Conviction of Tseltal defenders confirms Mexico’s human rights crisis

Cover image: Protest by inhabitants of San Juan Cancuc, who demand the immediate release of the five defenders of the territory accused of the murder of a policeman of that municipality in the highlands of Chiapas. Photo: CDH Frayba

Translation by Schools for Chiapas

Last Friday (19), the Criminal Court of San Cristóbal de Las Casas ratified the conviction of five Tseltal defenders from the municipality of San Juan Cancuc, in the Highlands region of Chiapas, for a crime that, according to social, ecclesiastical and human rights organizations, they did not commit.

“An unjust sentence” is how the Chiapas organizations describe the recent 25-year prison sentence against Manuel Santis Cruz, Agustín Pérez Domínguez, Juan Velasco Aguilar, Martín Pérez Domínguez and Agustín Pérez Velasco, accused of the death of a San Juan Cancuc municipal police officer in 2022.

The ratification of the sentence comes after the legal defense of the indigenous appealed against the first sentence, issued on May 12, 2023. This is due to the fact that, from the moment of their arrest, lawyers from the Fray Bartolomé de las Casas Human Rights Center (CDH Frayba), who are following the case, charge that the trial has presented multiple irregularities.

In response to the appeal, the Chiapas Judicial Branch announced, in February 2024, its decision to reinstate the oral trial hearings. However, the CDH Frayba maintains that the justice system of the southern state did not decide to address the merits of the case, that is to say, the proof of the existence of the crime and the accreditation of the responsibility of the accused. Above all, they charge that the role of the Chiapas Prosecutor’s Office was not corroborated, which they accuse of fabricating evidence and validating false testimonies to keep the indigenous people imprisoned while the process dragged on.

“During the hearings that have just ended, we saw that there was no argument, no convincing evidence that could give arguments to the judge to keep them in prison,” said Dora Lilia Robledo Garcia, director of CDH Frayba during a press conference held this Tuesday (23).

The position of CDH Frayba is that, with the ratification of the sentence, “it was once again proven that this is a fabricated accusation; the new judge did not take into consideration that no evidence made the defendants directly responsible, and that there are even doubts about the existence of a crime,” she claimed in a press release.

Injustice

In an interview with Avispa Mídia, Mario Ortega, lawyer and coordinator of systematization and advocacy at CDH Frayba, emphasizes that there are serious doubts about the cause of death of the municipal policeman.

Ortega explains that, testimonies from the Tseltal community narrate that during the night of the events, strong complaints of pain were heard from the policeman, for which the people nearby left their homes, finding him lying dirty near a ravine. According to the lawyer, this is an indication that the policeman had fallen and that  that was  the cause of his death.

“The community called the municipal police who took him away while he was still alive. On the other hand, the prosecutor’s office invented a version in which the population massively assaulted him causing his death,” details the lawyer about the contradiction in the versions.

According to Ortega, the judge “erroneously takes for granted the murder with the statement of the person who performed the autopsy, without taking into account a metaperitaje – a technical report whose purpose is to determine whether or not there was a lack of technical or methodological rigor in the expert analysis -, offered by the defense in which it is mentioned that the death was caused by a single blow and that he did not present any other injuries.” This argument, according to the defense, reinforces the version of the fall of the policeman and denies the aggression on the part of the villagers. A hypothesis that the Prosecutor’s Office never investigated.

Wives of the 5 Cancuc prisoners demonstrate in front of the Palace of Justice in San Cristobal de Las Casas. Photo: Orsetta Bellani

The lawyer emphasizes that, during the trial, they proved the fabrication of statements of the security elements who invented the version of the tumultuous aggression and, nevertheless, never mentioned having seen the five accused. “It is evident that the statements were fabricated, since entire texts coincide completely in the wording, which is implausible and is an archaic practice”, accuses the member of the CDH Frayba.

Another point highlighted by the lawyer is that, to date, there is no real investigation to know for sure how the policeman died. “If it was due to the fall; if there was some previous aggression before the population found him; if the police themselves did something to him after he was taken away. That is to say, the prosecution closed itself to only one hypothesis in which it accuses the five defenders and tried, through statements in a manner, to limit it to that. It is important not only to recognize that the compañeros are innocent, but also to get to the truth for the families,” said Ortega.

According to the lawyer, the next step is to appeal the oral trial, in which three scenarios are open. The first is that, for the third time, the process is reinstated. The second is that the Chiapas Judiciary addresses the merits of the case and recognizes that there is no evidence to support the conviction. And the third, that, after the hearings are reinstated, the Chiapas judiciary’s decision will once again ratify the conviction, in which case the defense of the five defenders will file a federal protection action (amparo federal).

For the moment, Ortega adds, at the international level the case has already been presented to the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, a mechanism of the United Nations Human Rights Council, from which they expect a response in order to call on the Mexican government to clarify the case.

CDH Frayba points out that since May 2022, the Tseltal defenders were arbitrarily detained, disappeared, accused and criminally prosecuted in retaliation for their work as community defenders in the context of the imposition of infrastructure and militarization projects in their territory.

The human rights center emphasizes that since the first hearing of the trial “inconsistencies were exposed in the evidence fabricated by the Office of the Prosecutor for Indigenous Justice, in addition to multiple human rights violations,” as part of what they call a “factory of guilty parties.”

For this reason, they assert that the new sentence “confirms that there is a criminalization of territorial defenders, aggravating the human rights crisis in Mexico.”

“Once again we are faced with the challenge of disputing a trial that is clearly unjust. The State demonstrates that it is betting on exhaustion, because rather than recognizing the unsustainability of the accusation, it tends to infinitely reinstate the proceedings,” the human rights organization maintains.

Prison abuse

On April 9, the five defenders of Cancuc, who are imprisoned in the State Center for Social Reinsertion of Sentenced Prisoners (CERSS) no. 5, located in the city of San Cristobal de Las Casas, participated in a collective denunciation in which the inmates pointed out a series of abuses and violations of basic rights by the prison’s management.

In a letter, inmates point out that since mid-February, CERSS No. 5 has had a change of director. José Hernández Márquez took over as director, who is accused of carrying out a series of fines and extortions against the prison population.

Among the allegations, they point out that the new director charges for the use of various areas of the prison, such as the conjugal area, as well as for floor fees and payment of fees for taking inmates for medical consultations, since the CERSS lacks a resident doctor. They also point out extortions for income generated inside the prison, such as those derived from donations to churches and trades such as a carpentry shop self-managed by the prisoners.

They denounce that Hernandez resorts to sexual harassment of administrative personnel, inmates, as well as visitors, for which reason they requested the intervention of the National Human Rights Commission to investigate his current and past actions, as there are also allegations of corruption against him while he was director of CERSS No. 16, located in the municipality of Ocosingo.

In view of the new sentence and the conditions of imprisonment they are living in, the Tseltal defenders sent a letter to the three levels of government to demand their immediate release. “They have robbed us of two years of life. They have robbed us of two years of being with our family, they have robbed us of the possibility of seeing our children grow up, but they have not robbed us of our dignity and the hope of obtaining justice,” they stated in the letter.

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