MEXICO CITY — YOLANDA Alvarez, 55, recalls the moment her husband was thrown in jail 12 years ago, she can barely hold back the tears.
“I felt as though life had ended,” she says. “I felt that everything had ended. It was worse than if I’d died. Or if he had died.”
Alvarez’s husband, Lorenzo Sanchez, was one of six indigenous Nahua people from the community of San Pedro Tlanixco, not far from Mexico City, who were arrested over the death of a businessman in 2003 following. The death and arrests followed years of conflict over water use between local indigenous landowners and a group of horticulturalists in the adjoining municipality of Villa Guerrero.
“We’ve lived a life of terror,” Alvarez says. “All indigenous people who fight for what’s theirs are persecuted by justice, thrown in jail, disappeared, and sometimes even killed, just for defending what they own.”
The plight of Mexico’s more than 12 million indigenous people, who often face inequality, injustice and persecution, has been thrown in the spotlight by the election of leftist leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in July. Lopez Obrador, who campaigned on a platform of “first the poor,” has held ceremonies with indigenous leaders and vowed to bring meaningful change to these impoverished rural communities. But as the President turns his focus to major infrastructure projects, there are fears that all the rituals and rhetoric may end in broken promises once again.
“It’s a government that is showing some signs of advancing the relationship of the state with indigenous peoples,” says Cesar Pineda Ramirez, a political scientist at Mexico’s National Autonomous University (UNAM). “And on the other hand, showing signs of not just continuity, but of regression in matters of territorial recognition.”
A History of Violence, Poor Health and Education
Various international studies have chronicled the dire living conditions for Mexico’s indigenous peoples, considered among the most diverse in Latin America.
A report delivered in September at the U.N. Human Rights Council found “extremely serious violence faced by indigenous peoples as a result of disputes over their territories,” and that indigenous Mexicans suffered “economic, cultural, linguistic and geographic barriers, as well as racism and discrimination.”
“They have been totally persecuted by the Mexican state,” Pineda says. “The lack of respect for their development and their territories have caused not only economic and material inequality, but essentially a political, legal, and organizational inequality, which leaves them defenseless, and therefore, in absolute poverty.”
The same Human Rights Council report found that while 40 percent of Mexicans live in poverty or extreme poverty, the rate among indigenous people was nearly double. The life expectancy of indigenous people is also seven years lower than the national average, according to the report, and the indigenous infant mortality rate is also higher than the national average, due largely to preventable diseases.