Inés Fernando Ortega was at home with her four children on 22 March 2002, when soldiers came uninvited into her home. The three men wanted to interrogate her about the meat she was drying outside, but when she failed to answer their questions (an indigenous Me’phaa woman, she did not understand Spanish), they became angry. Anger turned into aggression, aggression became rape.

Two days later, Inés and her husband Fortunato Prisciliano travelled from their hamlet Barranca Tecuani to the municipal centre Ayutla de los Libres to report the attack to local authorities. The accused being army personnel, the local judge transferred the case to the military justice system. By February 2003, the military system had recommended its closure, claiming that Inés showed no interest in seeing her case investigated.

Lacking confidence in the impartiality of the military, Inés and Fortunato pressed for a civilian investigation. They paid a high price for their unwillingness to be brushed off; both have been subjected to threats and harassment, as have their supporters. Death threats forced translator Obtilia Eugenio Manuel, of the Me’phaa Indigenous People Organisation (OPIM), to leave the state. The case of Inés’ brother Lorenzo Fernández, murdered in 2008, remains unsolved. Inés’ husband Fortunato has been beaten and threatened by soldiers, and Inés herself has endured threats along with the stigma she suffers as a rape victim in her own community. In light of their deteriorating security, in early 2009 the Inter-American Court ordered protection measures for Inés, her family, and more than 100 human rights defenders in Guerrero.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights accepted Inés’ case in September 2006, after she had tried all avenues to find justice within the Mexican system. When the government failed to carry out the Commission’s recommended reparatory measures, the case progressed to the Inter-American Court. It was brought by OPIM, the Tlachinollan Human Rights Centre (both organisations receiving PBI accompaniment because of threats against them), and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), who asked the Court to order the Mexican State to carry out a full and proper investigation, punishing those responsible and putting in place measures to prevent such a situation reoccurring in the future.

During the hearing on 15 April 2010, Mexico defended its position, denying military involvement in the attack against Inés Fernández, while also admitting that it had not carried out an adequate investigation. The Inter-American Commission said it was satisfied with the evidence that those responsible were soldiers. It cited testimony from Inés herself and from her daughter, along with medical evidence of both the physical attack and the profound psychological impact she had suffered; as well as the undisputable presence of soldiers in the area and the fact that human rights violations by members of the armed forces are a known feature of the context in Guerrero.

The poverty-stricken state has one of the largest indigenous populations in the country. It is heavily militarized, and has been the focus of much concern about human rights abuses, in particular attacks against defenders of indigenous rights. The case of Inés Fernández, and the very similar case of Valentina Rosendo, which the Inter-American Court will hear in May, is emblematic of the human rights situation and of the problematic use of military jurisdiction in human rights cases. Such cases continue to be referred to the military system, despite the Inter-American Court ruling that “in situations where civilian human rights are at risk, under no circumstances can military justice operate.”  

The Court is expected to give its judgement within four to six months. [Update - the Court issued its judgement on 1 October 2010.]

Read more

Report:<media 8350> Human Rights Defenders in the State of Guerrero</media> (pdf 1.5mb)

PBI Mexico's Entrevista #17 and Entrevista #13 relating to the cases of Inés Fernández and Valentina Rosendo

Mexico: Indigenous women and military injustice (Amnesty International report)

More about women human rights defenders