February 21, 2017
Mexico City’s Museum of Anthropology and History is world-renowned for its collection of Aztec and Mayan art, and for exhibitions on the modern culture of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. But on February 21, the museum provided the backdrop for an unprecedented modern ceremony: an official act of apology delivered to three indigenous women by representatives of the the federal prosecutor’s office, the Procuraduría General de la República (PGR), for the violation of their human rights.
The three women, Alberta Alcántara, Jacinta Francisco Marcial, and Teresa González, are members of the Hñä-Hñú (Otomí) people. In addition to the formal apology, they will also receive financial compensation for the wrongful prosecution and imprisonment they suffered over a decade ago at the hands of federal police and prosecutors in their home state of Querétaro. Their story, now nationally known, has also raised fundamental and still unresolved questions about the role and accountability of the PGR in Mexico’s criminal justice system.
The three women were first arrested and unlawfully detained in August 2006, four months after a fracas erupted in the marketplace of the town of Santiago Mexquititlán after the police tried to seize goods from indigenous vendors. All three women were falsely charged with the kidnapping of six federal police officers during the trouble (even though one of the accused—Jacinta Francisco Marcial—was attending mass and visiting the local pharmacy at the time of the alleged crime). The three were tried and convicted without the Hñähñu translator they should have been provided with under the law. Despite the lack of evidence against them, they were each sentenced to 21 years in prison.
It took three years of legal challenges by Centro Prodh, a leading Mexican human rights group, to secure the women’s release, and the overturning of the charges against them. Along the way, the case became emblematic of the failures of Mexico’s justice system to offer equitable access to justice to indigenous people.