The Inter-American Human Rights commission is deliberating a case against the state of Mexico for police violence against women dissidents that has serious implications for the perpetration of sexual violence by police everywhere.
“The person that I was before 2006 doesn’t exist anymore,” stated Barbara Italía Mendez in front of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IAHRC), when asked how the sexual torture she suffered at the hands of Mexican police in 2006 has affected her life.
Mendez went on to describe all the negative effects she suffered, ranging from insomnia to an inability to engage in intimate relationships – or even receive a hug. In her remarks she reiterated that despite severe state repression and complete disregard for her human rights, she would never give up the fight for justice for all the women who were sexually tortured in San Salvador Atenco.
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During this IAHRC hearing on March 14, 2013, after hearing Mendez’s testimony, representatives of the Mexican government publicly apologized and said they “hope to find a friendly solution to this issue.” For close to seven years, the Mexican state has virtually ignored women’s complaints regarding the sexual torture they suffered after being arrested at a protest on May 3 and 4, 2006. The government has not prosecuted the police or politicians involved – yet once exposed to the international spotlight, it maintained that it has sufficient mechanisms to bring justice to the case.
Popular Resistance to Government Development Projects
The women testifying before the IAHRC describe how when they went to support a protest in San Salvador Atenco, a municipality located right outside the mega metropolis of Mexico City, they were arrested and then sexually tortured. The protest related to the federal government’s plans to build an airport on top of the “Ejidos” in Atenco – communal farmlands created in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Due to popular resistance from a local organization – The People’s Front in Defense of the Land (FPDT) – the Mexican government was eventually forced to cancel that plan in 2002. The fact that one town was able to defeat a large-scale development had significant implications for the neoliberal government of Vicente Fox, especially given other recent events: Mexico had just approved the multi-billion dollar development Plan Puebla Panama. This neoliberal plan intended to “promote the regional integration and development” of southern Mexican States with Central America and Colombia. If more towns reacted to these projects the same way as the people of Atenco, Fox’s development plans would be spoiled. Thus, repression continued against the people of Atenco, with many of the protest leaders living with arrest warrants and the government monitoring the movement’s activities. To this day, the government still wants to build an airport in the area, and it is unclear whether it will once again try to build it in Atenco.
In 2006, a group of flower vendors in the neighboring municipality of Texcoco were prohibited from selling their flowers in the central plaza and reached out to the FPDT to help them defend their right to vend. On May 3, 2006, FPDT joined the flower vendors in protest, and when some participants were detained, movement militants erected a road blockade on the main highway. Enrique Peña-Nieto, the current Mexican president, who at the time was governor of Mexico State, in which Atenco and Texcoco are located, ordered a police operation against the protests, claiming that it was “necessary to restore order.”
On the evening of May 3, 2006, 2,500 police agents, including the Federal Preventative Police, State and Municipal police, raided the town of Atenco. As news spread of the repression, many activists involved with the Other Campaign, a Zapatista-aligned movement, independent journalists and sympathetic community members came to support the people of Atenco and Texcoco. The violent police operation continued throughout the following day, leading many to take refuge in private homes. The police raided these establishments, leading to two deaths and the arrests and detention of over 210 people – including 47 women. Two young students were killed, five foreign protestors were illegally deported and at least 26 of the women detained were sexually tortured.
Illegally Detained and Sexually Tortured
Testifying before the IAHCR, Barbara Italia Mendez said she had heard about the repression in Atenco and traveled there with a civil association to document the death of student Javier Cortés Santiago at the hands of the police. When she arrived with her colleagues, they were unable to document the death because of violent police repression and instead were forced to take refuge in a private home. The police raided the home and all the people inside were detained and transported to Satiaguito Prison. As Mendez was being transported in the police truck, she said officers lowered her pants and underwear and lifted her shirt and started to torture her. She described the sexual violence she suffered to the commission.
“They started to say obscene things about my body, about my existence as a woman and that this would have never happened had I stayed in my house with my children. I was very scared, because they kept repeating that they were going to assassinate me. They started to insert their fingers in my vagina and bite my nipples.”
When they arrived at Santiaguito Prison, she said, the medical staff was complicit with the violence the women were suffering. The refusal of Mexican state authorities to provide the detained women with medical examinations and proper medical and psychological care has been documented by Amnesty International in its report “Violence against Women and Justice Denied in Mexico State.”
The police operation in Atenco has become emblematic of the brute force of the state in responding to social movements opposing neoliberal projects. Dozens of detainees were incarcerated for six months, while 12 of the detainees were sentenced for kidnapping and given prison sentences ranging from 30 years to 112 years. Following four years of intense national and international campaigning for the freedom of the political prisoners, they were all released, yet the impunity of the officers involved remains.
Movement leader Trinidad de Ramirez’s husband Ignacio De Valle was sentenced to 112 years; her son Cesar was sentenced to two years, and her daughter America was in exile for four years. Speaking at a protest right after International Women’s Day, Trinidad de Ramirez asked, “What do we have to celebrate?” She added, “Here there would never exist laws that actually protect Mexicans. If there were, the case of Atenco wouldn’t have had to leave this country, but it has. We hope the resolution will be just and that they find Enrique Peña-Nieto and all who ordered the repression in Atenco guilty.”
A Complete State of Impunity
A group of people can petition the Inter-American system only if they can show that they have exhausted judicial possibilities with existing institutions in their own country. In the initial days after the rapes and torture in Atenco, the women tried to file complaints with the attorney general’s office in Mexico, but that office did not accept their complaints. The Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes of Violence Against Women (FEVIM) also did not take any action, even though it heard the women’s testimonies. The women simultaneously brought the case to The National Center On Human Rights (CNDH) and the Mexican Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation (SCJN). After an investigation, the CNDH said that it was clear that the detainees’ “human dignity was trampled” and that various detainees had been subject to torture. The SJCN declared that “hundreds of people suffered abuses and were severely deprived of individual and constitutional rights “to life, personal safety, sexual freedom, gender equality, privacy of their homes, personal freedom, due process, fair treatment of prisoners, and the right to justice.”
However, the SJCN placed the blame on a “few bad apples” – as opposed to recognizing the widespread police brutality and the essential role that government officials Peña Nieto and federal secretary of public security Eduardo Medina Mora played in ordering the operation.
Various commissions of the United Nations, including the Committee to Eradicate Violence against Women, also reviewed the case and recommended that the Mexican government investigate the allegations of sexual torture and rape and take action to prevent them from happening again in the future. Over the years, the UN has made numerous legislative and public policy recommendations against forced disappearances, torture, trafficking of people and other violations of human rights – yet the Mexican government has not complied with any of these recommendations.
In 2011, when it appeared that the case was actually going to be heard by the Inter-American Commission, which hears complaints and makes recommendations, the Mexican government revisited the case. It led an investigation into the behavior of 29 state police officers, but, by that time, many of the police officers were no longer with the force. They eventually arrested two of the three state police officers who drove the vehicles in which the majority of the sexual assaults occurred. The third officer died and was not tried. The two officers are incarcerated, but still have not been sentenced. Araceli Olivos, who is the lawyer with the Prodh, who represented the petitioners, says that “these officers are scapegoats since there were 2,500 officers involved in the operation, and they didn’t even prosecute any federal officers, only low level state officers, just to show that they were taking some kind of responsibility.”
Amnesty International has been campaigning around this case for years, and Kathryn Striffolino, speaking on behalf of that human rights organization’s leadership, says they “believe that Mexican local and national governments have not taken sufficient steps to resolve the case.” She added, “In fact, for the nearly seven years (to date) after the initial abuses occurred, and despite the abuses being corroborated by Mexico’s Supreme Court and the Mexican National Human Rights Commission, which has included medical documentation, almost full impunity has prevailed.”
In her testimony in front of the IAHRC audience, Mendez said that the most painful part of her experience was not the sexual torture, but the impunity and legal processes that followed. She added that in the media and all the legal presentations, “we were no longer Barbara, Patricia, or Norma – we were just the women raped in Atenco.” The women say both they and their families were continually humiliated and criminalized for denouncing the sexual torture. Out of the 26 women who declared that they were tortured, only 11 continued with the case, because the process was so demanding and seemingly never-ending.
The IAHCR petition was filed in 2008, and the case is finally being reviewed now. Georgina Vargas works at the Centro Prodh, a Mexican human rights advocacy organization, and told Truthout that the Mexican government has demonstrated that it acts with complete impunity.
“It’s really important in Mexico to finish with the violence against women which happens all day long,” Vargas said. “If the Inter-American Commission decides on this case, it will be a step forward to stop violence against women in Mexico.”
At the hearing, following Mendez’s testimony and a statement by human rights lawyers representing the women, the Mexican government had the opportunity to present their case. Lía Limón, who is the Interior Ministry’s under-secretary for legal affairs and human rights, stated, “The Mexican State would like to express their deep solidarity with the victims and recognize the violation of their human rights and express its willingness to achieve an integral reparation.” Represented by Limón and Juan Manuel Gomez Robledo, the Foreign Ministry’s undersecretary for multilateral affairs and human rights, the Mexican government for the first time publicly apologized for the excessive force it used and requested a “friendly solution” which would include compensation and psychological treatment for the victims and a public apology from the government for violating human rights.
Sexual Torture Does Not Have a Friendly Solution
After nearly seven years of impunity and further victimization and criminalization, the 11 petitioners and their lawyers stated that they were clearly not open to this “solution.” Mendez read a statement on behalf of the women that states, “Over the past seven years, the Mexican government has not only showed their lack of interest in investigating the crimes committed, but also continued to spread false information about what happened in Atenco.”
Simultaneous with the IAHRC hearing, the Centro Prodh held a press conference with human rights defenders and four of the petitioning women, who commented on the hearing. Andrés Díaz, who is a lawyer at the Centro Prodh, said that Limón’s apology “can hardly be considered as an official apology on behalf of the Mexican state and instead was a comment on a personal level so that she would be viewed well, showing a benevolent image of the Mexican state.”
When asked by journalists what the women hope to get out of the IAHCR hearing, Edith Rosales, one of the petitioners, commented,
“What we want is the that court hears the case and sees with the evidence of torture that this is not an isolated incident. The Mexican government through its officials and the Supreme Court of Justice are saying that this is not a state practice, but instead a fluke and resulted from lack of control. But this is not true; it is a constant practice of the state to undo social movements.”
Peña-Nieto, in the days following the repression in 2006, remarked to the Mexican Newspaper La Jornada,
“It is well known that in the manuals of radical groups, it says that the women should claim that they have been raped and that the men should say they have been victims of abuse.”
When Peña-Nieto ran for president in 2012, the shadow of sexual torture in Atenco hovered over him, placing his candidacy in checkmate. The youth movement Yo Soy 132 (I am 132) emerged, with tens of thousands of people protesting Peña-Nieto’s history of human rights abuses. Despite this resistance, deeply entrenched political corruption helped him win the election.
Violations of Women’s Rights: A Constant State of Affairs
If this case moves forward in the Inter-American Court System, there still remains the question of what impact it will actually have on Mexican society. This is not the first time that women seeking justice in Mexico have had to look to international courts. In 2009, the Inter-American Court in San Jose, Costa Rica, which is where cases may proceed to after hearings by IAHRC, found the Mexican state guilty of failing to prevent and investigate femicides in the industrial border city of Ciudad Juárez amid a climate of violence targeting women. The case was filed on behalf of Claudia González, 20, Esmeralda Herrera, 15, and Berenice Ramos, 17, whose bodies were found with the corpses of five other women in November 2001 in the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez.
After the Inter-American Court ruled that the Mexican government was guilty, it issued orders requiring the government to conduct an investigation into these women’s deaths, compensate their families, erect a monument in their honor and conduct gender sensitivity and human rights trainings, along with other recommendations.
Journalist Emilio Godoy called this sentence “a landmark ruling because it was the first time a state was found responsible in cases of gender-based murders, known as ‘femicides.’ ” The Mexican government failed to comply with the majority of orders and merely complied with the requirement to publicize the court’s decision.
Simultaneously in 2009, the IAHRC ruled that the Mexican military was responsible for the disappearance of Rosendo Radilla Pacheco, a campesino leader in the state of Guerrero in 1974 during the “dirty war.” In previous rulings, the Inter-American Court found the Mexican military guilty of raping Valentina Rosendo Cantú and Inés Fernández Ortega, two indigenous women from Guerrero, in 2002. Due to the prevalence of cases against the Mexican military, the Inter-American Court has stated that military jurisdiction should not apply to human rights violations, yet the Mexican government has done little to reform its justice system.
While Mexico is notorious for not complying with the rulings of the court, it has created a victim reparations fund that will dole out money when the Inter-American Court rules that people should be compensated for human rights violations they suffered at the hands of state or military officials. This fund, created at the end of 2010, has a budget of 30 million pesos, close to $2.5 million, yet to this date, the government has compensated few victims.
If the IAHRC rules against the Mexican state and orders it to take certain measures, that could have major impact for women in similar situations across the globe.
“The torture of women in custody – including instances of sexual violence – is unfortunately not restricted to the case of Atenco, so if the Inter-American system finds the state responsible – this will set an important precedent not only in the Americas region, but for regional judicial mechanisms around the world,” Kathryn Striffolin of Amnesty International told Truthout.
In the coming months, the IAHRC will produce an official report about the case, make recommendations for the Mexican government and decide whether or not to send the case to the Inter-American Court in Costa Rica.
Since the hearing took place, the petitioning women have maintained the position that they will not accept a “friendly solution” and have reiterated that their priority in seeking justice is making sure that this will never happen again to anyone else.
Italia Mendez wrote in the online magazine Desinformemonos, “We were never victims; we are survivors full of hope to actually change the state of affairs.”