Margarita Lopez Gomez, an indigenous girl from Mexico, married Juan Velasco Lopez at the age of twelve. Juan was an alcoholic who battered his wife regularly. A few years after the wedding he bought a new wife, Juana, whom he took to live in the family home. Each wife had six children with Juan, who continued to be violent daily and drunk at home. He also raped one of Margarita’s daughters, Sonia, repeatedly from the age of eight, making her pregnant twice after age 12. In 2005 when she was fifteen—and a mother of two as a result of his sexual violence—Sonia killed her father one night as he lay drunk with her mother.
The police arrested Sonia along with Margarita and Juana. A judge ordered Sonia to spend 30 months in juvenile detention; he sent Juana to prison for two years for concealing the murder; and gave Margarita a prison sentence of 15 years for the slaying of Juan. During sentencing the judge did not believe that Margarita had lain inebriated beside her husband when he was killed, so he deemed her the principle culprit in the crime. He based the verdict on a confession that Margarita supposedly gave during an interrogation conducted in Spanish, in the absence of a translator, which was necessary since Margarita did not understand the language. Later Margarita would repeatedly repute the “confession”.
Following the trial Margarita was imprisoned at the Venustiano Carranza federal prison, a penitentiary for men, where they kept Margarita in a cage for four years to segregate her from male inmates. Nevertheless she was raped in prison and had another child, which authorities took from her. During the period of her incarceration Margarita's other children were never allowed to visit their mother. In 2012, after serving seven years in jail, Margarita was finally freed with the help of Frayba, a human rights center in Mexico.
Margarita’s story represents how the justice system in Mexico treats many women. According to Martha Figueroa, a lawyer involved in Margarita’s defense, there are at least 250 documented cases of indigenous women imprisoned in similar circumstances in just the state of Chiapas. The National Women's Institute in Mexico noted in a recent study that only 14.3 percent of indigenous women prisoners had received translator services during judicial process against them. However, at least one of the women who received the service had a translator who did not speak her indigenous language, as illustrated in her answer to an interviewer: “I didn’t understand what he said. He spoke Tzotzil. I don’t know Tzotzil. I speak Ixil.”
Reports submitted to CEDAW this year by human rights organizations working in Mexico show that women are routinely housed in male prisons. Consequently, women are often victims of male violence and sexual assault. In other cases, women prisoners are forced to perform domestic chores for the male inmates, such as cooking, cleaning and washing.
The women's institute estimates that 96 percent of women in prison are mothers. It reports that once authorities arrest a woman her partner will leave her and refuse to care for the children. Many prisons allow women to keep their children with them until the age of three. Then they are housed with family—usually their grandparents—or in orphanages, which make it difficult for the women to see their children. Personnel discourage telephone calls, as this “upsets” children and visits are difficult to organize.
Like Margarita, most women prisoners come from the most deprived social circumstances. According to the women's institute, the typical female prisoner is between the ages of 25 and 39, has three or four children and received only primary education. She worked as a domestic or an employee in the service industry, and received less than the minimum wage for her labors. Her poverty did not allow her to pay for proper defense and as a result she was sentenced without understanding the charges.
Cath Andrews is a professor of Mexican history.