By Daniela Pastrana
MEXICO CITY, Oct 16, 2010 (IPS) – At 30, Mexican activist Am√©rica del Valle knows loneliness all too well: she spent four years in hiding, out of contact with friends and family, her only goal being to “endure” the government’s persecution of her family.
“Exile has so many dimensions, and there is no manual for it,” she told IPS recently in an interview during a family party in San Salvador Atenco, in a room provided by a cousin. “My closest neighbours were nostalgia, sadness and a feeling of defeat that constantly pursued me,” she said.
But she is quick to point out that she never gave in to defeat. “With those other feelings, I had to make a truce.”
Am√©rica is the daughter of Ignacio del Valle, leader of rural workers in San Salvador Atenco, a town of 15,000 people about 30 kilometres east of the capital. In 2002 the town prevented construction of an international airport on its lands. The airport was to replace the one in Mexico City and would have been the most ambitious public-works project of the Vicente Fox government (2000-2006).
Four years later, the government’s armed forces came down on Atenco, when on May 3, 2006, the People’s Front in Defence of the Land, led by Del Valle, blocked access to the town to protest police aggression against 10 flower vendors.
The result of the crackdown involving 3,000 police: two young men killed, one by a gunshot, and the other from a blow with a teargas tank; 207 people detained and tortured, including elderly women and paraplegics; dozens of homes raided by police; community leaders given the equivalent of life sentences in prison; and at least 26 women raped, according to complaints.
Both Fox and his successor, current President Felipe Calder√≥n, belong to the right-wing National Action Party (PAN), which in 2000 broke the seven- decade reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party.
The Del Valle family was banished. The father was shut away with a 112-year sentence in a high-security prison where the most dangerous criminals are held. C√©sar, the youngest of his children, spent two years behind bars. Trinidad Mart√≠nez, his wife, had to go into hiding for six months.
The eldest son, Ulises, was a fugitive for more than a year. Am√©rica, who was not even in Atenco the day of the massive clash, remained in hiding during the four years of legal battles.
“My main task was to endure, to avoid getting caught, but that meant zero contact with my loved ones, with anyone. It meant disappearing,” Am√©rica said.
The day of the confrontation, Subcomandante Marcos, the nom de guerre of the leader of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, who was in Mexico City as part of his indigenous-based group’s tour of the country, called upon supporters in the capital to go to Atenco to create a human cordon.
B√°rbara Italia M√©ndez, a volunteer at a foundation that works with child victims of violence, heeded the call. She and two colleagues from the foundation arrived in Atenco in time to document the death of adolescent Javier Cort√©s Santiago.
The next day, she was detained, beaten, raped and tortured — apparently to determine if she was a guerrilla fighter or not. In the six-hour bus-trip to the prison, the guards stopped several times, pretending to dump dead bodies by the roadside. M√©ndez, terrified, thought they were going to kill her. She spent 15 days in prison, accused of kidnapping (secuestro equiparado) and organised crime, as were all detainees.
Four years later, at a caf√© in Mexico City, M√©ndez told her story to IPS about that day, and what followed for the assaulted women.
“We have experienced some very ugly things, like presenting our case before the Office of the Public Prosecutor and having them treat us like liars. We have been subjected to a lot of scrutiny, and that means reliving what happened,” she said.
“Society creates a stigma for us that ranges from ‘poor thing’ to ‘she must have done something to deserve it.’ But most people act like nothing happened — that was the case for much of my family and at work. And many of the women were abandoned because they had been raped. They were punished twice,” said M√©ndez.
“Atenco was the debut of the policy of sexual torture as a means of punishment for the detained women,” states the report “Prison: a Form of Criminalising Social Protest in Mexico,” published Aug. 25 by the non- governmental Cerezo Committee, which documented more than 1,300 cases of people detained between 2002 and 2008 for political reasons.
M√©ndez, 31, is one of 11 women who decided to bring their case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in April 2008.
The legal complaint was filed for the crimes of torture, sexual violence and illegal deprivation of freedom. They women had the support of several non- governmental organisations, including the Miguel Agust√≠n Pro Ju√°rez Human Rights Centre (ProDH Centre) and the Centre for Justice and International Law.
“The end of 2006 and early months of 2007 were very hard. We received calls [to not file the complaint]. I began psychotherapy. I realised that I was affected by it more than I had thought and had to change my role at the foundation,” she said.
On Jun. 30, 2010, in what is considered an historic decision, Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice determined that legal social protest had been treated as a crime in Atenco, and ordered the release of the 12 people still in prison, among them Ignacio del Valle, one of the three condemned as a leader of the protesters.
Days before, Am√©rica del Valle had sought asylum at the Venezuelan Embassy. She explained that she had spent four years shut away, and now “felt that I was reaching my limit, and I thought: ‘I am still sane and can take decisions.’ So I risked it all.” She left the Embassy in July.
The legal victory was possible thanks to a bold strategy and an international mobilisation that included the support of 11 Nobel Peace laureates and dozens of artists and intellectuals. The Supreme Court was blunt: the prisoners had been convicted without evidence.
However, there was no ruling to compensate the victims, and those responsible were not held accountable. For many, Atenco is an open wound: there are painful memories for Am√©rica del Valle every time she speaks of it, or the deaths of her grandfather and an uncle while she was in hiding.
“The return hasn’t been easy. We haven’t even reunited as a family. I don’t have a plan — I have to pick up wherever I can pick up,” she said.
Thirty kilometres away, M√©ndez says fear is something one has to learn to live with.
“I have tried to rebuild my life in a healthy way. Until two years ago it affected me a lot — suddenly a smell or a phrase would put me back on the truck (the bus where the rapes were said to have occurred). And I felt guilty for hurting my family by filing the lawsuit,” said M√©ndez.
“But I’m convinced that we have to spread the word about what happened to us, because it is not an isolated case. And we work as hard as we can in the spaces open to us, which aren’t many,” she said. (END)