Albion Monitor /News

Natives Isolated in Mexican Prisons

by Diego Cevallos

Many speak little Spanish and do not understand charges
(IPS) MEXICO CITY -- More than 5,500 Native people are behind bars in Mexico, a figure showing seven years of programs to improve the situation have been up against a tough challenge.

For marginalization and discrimination work against efforts to reduce the number of Native inmates, declared the National Indigenist Institute (INI) on November 18.

These prisoners are all poor, speak little Spanish and have small hopes of getting a fair trial. Many of them have no prior criminal record and do not understand what they are charged with.

Majority of Natives detained on drug-related charges
Despite the monitoring of cases, legal advice and prevention campaigns, Native people still represent around six percent of those detained in the 438 national penitentiaries -- a percentage similar to that of 1990.

The constitutional clauses on indigenous rights and the secondary regulations in the legal field -- including the right to be tried and defended in their own language -- are effectively non- existent, said the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH).

Authorities state the majority of Natives detained in Mexico are accused of transporting or growing drug-related crops, armed assault or dealing in marijuana.

Very few of the tried or sentenced prisoners had access to a translator or a good defense lawyer.

In order to attack the problem, the INI started to look over the cases of Native prisoners in 1990, establishing legal aid programs.

However, their tiny budget -- a mere $90 million per year for a native population of more than 12 million -- prevented them from dealing with as many cases as they would have liked.

But, the INI explained, this does not mean all their work has been to no avail, for the figure has been maintained at stable levels despite the crushing poverty facing the bulk of this sector.

When the Native people are arrested "they come up against a different and hostile world, where another language is used and an alien law is applied to them," concluded studies by the INI and the Attorney General's Office.

"The prisons are useful places for keeping political power and corruption going"
Research shows immigration and the problems of adapting to a foreign sociocultural environment are two of the main motives behind Native crimes.

These people often fall into antisocial behavior through ignorance or through the need to meet the basic needs of their families, explained the documents.

The authorities recognize a large proportion of those detained remain in prison for several years on charges for minor crimes or due to a lack of advice, fear of their surroundings or ignorance of their rights.

Illiteracy amongst Mexico's Natives -- divided between more than 50 ethnic groups -- stands at around 43 percent, more than three times the national average.

Official figures also show 45 percent of the nation's 98,000 prisoners are detained awaiting sentence.

"The prisons are useful places for keeping political power and corruption going. The prison officers decide the length of sentences far more than the judges," said the CNDH.

Only 8,477 of the 30,000 prison staff have received some sort of training.

CNDH president in Mexico City, Luis de la Barreda said the prison system "reproduces situations of painful injustice."

And human rights groups stress indigenous people suffer more than most from their incarceration, as they are more discriminated against in the prisons, receive no support and are separated from their families while the judges put off dealing with their cases.

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Albion Monitor November 30, 1997 (

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