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Indigenous Peoples And Their Complete Access To The Criminal Justice System In Mexico

By Ana Belén Gil

Full access to the justice system for indigenous people is a pending situation in need of resolution on the part of the Mexican government. The problem appears to be getting worse because of economic, political and social marginalization which besets first peoples every day.

The major procedural obstacles which we face as indigenous lie mostly in ignorance on the part of those in the justice system and judicial institutions, e.g. means by which we first peoples can ready ourselves for conflict resolution. Besides that, and even more serious, there’s a lack of familiarity among first peoples regarding their rights–obvious from the many social demands for strengthening jurisprudence for indigenous people. One of these struggles occurred in 1994 with the national liberation movement in Chiapas state. It was made up mostly of the indigenous Tseltales, Tsotsiles, Choles, Togolabales, Mam and would expose discrimination, poverty, and devaluation which these communities suffer in Mexico and in the world.

Similarly, there’s a lack of experts specialized in indigenous subjects, which via anthropological expertise, can provide for the understanding required about the existence of distinct cultural identities. This is evidence for the difficulty we face at the very moment when we want to gain access to the judicial system through the country’s courts. Territorial authorities ought to look to expertise characteristically anthropological when warning about the possibility that the customs and traditions of indigenous communities can be interpreted erroneously by judicial authorities who are not indigenous themselves. Additionally, the absence and insufficiency of reliable indigenous languages interpreters/translators must be mentioned {that, participation in the stages of judicial process is not possible without skilled interpreters/translators}. And they should be strongly knowledgeable in judicial terminology and of first peoples’ cultural practices.

Logically, members of an indigenous group have the full right to express themselves in their first language when appearing before the court. And the Mexican government is obligated to provide an interpreter/translator, even when the indigenous person speaks Spanish, since there’s the possibility that he or she may not understand concepts and terminology utilized in judicial transactions, placing them at an obvious disadvantage at the very moment of defending their rights. These rights imply that an indigenous person must have an opportunity to understand the nature of the accusation against him/her, the act attributed to him/her, and that he/she be informed of possible consequences which could elicit legal procedure. Also, such rights mean having clear communication with the defense, with the witnesses, and on the part of the accuser/prosecution and the judge.

There is also a scarcity of attorneys who specialize in indigenous rights, as well as a scarcity of indigenous lawyers who can guarantee adequate defense. And the intricacy of legal arguments put forth and the difficulty in pursuance of efficacious sentences {may be hindered by said scarcity}. Also, in every instance, there is extensive duration and formalities to judicial process which can mean considerable financial toll on the indigenous whose capacity to save is generally limited. Additionally, it should be noted that there is an absence of courts sincerely specializing in indigenous matters, tribunals which have judges who understand the indigenous world-view, who speak and are familiar with the indigenous languages and the norms of the indigenous communities. That is to say, there is not a court system rigorously interfaced with indigenous culture.

Without a single doubt, in spite of advancements in recognizing the constitutional rights of the indigenous peoples of Mexico, first peoples continue to remain excluded from institutional matters. This situation is getting worse as far as us effectively exercising our rights because we indigenous are not familiar with the laws of the State, nor with legal procedure. The majority of indigenous have not completed formal levels of education and do not have favorable financial situations. Both limit effective exercising of our right to accessing justice. Added to this, there is a gap between adaptation to legal systems and our cultural and linguistic characteristics; a tension between appropriate ways indigenous peoples resolve conflict and the general system of jurisprudence nationally. On many occasions the Mexican government looks toward creating new institutions for indigenous people rather than recognizing those which already exist. That merely leads to breaches in tightly woven communities. It impinges on the right of members in communities of first peoples to choose their own authorities, to monitor them and to request they settle accounts.

It is necessary for the Mexican government to create new and open spaces where both judicial orders and recognition of indigenous rights converge: respect for the fact that we indigenous peoples possess our own regulatory framework and solutions for internal conflicts. In Mexico there is still much to do to advance towards a strong justice system based on respect for diversity, solidarity, and fairness. Historically, when it comes to the subject of access to jurisprudence, we first peoples have had to face difficulties and obstacles: impunity, discrimination, and lack of legal defense as indigenous people. At the moment, the call for “national society” i.e. attempting to give importance to our right to our own identity and cultural difference has been obvious on innumerable occasions. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to raise consciousness among non- indigenous people about the problems that are troublesome for us and especially to educate government functionaries regarding indigenous world-view. And particularly, those who are teaching in law schools. The goal being that judicial procedures can be carried out where indigenous are seen as interfering without violating their human rights nor their constitutionally guaranteed protections, thereby, defining a strategic plan to attend to this population. It’s not only about applying the law, but also constructing new paradigms for a multicultural justice system which is only possible by recognizing and promoting inclusiveness and active participation of first peoples.

—Ana Belén Natarén is an indigenous Tsotsil born in Jiquipilas municipality in Chiapas, Mexico. In 2019 she studied in the University of Almería in Spain. Currently, she is in the nineth semester of law school at the Autonomous University of Chiapas in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico.