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MEXICO
Deaf ear to indigenous rights
John Ross
8/7/2002
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Mexican Indigenous groups struggle to appeal the constitutionality of a law passed last year.

The stars were still twinkling when the early bus stopped to pick up Rodolfo Hernández, a Mixe indigenous farmer and town official from Santa María Yavesca.

By mid-morning, he was in Oaxaca’s state capital to meet indigenous lawyer Marcelino Nicolas and representatives from other Mixe and Zapotec villages. Four villages scraped together the US$100 for bus fare to send Hernández, Nicolás and Augustín Cruz to Mexico City, where they arrived at nine the next morning.

Their villages were among 331 municipalities, states and indigenous organizations that were appealing the constitutionality of a severely marred indigenous rights law passed by Congress last year.

The final version of the measure eliminated the right to autonomy and the concept of territoriality previously agreed to in negotiations between the largely Maya Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) and the government (LP, May 28, 2001).

The three had previously gone to the Supreme Court on May 5, when their case was first called, with testimony from their village elders and anthropological evidence to argue that the new law nullified existing rights and to prove that their community assemblies were the voice of their people and should be accorded constitutional standing.

But the justices had turned them down, saying that the court would accept only narrowly focused, written arguments.

The men returned on May 11 to file an appeal. Now, 10 days later, they had made the trip yet again to hear the court’s decision.

"We have come here today to speak our word with dignity. We will not accept a decision that limits our fundamental right to be heard," Hernández said.

The men knew the rules: They would be given 30 minutes to litigate 500 years of oppression. Everything would have to be submitted in writing and framed in legal language.

But the Supreme Court had no time for them. Justice Mariano Azuela had other business to attend to, and lawyers for the Mexican Congress and the states that ratified the flawed law failed to show up.

Nicolás and lawyers from the Jesuit-run Miguel Agustín Pro Human Rights Center wound up arguing the case in the street.

"These compañeros have traveled a great distance to be here this morning, and the justices did not even have the courtesy to inform them that they would not be present," Carmen Herrera said. "The Supreme Court owes it to this nation to act in good faith with the first peoples of Mexico."

The common thread of the 300-plus appeals, on which the court must rule individually, is that the law passed by Congress conflicts with a 1989 treaty, International Labor Organization Convention 169.

Convention 169, which was signed by Mexico, stipulates that autonomy and territoriality are essential to the definition of indigenous peoples. The appellants argue that by stripping the indigenous rights law of these guarantees, Congress abrogated rights that were already established.

Before ruling on the issues, however, the justices must decide whether the community assemblies that filed so many of the appeals have constitutional standing.

"A favorable decision from the Supreme Court would be the first installment of the moral compensation that Mexico owes its indigenous peoples," said Juan Anzaldo, spokesman for the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), an assembly of most of the nation’s 57 indigenous peoples.

The strength of Mexico’s highly politicized indigenous rights movement is being sorely tested by the court case. Of the 331 appeals, 279 were initiated by Oaxaca Gov. José Murat in the name of the state’s mainly indigenous municipalities, which were barely informed of the litigation.

Murat, an Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) politician who has designs on the presidency, filed the appeals during a local electoral campaign to strengthen his image in the state’s 415 mainly indigenous townships.

Under local statutes, indigenous municipalities in Oaxaca choose their authorities in community assemblies; the authorities who signed off on Murat’s appeals have since been removed from office.

"Murat deliberately sabotaged our appeals for his own ends. He has abandoned the communities in mid-stream without sufficient lawyers or even money for transportation to the capital," said Francisco López Barcenas, a Mixtec lawyer and former federal legislator from Oaxaca.

Since hearings began on May 5, only the Pro Center lawyers have responded to the cases. In the 90 cases that were called by late May, only 11 indigenous communities had representatives present.

"The absence of indigenous representatives must be having a negative impact on the justices," Barcenas said. He added that because of press reports of the absence of indigenous representatives, "The public is getting the impression that indigenous people don’t really care about indigenous rights."

One Supreme Court official had said that the court challenge is the most complicated case the tribunal has ever faced. Each appeal generates 30,000 copies and requires the notification of at least 20 sets of lawyers.

The hearings ended in mid-June, but final rulings are not expected until the end of the year.

At the heart of the matter is the question of indigenous autonomy. Autonomy would provide communities with a measure of legal protection against President Vicente Fox’s grandiose Plan Puebla-Panama, which threatens indigenous land and forests in southern Mexico (LP, Aug. 6, 2001). Keeping the peace in southern Mexico hinges on such protection.

"Every day we are building autonomy from the bottom up," Anzaldo said. "We aren’t waiting for the Supreme Court to decide our future for us."

—From Mexico City, John Ross


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Zapatista Comandanta Esther defends indigenous rights in Congress, to no avail. (Photo: EZLN)
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