- 2012elections - 9/11 Special Coverage - aca - africanamericanalzheimers - aids - Alabama News Network - american - Awards & Expo - bees - bilingual - border - californiaeducation - Caribbean - cir - citizenship - climatechange - collgeinmiami - community - democrats - ecotourism - Elders - Election 2012 - elections2012 - escuelas - Ethnic Media in the News - Ethnicities - Events - Eye on Egypt - Fellowships - food - Foreclosures - Growing Up Poor in the Bay Area - Health Care Reform - healthyhungerfreekids - howtodie - humiliating - immigrants - Inside the Shadow Economy - kimjongun - Latin America - Law & Justice - Living - Media - memphismediaroundtable - Multimedia - NAM en Espaol - Politics & Governance - Religion - Richmond Pulse - Science & Technology - Sports - The Movement to Expand Health Care Access - Video - Voter Suppression - War & Conflict - 攔截盤查政策 - Top Stories - Immigration - Health - Economy - Education - Environment - Ethnic Media Headlines - International Affairs - NAM en Español - Occupy Protests - Youth Culture - Collaborative Reporting

Prisoners of Ignorance and Tradition

20,000 Indigenous Mexicans Serving Time in U.S. Prisons

La Opinin, Investigative Report, Video, Audio, Claudia Nez, Translated by Marvelia Alpzar Posted: Aug 01, 2009

Editor's Note: More than 20,000 indigenous Mexicans, most of whom do not speak Spanish or English, are serving out sentences in U.S. prisons and are lost in a system that they do not know or understand. This is the first in a series based on a three-month investigation by La Opinin.

Listen to New America Now, KALW 91.7, host Sandip Roy talk to Claudia Nez about writing this series.

METLATONOC, Mexico -- Perhaps a warning would have been sufficient. If he had known, Juan Garcia would not be crying in front of his son's grave, and begging for the freedom of his other son, Omar, who is now in prison in the United States.

Which is the greater pain? It's an impossible question to answer but it is obvious that, when he talks about Omar, anger and frustration are reflected in the old man's face.

The imprisoned son is only 18 years old and he was sentenced to 12 years at Kentucky's Woodford County Detention Center for rape. Juan, his father, does not understand it. His indigenous culture has different laws, and does not see it that way.

Sitting in the cemetery of this small town in the state of Guerrero, he wonders: What is so wrong about his son having sex with a 12-year-old girl?

Juan is a native Mixtec, one of the 64 indigenous groups in Mexico that live in the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca. In his culture, marriages are pre-arranged during childhood and teens start having children by age 15.

Through his children's tragedies, Juan learned that in towns farther north, aspects of his culture could be seen as criminal. But nobody warned him.

Like Omar, hundreds of indigenous Mexicans are falling into the American prison system. Whether criminals or prisoners of their own practices and customs, the faces of indigenous prisoners are like a quickly spreading cancer.

A June 8 report by Mexico's House of Representatives reveals that more than 20,000 indigenous Mexicans are currently living out sentences in the United States. The report also indicates that 10 out of 100 Mexican prisoners are of indigenous origin.

Mexico has the greatest indigenous population in all of Latin America, with more than 10 million people concentrated in the central and southern region of the country, speaking more than 60 different languages divided into more than 300 dialects.

Through immigration, this indigenous population has extended across the United States, from New York to California, where poverty, ignorance, and language barriers add to their desperation.

"It took us by surprise. In less than two years the cases started coming one after another. In 2007 we had six registered cases; in the first quarter of 2008 we documented 25 new files... More and more of our compatriots are lost in the U.S. judicial system and the worrisome thing is that before, they were [charged with] crimes related to immigration. Now their situations are considered serious. The vast majority is facing charges of rape, murder, or drugs," says Margarita Nemecio, immigrant coordinator at the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center.

In Juan's family, his son's imprisonment brought about another tragedy.

Last year, in July, a brown coffin with his son Javier's body arrived at the old man's humble home.

Powerless to fight a penitentiary system he did not understand, without money and barely able to speak basic Spanish, let alone any English, Javier could not bear the pain of seeing his brother Omar suffer behind bars and decided to take his own life.

His co-workers at a restaurant kitchen in Lexington, Kentucky, saw Javier crying out of desperation. No one imagined that after saying goodbye to everyone, he would go to the river and take his own life.

Seated next to the coarse cement grave where Javier rests today, at the top of a hill that serves as a cemetery for the Metlatonoc people, Juan told his story to La Opinin.

"I still have my only living son there [in Kentucky], waiting for his brother to get out of prison. He's suffering a lot. He's been left there alone," says the old man, making an enormous effort to speak Spanish. His native language is mije, which the Mixtec people have spoken for centuries. It's the only language that his three sons know, including Omar, who is now behind bars.

In desperation, Juan turns to an interpreter. There is so much more he wants to say but can't.

"They left on a Sunday," translates Paulino Reyes, interpreter for the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center. The words are followed by a long pause. Pain and tears block Juan's throat. It hurts to remember the poverty that forced his sons to leave the town and how many years have passed since he last saw them.

Juan gets a handkerchief, sniffles and wipes his nose. He breathes and starts over. "I feel that I lost two children. I have the body of one here, but the other one, in prison so far away, it's as if they had buried him alive," he sobs.

The scent of sulfur from the matches Juan used to light a candle in memory of his son permeates the cemetery.

In the distance, you can see Metlatonoc, one of the 19 indigenous towns in the area known as La Montaa de Guerrero and described by the United Nations as one of the regions with the greatest poverty rate and widest social gap in all of Latin America.

Ironically, the most beautiful view of La Montaa is from Javier's grave.

To the right of the grave, you can see the town church. Built with the money sent by those who live abroad, its colorful beauty contrasts with the perpetual brown of the adobe and straw houses, the color of poverty in these indigenous towns.

In front of Javier's grave, by the cemetery paths, a group of children run barefoot. The sharp stones no longer harm their little feet and the dust that covers their little faces crack when they smile.

A bath would do, but water is a luxury in this town, since it takes up to a three-hour walk, carrying water tanks on your back, to get to the town's only source of potable water.

La Montaa has an indigenous population estimated at 529,780, who come from diverse groups as Mixtecs, Nauas, Me'phaa or Amuzgos, all speaking a dialect different from Spanish. La Opinin documented dozens of cases of families here whose children, parents and spouses are more than 3,000 miles away, serving out sentences in U.S. prisons.

"Help me bring my son back. Let them judge him here. My son already served a lot of time. He is a good man," were the pleas that arose from the communities where, in some cases, a new story could be heard every 15 feet.

For these natives, the fear of the border is no longer the fear of crossing the river or the desert. Now fear has its own name: Lowndes County Jail, in Alabama; Rikers Island, in New York; Woodford County Detention Center, in Kentucky; Pleasant Valley State Prison, in California.

Rivers of migrants

One of the causes of the increase of indigenous Mexicans in U.S. prisons, experts agree, is that while the immigration of non-indigenous Mexicans is decreasing, natives are leaving their towns in record numbers.

In 2002, the indigenous migration to the U.S. was estimated at almost 60,000 people per year; in 2006, that number increased to more than 130,000 annually, according to the migratory census conducted by the School of the Northern Border, in Tijuana.

"This country no longer offers them opportunities. In the past, they were `the handy men.' Now, there is not even that kind of work. And where do people migrate from? Places that don't offer any possibilities of survival, and those places are the indigenous communities," explains Heladio Ramrez Lpez, a senator and former governor of the state of Oaxaca in an interview with La Opinin.

In fiscal years 2006 and 2007, the Department of Internal Security repatriated a total of 40,407 Mexican natives jailed in immigration prisons and correctional institutions throughout the country, almost 14,000 more than the previous year.

"The Mexican government does not have an analysis of the indigenous prisoners in the United States when it is already a critical problem," said Marcos Matas Alonso, president of the Mexican Senate's Indigenous Affairs Commission.

When it comes to indigenous Mexicans, the repatriation surveys show that more than 85 percent of the cases refer to one and only offense: been undocumented.

"We natives do not come to commit crimes; we simply do not know the legal system of the United States. We have a different language and culture, we marry at a very young age and these things bring us to a historical disadvantage. People see us as `rapists' and they say that we are savages. If we go back in history when Jacob married Rebecca, he was approximately 40 years old, she was like 14, and they see that like something sacred. But if a native marries at the age of 14, he is a `savage'. As a consequence, there is structural racism," says Odilia Romero of The Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations (FIOB), in Los Angeles.

But as in any other country, ignorance of the law is no excuse, says attorney Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition (CFAC).

"If people come to this country, they must be prepared to lead their life in accordance with the basic foundations of the law. Also it is not the obligation of the U.S. to modify its legal statutes for the benefit of people from another country, even and if they find those laws offensive," he added.

Nevertheless Scheer recognized that, at the moment, the legal processes against Mexican natives in the U.S. are crossing the line of unconstitutionality.

"The number of court translators is very limited, and they are only available for judges and prosecutors, but not for defense attorneys whose work is to defend the client, and one cannot defend a client if you can't communicate with him. For an indigenous person who is absolutely incapable of understanding the procedures around him can't communicate with his defender, it is impossible to have a fair trial," he said.

'It's Just Anecdotal'

The Secretary of Foreign Affairs (SRE) of Mexico described the evidence of an increase of indigenous prisoners as "anecdotal."

"We don't even have a precise figure of how many Mexicans are held in the prisons of the U.S. We have anecdotal evidence that the numbers are rising, but there aren't more than a couple dozen cases in a year. There are only a few cases," said Daniel Hernandez Joseph, director of the organization Protection of Mexicans Abroad, in an interview with this newspaper.

Hernandez Joseph said the vast majority of indigenous migrants are perfectly bilingual and bicultural; that is, they have an excellent command of Spanish and of their Mexican mestizo, or racially mixed, culture as well.

Paradoxically, according to data released by Hernandez Joseph himself, 115,000 Mexicans requested consular protection last year; 17,000 of them needed the services of a translator of indigenous dialects.

This means that out of 100 cases of Mexicans requiring consular protection, 15 were indigenous.

"It is a slap in the face to the native," says Romero, the spokeswoman from FIOB. "It is not that they don't know. It's that they don't want to know. I believe that for years now the Mexican government has tried to erase us from the map."

After Hernandez Joseph's declarations, the SRE communications office contacted this newspaper and retracted the translator figures cited by the official.

La Opinin asked the office for the exact statistical data but the source indicated that they do not keep track of that information.

But the American government does.

In Ventura County, Calif., 110 legal cases of natives who needed the services of a translator were registered last year; 90 percent of them were of Mexican origin. In Oregon, courts receive an average of three cases involving natives per week, almost triple the number they saw five years ago, according to figures released by its Department of Justice.

Family Nostalgia

Francisca Diaz has never left her hometown of Alpoyeca, in the Mexican state of Guerrero. But more than 15 years of reading her son's letters and drawings have shown her the reality of California's penitentiary system.

"My son was very young when he left, 14. I don't know what he looks like now," said the indigenous woman as she showed the reporter an old photograph of a brown, barefoot and shirtless youngster looking at the camera, scared.

The image was taken the same day Sergio Diaz, her son, arrived in California, where he is now serving a sentence for murder in the second degree. He has been locked up since 1994.

Members of the Nahuatl community, direct descendants of the Aztecs -- the dominant civilization until the Spanish conquest -- the mother and son have only spoken to each other three times since then.

Sergio was "lost" in the American penitentiary system for almost eight years. After being located in a jail in California, his father, of the same name, asked government organizations and city councils for help. No one listened to him.

"The greatest challenge that families face is the feeling of abandonment, and abandonment from everyone. There is no government support. They don't know who to go to or who they need to see, or which authority to ask. Some government agencies that take credit for helping people are more likely to abuse them rather than help or protect them. Some politicians tell them, `I'll help you, I'll defend you. Give me your vote, I'm going to look into your case,' but they only swindle them," says Margarita Nemecio.

Francisca remembers those days of abandonment, and she also remembers what happened next. A week after they had received the first letter from their son in prison, Sergio, the father, died in an accident.

"God granted that to him", says Francisca.

After that first letter, Sergio and his mother have kept in touch. In his letters, which almost always include drawings and poems, the prisoner claims that he is serving time by mistake.

File 720-146230 from the criminal court of San Diego states that he was sentenced to 16 years for the murder of another minor in the crop fields, a sentence he has already served, although, inexplicably, he remains behind bars.

His file does not specify the use of a translator during the trial even though Diaz only spoke Nahuatl at the time of his detention.

Under the record number J-15310, Sergio occupies now a bunk in the Pleasant Valley Jail. He has spent more than half of his life in California, almost all of that behind bars.

Harsh Figures

Statistical reports from the Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs show that the legal proceedings against Mexicans in the U.S. increased from 14,622 in 2005 to 19,782 in 2008, the highest numbers in five years.

Like many Mixtec women, Francisca Pardo is a little shy and casts her eyes downward as she speaks.

She sits in an old palm thread chair, under a roof made of mud and reeds that is on the verge of falling down. As soon as she says "Neftal," her son's name, sadness dims her eyes.

Neftal has been in the U.S. prison system for three years, accused of attempted murder and possession of a weapon, according to his file number 8550900432 at New York's Rikers Island prison.

"Send him to Mexico. Send him down here, close to us, then. When his feet hurt, they don't treat them," says the mother in a mix of Mixtec and a broken Spanish.

Although she is only 48 years old, the mother has already lost her teeth. She has aged a lot since she learned about her son's arrest, says Constantina, Francisca's eldest daughter.

Extreme poverty made this indigenous mother strong, but the strength does not help to overcome a son's imprisonment.

For years, Francisca raised her six children with the 450 pesos (less than $40) that she received by selling 50 grams of opium paste to the Mexican drug cartel.

For a while, the money was enough to feed and dress her children, but it wasn't enough to keep them with her when they grew up.

"There is so much misery in these communities that in order to survive, they migrate to the United States or they work in the poppy fields. The natives can't compete with the great transnational markets. There are no jobs. They can only raise chickens, grow kidney beans, maize, but only enough to feed their family. Drug trafficking is the only door left and if they go that way, they are badly exploited there. Here, life does not have a future; here, the future is the next day and the present is, `What am I going to eat, what am I going to wear?'" says Margarita Nemecio, immigrant coordinator for the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center.

Francisca preferred seeing her only two sons head north before they ended up like her, planting poppy.

The members of the army and the hired killers of the cartels are threatening the indigenous of the region of La Montaa. Many have disappeared and hundreds are behind bars, although they are the poorest in the drug trafficking chain.

But the U.S., the country of the American dream, can also be hell for the indigenous immigrant.

This is the dirty secret of the indigenous exodus, say the experts; a reality that no one talks about even though from New York to California, the Mexican native languages are now spoken behind bars.

Part II: Abandoned in a Labyrinth of Laws

Part III: When Everything Is Lost

Para leer los artculos en espaol, haga clic aqu

Translated by Marvelia Alpzar / La Opinin

Page 1 of 1




Just Posted

NAM Coverage

Criminal Justice