Virginia, a young indigenous woman from Guerrero, Mexico, suffered a miscarriage in 2009. Since then she has been in prison in Huamuxtitlan, charged with murder. There has never been a fetopsy to determine the cause of fetal death. All judicial proceedings against Virginia have been conducted in Spanish and she was not offered a translator who could explain the process in her native Nahuatl. Neither did she have access to a defense lawyer who could speak her language.
In January 2012, thanks to the work of LasLibres and volunteer law students from CIDE, a federal judge ruled that Virginia’s human rights had not been respected. Since there was no evidence to support the charge against her, the judge also ordered her release. However, this has not happened. Instead, the local judge reissued a warrant for her arrest on the same charges.
Veronica Cruz, director of LasLibres, told news agencies that this new warrant was a “reprisal” against Virginia for exposing the abuses committed by judicial authorities in Huamuxtitlan. Cruz also observed that Virginia's plight was the result of the “triple discrimination” she endured facing the judicial process in Mexico as a poor, indigenous woman.
This triple discrimination occurs frequently in the Mexican justice system. However, in the case of Virginia, there are more complications. Guanajuato is one of the most conservative states in Mexico. It was one of the first states to reform its constitution in 2010 to declare that the right to life begins at conception. Its governor has openly opposed federal directives that oblige health care providers to grant abortions to women who have suffered sexual assault.
Guanajuato has a long track record of imprisoning women for miscarriages and stillbirths. As reflected in the case of Virginia, the strategy of the judicial authorities is to charge them with murder—which can be punished with sentences as long as 25 years—rather than with procuring an abortion, which has a tariff of five years. In 2010 LasLibres and students from the CIDE law school successfully championed the cases of six women who had been in prison for as long as eight years.
Like Virginia they had been convicted of murder after losing their pregnancies. None of the women jailed had actually procured an abortion; rather each one had suffered a miscarriage, which they had tried to conceal because of family circumstances, poverty and ignorance. Once they had been forced to seek medical attention, one of the people who attended them (a doctor or social worker) had then submitted an accusation to the relevant authorities. All of the women were from the poorest areas of the state and lived in conditions of poverty and social marginalization. They could neither defend themselves against such charges nor pay someone competent to do it for them.
Cruz is certain that Virginia can be absolved if only the judicial process could be concluded. The fact that she is merely charged and not formally sentenced means that there is a limit to what her defense lawyers are able to do. It is evident that the local authorities in Huamuxtitlan know this and are purposely moving slowly to stop the case from being sentenced. This has kept Virginia in prison for three years.
As I noted in a previous article, life is extremely difficult inside prison for women like Virginia, who do not speak Spanish and are far from home and unable to access support networks. Such circumstances are a testament of the misogyny of Mexican society, which treats its most vulnerable women in this way.
Cath Andrews is a professor of Mexican history.