by Kristin Bricker and Santiago Navarro, Upside Down World
The prisoners, Agustín Luna Valencia, Eleuterio Hernández Garcia, Fortino Enriquez Hernández, Justino Hernández José, Abraham Garcia Ramirez, Zacarias Pascual Garcia López, and Alvaro Sebastián Ramirez, are Zapotec indigenous men from Oaxaca’s Loxicha region, one of Oaxaca’s poorest and most marginalized regions.
The seven Loxichas are accused of participating in the August 29, 1996, Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) uprising in la Crucecita, Oaxaca, in which 11 government agents were killed. The indigenous men say they were tortured into signing hundreds of pages of blank paper that were later filled in with confessions. The Loxichas were convicted of murder (of the federal agents), terrorism, and conspiracy, and they were sentenced to up to 31 years in prison.
This past June 7, the Loxicha prisoners were transferred to the new private medium security federal prison Cefereso #13 in Miahuatlan, Oaxaca, located three hours from the Ixcotel state prison where they spent the past sixteen years. The publicly financed, privately managed prison opened this past March. It is Oaxaca’s first federal prison and Mexico’s first private prison.
In response to increasing prison overpopulation throughout the country, the federal government has promised to transfer federal prisoners out of the state prisons where they are currently incarcerated and into new federal prisons. As part of this reshuffling, the seven Loxichas—all held on federal charges—were transferred to the Miahuatlan prison along with 186 other federal prisoners from state prisons around the country. When prison officials didn’t notify the prisoners’ families about the transfer, this led to fears that the Loxicha political prisoners had been disappeared.
When the Loxichas’ families located them in Miahuatlan’s new private prison, they attempted to visit them there in order to assure that the prisoners were not abused during the transfer. The families were shocked to discover that the prison prohibits face-to-face visits. The prisoners are only allowed 30-minute visits via closed-circuit television. “My father thought that I was calling him from somewhere else,” recounted Erica Sebastián, Alvaro Sebastián Ramirez’s daughter, following a televised visit. “He told me that all of the other prisoners were surprised because we were the first people to visit that prison. That’s how we know that was due to political pressure that we were allowed to see them.”
Contrary to the government’s claims that its new “modern” private prison would “offer clinic services, education, and recreation areas to the prisoners,” as well as “job training” and “dignified facilities,” Erica found her father and the other Loxichas living in “degrading and inhumane” conditions. “They went a whole week without any toilet paper,” complained Erica. “They had to bathe themselves in front of female guards.”
In a press release, the families denounced that the prisoners had gone “13 days without seeing the sun, without leaving their cells, without being able to change their clothes, drinking [dirty] tap water, eating small rations of only beans and a piece of bread, suffering from chronic illnesses and not having access to neither medicine nor medical attention.” The families also discovered that Federal Police abused the inmates during the transfer. “[Federal Police] violently removed them from cell #22 in the Ixcotel prison, they stole their money and valuables, [and] they left them outside exposed to the elements for several hours with their hands tied behind their backs and in uncomfortable positions.”
On June 21, the same day the families held a press conference to denounce the inhumane conditions at the Miahuatlan prison, the government transferred the prisoners yet again—this time, to a maximum security federal prison in Tabasco, which is located over 12 hours from their families in Oaxaca. “The government is mocking us,” commented Erica after learning of the new transfer. “It wants to wear us down.”
During a three-hour face-to-face visit in the Tabasco prison on June 26, Alvaro told his daughter that the conditions there were better than in Miahuatlan’s private prison. “They’re thankful to be out of that place,” reported Erica after leaving the prison. “They aren’t thinking of [the transfer] as retaliation. They think of it as a victory that they were transferred out of Cefereso #13, because whoever gets sent to that prison goes crazy.”
Nonetheless, the families are upset that their loved ones were sent so far away because the trip is prohibitively expensive. The relatives had to beg for donations to cover travel costs for their first visit, and they borrowed a vehicle from the Oaxacan teachers union to get to the prison in Huimanguillo, Tabasco.
The Tabasco and Miahuatlan prisons are two of 12 new federal prisons that are financed in part by funds from the United States government’s Merida Initiative drug war aid package. Under the rubric of “prison reform,” the Merida Initiative aims to increase federal prisons’ capacity from 6,400 to 20,000 prisoners by funding new prisons, training prison guards in the United States, and establishing a corrections academy and canine training facilities in Mexico.
The construction of new prisons has been a priority due to concerns that Mexico’s overburdened, corrupt prison system could not handle the influx of new prisoners that officials hoped the drug war would create. The 12 new prisons constitute a veritable boom for Mexico’s budding industry, bringing the total number of federal prisons up to 25.
Legal Recourses Exhausted
The seven Loxicha prisoners deny that they belonged to the EPR and participated in the uprising. Furthermore, Erica argues that the government’s charges against her father are contradictory and unlawful: “The State accuses my father of participating in a rebellion, but he was judged as a common criminal.”
Erica points out that Article 137 of Mexico’s Federal Penal Code states, “When the crimes of homicide, robbery, kidnapping, looting, and other crimes are committed during a rebellion, the rules of combat apply. The rebels will not be responsible for the homicides nor injuries occasioned by the acts of a combatant…” If the Loxichas were tried and convicted as rebels—as the government claims they are—instead of common criminals, they would have been sentenced to 1-20 years for rebellion instead of thirty years for homicide and terrorism. In other words, they could have possibly already served their sentences instead of living in federal prison alongside some of the drug war’s most ruthless convicts.
The Loxicha prisoners have exhausted their legal options within the Mexican court system. On May 6, 2013, Alvaro Sebastián filed a complaint with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission in the hopes that the Inter-American Human Rights Court will hear his case. Because the Mexican government is legally required to abide by all Inter-American Human Rights Court verdicts, a favorable verdict is his only remaining legal recourse.
However, Sebastián and his supporters, known as the Voice of the Zapotec Xiches Collective, are not idly waiting for the Inter-American Commission to review his case. They believe political pressure from civil society will ultimately free Sebastián and the other Loxicha prisoners.
Sebastián has followed in the footsteps of other high-profile indigenous political prisoners and publicly declared his support for the Zapatistas. During his tour of Mexico in 2006, the Zapatistas’ Subcomandante Marcos appealed to supporters to create a national campaign for the liberation of the country’s political prisoners. Since then, dozens of indigenous political prisoners and their supporters, particularly in the Zapatistas’ home state of Chiapas, have united under the Zapatista banner to agitate for their freedom.
The strategy gives political prisoners access to the Zapatistas’ supporters around the world. The resulting political pressure has forced the government to release dozens of imprisoned Zapatista supporters, including Gloria Arenas and her husband Jacobo Silva Nogales, both former commanders of the Guerrero-based Revolutionary Army of the Insurgente People (ERPI).