.

Indeed, one of the architects of that first dirty war, General Mario Arturo Acosta Chaparro, accused of personally executing 20 campesinos in Guerrero where he headed the state police, and organizing death flights (“Vuelos de Muerte”) from an Acapulco air force base that dumped the bodies of 148 missing rebels in the Pacific Ocean between 1974 and 1978, was recently retired from the Mexican military with full honors.

Chaparro’s career was “faithful testimony to a patriotic life” his peers decreed, lauding the General’s “spirit of dedication to Mexico and its institutions.”

As Lady Justice gives up the ghost here, that description is being chiseled into her tombstone.

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